While there may be fewer nation-states across the globe, the logic that led to the creation of the nation-state remains ever present. According to Arendt, the nation-state is, from its start ‘faulty’. I begin by inquiring why this is the case according to Arendt. Next, I turn to my recent work in conceptual history on the intersection of the categories of race and religion in Europe. My contention is that race and religion are co-constructed categories and potentially exclusionary. The role of the race-religion constellation, I contend, has been masked in the creation of the Westphalian nation-state, and only when made visible, can we truly understand the ‘faulty start’ of the nation-state. I develop this in section two and then return to Arendt who, in my view, was unable to recognise this because of the illusion and lure of ‘secularism’ and her unacknowledged Jewish exceptionalism. Arendt affirms the secular myth which relies on a problematic binary between religion/secular, a binary that is used to justify assimilation, racism and dehumanisation – past and present. It is this blind spot, which is widely shared today in academic and political circles, that prevented Arendt from seeing the constitutive relationship between the race-religion-state which not only produces ‘the refugee’ but constructs ‘the other’. In this vein, this blind spot sustains state/structural Christian power and privilege. To demonstrate this, I return to Origins as well as her essay We Refugees. I argue that this blind spot must be rectified if we are to understand and challenge the ongoing denial of plurality and the exclusion of difference from the nationstate, as well as the different faces of contemporary racism.
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UNHCR, Figures at a Glance.
Although debatable, according to historians today, LGBTQ+ persons and those classified as ‘asocial’ faced brutal persecution (male homosexuals more than lesbians) but were in categories where altered behaviour made a difference. As such, they were not per se non-Aryans.
Several excellent reviewers asked me to develop further on Arendt’s analysis of the Rights of Man. I have chosen not to do so as I want to separate the origins of the nation-state from eighteenth century revolutions by locating this origin instead in the Treaty of Westphalia (or earlier in 1555). Arendt, in her focus on the Rights of Man, fails to see that racial exclusion (though perhaps not yet nationalistic racism) was built into the very structure of the nation-state long before these revolutions.
In other publications, I develop the position that dehumanisation, which is central to all forms of racism, has its origins in the period of the Crusades, a form of proto-colonisation, whose primary purpose was unifying Christianity (e.g. the term populus christianus dates from 1215), as another such moment albeit one prior to the state in its current configuration (Topolski, 2020b).
The 1598 Edict of Nantes, which created a non-homogenous nation, was subsequently revoked.
Many distinct words were used to describe these non-Christian groups such as peoples, tribes, groups, nations, etc. For example, in 1614 Edward Brerewood referred to Jews and Mohammedans as ‘species’. For more on how Christianity’s. ‘Others’ were dehumanized, see Heng (2018).
For more on this, it is important to consider the 1552 Valladolid debates. The central concern of this theological debate between Bartolomé de las Casas (14,741,566) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494–1573), organized by the Church, is about the nature of the beings living beyond the border of the Christian world—are they animal, human or something else? This question was in fact a theological one—do these beings have souls and be ‘saved’, or not and thus enslaved and/or exterminated. For de las Casas, ‘Indians’ do have a soul whereas for Sepúlveda they don’t and as such could be both enslaved and exterminated. Sadly for both theologians, Africans, unlike the ‘Indians’ had seen the light of Christ but had rejected it (like Jews and Muslims) and chosen rather to continue their courtship with the devil. De las Casas is often mythologized as the ‘native’s’ hero, which has led to the silencing of his racist view of Blacks/Africans.
It is rather surprising that Arendt, who so closely analysed the bureaucratic racism at stake in European imperialism and which she argues ‘boomeranged’ back on Europe, did not include a consideration of race-religion constellation. It would also be important to further investigate how the race-religion constellation complicates her insights into Europe’s imperial experience in Africa in the second section of Origins. Scholars who are rightfully critical of Arendt’s blindspots with regard to race, among other her failure to reflect on the history of colonialism in America and the Haitian revolution, might need to consider this much longer history of racism (avant la letter) that informed these colonial practices.
An exception is Lloyd (2012).
Arendt here draws a rather odd parallel between women who think wearing a nice new dress will change her status to Jews who sometimes thought that changing their nationality would make them seem as individuals/human beings (WR 65).
Interestingly Arendt thought that the USA—because it is not formally/legally a nation-state—would differ in this respect from European nation-states. For this reason, she felt it was possible—as a Jew—to belong In this vein she as blind to the interconnection between what she called the social and the political. In 1947, she wrote to Jaspers (letter #59, 30. June 1947) about anti-Semitism in the United States: “In einer a-nationalen Republik wie den Vereinigten Staaten, in denen Nationalität und Staat nicht identisch ist, wird das dann mehr oder minder zu einer Frage, die nur noch soziale und kulturelle Bedeutung hat, aber politisch bedeutungslos ist. (so ist z.B. der sogenannte Antisemitismus hier rein sozial, und die gleichen Leute, die auf keinen Fall mit Juden im gleichen Hotel wohnen wollen, würden sehr erstaunt und empört sein, wenn man ihren jüdischen Mitbürgern das Wahlrecht entziehen wollte.” (Arendt & Jaspers, 1993, 127).
In 1955, she wrote to Kurt Blemenfeld about Georg Lichtheim, whom she said ought to remain the US, rather than return to England: “Für ihn wäre es besser, hierzubleiben und nicht nach England zurückzukehren. Aber mir ist fraglich, ob er.
Sadly, it is also worth noting that climate refugees, and how they will be helped, based on race and class, is also evidence of the race-religion constellation manifest in the nation-state.
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I would like to thank the organisers of this conference for the opportunity to reflect on this question in the presence of such esteemed scholars, the blind reviewers, and Robert Kunath, Robert Larruina, and Jennifer Gaffney for their suggestions and feedback.
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Topolski, A. (2022). Race, Religion and Refugees: Arendt’s Ambiguous Analysis of Nation-States. In: Robaszkiewicz, M., Matzner, T. (eds) Hannah Arendt: Challenges of Plurality. Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, vol 10. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-81712-1_11
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