Defending the plural: Hannah Arendt and genocide studies

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Autumn 2010
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This essay examines the reasons for the revival of interest in Hannah Arendt’s work in the new field of genocide studies. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt puts forward the ‘boomerang thesis’, suggesting that the roots of European totalitarianism, especially Nazism, lay in overseas colonialism. This claim, which is only now, over fifty years later, being empirically tested, accords with the view of some scholars of genocide that genocide and colonialism are inherently linked. German Southwest Africa (Namibia), where the Herero and Nama War (1904-08) ended in the first genocide of the twentieth century, is often cited as the best proof of Arendt’s thesis. Yet Arendt herself argued that there were unbridgeable breaks between the nineteenth-century, including the history of imperialism, and twentieth-century totalitarianism, and also believed that the Holocaust could not meaningfully be compared with pre-modern or colonial cases of genocide. What then accounts for Arendt’s renewed popularity? Apart from being one of the few thinkers to acknowledge that genocide had occurred in colonial contexts, genocide scholars find that the philosophical underpinning of Arendt’s work accords with their own. Like Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’, Arendt saw that, at bottom, her thought was concerned with defending the plurality of the human species.

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