International symposium
15 Mar 2018 – 16 Mar 2018

»We Refugees« – 75 Years Later. Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Human Rights and the Human Condition

Venue: ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum
Organized by Homi K. Bhabha (Harvard University), Sigrid Weigel (ZfL)

International symposium at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL), organized by Sigrid Weigel, in collaboration with Homi K. Bhabha (Harvard University, recipient of the Humboldt Research Award)

Registration is not required anymore!

75 years after Arendt’s article »We Refugees« was published in The Menorah Journal (January 1943), her reflections are of an uncanny topicality. Her text was the first to analyze not only the loss of language, gestures and »unaffected expression of feelings« brought about by any kind of expulsion, migration, or exile. It was also the first to discuss more fundamentally the fragile legal status of refugees, the production of a ›new kind of human beings‹, and the collapse of the concept of ›man‹. »We Refugees« marks a turning point in Arendt's writings and a point of departure for her following elaboration of a unique political theory, based in a fundamental reconsideration of the human condition and central concepts of the political. In contrast to conventional political theories focused on institutions and regularities, the plurality and alterity of human beings form the crucial conditito humana of her theory, while the space in-between men is regarded as the realm of acting/Handeln (i.e. interaction, negotiation, decisions) and as the very space from where the political arises.
Taking the Jews as paradigmatic figure of universal history, the fate of refugees during WWII form the basic experience, which provoked Arendt to develop a fundamental reconsideration of central concepts and to question several certainties of politics and international law. Her considerations upon the vulnerable »right to have rights«— developed vis-à-vis the totalitarian system of camps and the appearance of innumerable stateless persons—have today gained an urging actuality on an international scale. In a world of global migration, overlapped by the uncertain position and life of exiled and refugees, the issues discussed in the article and in Arendt’s following writings have become the ›normal‹ determinators of any political commitment: namely coming to terms with the problems of refugee policy, human rights, the socio-cultural status of migrants/ refugees, and the demand for assimilation, integration, or acculturation.
Following her reflections on the Human Condition, namely the idea of the human being as a conditioned creature that is more determined by its self produced culture and technique than by ›nature‹, Arendt developed a critique of violence in correlation with the loss of the political in its proper sense. The social atomization and the technological enhancement of violence that she in her book On Violence (1970) interprets as forces of fading political power—that is to say political power based on human inter-est and the will of the people— have proliferated radically since then.
Yet, the article »We Refugees« is remarkable: not only for providing a dense analysis of the radical erosion of international law and politics, but also because of its ironic, if not sarcastic tone and its rhetoric. Including the author in a collective »We« of refugees, the article also presents critical observations of the socio-cultural and linguistic behavior of persons in a state of exile as well as considerations on the politics of memory in exile. In this respect the article may also be read as a psychoanalytical approach to the status of migration/exile.

The symposium will re-read and discuss her article »We Refugees« in respect of several perspectives:

1. Re-reading of Arendt’s article »We Refugees« (1943) and analysis of its subject position, the specific perspective, rhetoric and language of the article and its consequences for her writings and thoughts,

2. The significance of »We Refugees« in Arendt’s work and the traces and consequences of its issues in her following reflections,

3. The return of the figure of ›refugee‹ on the stage of policy and the actuality of Arendt’s analysis of the status of ›stateless‹ and ›refugees‹ on the backstage of global migration,

4. The potentialities of Arendt’s political theory for the challenges of the globalized world in 21st century, especially in respect of human rights and the legal status, subject position, and culture of ›the refugee‹.

The impact of Arendt’s work is to date far dominated by different, yet separated strands: the reading of her German publications (with emphasis on the literary aspects of her writings), the US-reception of her political thought (with reference to her English publications), and the tension-filled image of Arendt as a Jew (in reference to the critique of her Eichmann-book in Israel). The aim of the symposium is to discuss her thoughts in an international perspective and to take her thoughts as a point of departure to address burning questions of today.

The language of the symposium is English.


The format of the symposium shall guarantee an intense focused discussion. Therefore the organizers decided to stay at the lecture-room of the ZfL that is limited to 90 persons. Registration is required! Please register with Jutta Müller, indicating which days you want to attend, before March 9th.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Arrival and registration

Eva Geulen (ZfL), Wilhelm Krull (VolkswagenStiftung): Welcome
Homi K. Bhabha (Harvard University), Sigrid Weigel (ZfL): Introductory remarks

I. Reading Arendt’s »We Refugees«

Homi K. Bhabha (Humanities Center, Harvard University): The Burdened Life: Reflections on Arendt’s »We Refugees«

Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (English Literature, Northwestern University): Who Are We – »We Refugees«?

Sigrid Weigel (ZfL): »We Refugees« – The Initial point of Arendt’s political anthropology

Friday, 16 March 2018

II. The Actuality of »We Refugees«

Rafael Zawisza (Faculty of Artes Liberales, University of Warsaw): Refugee as ›physis‹, ›Natalität‹ as refuge. Hannah Arendt’s dialectical anthropology

Lyndsey Stonebridge (Dept. of Literature, University of East Anglia): Hannah Arendt in Baddawi

III. The status of refugees

Pawel Moscicki (Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Science): Images of exiled life

Thomas Keenan (Comparative Literature, Human Rights Program, Bard College): How to Make a Refugee

Johan van der Walt (Legal Philosophy, University of Luxemburg): When Time Breaks. The Hiatus of Refugee Status

IV. Re-thinking Politics and Human Rights

Eva Geulen (ZfL): Marx and Arendt on Human Rights

Itamar Mann (Faculty of Law, Haifa University): Humanity as Mask


Ill. above:
Photo: not specified | February 1939. Source: Bundesarchiv, image 183-S69279 (detail)