At the Well blog


Hannah Arendt on the origins and consequences of ideological racism

Hannah Arendt was one of the first European political thinkers to theorize Nazi totalitarianism as the logical conclusion of an earlier era of imperialist colonialism and racist foreign policy. Yet, few know that a critique of anti-black racism forms an indistinguishable part of Arendt’s wider theorization of totalitarianism.

Although Arendt held Arthur de Gobineau to be the inventor of modern, eugenic racism, she also elaborated on Thomas Hobbes’ contribution to the birth of 19th and 20th century racist discourse. Inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, Arendt argued that when capitalist profit and accumulation of wealth became the single guiding principle of foreign policy, no diplomacy or appeal to international, humanitarian law was necessary or even reasonable.

Taking as her example the genocidal, administrated extermination of black African tribes in German South West Africa and Belgian Congo, Arendt claims that imperialist politics exported the model of the nation state to colonialized territories by simply replacing nation with “race” and government with “bureaucracy”, hence inventing a pre-totalitarian form of racist bureaucracy that had no appeal to international law. Labor camps and concentration camps were originally invented in these colonies, where non-elected officials and European, criminal mob members ruled with violence. For instance, Hermann Goering, one of the leaders of the Final Solution was the son of Heinrich Goering, the commissioner of German South West Africa.[1]

According to Arendt, biological concepts began to merge with political language during this historical period. The biologization of politics is most evident in late 19th and early 20th century development of eugenic race theories that targeted not only colonized “foreign tribes”, but also all “degenerate” populations within Europe and the United States. Arendt further argues that European ultranationalist movements that were driven by anti-Semitist propaganda, used similar rhetoric as imperialism for pushing forth a so called “continental imperialism” and “tribal nationalism” within Europe.

The extermination of black African tribes by the British and German colonialists occurred during the same historical period of eugenic experimenting that gave rise to the European scientific invention of “savage”, “unfit” and “unhealthy”, “parasitic” races. This racialization and species-thinking was the precondition for genocide also in Europe. Whereas “race-thinking” in the earlier century had according to Arendt promoted mythical and romanticized views of various cultures and races, race-ism as a new, political ideology established a hierarchical rank between the genetically superior and most civilized ethnic race against all other, lower races. The superior race and its blood had to be protected from contamination and degeneration. Arendt originally called even Nazism as a form of “race-imperialism” and contended that: “African colonial possessions became the most fertile soil for the flowering of what later was to become the Nazi elite”.[2] According to her genealogy then, concentration camps were an important element already of the European, imperialist expansionism that gave room to ideological racism, and which legitimized the genocidal killing of black African tribes.

Whereas imperialism produced racialized others by appeal to differences in skin color, anti-Semitist and anti-homosexual racialization within Europe operated according to Arendt on a register that produced abnormal others by appeal to any presumed or invented difference. When Jews were conceived as a pathological race, it did not matter whether they converted to Christianity or whether they “passed” as members of bourgeois high society or not. Even as converted Christians or high socialites, they were still perceived as genetic “Jews” and hence the only solution to the “Jewish question” was the annihilation of the entire Jewish population. Racialization hence functioned as the precondition for genocide.

The intriguing theme that rises through Arendt’s theorization of racialization is that in her view, certain normative ways of categorizing groups of people constitute an obsolete step in the rendering of these groups as superfluous. In other words, for Arendt, totalitarian mechanisms of dehumanization are simply a crystallization of the earlier processes of imperialist colonialism.

What we should learn from Arendt’s genealogy of racialization and its disastrous political consequences is that racism as the offshoot of old imperial political ideologies has not disappeared. Rather, it has taken a more cunning, biopolitical form that no longer operates through a discourse that equates citizenship with blood, but instead through neo-liberal, economic, social and political administering of displaced, uprooted and vulnerable groups of people. In the context of World War I and II, Arendt wrote that wherever stateless people appeared, they were rendered superfluous due to their lack of citizenship. In the case of refugees for example, it was up to the hospitality of the welcoming countries whether they wanted to accept, return or turn away the refugees.

Arendt’s concern resonates with recent neoliberal and ultranationalist developments, as a vast responsibility of protecting the human rights of refugees from Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan for instance is thrown on the shoulders of NGOs, international aid-organizations and private persons. When refugees and asylum seekers are being perceived as the unfortunate and tragic collateral effect of some distant war in “the Orient”, their lives are not held to be the responsibility of “the West” or even a common humanity. As borders are tightened, detention centers reminiscent of prisons fill up with superfluous people, or what Zygmunt Bauman has critically theorized as “human waste”.[3] As a matter of fact, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt draws an analogy between the warehousing of people in concentration camps and refugee detention centers. What these both forms of human warehousing have in common is the fact that “[…] the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead […]”.[4]

Although Arendt conceives superfluity as the byproduct of modern, administrative bureaucracy, she also holds that political administrations are and must be held accountable for their policies and actions, such as ideological racism or economic-imperial expansionism. In these types of situations courageous and at times even dangerous truth-telling becomes a form of political action. For Arendt, truth-telling is not an individual-ethical project, but instead a world-building activity, and an expression of Amor Mundi, care and responsibility for the common world of human affairs. Resistance then must begin with locating and exposing the type of political discourses that renders any group of people as superfluous and unworthy of equal political and human rights.


[1] Owens, Patricia, Between War and Politics: International Relations and the Thought of Hannah Arendt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. [2] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Inc., 1994, p. 206. [3] Bauman, Zygmund, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Polity: 2003. [4] Arendt, OT, p. 455


Julian Honkasalo

Dr. Julian Honkasalo, scholar and activist, is a Kone Foundation postdoctoral researcher in gender studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland as well as a PhD candidate in politics at The New School for Social Research, New York City. Honkasalo’s main research interests include historical constructions of gender and race, the political thought of Hannah Arendt, as well as statelessness and human rights.

Photo: Nitzan Krimsky