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

InstructorDr. Thomas Werneke
Credit Points6 ECTS


The course focuses on the classical concept of the totalitarian state developed by Hannah Arendt and others, which takes Hitler and Stalin as the primary models for this uniquely 20th century political system. We will be covering some of the subsequent modifications in the theory of totalitarianism, insights gained from the close examination of historical changes and developments, especially in the former Soviet Empire. Here are some of the questions we will be dealing with: what are the key elements of totalitarianism? What are the fundamental elements of totalitarian rule? What were the official positions and the popular attitudes toward the rulers and such totalitarian atrocities as the Holocaust and the mass imprisonment? What insights into the totalitarian system and mindset can be gained from psychology and psychoanalysis? Under what psychological/social conditions are individuals capable of offering opposition or resistance, as did the German resistance and the “rescuers” of Jews under Nazi domination or dissidents in the Soviet Union?

While the manifestations of totalitarianism may now appear to be bygones of merely historical interest, the social psychology of “totalitarian situations” remains acutely important, even in present-day democratic societies. The massacre at My Lai, the obedience experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram, similar events and similar studies, provide evidence of how easily average citizens – and by no means only the “authoritarian personalities” as described by Theodor W. Adorno and Erich Fromm – have the potential of behaving inhumanely in specific situations, when unthinking submission, even to the most questionable orders, seems to be the easiest way to deal with the stress and insecurity of the moment.

What follows are the class schedule and the reading assignments for the eleven class sessions. Please be sure to have worked through the readings carefully prior to each session. All the texts identified below are included in the photocopied Reader. In addition to the Reader, there are two pocket books to be read and analysed in a research paper, namely Arthur Koestler’s, Darkness at Noon, London: Vintage 2005 (first published in 1940), and Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World, New York: HarperCollins 1998 (first published in 1932).