Just as the stability of the totalitarian regime depends on sealing off the fictitious world of the movement from the outside world, so the experiment of total domination in the concentration camps depends upon sealing off the latter against the world of all others, the world of the living in general, even against the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule. This isolation explains the peculiar unreality and lack of credibility that characterise all reports from the concentration camps and constitute one of the main difficulties for the true understanding of totalitarian domination, which stands or falls with the existence of these concentration and extermination camps; for, unlikely as it may sound, these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organisational power.
Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism
Many people are rightly nervous of any attempt to compare Hitler’s death camps with any other institution in world history. After writing the The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt herself was criticised for comparing the death camps with Stalin’s gulags.
But Arendt’s analysis of the unreality of the camps – the way in which they were sealed off from public view and made to seem ‘impossible’ to many – even in Germany itself – should make us question this prohibition on comparison. Finding some point of comparison does not lessen the evil of the death camps, instead it is a way to make sure we do to forget that evil. To seal the camps of as unique and unrepeatable evil is a failure: a failure to remember, a failure to connect, a failure to honour the dead and a failure to arm ourselves against such evils in the future.
We should be able to see that institutions that hide people away, segregate them from ordinary life and create utter dependence are dangerous and very likely to tip into evil.