Turning Ourselves Into Outlaws

Hannah Arendt arrived in France as a refugee in 1933. After escaping from Gurs internment camp she once again narrowly escaped arrest in Marseille and made her way — with the help of Varian Fry and my Bard colleague Justus Rosenberg — to Lisbon with her Husband Heinrich Blücher. Her friend, Walter Benjamin, was not so fortunate. Stopped at a border crossing in the mountains between France and Spain, Benjamin committed suicide.

Manifest from the SS Guiné, which sailed from Lisbon to NY on May 10, 1941 and arrived in New York on May 22, 1941. Johanna Bluecher (Hannah Arendt) is listed as “wife” after Heinrich Bluecher who is listed as “writer.”

Berthold Brecht wrote this poem “On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.”

I’m told you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.
Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
(quoted in Ermut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Berthold Brecht)

Arendt and Blücher left Lisbon aboard the SS Guiné on May 10, 1941. They carried Benjamin’s manuscript “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Benjamin had given Arendt in case something happened to him. Arendt and Blücher reportedly read Benjamin’s “Theses” to other passengers on the Guiné as they crossed the Atlantic.

The SS Guiné, the ship that carried Arendt and other refugees to New York.

Arendt and Blücher arrived in New York in May, 1941. They were stateless refugees. Not all refugees, of course, were so lucky. The infamous ship the St. Louis limped around the Atlantic in 1939 with over 900 German Jews on board. The United States and Cuba both refused refuge to the refugees. Eventually the ship returned to Germany and most of the passengers on board were eventually killed during the Holocaust.

In 1943, Arendt wrote an essay “We Refugees” that was published in Menorah, a small Jewish Journal. The essay begins, “In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.”” She is painfully aware that the word “refugee” is a deadening word. The word, refugee, flattens a person and a people marked by loss and vulnerability. Having lost their home, their language, their friends, and their families, refugees live in camps, in public; they experience the rupture of their private lives and their public visibility as only a mass. The refugee is transformed from a person with a history and world into a pitiable figure. We can have compassion for an individual, look into their eyes, touch their shoulder, and feel the humanness in their pain. But faced with masses of refugees hands open, seeking refuge, compassion is too often replaced by pity (if not by fear).

Against this flattened view, Arendt seeks to remind us what refugees actually are:

“A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by refugee committees.”

And her description of “we refugees” begins with the familiar.

“The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives. Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved — and most of us had to be saved several times — we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us.”

Seven years later in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that refugees are, “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.” She saw that refugees had become a class of illegal aliens, people living in countries yet deprived of citizenship, the right to work, and the right to residence. “The stateless person, without the right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law.” And for such people who are in essence “illegal” residents, the temptation for nation states is to follow the inexorable logic of illegality and submit refugees to the unimpeded authority of police — the creation of refugee camps that are concentration camps, that concentrate refugees in defined spaces where they can be controlled, a policed no-man’s land that exists between the two impossible solutions of repatriation and assimilation. The political danger of the rise of masses of refugees is that they would justify and normalize the increasing reliance on police and military forces in political life.

Arendt saw with uncanny clarity the way that the arrival of refugees in a free country could, quickly, lead that country down the road toward totalitarianism. The great difficulty with refugees is that there were only two solutions to the refugee problem: repatriation or naturalization. But repatriation was impossible as the refugees were not welcome back in their countries. And naturalization failed when confronted with masses of refugees in numbers unmanageable. The result of this “problem” was, for Arendt,

“that the right of asylum, the only right that had ever figured as a symbol of the Rights of Man in the sphere of international relationships, was being abolished. Its long and sacred history dates back to the very beginnings of regulated political life. Since ancient times it has protected both the refugee and the land of refuge from situations in which people were forced to become outlaws through circumstances beyond their control.”

Arendt’s words come to mind in light of President Trump’s cruel, un-American, and overbroad executive order. Reasonable people can disagree about illegal and legal immigration. And yet, it is hard to countenance a country founded by and upon immigrants, reacting with such baseness. A ban that targets people from Muslim countries is discriminatory and contrary to American values. To prevent permanent legal residents holding green cards from returning to the country is cruel and seemingly illegal, since permanent residents are legally at home in the United States. And the decision to suspend all entry into the country for refugees — which in practice led to kicking refugees off planes, returning refugees to where they came from, and holding them for hours upon hours in airports — is, as Arendt writes above, to turn ourselves into outlaws.

At the end of her essay “We Refugees,” Arendt calls for refugees to give up their passivity, to reject assimilation, and to, instead, enter politics. Arendt asks the refugee to dare to appear as who she is rather than disappearing through assimilation. She holds out the hope that the willingness to speak one’s truth, to appear in public as a refugee who is in risk of losing’s one’s self, the refugee can transform the political world and create a space for appearance in which the refugee can meaningfully acquire the right to be in public, without having to assimilate and lose her identity. Arendt is clear that such a politics would need to move our current politics beyond its static and outmoded reliance on nation-states, states defined by the predominance of a homogenous national identity. It is in this imagination of the refugee as the vanguard of a new political form that Arendt calls for refugees to speak and act in politics.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College