TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Totalitarianism, Then and Now

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johannes Grow looks at Russell A. Berman’s “Saddam and Hitler: Rethinking Totalitarianism” from Telos 125 (Fall 2002).

In “Saddam and Hitler: Rethinking Totalitarianism,” Russell A. Berman examines the limits of current efforts to understand totalitarianism in light of the juxtaposition of Nazi Germany and Baathist Iraq. He questions the “cultural approaches” often implemented when approaching the study of the Nazi years. Berman doubts whether the German people, under the increasingly violent and fanatical Nazi regime, were truly a Volksgemeinschaft, a happy population believing in every word of the leader, be it true or false, or as the Baathist regime in Iraq demonstrated, a regime of violence, with the party and the leader as the center node propagating terror throughout the state. The author examines three problems present in contemporary discussions of the Nazi regime that may be further elucidated through a juxtaposition of Hitler’s “movement” with the old Saddam regime. The first involves the futility of defining these regimes as either “Left” or “Right.” These types of distinctions do not allow for a full exploration of the effects of these regimes. The second problem is the aligning of Nazism with a sort of “cultural hegemony” rather than with an environment of coercion, violence, and politics. The third concern involves limiting the question of totalitarianism to a certain period history rather than examining its effects on the present.

Berman notes the cultural hegemony often attributed to these types of regimes. Hitler’s larger than life speeches, his domination of art, film, and architecture, created an ethos that dominated Germany for several years. As Berman writes:

Saddam and Hitler: it is not difficult to ascribe to each a cultural penumbra, the writers, artists, and intellectuals who, sometimes bought, sometimes in voluntary delusion, pursue an affiliation with the totalitarian regime: Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer, Martin Heidegger, and Emil Nolde, or the Arab writers and Western architects who have benefited from Baghdad’s largesse. In this context, one can cite as well the regimes’ cultural programs, the celebration of particular traditions or the symbol-laden construction projects: Saddam chose to rebuild Babylon—he often has staged himself as heir to ancient civilizations, receiving the law from Hammurabi—sing bricks, on each of which his name was allegedly imprinted: the intrusion of the leader into monumentality, as much an act of possession and naming as Hitler’s title. (134).

The construction of monuments, the establishment of a certain ethos, be it Mussolini’s metanarrative of rebuilding the Roman Empire, Hitler’s new German Reich, or Saddam’s Babylon, contribute to this cultural hegemony. Although there is a definite increase in the production of a certain “culture,” Berman argues that these regimes are not regimes of art, but rather of terror and violence. The priority of terror and violence is by no means uncommon in many past or present totalitarian regimes; the current struggling regime in Syria, as well as the past regimes of the Shah and of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, is characterized by this overuse of violence. Berman quotes Kanaan Makiya on Iraq: “a society that used to revel in politics is not only subdued and silent, but profoundly transformed. Fear is the agency of that transformation; the kind of fear that comes not only from what the neighbors might say, but that makes people more careful of what they say in front of their children” (135). This fear, a banishment of legitimized knowledge mutilates the discourse that takes place within society. Berman analyzes how a “culture of destruction” is present within these types of societies; a culture, driven by fear, towards a final devastation.

According to Berman, the role of culture when analyzing violent regimes leads to a limited grasp on the violence and fear present in society. It also implies that certain events only belong to history rather than understanding how these past events have some relevance to current events. Berman observes that “cultural studies construct cultural objects, but the totalitarian condition brings the constituents of human being to the fore, independent of culture” (137). The omnipresent terror and violence become a cultural study; a study of “Nazi culture” rather than a study of the “terroristic regime.” These problems probed by Berman are easily extended into contemporary events. The recent and continuing violent upheavals in Egypt and Syria testify to the reluctance to intervene in so-called “domestic violence.” The balance between respecting a sovereign nation’s “monopoly of violence” and intervening to prevent further atrocities is a delicate balance that requires careful analysis. Berman writes: “the flight into normalcy [by contemporaries living outside the totalitarian regimes] was not merely self-interested business, but also perhaps above all, a denial of the horror, the refusal to hear the news of the camps” (139). Is the reluctance to resolve the crisis in Egypt and Syria a “refusal” to look at the violence? Or is it a reluctance to violate a nation-state’s rights? A leader persecuting a state’s population is a recurring event and yet the world’s response is often the same: appeasement or waiting until the death toll of the atrocities reaches a critical point.

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