Academic journal article New Formations

Defending the Plural: Hannah Arendt and Genocide Studies

Academic journal article New Formations

Defending the Plural: Hannah Arendt and Genocide Studies

Article excerpt


In the burgeoning world of 'Arendt scholarship', perhaps the most noteworthy development--and certainly one of the more contentious--is the identification of Hannah Arendt as an intellectual forebear for the emerging field of 'genocide studies'. Discussions of many aspects of Arendt's thought--secularization, cliche and terror, liberalism, republicanism, rights discourse and international relations, and so on--continue apace, as they have long done. But with genocide studies, Arendt is fast being canonised, in a way that would have amazed her, as one of the 'founding fathers' of the field. (1) Yet ironically, in claiming Arendt for their intellectual heritage, genocide scholars may be misreading her. In this essay, I examine the way in which Arendt's ideas have been taken up by genocide scholars, furnishing them with an intellectual lineage. My concern is less with the content of Arendt's ideas than with their adoption and adaptation in the context of genocide studies.

In a recent article, Dirk Moses argues that scholars who invoke Arendt's so-called 'boomerang thesis' to justify their argument that the violence of European overseas colonialism formed the basis of fascism in Europe have misunderstood her position:

   Far from proposing a 'boomerang' thesis about the corrosive
   effect of colonialism in Africa on the German and European
   metropole, Arendt was advancing an alternative continuity
   argument in service of a broader agenda about the
   discontinuity between what she called 'the Western tradition'
   and totalitarian crimes. The relevance of her invocation of British
   colonialism in Africa was not to demonstrate their infection of
   Germany, let alone Russia. It was to redeem British rule, which
   she admired. The German colonialism and imperialism relevant
   to Nazism and the Holocaust was not to be found in Africa, as
   commonly supposed, but in the Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism of
   Central Europe. 'Continental imperialism', as she called
   Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism, fed into totalitarianism and
   its unique crimes, while any abuses of 'Western imperialism'
   were rationally limited. (2)

In Moses's reading, Arendt's aim in limiting the connections between European atrocities overseas and Nazi genocide in Europe was to assert the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Or, we might add, to defend the Western tradition, which Arendt wanted to quarantine from contamination with her comment that Nazism came 'from the gutter'. These are extremely thought-provoking claims. Not only do they suggest that genocide scholars are misreading Arendt, a problem to which I will return, but they also imply that genocide studies, a field that--one hopes--is founded on solidarity with the oppressed, actually panders to western stereotypes about 'exotic' peoples and morbid fantasies about unrestrained violence. Let us not forget that Edward Said lumped Arendt together with Joseph Conrad, Graham Green and VS. Naipaul as a purveyor of just such stereotypes, one 'whose speciality is to deliver the non-European world either for analysis and judgment or for satisfying the exotic tastes of European and North American audiences'. (3)

Whatever the truth about Arendt's intentions, it remains the case that her imprimatur is regularly invoked in order to make a connection between imperialism and fascism, colonialism and genocide. Just as Marx turned Hegel on his head to argue that material conditions generated ideas rather than vice versa, so historians have rendered topsy-turvy Arendt's description of the discontinuities between western overseas expansionism and continental imperialism within Europe. What matters is that Arendt placed these two apparently discrete trends of world history together; it is the juxtaposition which fuels the historical imagination, not Arendt's attempt to delimit its relevance. In what follows, I show how Arendt is often the inspiration for many scholars in genocide studies, whether they cite her or not. …

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