In Part II of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt put forward a series of controversial claims regarding racism. The first distinguished race-thinking from racism, the former being one of many competing opinions within European liberalism, and the latter a fully formed ideology wielded as a political weapon (OT, 210-211). Race-thinking, which “interprets history as a natural fight of races” was therefore a forerunner of the racism that emerged with the imperialist “scramble for Africa” and competed with its contemporary rival class-thinking, ”which interprets history as economic struggle of classes” (OT, p. 211). The transformation of the opinion of race-thinking into racism, Arendt argues occurred when the Dutch Boers arrived on the African continent; and this is where Arendt’s claims become controversial. She writes:
Race was the emergency explanation of human beings whom no European or civilized man could understand and whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants that they no longer cared to belong to the same species. Race was the Boers’ answer to the overwhelming monstrosity of Africa–a whole continent populated and overpopulated by savages–and explanation of the madness which grasped and illuminated them like ‘a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate the brutes.” This answer resulted in the most terrible massacres in recent history, the Boers’ extermination of Hottentot tribes, the wild murdering by Carl Peters in German Southeast Africa, the decimation of the peaceful Congo population–from 20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million people; and finally perhaps worst of all, it resulted in the triumphant introduction of such means of pacification into ordinary, respectable foreign policies. (Arendt, OT, 242).
Arendt’s claim that the concept of race was formulated as a response to the overwhelming experience of difference by the Boer immigrants when they encountered the indigenous African populations is controversial enough, but her use of the term “savages” to describe the indigenous population seems to indicate her agreement with the racist view of he Boers. Was Arendt complicit in the ethnocentrism of her era, or more radically, did she cling to vestiges of race-thinking?
Before answering these questions, let me complicate matters further. Later in the same section Arendt writes the following:
What made them [indigenous Africans] different from other human beings was not at all the color of their skin but the fact that they behaved like part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master, that they had not created a human world, a human reality, and that therefore nature had remained, in all its majesty, the only overwhelming reality–compared to which they appeared to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. They were, as it were, ‘natural’ human beings who lacked the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder (Arendt, OT, p. 251)
This passage has perhaps received more attention than any other passage in Part II, mainly because Arendt appears to be claiming that the indigenous population of Africa was uncivilized, and to the extent that they were aligned with nature, inhuman, and therefore could be murdered without impunity. Even more shocking is her claim that Africans “had not created a human world,” which for those familiar with The Human Condition implies that they lacked one of the fundamental conditions of being human. But, is it really conceivable that the same author that argues for “a new guarantee” for human dignity at the beginning of the book (Arendt, OT, “Preface,” p. xxvi) and “the right to have rights” at the end of the book (Arendt, OT, p. 379) would conceptualize the indigenous population of Africa as uncivilized, inhuman savages? Could the same author who wrote “For respect for human dignity implies the recognition of my fellow-men or our fellow-nations as subjects, as builders of worlds or cobuilders of a common world (Arendt, OT, p. 590-591),” also deny that indigenous African were cobuilders of a shared world?
It seems more plausible that Arendt was trying to provide readers with an insight into the experience of the race-thinking of the Boer immigrants, to the psychological impetus to racism. It is certainly possible that Arendt held prejudicial opinions common to her generation, no one in any historical period is exempt from the stain of prejudice, but it seems implausible that she expressed views that she explicitly rejects, and did so in all subsequent revisions.