The Process of Defining the Objective Enemy

Consistent with the word itself, ‘’totalitarian’’ rule is based on the idea that there are absolute laws upon which a total and proper understanding of history can be developed. These universal laws are independent of what exists empirically; they are established under totalitarian rule in a way that no empirical basis can be used to evaluate or question them. They are absolute and clear to all; thus, there emerges a strong belief that laws must be implemented at all costs. Dangerous human behavior could be eliminated so that absolute laws continue to function smoothly.

It might be useful to take the Nazi Regime into consideration now as it is one of the cases that illustrates how the narrative of human emancipation could ironically lead to holocaust.  The Nazis hold a specific interpretation of Darwin’s natural development and claimed that policies implemented by the Nazi Rule were the true reflection of natural progress.  According to this understanding, Aryan race was the superior one among the others, and the world must be ruled by Aryans so that human perfectibility would be realized. Aryans were indifferent to each other; that is, they were all similar and equal as they were involved in the superior race. As Darwin’s theory placed the idea of linear progress instead of circularity in biology, the Nazis did the same in their peculiar ways. They legitimized their dehumanizing and racist policies thanks to the notions of human emancipation and social progress. Therefore, laws that were implemented to secure a unilinear historical progress implied movement.

Under totalitarian rule, truth is singular and it is already represented by the regime, no further effort is needed. All particular and temporary practices are considered obstacles to natural or historical progress. These temporary obstacles are better to be eliminated so that humanity would reach the superior stage of historical development. Problem with totalitarianism is then not violating laws, but it is this distinct way of approaching laws. Laws, in this understanding, leave no free space for human thought and behavior. Laws imply that everything is already determined; it is up to human beings to follow the only true path.  Such a narration of laws renders every individual suspicious; individuals are now beings that have the potential to act against the laws of history or of nature.

There is a difference between other despotic systems and totalitarian rule regarding the shift from ‘’suspect’’ to ‘’objective enemy’’(Arendt, 1973, p. 423).[1]   The objective enemy is, therefore, defined on the basis of policy of the government, although there is no evidence of attempts to overthrow the government. The objective enemy is like a ‘’carrier of a disease’’ regardless of what his or her past tells about himself or herself. Ruler needs to specify an objective enemy to legitimize violent practices carried out under totalitarian rule. It is like a constitutive opponent involved in the narrative of ruler who wants to establish their authority without allowing any questioning. In this way, ruler could legitimize their absolute power. Especially after the apparent opposition is totally eliminated by either being arrested or being killed, the concept of objective enemy together with references to a more abstract danger could be applied to maintain violent policies.

The objective enemy refers to ones who are rendered dangerous and thought to be threats to the objective conditions of history or nature.  According to Arendt, certain segments of society were accused of being against the regime before any particular activity was carried out by them.  As the source of authority was originated in the laws of history or the laws of nature rather than the interests of a single ruler, violent practices of rulers and oppression reached a much higher level under totalitarian regimes. In both cases, rulers pretended to fight for the salvation of humanity and claimed that their policies were the reflection of universal laws. In this sense, emancipation of species can be associated with the changing meaning of war under totalitarianism. Such narratives based upon the concepts of the objective enemy and universal laws are inevitably related to the goal of fulfillment of human potential. War in the age of totalitarianism was organized for the sake of making humanity reach its highest limits, not for preserving the interests of a single ruler or a nation-state. Ironically it brought about a massive increase in the number of casualties.

Concept of objective enemy is used by Arendt in a very similar way to Dillon and Reid’s necessary killing. The notion of necessary killing may be helpful in explaining why such narratives of human emancipation led to massive destruction.  Dillon and Reid talk about new forms of scientific knowledge that promoted the scientific understanding of species in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries(Dillon & Reid, 2009, p.42).[2]  A different kind of discourse concerning war and politics emerged, and it was based on the sciences of the properties of the species(Dillon & Reid, 2009, p.42).[3]  In both of totalitarian rules, as Arendt informs, rulers relied on the universal laws and claimed to have a scientific approach. Thus, the notion of the properties of humans accompanied a new understanding of war and politics. Rulers were capable of organizing a massive mobilization of people due to narratives of emancipation. Number of casualties increased to a massive level because the idea of emancipation of species entailed total elimination of those who were considered threats to the laws of history in one case and the laws of nature in the other.

Killing was a ‘’necessary killing’’ just as Dillen and Reid claim. Meaning of danger, in this new understanding, turned out to be more abstract, as mentioned before. But the abstractness of danger did not make it softer. Rather, it created a flexibility that every contingent behavior was rendered evil. Foucault, in a similar way, uses the term ‘’dangerous individual’’ to explain the process of criminalizing individuals regardless of their actual behaviors as they have a tendency to damage the order(Dillon & Reid, 2009, p.43).[4]  Such narratives involve abolishment of the prospect of contingent behavior before it is realized; thus, they entail ‘’pre-emptive action’’(Dillon & Reid, 2009, p.43)[5]  and discredit the idea of appealing concrete evidence. For this reason, it can be said that the gap between theory and empirical reality was widened.


[1] Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism.  San Diego CA: Harcourt Brace.

[2] Dillon, M. & Reid, J. (2009). The liberal Way of War. Abingdon: Routledge

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

Default image
Kerem Alpkaan Adakan
ODTÜ - Sosyoloji / İTÜ - Siyaset Çalışmaları MA