Hannah Arendt Center presents:
Lunchtime Talk: Douglas Irvin
The Origins of Genocide: Tracing the Lemkin-Arendt debate in Lemkin's Archives
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
This event occurred on: Hannah Ardent and Raphael Lemkin were two of the most important thinkers in the postwar world. Both produced the seminal works on totalitarianism and genocide, a term Lemkin coined in 1943 when he was living in Stockholm, fleeing Nazi persecution in Poland. Lemkin and Arendt are more than contemporaries. They shared similar intellectual interests, and passed in many of the same social and professional circles while living in the United States. While they never cite each other and give no indication that they knew each other personally, one thing is clear: they did not like each other’s ideas. When Arendt writes about the "jurist and professional idealist" whose "genocide convention wasn't fit for the protection of animals," she is most certainly referencing Lemkin. But what could she have possibly have meant by this? In this talk, based on my dissertation research into Lemkin’s unpublished manuscripts and personal papers, I will answer this question by presenting two key aspects of Lemkin’s theory of genocide (which are still unknown to the scholarly community, languishing in archives) and speaking about the sharp differences between Arendt and Lemkin’s ideas. Lemkin was deeply indebted to the romantic thinker Johann Gottfried Herder as well as 17th-century Spanish theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria who dissented against the Spanish destruction of the American peoples. This intellectual heritage places him a great odds with Arendt, indeed. What is more, Arendt and Lemkin have very different things to say about the role of violence and politics in totalitarian and genocidal regimes. With the persistence of genocide in our age and the ever-increasing rise of genocide tribunals in international law, reviving this Lemkin/Arendt debate is as important as ever.