Freie Universität Berlin

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FU-BEST 6: The Human Condition and the Totalitarian Experience

InstructorThomas Werneke
Credit Points5 ECTS / 3 U.S. credits


This course starts with the classical concept of the totalitarian state, as developed by Hannah Arendt and others, taking Hitler and Stalin as their models. We will then cover some subsequent modifications and debates regarding the theory of totalitarianism, as a result of historical changes and developments, especially in the Soviet Empire. Here are some of the questions we will be dealing with: What popular attitudes and psychological reactions exist towards totalitarian atrocities such as the Holocaust? Under what psychological conditions are individuals capable of offering resistance, as did the “rescuers” of Jews under Nazi domination? While these phenomena may now appear to be bygones of merely historical interest, the psychological aspects of “totalitarian situations” remain acutely important, even in present-day democratic societies. The massacre in My Lai, the obedience experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram, and other psychological studies provide shocking evidence of how easily average citizens -- and by no means only the “authoritarian personalities,” as described by Theodor W. Adorno and Erich Fromm -- are in danger of behaving inhumanely in social situations, in which unthinking submission, even to the most questionable authorities, seems to be the easiest way out of stress and insecurity.