Populism through the eyes of Hannah Arendt: Now and Then

21 October 2016 /


Winning over masses has been at the heart of politics since antiquity. It is referred to as populism if done so by delivering extremely simplified answers to citizens. The German born American political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) examined this issue in her world famous book Totalitarianism. She wanted to understand what had turned the democratic Republic of Weimar and the communist USSR into extremist-totalitarian systems. Arendt argued that both had a common denominator: populism.

The term populism emerged by the end of the 19th century. It designated social and political movements, arising from accelerated social transformation processes and economic crisis. The movements are characteristically led by charismatic leaders, who have a sound grasp of problems and wishes of the people. These leaders understand how to mobilize masses in order to achieve certain goals. To name a few Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Syriza in Greece, Danish People’s Party (DPP) in Denmark, Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in Austria, Front National (FN) in France, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany are populists. Arendt argued that Nazi-Germany and Stalin’s USSR started as populist movements.

Arendt argued that Nazi-Germany and Stalin’s USSR started as populist movements

Political Propaganda of populists is aimed at voters who don’t feel represented in the established political system. According to Hannah Arendt these are voters who are ignored and labelled as apolitical by the other established political parties. They are voters without strong political views, providing a perfect target for propaganda. Further, populists gather masses without any concrete political programs. Instead they gravitate around broad slogans, based on racial or class ideologies (Arendt 1955).

The role of ideologies  

Arendt set out the argument that the totalitarian movements of Stalin and Hitler started as mass movements. Both were populist to a certain extent. The underlying similarities to populist parties are blatant. Even though their racist discourse is watered down, their repertoire includes firing orders against refugees (AFD), stopping world Judaism (Fidesz), stigmatization of muslims as barbarians (FN) and so forth. Especially the last point is vital for almost all populist parties. The FN is probably the most interesting case, as it has managed to redeem themselves from an outspoken racist discourse. They replaced it by the keywords nationalism and identity. Marine le Pen has officially distanced herself from her open outspoken racist father and founder of the party Jean-Marie le Pen. Yet, the party program has stayed the same and also the leadership of the party. Nethertheless, they also speak of an alleged islamization of the western world. This recalls distressing parallels to the conspiracy theories of the Nazis. Notably to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (Author unknown, published in Russia 1903), an Anti-Semitic text, theorizing a Jewish plan to dominate and rule the world. Even though islamization is not a conspiracy theory in itself, it is still used as political propaganda coupled with Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis “The Clash of Civilizations” (Huntington 1997). The underlying assumption of islamization is a Muslim invasion of the western world. As a consequence, among others the FPÖ demands the inclusion of Religion in passports, especially fingerprints of Muslim people. In contrast, left-wing populists use the classical opposition of the dominating and dominated to capture the masses, a history that hasn’t proved less dangerous (e.g. the red Khmers ).

The role of Chaos

Chaos is a second element that favors the emergence of mass movements. Following Arendt, one key reason for the success of Hitler and Stalin was a lack of structure within the society, coupled with the feeling of a world falling apart. After WWI people started to lose their known stability, due to Germany’s collapsing class-system. The classes were transformed into isolated, atomized masses. This was of vital importance for the totalitarian movement, which needed this lost stability to establish the new order. In Stalin’s Russia this prerequisite was not given. Therefore, he created the isolated masses artificially by liquidation, centralization, russification and collectivization.


Nowadays, social scientists don’t speak of classes anymore to describe the social structure of our western societies (Hillmann 2007). They prefer the term social strata or (if critical of the society) mass society. It expresses an organization principle, which is individualistic and free. Normally that would suggest that individuals learned to live within the chaos, that there is no more ground for an ideological driven mass movement or even a totalitarian movement. However, looking at researchers findings concerning the origins of populism, one finds that voters of populist parties seem to be overwhelmed by fear: Fear of “strangers”, their culture and what might be more surprising: Fear of losing one’s job (Wodak 2015). The latter can partly be explained by the trend of offshoring. The relocation of work from one country to another started in the 90’s (Kehal 2006). It does not only affect jobs from lower production sectors. Looking at Nokia or the BNP shows how the EU itself became a witness of offshoring processes. Populists support the idea that natives should be preferred when it comes to job distribution.  And this finally, possibly, gives some insights into why European citizens support for Eurosceptic parties is on the rise.

Differences & Similarities: Now & Then

So far, we have seen that there are certain similarities between the mass movements then and the potential mass movements now. First of all, one could argue that the fear of job losses might be a similar experience to the one people experienced after WWI in Germany. It may also be mixed with the feeling of a world falling apart, and complete loss of control (especially when reports about migration flows seem to swamp the news). Populists seem to use this fear for their own purposes. Therefore, the second criterion which deals with the circumstances that pave the way for mass movements could be responded to in an affirmative way.

The key development in the 21st century is an extremely fluid boundary between populism and extremism

Reading this article gives the impression that populism and extremism are the same. And that Orban, Le Pen, Farage, Petry, Tsipras etc. are somehow reincarnations of Hitler and Stalin. Is there any difference between populism and extremism? Are populists devils in disguise? According to the German historian Karin Priester populism was first trivialized by the political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff when he classified the FN in France as national-populist in the 1980’s (Priester, 2010). This is remarkable because the FN was previously considered as right-wing extremist and it didn’t change its political program or views. However, the Jean-Marie le Pen used this and started referring to itself as “Populiste et fière de l’être” (Mayer 2005). Taguieff eased the path towards de-stigmatization of extremist parties. Xenophobia and Anti-System were replaced by Anti-establishment rhetoric, enabling the concerned parties to protest publicly without being stigmatized as anti-democratic. Right-wing extremists have an anti-pluralistic and anti-liberal vision of the society and state. Yet, it is marginalized in the western political world. It can however find a way out of this marginalization through populism. In order to do so Right-wing extremists must give up parts of their ideology and adopt a more moderate strategy. One could argue that this is the case of the FPÖ, AFD & the movement Pegida, Fidesz & the radical nationalist party Jobbik, and FN & Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Alternative for Germany (AFD) for example tried to distance itself from Pegida. Pegida stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. The name of it already explains its program. The AFD doesn’t want to be associated with this far-right movement. Fact is however that 83% of Pegida would be ready to vote for the AFD. Hence, the AFD attracts PEGIDA members and according to a study of the University of Leipzig: right-wing extremist have found a new home within the AFD. And this is exactly the danger of populist parties. Populism opens the door into the political arena for extremism. This is where the danger lies and where history might repeat itself.

The key development in the 21st century is an extremely fluid boundary between populism and extremism.

Finally, Arendt added an important value to the origins of mass movements, which established politicians tend to forget: Firstly, the isolated atomic masses that were not able to deal with the changes of their times might be the same as the ones voting for populist parties nowadays. Secondly, Hannah Arendt believed that not all Germans were convinced Nazis. She assumed that a big portion were simply opportunists and following the crowd. Nazi Germany wasn’t there from the beginning it was an evolution. It was the liberated dynamic of a mass movement, which drove the Weimar Republic into the third Reich.

When Hannah Arendt analysed the origins of Hitler and Stalin’s success, she did not know what the future would bring. Yet, only 35 years after her death, populists seem to use exactly the same strategy to mobilize masses: fear and chaos. Nowadays they seem to be less extreme, simply anti-establishment and not anti-system. However such appearances can be deceptive.

Camille Nessel is a 2nd year Master’s student at the Institut d’études européenes

Share and Like :