The Tragic, Enduring Relevance of Arendt’s Work on Statelessness

Siobhan Kattago composed this post originally as an introduction to Hannah Arendt’s “We Refugees,” in anticipation of its translation into Estonian.

While Hannah Arendt is most known for her reflections on totalitarianism and the banality of evil, eighteen years of statelessness (1933-1951) brought her philosophical questions of how one might be at home in the world into sharp relief. The fact that she was Jewish and German during the first half of the twentieth century profoundly influenced her life and writing. Given today’s refugee crisis, Arendt’s work is being examined anew in order to understand the ways in which mass statelessness has influenced the world since the twentieth century. As historian Jeremy Adelman wrote in The Wilson Quarterly: “Arendt’s voice is one we can turn to as we grapple with the spread of statelessness in our day. Camps and pariahs are still with us.”[1]

More than 70 years ago, Arendt wrote about the refugee crisis during World War II in a brief essay entitled, “We Refugees.” Published in a small magazine, Menorah Journal, it was re-printed in various anthologies, but often overshadowed by Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism and Eichmann, as well as her relationship with Martin Heidegger.[2] In 1993, fifty years after the publication of “We Refugees,” the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben reflected on Arendt’s essay within the context of his time. If the refugee was regarded “as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness,” the camp became the symbol of modernity itself.[3] In his reading of Arendt’s essay, the refugee is a kind of homo sacer. Arendt’s argument that statelessness is a consequence of the modern nation-state forms the backbone of much of Agamben’s powerful critique of sovereignty. The political and legal structure of the nation-state based on the rights of man and citizen excludes those who are not citizens. The exclusion of the stateless, as we witness today, results in the administration of the excluded by national agencies, smugglers, strangers, charities, international organizations and, most tellingly, the police. Agamben is, of course, right. “We Refugees” needs to be read in the context of Arendt’s writings on the Jew as pariah and her analysis of imperialism and rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But there is also a more immediate context to Arendt’s brief essay — that of her own life experience as a stateless person and her participation in a generation who shared the same fate.

After leaving Germany for Paris in 1933, Arendt worked with Youth Aliyah, a Zionist organization helping Jewish children emigrate to Palestine. In 1940, with the Vichy occupation, she was sent as an “enemy alien” and “undesirable” to an internment camp in Gurs. After a fortunate escape, Arendt joined her husband, Heinrich Blüchner, and eventually received an emergency visa for the United States through Lisbon. Although she knew that she was lucky to obtain this visa, she was not yet a citizen when she wrote “We Refugees” in 1943. She did not yet have what she would spend much of her life writing about — the right to belong to a political community. Most tellingly, “We Refugees” was written in the aftermath of the death of two fellow Jewish refugees who identified themselves as Europeans: Walter Benjamin took his life in September 1940, and Stefan Zweig ended his in February 1942.

Arendt had become friends with Benjamin during their time in Paris and had received her visa for America a few months after him. As fate would have it, the border to Spain closed the day Benjamin attempted to cross and re-opened the next day. With his hopes to emigrate to America dashed, he took his life in September 1940. Arendt carried his last manuscripts when she took the very same route, a short time later from France to Spain, arriving in New York in May 1941. In her essay on Benjamin, she retraced his flight from Germany and noted how his world had been steadily taken away. His apartment in Paris had already been confiscated by the Gestapo and part of his library given to the Bibliothèque Nationale. “There were few who still knew his name when he chose death in those early fall years of 1940.”[4]

If Benjamin saw his individual fate as part of a break in civilization, Arendt looked towards the political foundations of the nation-state: “All politics dealing with minorities, and not just with the Jews, have foundered on the existent and abiding fact of state sovereignty.”[5] World War I meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires and the creation of newly independent states with “Minority Treaties” to protect those whose ethnicity did not coincide with the state that they suddenly resided in. As a consequence of these treaties, a new class of people emerged: the stateless, or as Michael Marrus phrased it in his remarkable book, The Unwanted. “If one regards European history as the development of the European nation-state, or as the development of European peoples into nation-states, then these people, the stateless, are the most important product of recent history.”[6] The stateless became “modern pariahs.”

Jeremy Adelman writes: “The real plight of the pariah is not just to be driven from home. That has been a misfortune of our world for a long time. God did it to Adam. Rulers have made outlaws from time immemorial. No, what singled out the modern age was that no one would take in the pariah.”[7] Benjamin despaired when the Spanish police closed the border and feared that no one would take him in. Although Zweig was able to take refuge in Brazil, for which he was grateful, he was unable to cope with his degradation to a pariah, and he and his wife took their lives in a hotel room in 1942. Zweig’s suicide note is the chilling testimony of a person wrenched out of his world:

Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.

But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.

I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.[8]

Zweig identified himself with “my spiritual homeland, Europe.” His last book, The World of Yesterday (1942) recounts his exile from Austria and Europe. “So I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at the most a guest everywhere. Even the true home of my heart’s desire, Europe, is lost to me after twice tearing itself suicidally to pieces in fratricidal wars.”[9] In her essay “Stefan Zweig: Jews in the World of Yesterday,” also written in 1943, Arendt reflects on Zweig’s inability to cope with being a refugee. “That he himself, only yesterday so famous and welcome a guest in foreign countries, should also belong to this miserable host of the homeless and suspect was simply hell on earth.”[10] Stefan Zweig, the famous Austrian writer, had been degraded to “Jew Zweig.” He could not come to terms with being labelled a Jew and a pariah. “Without the protective armor of fame, naked and disrobed, Stefan Zweig was confronted with the reality of the Jewish people.”[11] To be thrown onto his bare humanity meant that he was rights-less and stateless. By his own account, The World of Yesterday was both an autobiography and portrait of a generation. “The times provide the pictures, I merely speak the words to go with them, and it will not be so much my own story I tell as that of an entire generation — our unique generation carrying a heavier burden of fate than almost any other in the course of history.”[12]

Arendt recalls Zweig’s last article, “The Great Silence,” from March 1942, in which he writes how Europe — Central Europe in particular — was “shocked into silence” at the rise of National Socialism and anti-Semitism. In the wake of today’s rising populism, the building of walls in Central Europe and fear of mass immigration of non-Europeans into the continent, one wonders whether history is repeating itself. Is Europe, and by extension, the United States, shocked into silence when confronted with the mass of refugees seeking asylum? Does the agreement between the European Union and Turkey in 2016 represent silence towards those waiting in refugee camps or those hiding in war-torn Syria?

Read in the context of Arendt’s reflections on Benjamin and Zweig, “We Refugees” is a portrait of a particular generation of extraordinary Jewish intellectuals, who were not only able to find a place in a new country, but who also contributed greatly to the world we live in today. Such people include Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Hans Cassirer, Siegfried Kracauer, Herbert Marcuse, Hans Jonas, Erwin Panofsky, Karl Popper, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. But, unlike Zweig, Arendt did not limit herself to those who enriched the sciences and humanities; rather in “We Refugees” and later in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she gives voice to ordinary people who were somebody in their world and in their language. “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”[13] These people, most of whom were European Jews, in seeking refuge had to leave everything behind, only to become “the stateless” or modern pariahs.

At the very beginning of “We Refugees,” Arendt is at pains to distinguish between how the stateless are identified by sovereign states (as “refugees”) and how those same people view themselves. “In the first place, we don’t like to be called refugees. We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants’”[14] The title “We Refugees” emphasizes the shared experience of flight, homelessness, loss and adjustment to a new home. In the essay, she writes less about her own private life, and more about what the stateless have in common. “A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held… Now ‘refugees’ are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by refugee committees.”[15] Even though they are identified as “refugees,” Arendt foregrounds their fierce desire to be someone who belongs to a community. Using irony and dark humor, she portrays those who try to integrate into their new world, like Mr. Cohn, the Jew from Berlin, who was “150 percent German” while living in Germany. However, when forced to leave, in Prague, he became “150 percent Czech.”

From being someone who belongs somewhere, Arendt describes the radical loss of the world experienced by many refugees. They seem to be nobodies who belong nowhere. Moreover, “We Refugees” includes poignant reflection on those who took their lives. “We are the first nonreligious Jews persecuted — and we are the first ones who, not only in extremis, answer with suicide.”[16] Stefan Zweig felt degraded, from being a famous Austrian and European writer, to simply a Jew. Walter Benjamin was humiliated by the experience of hiding and fleeing. Their deaths were not rebellious but a desire to end their uprooted wandering. “Yet our suicides are no mad rebels who hurl defiance at life and the world, who try to kill in themselves the whole universe. Theirs is a quiet and modest way of vanishing; they seem to apologize for the violent solution they have found for their personal problems… If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded.”[17] What binds refugees together as a “we” is the fact that they were once somebodies. In their new state of limbo, some were able to cope; others could not. “Once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent properly.”[18] Indeed in a letter to Karl Jaspers in 1946, Arendt writes of waiting for an end to her statelessness. “I am still a stateless person, and your picture of me living in a furnished room is to some degree still accurate… As you see, I haven’t become respectable in any way.”[19]

Whether pariah or parvenu, once Jews lost their citizenship and political rights during the Third Reich, they lost their own distinct place in the world. “The pariah Jew and the parvenu Jew are in the same boat, rowing desperately in the same angry sea. Both are branded with the same mark; both alike are outlaws.”[20] Can we not say the same about today’s refugees, who are “rowing desperately” to avoid war and violence, but who are regarded as “outlaws” when they reach the borders? At the end of “We Refugees,” Arendt outlines a way to overcome the stigma of being refugee, pariah or outlaw. By becoming a “conscious pariah,” she was able to speak for those in her generation and maintain her identity. “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their people — if they keep their identity.”[21]

The stateless, as an unwanted and superfluous product of the international order, are a fact that can neither be ignored nor wished away. Today, more than seventy years after the publication of “We Refugees,” we face a similar problem. There are approximately 60 million refugees in the world, half of them children, who will spend much of their childhood in a refugee camp. What is, of course, different about the refugees then and now, is that today’s refugee is not European, and often Muslim. And yet the question remains: how should we respond? Arendt reminds us that patterns of exclusion, the proliferation of refugee camps and masses of people seeking refuge, bear more than a passing family resemblance to 20th century statelessness. “We Refugees” is more than an early essay outlining her later analysis of rights and the nation-state. It speaks both to the refugee crisis of the 20th century and to ours.



[1] Jeremy Adelman, “Pariah. Can Hannah Arendt Help Us Rethink out Global Refugee Crisis?” Wilson Quarterly, June 2016.  Accessed 27 August 2016.

[2] Originally published in 1943 in Menorah Journal (January 1943), pp. 69-77. It was reprinted in The Jew as Pariah, edited by Ron H Feldman, New York: Grove Press in 1978, pp. 67-90. It is currently printed in The Jewish Writing, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H Feldman, New York: Schocken Books in 2007, pp. 264-274.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000, p. 14. Also see his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[4] Arendt, Hannah “Introduction. Walter Benjamin 1892-1940” in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, p.1.

[5] Hannah Arendt, “The Minority Question” in The Jewish Writings, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman, New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p. 127.

[6] Ibid., p. 128.

[7] Jeremy Adelman, op.cit.

[8] National Library of Israel,  Accessed 28 August 2016.

[9] Zweig, Stefan The World of Yesterday. Trans Anthea Bell, London: Pushkin Press, 2014. Foreword, p. 2.

[10] Arendt, Hannah, “Stefan Zweig: Jews in the World of Yesterday” in The Jewish Writings, op.cit., p. 318.

[11] Ibid., p. 328.

[12] Zweig, Stefan op.cit. p. 1.

[13] Arendt, Hannah “We Refugees” in The Jewish Writings, op.cit., p. 264.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.,p. 268.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 269.

[19] Correspondence 1926-1969 by Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992, p. 29.

[20] Arendt, Hannah “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” in The Jewish Writings, op.cit., p. 269.

[21] Arendt, Hannah “We Refugees,” op.cit., p. 274.

Siobhan Kattago

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