The vanguard of their peoples— A meditation on Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay, “We Refugees” for Hope Not Hate's "One Day With(out) Us"

Hope Not Hate interfaith event in the church after the morning service

Leviticus 19:33-34 
When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 24:22
You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.

Hebrews 13:2
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
From “We Refugees” (1943) by Hannah Arendt

In the first place, we don't like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
          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
          [. . .]
          Our new friends, rather overwhelmed by so many stars and famous men, hardly understand that at the basis of all our descriptions of past splendours lies one human truth, once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for milk and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful in every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out — and that Hitler didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food
(p. 115).
          [. . .]
          Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples — if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted
(p. 119).


The vanguard of their peoples— A meditation on Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay, “We Refugees” for Hope Not Hate's "One Day With(out) Us"

This morning I want to speak about refugees and migrants (the two are never easily to be distinguished and constantly overlap) in a way that is, I hope, both unexpected and usefully suggestive. I am well aware that most of you probably don’t want to hear just another address merely rehearsing the self-evident plight of refugees and migrants nor one which merely berates (if rightly) our various European governments for the way they are dealing with the matter.

Realising this I thought I’d take the time to re-read and think further about Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) important 1943 essay “We Refugees” which prompted in me the unitarian and universalist related theological thought with which I’ll begin today. After expressing it I’ll go back to look at Arendt to draw out a thought that I think can be of help to us today as we take part in Hope Not Hate’s national campaign “One Day With Us” celebrating diversity and the contribution of migrants and refugees.

It became apparent to me as I re-read Arendt that one of the major reasons we within the Unitarian and Universalist churches are so distressed at the way refugees and migrants are being treated (and at the contributory background circumstances of both the UK’s vote to leave the EU and Trump’s victory with all their nationalistic over and undertones) is because over our four-and-a-half centuries we have developed a strong theological and philosophical sense that, regardless of belief, nation, gender, colour etc., etc., each human being has what we have come to call universal, inalienable human rights. To put it another way round, we have become highly suspicious of any definition of a person that rests primarily on the accidents of belief, nation, gender, colour etc.. Our inherited language seems to want us say that there is something more essential about a person than these accidental aspects. Personally, I think there are profound problems with the language of essentialism and so I’d prefer say that we have come to have a sense that there is something more primordial to a human being than belief, nation, gender, colour etc..

In short our theological unitarianism (God/Nature — however so defined — is one and so all creation is also one) and our theological universalism (salvation — however so defined — is for all people without exception and for each one in particular) led us during the Enlightenment powerfully to contribute and commit to the development in our culture of the idea of a European and, more recently, a global cosmopolitanism. Along with this came an associated sense that human beings were best primordially thought of as “citizens of the world” rather than citizens or subjects of “nations” — i.e. of the accidental territorial space in which they were born (the word “nation” being derived, of course, from the latin word for birth, “natio”). This sense of being a citizen of the world was powerfully reinforced for many of us following publication of the famous “earthrise” photo of the Earth and the Moon's surface taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968.

But, as many of you are becoming increasingly aware, this great cosmopolitan ideal is today being seriously challenged, disparaged and even actually dispensed with across Europe. (It’s being challenged in all kinds of other places as well — including the USA — but today I want to remain primarily focused on Europe of which the UK is an integral part).

This challenge came explicitly to the forefront of public consciousness in the UK when, in her Conservative Party conference speech in October last year, Theresa May disturbingly  said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” In response to this Jeremy Adler, a professor and senior research fellow at King’s College London (best known for his work on German literature specializing in the Age of Goethe, Romanticism, Expressionism and Modernism) summed up what many of us felt on hearing this, namely, that “Theresa May is in effect repudiating Enlightenment values as a whole, for cosmopolitanism is the apex and indeed the glory of Enlightenment philosophy, encompassing liberty, equality, fraternity, and all our human rights.”

With this thought in mind let’s now turn to Arendt’s essay because she seems to me to be saying something about the more primordial aspect of human nature I have just noted that might help us look at world citizenship and the so-called “problem” of refugees and migrants in a different way than usual view and, perhaps, to see there a possible solution.

The first thing to note is the basic problem that exists with “natio” and nation. When a person is defined primordially by the territorial space in which they were born, any forced movement to another territorial space — whether as a refugee forced out by the violence of war or as a migrant forced out by the violence of economics — nearly always requires that person to try and perform acts of incredible mental and cultural contortion. In a section of Arendt’s essay, which I did not quote earlier, she points to an imagined Mr Cohen, an assimilated German Jew who, after having attempted to be 150 percent German (his place of birth) is then forced as a refugee, firstly, to attempt to become 150 percent Viennese and then, being forced to flee even further afield, to attempt to become 150 percent French. As she says, “on ne parvient pas deux fois” — one does not succeed twice in carrying out such contortions because it’s almost impossible to do once and still remain a coherent person let alone twice or even three times. To this contortion you must add the simple but oft-forgotten fact that most refugees and migrants have “committed no acts” nor have ever “dreamt of having any radical opinion.” They are nearly all wholly innocent people forced, against their will, to move between territorial spaces. As Arendt notes this movement forces too many refugees and migrants to be so damnably careful in every moment of their daily lives in order to avoid anybody guessing who they are, what kind of passport they have, where their birth certificates were filled out. This occurs because too many people in this or that new territorial space find even the refugees’ and migrants’ basic need to go out and shop for milk and bread as something “disagreeable.” As Arendt wonders, “how can this be done?” Could any of us do it I wonder?

These reflections lead her, towards the very end of her essay, to what seems to me to be a powerful, visionary insight that may still, just, be able to help us today stop committing a terrible, regressive, political and cultural mistake.

She begins by noting that “in exchange for their unpopularity” the Jewish refugee gained from this dreadful experience “one priceless advantage”, namely, that

“. . . history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations.”

Here she is reminding us that the pre-Second World War Jewish experience of being forced out of their country of birth by the Nazis and becoming stateless refugees was a foreshadowing of something which, when the war finally broke out, quickly became true, across Europe, for millions of other, non-Jewish people who had also committed no radical acts nor had ever dreamt of having any radical opinion. It is this that allows her prophetically to suggest that:

“Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples — if they keep their identity.”

Here she articulates her visionary hope that this widespread European experience of becoming a refugee and migrant would help the whole of the continent begin to develop a sense that what it is to continue to be the person they truly are, to be treated with respect and compassion and to have certain inalienable rights and responsibilities was not something which relied upon being born in this or that territorial space (nation) but simply because they were humans sharing a transnational, cosmopolitan experience of being European rather than German, Austrian, French, Italian, Spanish, British etc., etc..
It seems to me that, in this single sentence, Arendt was encouraging us — in this darkest moment of recent European history — to see that we shouldn’t be vilifying the refugee and migrant and finding them disagreeable — even hateful — but to see in them and their experience a glimpse of truly better and more inclusive way of being human that didn’t rely upon the nation-state but upon a sense that we are all citizens of the world and that united we would stand or divided we would fall; it was an encouragement to us to see the refugee and the migrant as being the first true citizens of the world and it is in this sense that Arendt saw them as being a vanguard, a group of people whom we should all admire, celebrate and, above all else, emulate.

The horrors of the war showed us in Europe that we were all, in actuality or potentially, all refugees in any world that continued to understand itself as made up primarily of competing nation states and that the way through this was to begin to see our common humanity, our European (and by extension, global) citizenship as more primordial, healthy and creative than identities defined by belonging to this or that nation state.

Now, in a wholly incomplete and ultimately unfulfilled way, the situation as it developed in Europe post-1945 did begin to bring into reality something of Arendt’s remarkable cosmopolitan vision. The opening of internal European borders  which began on 14 June 1985 was a truly remarkable event which many of us have had cause to celebrate and enjoy over the past thirty-odd years. In 1989 this opening-up was, of course, memorably and unexpectedly extended eastwards and I still remember the visceral amazement and joy I felt the evening when, in early January 1990, I and an international group of fellow musicians and poets crossed into East Germany through still standing barbed-wire fences and watch-towers without once being stopped by any border controls. To us Europe truly seemed to be uniting and transcending its nationalist past. They were heady, exciting days to be alive.  

Of course, across Europe we are today all painfully aware that along with the rhetoric of open borders that seemed genuinely to be beginning to conceive of in what consists human identity and human rights in non-nation state ways there simultaneously came a profoundly dysfunctional, amoral, anti-democratic, neoliberal project — a project whose abject failure (and since 2008 its many painful crises) has served slowly to destroy countless numbers of local communities, jobs and security across the continent by creating everywhere situations of involuntary under-employment which, in turn, has brought with it an associated involuntary economic migration which, in its own turn has served to create increasing resentment against the economic refugee or migrant seeking any kind of job or the smallest amount of security away from their original homes. The anger here should, of course, be being directed not against the vulnerable and innocent people who are being forced to move but against the pernicious socio-political economic system that is causing this movement in the first place and destroying cosmopolitan hope with it.

But, alas, we are living in an age inhabited by more and more people who seem willing and able to forget the experience of the last war and the beautiful cosmopolitan vision of citizenship that rose, in part thanks to Arendt, phoenix-like from out of the ashes of a destroyed Europe of nation-states.

It is clear that our current, forgetful contemporary European cultures are suicidally reviving the dangerous idea that the solution to our present problems is going to be found by retreating back into the nation-state, by re-erecting around themselves barbed-wire fences and watch-towers and once again defining who is to get any rights at all only on the basis of the nation in which they were born.

The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 13:2) wrote some two-thousand years ago, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In today’s climate I think we need to have the courage to change this to read: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to refugees and migrants, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Arendt seems to me to have been one such angel and it is my confirmed opinion that refugees and migrants are for us not the enemy but a glorious vanguard of angels, that is to say a vanguard of messengers reminding us of a better, cosmopolitan vision of belonging than that being proposed by our current crop of nationalist politicians.

Please, please let us entertain refugees and migrants with open heads, hearts and hands for potentially they bring with them the sacred gift of the republic of heaven on earth, a cosmopolitan city built without walls, with one law (see note below) and set of rights for all and in which all people can find sanctuary and a true home.


Note: The idea of "one law" doesn't rule out the idea of the existence of many diverse local bylaws. The thought is that we might usefully be able globalise certain laws (pertaining to the wellbeing of the planet as a whole) whilst encouraging the localisation of all others. A legalistic mono-culture is certainly not in my mind when I express this thought.