Hannah Arendt on Antisemitism

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948, 1968), Hannah Arendt draws a distinction between modern antisemitism and ancient anti-Jewish ideologies. The antisemitism of the Nazis was not the same as the anti-Jewish prejudice that had existed since Roman times. Modern antisemitism arose in the late 19th century as the nation-state began to decline and imperialism gained influence.

For centuries, Jews had existed as “wanderers on the earth,” unattached to any kingdom or nation. But they were far from powerless; they had great influence through their banks, and these banks were supranational, above or beyond nation-states or kingdoms. Jewish financial resources were vital to the rise of the monarchical nation-state (marked by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia), and their fortunes rose and fell along with the fortunes of the nation-state.

Nazism is misunderstood as a purely nationalistic ideology; it did, of course, use nationalistic prejudices and symbolism, but its orientation was imperialistic rather than nationalistic. For Hitler, the nation-state was provincial. Hitler wanted to rule “Greater Germany,” or Germanic Europe, not just Germany. Thus, Hitler accelerated the decline of nationalism in Europe by destroying the precarious “balance of power” among European nations.

Arendt writes,

One of [the] hasty explanations has been the identification of antisemitism with rampant nationalism and its xenophobic outbursts. Unfortunately, the fact is that modern antisemitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balance of power crashed.

. . . the Nazis were not simple nationalists. Their nationalist propaganda was directed toward their fellow-travelers and not their convinced members; the latter, on the contrary, were never allowed to lose sight of a consistently supranational approach to politics. Nazi “nationalism” had more than one aspect in common with the recent nationalistic propaganda in the Soviet Union, which is also used only to feed the prejudices of the masses. The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation-state, and they repeated time and again that their “movement,” international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory. And not only the Nazis, but fifty years of antisemitic history, stand as evidence against the identification of antisemitism with nationalism. The first antisemitic parties in the last decades of the nineteenth century were also among the first that banded together internationally. From the very beginning, they called international congresses and were concerned with a co-ordination of international, or at least inter-European, activities.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest Book Book 244) . HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

For centuries, Jewish bankers (e.g., The Rothschilds, Gerson von Bleichröder) had been a source of funds for kingdoms and then nation-states–they funded wars and other projects, etc.–but they lost influence when nation-states turned to government bonds and other funding sources. From the late 19th century to the rise of Nazism, the Jews held onto influence, however.

Without territory and without a government of their own, the Jews had always been an inter-European element; this international status the nation states preserved because the Jews’ financial services rested on it. . .

Equality itself was symbolized in the availability to all of government bonds which were finally even considered the most secure form of capital investment simply because the state, which could wage national wars, was the only agency which actually could protect its citizens’ properties.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest Book Book 244) . HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

As long as the Jews were essential to the kingdoms or nation-states, they were relatively protected from Christian persecution–the pogroms. Wealthy Jews has a privileged status, and they were deliberately not assimilated. Social or cultural assimilation would have deprived the Jews of their protected status, which is why wealthy Jews resisted assimilation and “equality.” But in Germany, the Jews were assimilated prior to the Nazi movement, serving in the German armed forced during World War I.

Arendt argues that privilege is generally tolerated as long as it accompanies power or political influence. Aristocratic privilege, for example, was tolerated as long as the nobility were seen as powerful, or as long at they played a recognizably important social role (e.g., fighting in wars, protecting the peasantry, advising the sovereign). But once they lost this role, their privileged status become intolerable. This is what happened in Revolutionary France. The movement for equality stripped the aristocracy of their privileged status; they had to abide by the same set of laws as everyone else. Aristocrats also fell out of favor because they identified as supranational or cosmopolitan; like the elite Jews, they were bound by family ties that crossed nation-state borders. A “patriotic aristocrat” would be an oxymoron. Nationalism is a middle-class ideology (it believes in the equality of all people, which goes back to Hobbes), and the nobility actively resisted it. Christendom was also supranational; thus aristocrats allied with the Catholic church in opposing nationalism.

As for wealthy Jews, when they lost their influence in the monarchical nation-state (as bankers and advisors to kings and princes), their privilege became intolerable–thus, Kristallnacht. Of course, the pogroms targeted Jewish shopkeepers and everyone else, not just the wealthy Jews. The Nazi Party was short of funds and chose to confiscate Jewish property, and people on the streets, the mob, simply stole and looted. The point is that the German state, unlike political authorities (e.g., Frederick the Great) in the past, paved the way the for the pogroms and did not stop them. The Nazis used the mob for their own purposes.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), has the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy express the antisemitism within the context English nationalism:

— Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.


The cosmopolitan Joyce saw this kind of patriotism as ignorant provincialism.

Samuel Johnson once said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In Donald Trump‘s patriotism (which actually disguises pure narcissism), we see the hatred of immigrants and people of color, along with misogyny. And some of supporters are also antisemitic, such as David Duke, who said there were too many Jews in Trump’s administration. This reactionary movement is a symptom of the decline of the nation-state’s influence in the 21st century. But what neo-Nazis like David Duke don’t understand is that the Nazis were not simply German patriots, or patriots of a nation-state; they were trying to create a Greater Germanic Reich, Großgermanisches Reich. While Nazism was obviously aggressive and expansionist, Trumpism has been defensive and inward looking, a kind of retreat from the rest of the world. This had some appeal after George W. Bush aggressive global actions and the ambivalent foreign policy of Obama.

Back to equality . . . We tend to think of equality as an uncomplicated good or clear evidence of social progress, but it’s not that simple. If you’re a member of a “protected class,” you don’t necessarily want equality. For example, a “lady” in traditional American southern culture was a protected person. Here is what the narrator of Faulkner‘s “A Rose for Emily” says about Miss Emily Grierson:

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily,” 1930

Women opposed to women’s equal rights have made this argument, seeing equality as step down for ladies. Racists would argue that Black slaves were also a de facto protected class and, like white women and children, did not need or even want emancipation. To this way of thinking, slave masters protected blacks from the harsh realities life on their own in the world. When people are “emancipated” they become vulnerable individuals rather than members of a group.

As stated on a US History site,

Defenders of slavery argued that by comparison with the poor of Europe and the workers in the Northern states, that slaves were better cared for. They said that their owners would protect and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves.


Furthermore, as Andrew Fede (1985) documents, laws were enacted to protect slaves from harm and wanton murder by random white people.

The writings of Douglas Hay provide a relevant analogy. He asserts that new capital crimes were created in eighteenth-century England because these crimes, such as forgery, struck at the heart of the emerging commercial economy, and were perceived by the elite as a threat to salient class interests. Similarly, wanton poor white slave killers posed a serious threat to both the individual economic interests of slave owners as well as the master class interest in maintaining the power and authority of the slave-owning. Therefore, slave masters supported capital punishment for malicious slave killers, and this perception was shared by the legislators who changed the law accordingly. . . .

In 1811 the General Court of Virginia held that white strangers could be held criminally liable for slave maiming under the general mayhem statute, although the legislature did not explicitly include slaves within the protected class. . . Therefore, slaves were “protected” by the same statute courts held prohibited “inhuman” beatings of pigs and horses.

Fede, A. (1985). Legitimized Violent Slave Abuse in the American South, 1619-1865: A Case Study of Law and Social Change in Six Southern States. The American Journal of Legal History, 29(2), 93–150. https://doi.org/10.2307/844931

When individuals are assimilated into a nation-state, they must have the same legal protections as everyone else. If they can’t rely on family connections or political influence, all they have is the law. Every individual needs legal protection from brute power and mindless mobs. Particularly vulnerable individuals require special protections; this is what it means to belong to a protected class. The Jews, along with other vulnerable groups (e.g., the Roma/Gypsies), in the Nazi era lost this status.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.