Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Linden, Germany to secular-Jewish parents. She studied under Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg and wrote her dissertation on love in St. Augustine’s work under Karl Jaspers. After being interrogated by the Gestapo, Arendt moved to Paris to avoid Nazi persecution. In 1941, Arendt and her husband received help in obtaining U.S. visas and were able to relocate to the United States. In 1950 she became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She held appointments at various universities including UC Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the New School. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was her first major work.

In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”Arendt discusses how the situation of refugees or “stateless people” following the first world war illuminated the failures of the nation-state model. The League of Nations created “Minority Treaties” to try to provide protection to minority groups in the newly formed nations in Eastern Europe. This move illustrated how the rights of a citizen, tied to a nation-state, were no longer adequate. Arendt goes on to show how the idea of “inalienable rights” no longer signifies anything- attempts to define the rights of non-citizens, free-floating human beings who only have their humanity left (which could be thought of as representatives of  Agamben’s “bare life”) failed again and again.

Passages and Ideas for Discussion:

“…the nationally frustrated population was firmly convinced–as was everybody else–that true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights” (272).

In citing the “mass denationalizations” during the 20th century: “They [governments who practiced denationalization] presupposed a state structure which, if it was not yet fully totalitarian, at least would not tolerate any opposition and would rather lose its citizens than harbor people with different views” (278). This passage is an interesting point of entry for thinking through denationalizations as a type of population management in terms of biopolitics. On 279-280, Arendt laments how denaturalizations have become commonplace, even in democratic nations.

On 287, Arendt begins to discuss how the massive amounts of stateless people led to more autonomous police forces in many nations. “one might say there existed an independent foreign policy of the police” (288).

“Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nations, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether” (294).

Agamben cites Arendt numerous times in Homo Sacer. There are several interesting intersections we can discuss in their work, particularly the use of the term “the exception.” Arendt uses this construction several times in her discussion of the changing nature of stateless people, as in this example: “persons of different nationality needed some law of exception until or unless they were completely assimilated and divorced from their origin” (275).  Agamben uses her construction for more abstract concepts- maybe we can unpack these during class discussion? Another moment that reminded me of Agamben: “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human” (299).

Arendt’s discussions of innocence (295) and criminality (286) might also be useful for us.


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