Hannah Arendt About the Difference Between Immigrants and Refugees

In a radio interview from 1959, Arendt speaks about the political and legal situation of refugees in the 1930s and the differences between immigration and flight.

Arc of Contact with Images of Hannah Arendt, Fred Stein, New York 1960, courtesy of Peter Stein © Fred Stein Archive

“This immigration was not simply an immigration. It actually became one over the course of time. We, you could imagine, for example, that in the 1920s before 1933, because of the general economic situation in Germany, which was also a frequent occurrence, a number of younger German scholars emigrated to America to find new opportunities. This I would say are real immigrants, and this is a phenomenon we always have. But this is quite different from the immigration of 1933. […]

The distinction [between migrants and refugees] is very simple. A refugee goes from one day to another or from one week to another or from one month, at best to another because he has to. He cannot prepare himself for this. Very often, in most cases, he cannot choose the country he wants to immigrate to. So, he is, let’s say in normal immigration a man goes to this and that country because he wants to go there and there. Here you basically go out of one country and then in whichever country you want to go. […]

But you see, a refugee […] differs from an immigrant above all in that his papers are not in order – that is, an immigrant goes out with a German passport until he has acquired the citizenship of the others. […] He is completely in order. He has the German consulate, which continues to protect him until he has acquired the other nationality. The refugees did not have this protection. This is the real difference between stateless persons and other emigrants, that is, the normal immigrant is a German living abroad until he acquires the other citizenship. We immediately became stateless. That is, we were not protected by any consulate, by any international treaties, by anything.”

Hannah Arendt was a Jewish German-American political theorist and publicist.

After being detained by the Gestapo for several days in 1933, she fled to France and worked there, among other things, in Zionist organizations that helped Jews to escape. In 1937 she was deprived of German citizenship, which made her a stateless person for almost 14 years. After she was imprisoned for several weeks in the French internment camp Gurs, she managed to escape from there as well. In 1941 Arendt came to the USA, where she spent the rest of her life and was granted US citizenship in 1951. In her first years in New York, she worked as a publicist, editor and contributor to several Jewish magazines (including “Der Aufbau”) and organizations (including the Commission on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction). Under the impression of the experience of flight and arrival that she and other European Jews had had, she also wrote the essay “We Refugees” in the Menorah Journal in 1943.

From 1953 to 1967 Arendt taught as a professor at Brooklyn College in New York, at the University of Chicago and at the New School for Social Research in New York.

In this excerpt from a radio interview that Lutz Besch conducted with Arendt in 1958, she talks about the legal and factual differences between migrants and refugees who fled from the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

Betz, Lusch: Ein Gespräch mit Hannah Arendt; in: Radio Bremen, 14.5.1958, broadcast on 08.01.1959.

With kind permission by Radio Bremen, Production 1959

Translation by Minor Kontor