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The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt: The Issue of Minorities’ Rights

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Writing after WWII, Hannah Arendt, in her text, The Origins of Totalitarianism, moves from a discussion of the plight (danger) of national ‘minorities’ and the altogether ‘stateless’ in the inter-war years of European history to a fundamental critique of the notion of ‘human rights’. Who are these ‘minorities’ and ‘stateless’ and why does their situation imply, for Arendt, a ‘decline of the nation-state’ of the nineteenth century? Why does this entail the ‘end of the rights of man’? What is the danger, as far as Arendt is concerned, in presuming that there is such a thing as ‘universal human rights’? Why does she see the emphasis on such rights as more a sign and symptom of dehumanization rather than a solution to prevent dehumanization? Do you find Arendt’s critique of the idea of ‘human rights’ convincing? Even though I did not completely understand the reading at first, after our class discussion things make a bit more sense and are actually very interesting. 

The book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was written by Hannah Arendt, who was actually part of Jewish minority and stateless herself. Lucky, she was able to escape the terror of concentration camp and start a new life in the USA, far away from hatred. So, how this all happened? How she ended up being in the situation when she had to run away to save her own life – a basic human right? Why was she so critical of the idea of the universal human rights? Basically, the belief of the universal human rights was put to the test for real after the World War I. In that period of time, many people ended up living in different countries within the EU, without really being a citizen in any of them. Those countries/empires were mostly located in Eastern and Southern part of Europe. As those nations consisted of population with very diverse people and different cultures that could not form a nation for every culture existing, the existence of “minority group” and “stateless groups” appeared. Even though Hannah puts those people in two separate groups, we can see throughout the book, that they still very much overlap. Sadly, as mentioned before, Hannah as a Jew experienced and was part of both groups. Since there were many people considered to be part of minority group within a country, at that time, Hannah sees that time as a “decline of a nation-state”. 

Although, those “different” people were, in principle, citizen of the country they end up living in, they could not as a minority within the dominant national culture, depend on their government protection. People who ended up being stateless were not recognized as citizens under the laws of their state and were prevented to “enjoy” any citizenship rights through governmental acts of denationalization. As those groups could not enjoy political rights and were not part of a political community, they were considered to be “human and nothing but human”. However, the minority-treaties were established in order to give and attempt to give these minorities some sense of protection. Nevertheless, the problem was that giving special human rights to a minority and not treating them as individuals of the state under which they should be protected is, that it leads to dehumanization. Hannah also mentions the “rights of man”, which no matter the religion, nationality or ethnicity cannot and should not be taken away from human beings. However, it turned out that “the moment human beings lacked their own government, and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them, and no institution was left to guarantee them”. 

The minorities and stateless people in Europe who lacked citizenship were exposed to extreme forms of violence. Being human, as opposed to being a citizen, certainly did not save number of people being harass and killed. As a country is the only source of human rights, she does not really believe in universal human rights. Overall, I agree with Hannah Arendt. Nations define their rights depending on tradition, religion of majority without taking into consideration minorities living in their country. 

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