One of the most controversial claims that Arendt made in The Origins of Totalitarianism was that modern antisemitism is distinct from the “Jew-hatred” of the Middle Ages. She argued that:
…modern antisemitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balance of power crashed (Arendt, OT, p. 11).
Arendt rejected the widespread theory of “eternal antisemitism,” which holds that “Jew hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which the history gives only more or less opportunity” (Arendt, OT, p. 16). Eternal antisemitism attempts to explain all historical eruptions of Jew-hatred, i.e., expulsions, pogroms, and massacres, as “the natural consequences of an eternal problem” (Arendt, OT, p. 16). The problem with this theory is that it robs both the Jew and the antisemite of agency, and consequently of responsibility. It also implies that all periods of respite for the Jewish people, whether in Germany or Israel, are temporary. Arendt explains the central ethical problem that the theory of “eternal antisemitism” presents:
Its escapist basis is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility (Arendt, OT, p. 16).
What Arendt continually warns against in Origins is the danger of seeking a single “cause” for what occurred in the death camps of Nazi Germany. She points instead to a series of conditions that “crystallized” into the horrors of the 20th century. The eruption of murderous, modern antisemitism was not the result of the single cause of “eternal antisemitism,” but of political, economic, psychological, and sociological events that came together in the most insidious way and created an environment in which “the manufactur[ing] of corpses” (Arendt, OT, p. 576) became not only lawful, but the norm.