Sidharth Vardhan

On Nationalism and ‘Imperialism: Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism’

imperialism hannah arendt sidharth vardhan review analysis
This middle volume focuses on the curious and cruel epoch of declining European colonial imperialism from 1884 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

(A review of
'Imperialism: Part Two of the Origins of Totalitarianism'
by Hannah Arendt
first written on September 15, 2018)

My one and the only objection is that it should have been named 'Nationalism' instead of 'Totalitarianism' because this book discusses various consequences (mostly negative) of Nationalism and imperialism was one just such consequence. Moreover even while studying imperialism, she is only interested in white men aspect of it - its effect on Europe. Moreover Arendt's larger concern is studying origins of Totalitarianism which seems to me more connected with Nationalism than imperialism.

Among consequences of Imperialism, she included are Imperialism, totalitarianism, refugee problems and wars (including two world wars).


Nationalism somehow continues to be thought of good when it is just a beautified name of narrow mindedness. Much like religion or racist ideologies, it is basically an act of limiting responsibility by creating a limited 'we' group based often on language, race or religion. It gives a false superiority complex- you are supposed to feel proud just because you belong to particular group (often people who are good for nothing else, chose these causes to take pride in). And a pride in belonging in such groups always comes along with a hatred for people who don't belong to that group. The crimes against others are much more forgivable. You can wrong the others - especially it benefits your nation. Conquer (which essentially mean kill or cheat people into slavery) the world for your nation - in fact, it is your duty to do so. Thus imperialism. Even today USA will run to defend its citizens anywhere in the world, and its military can kill innocents elsewhere as 'collateral damage'. And even in someone who was so ahead of his times like Tagore who was so far beyond petty nationalism, you see a wish to see his own country leading others into enlightenment.


imperialism hannah arendt sidharth vardhan review analysis book

Wars in Europe were just imperialism turned inwards. Imperialists wanted to conquer the world for their nations and, between different European nations, they ran out of the territories to conquer by the the time time they cut the African pie.

Since Nationalism is based on homogeneousness (India as envisioned by its founding fathers was an exception and to a great extent still is, despite Hindutava's efforts to make it a homogeneous group of backward thinking superstitious Hindu society) - only those who speak a particular language, had a particular religion etc were true members of that nation. And thus the concept of 'minorties' was born. These minorities, for all the claims to contrary, were merely tolerated. They could be denied citizenship anytime based on the fact of their not fitting the group perfectly. The arbitrary concept of 'naturalization' was born (one of those stupid inventions, as if nature ever had anything to do with nations! nationalism is most artificial of things, a romanticism of herd mentality) but for the time studied by Arendt, even naturalized citizens were under danger of being thrown out.


And thus the problem of refugees was born. Nationalism created closed community groups and who were continuously at war and thus changing their political border, there was a problem of refugees. The people who were neither wanted by nations who had newly won territory nor by the nations that had lost them because they didn't share language or culture of either. I never thought Europe had ever faced problem of internal refugees but apparently several Europeans were refugees once.

hannah arendt sidharth vardhan
Hannah Arendt

Birth of Human Rights

Now, nations continue to give rights only to their 'citizens' and even the most narrow minded of people want to pretend that their actions of good. So a 'league of nations' came up with a declaration of 'human' rights - mostly to address concerns of minorities and refugees. Except these rights were neither well defined, nor enforceable. If a citizen is denied right, he can complain under law under which right was given to him but a non-citizen rarely found a law with which to enforce his 'human' right. (moreover, racist European mentality was critical of word 'human'. Aren't those savages also 'human?). It was always easy to make new laws to take away rights of these non-citizens.

Political Refugees

A remarkable point Arendt makes is that the rare cases of political refugees found it easy to get their right to asylum (considered exceptions) than whole masses of populations ( a trend that still seems true today. Now nations can pretend that it is easier to make exception for a few while bulk of refugees will eat into limited resources which will eat into nation's (read a closed narrow minded group's) resources (which is also another way of saying that nations can be idealist goody two shoes and humanitarian but only as long as it is easy for them to do); but another difference is political refugees (Snowden, Nabokov, Malala, Yousafzai, Dalai Lama etc) do much more to damage the reputation of their home country and thus give other nations reasons (good or bad - mostly good) to mock the home country. Not that these reasons will make asylum countries do more the exception and mockery towards resolving those reasons.

The most affected community in all this minority-refugee problem was Jews. Simply because they didn't have a race.

It is easy to see how all of these resulted in totalitarianism.

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