Hannah Arendt’s work, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism, has been back in the news the last few years for obvious reasons. One quotation in particular seems to be especially pertinent. It reads:
“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive”.
The quotation is widespread on the internet – a quick google search brings up lots of places where it is quoted, sometimes referenced to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Sometimes it is even turned into a motivational image:
But does the quotation really come from Arendt? I wasn’t sure. The references are often vague, and none I could find supplied a page number. The best I could find was a piece in The New Yorker from 1999 that made this claim, but as a characterisation of her argument, rather than a direct quotation.
Eventually I found what I strongly suspect is the passage in The Origins of Totalitarism:
“The elite is not composed of ideologists; its members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose” (Penguin complete edition, Chapter 11, p. 503; Harvest edition, p. 385).
It’s clearly close, and close enough, I think, that it is indeed the basis for the quotation in circulation. (I understand Arendt wrote the book in English, so it’s not a question of translation.) But it shows that Arendt was saying something a little distinct from the general way in which she is being taken. And it also shows how a characterisation of an argument can be taken as a direct quotation, and then circulate widely, without it being checked back to the original source.
Anyone shed any further light on this?