Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man”

In a chapter of “The Origins of Totalitarianism “, Arendt touches the subject of the minorities in the pre-World War II Europe, and makes a bold claim: the human rights can only be enforced through nationality, for rights can only be guaranteed and protected by the government of a State.

Arendt analyzes the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations’ framework in dealing with the massive problem of the so-called minorities in Europe during the Interwar period. The minorities were essentially any ethnic group not living in its own national state. Thus, the jewish people, without a national state of its own, was considered a minority – and a big one at that – even though the jewish population in Europe at the time amounted to roughly 9.5 million people, dispersed through many countries in the Old Continent, mainly the eastern states.

Nation States weren’t interested in having population of nationalities other than its own within its limits for a myriad of reasons at the time – national security, economic expense, national purity doctrines… The jews were thrown around Europe like unwanted trash by States unwilling to accept them inside their borders.

Looking back to this scenario, Hannah Arendt writes a harsh, skeptical piece, packed with realism, a crude critic to those Rights of Man. She wrote that “the Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments, but 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”.

And, further, “Not only did loss of national rights in all instances entail the loss of human rights; the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only through the restoration or the establishment of national rights. The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”


Pedro Rogério Borges


Bibliographic references

ARENDT, Hannah. “The Origins of Totalitarianism” , New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.



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