Seth J Frantzman published a piece in Jpost saying that Hannah Arendt was a white supremacist:
It’s time to admit that through Arendt’s writing runs a thread of European white supremacy. She was very much a product of the 1920s. It was by accident that she was Jewish, and not German, because she was closest intellectually to the Nazi academics who she associated with.
How did a woman with such racist views, such a hateful disdain for “dark continents,” “savages,” “scum” and “orientals” come to be seen as “progressive”? Mostly because of the careful work of other racist false progressives to keep her in the pantheon and to deceive Jews with liberal inclinations. Just as Karl Marx and many other writers are not subjected to proper critique for their racist views, so Arendt gets a free pass. It’s time to close the book on Arendt. She’s no hero. She’s a villain and represents a tragic point in European Jewish history where some Jews embraced white supremacy in order to fit in to the European context. They should have embraced the “orientals,” she derided.
Robert Fine wrote a reply, but Jpost cut it down and edited it into a letter. Here is the full text of his response.
The apartheid state, an image of which adorns Seth Frantzman’s opinion piece, was undoubtedly white supremacist. Now in addition to all past indictments of Hannah Arendt as a self-hating and Nazi-excusing Jew, she is accused by this author of being just like the apartheid state. Is there no bottom to her alleged crimes? It is extraordinary what rodomontade a little knowledge and a fast read can engender.
Frantzman declares himself dissatisfied with received wisdom and claims contrary to Arendt’s uncritical academic sycophants to have read what the great lady actually wrote. He says that she combined a belief in white European superiority with a toxic view of the world that derided the whole African continent as savage; that she represented all that was wrong with German Jews who embraced European concepts of racial supremacy; that she had a racialised view of the world characteristic of German nationalism and treated ‘race’ as a fundamental political principle; that she was in favour of colonialism and thought that the extermination of native peoples was in keeping with the traditions of colonized peoples; and that in America she defended segregation just as back in Germany she had flirted with Nazi intellectuals like Heidegger. The writer concludes that the ignoring of her racism, like that of Karl Marx and other ‘false progressives’, works only to ‘deceive Jews with liberal inclinations’.
I urge your readers not to believe a word of this and to read Arendt’s inspiring texts for themselves. It’s almost funny how Arendt, whose whole intellectual and political life was oriented to understanding and resisting the temptations of totalitarianism in the modern age, has been turned on her head. In the third and final section of The Origins of Totalitarianism she took apart both the workings of totalitarian domination, including the death and labour camps, and the strange appeal of totalitarian ideas to radical intellectuals. In the first two sections of the book on antisemitism and imperialism her work was devoted above all to understanding the contribution of racism in its various forms – against Jews, colonized peoples, former slaves, other Europeans – to the growth of totalitarian terror. Not exactly the stuff of ‘white supremacism’.
Arendt described ‘expansion for expansion’s sake’ as the central political idea of imperialism. She characterized it as a ‘destructive principle that will not stop until there is nothing left to violate’. She held that its logical consequence was ‘the destruction of all living communities’. She argued that the ‘totalitarian successors’ of imperialism took the principle of imperialism to its limit when it set out to destroy not only ‘the Jews’ to the last man and woman but also ‘all politically stabilized structures’. I cite this argument to indicate that, far from defending the extermination of native peoples, Arendt maintained that it was the precursor of the extermination of those designated alien within Europe itself. Her aim was to look afresh at connections between unlimited capital accumulation, the pathological growth of antisemitism, racism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, and the destructive energies released by totalitarian movements in the twentieth. Hardly the stuff of ‘white supremacism’.
The methodological problem lies in searching for an apparently damaging quotation from Arendt’s texts that is ripped out of context and read as a statement of Arendt’s own views. This method is to pay no heed to what Arendt was attempting to do in her writing. So Frantzman quotes Arendt’s depiction of the race consciousness of late nineteenth century Boers, who thought of themselves as escaping civilisation for a ‘dark continent’ populated by ‘native savages’, as if it were Arendt herself who thought of Africa in these terms. What Arendt actually argued was that ‘race was the emergency explanation of human beings … whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants [Europeans] that they no longer cared to belong to the same human species’. And then again: ‘the Boers were never able to forget their first horrible fright before a species of men whom human pride and the sense of human dignity could not allow them to accept as fellow-men… when European men massacred them, they somehow were not aware they had committed murder’. Is this the stuff of white supremacism?
Frantzman writes that Arendt praised colonialism and thought that exterminating native peoples was fine because it was ‘in keeping with the traditions of these tribes themselves’. What Arendt actually wrote was that ‘this answer [“Exterminate all brutes”] resulted in the most terrible massacres’ that reduced an indigenous population from 40 to 20 million. Frantzman does not seem to realize that the term ‘Dark Continent’ was drawn from Conrad’s magnificent and terrible Heart of Darkness. Arendt compared the archetypal colonial adventurer with the character of Kurtz from that novel: ‘hollow to the core, reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, cruel without courage’. Arendt’s comment on the extermination of hostile tribes in African native wars, illustrated by the murder of ‘only’ a million or so members of other tribes by Zulus, was meant to contrast with the magnitude of the colonial experience and bring to light the senselessness that may help explain why human destruction is so often ‘not remembered by human history’. White supremacism? Surely not.
Finally, Arendt’s alleged ‘defence’ of segregation in her 1957 essay Reflections on Little Rock (an essay she disavowed soon after) was not a ‘defence’ at all but an expression of concern about the ways in which segregation was being fought: in particular the exposure of black children to the rage of white racists, the subordination of rights to association in all their contingency and potential bigotry to the demands of public authority, and the civil rights movement’s downplaying of its opposition to marriage laws prohibiting ‘intermarriage’ and ‘miscegenation’. Arendt’s political concerns were even according to her own account only partially justified, but they had nothing to do with ‘defending segregation’. As she wrote in her ‘preliminary remarks’ on the much postponed publication of the original text, ‘Since what 1 wrote may shock good people and be misused by bad ones, 1 should like to make it clear that as a Jew I take my sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed and underprivileged peoples for granted and should appreciate it the reader did likewise.’ ‘Tis a pity the author of this opinion piece did not heed the advice.
One last word. Of course Arendt was a creature of her place and time and not immune to the prejudices that accompanied them, but like Kant and Marx, two philosophers she greatly admired, what made her special was the profound self-critique of European civilisation to which she opened both herself and her readers.
Professor Emeritus, Warwick University