Imperial boomerang: what Hannah Arendt actually said

“Political theorist Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, argued that racialisation and territorial expansion – two practices inherent to imperialism – laid the foundations for European fascism. Totalitarianism in Europe was an outcome of what Arendt termed the ‘imperial boomerang’. Similarly, poet and theorist Aimé Césaire argued in Discourse on Colonialism that Hitler ‘applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for [the colonies]’, placing what seemed an aberration of barbaric pre-modernity – the Holocaust – firmly within European imperial tradition. According to this view, Hitler’s methods were not alien to European societies. Hitler’s exceptionalism consisted largely in the fact that the methods were applied against European populations, within Europe itself. Looked at from the global South, which had suffered centuries of the most extreme depredations of European imperialism, Nazi Germany did not seem so unusual.” (Woodman, 2020)

“We see very clearly with the Nazis […] the boomerang effect […] where racism, fascism, the logic of white supremacy, comes into Europe, and becomes enacted on white bodies, and everybody turns around and goes ‘wow, this was a really bad idea!’” (Andrews, 2021)

“The truth that Europeans have to face about Nazism, the Martinique poet and statesman Aimé Césaire wrote, is that ‘before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimised it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.'” (Malik, 2023: 139)

The problem with the contemporary idea of ‘imperial boomerang’ in the anti-racist imagination is that it both constrains and reduces antisemitism (or, anti-Jewish racism) to a colonial model of racism, that is, to the colonial racism of white people over black and brown people. The Holocaust is thus seen as the product of blowback: an inevitable and familiar horror inflicted on white bodies as a result of the horrors which white people have inflicted on black bodies. Similar to much of the Left’s obsession with a blowback thesis after 9/11, which, by fixating on the crimes of US imperialism, neglected any critique of the politics of Islamism, the ‘imperial boomerang’ thesis applied to the Holocaust neglects the deep history of representation and persecution against the Jewish Other.

Racism is dialectical not simply in the racialised construction of Self versus Other. Over time and across space and place, there is a dialectical process of meaning production and reproduction: an interplay between times and localities in the generation and regeneration of racist ideologies. Racism, while based on an ideal of past purity, survives because it is dynamic and hybrid. Nazi Germany drew from racism across the world and shaped racism across the world. Nazi Germany was also an outcome of a very long pre-history and history of anti-Jewish racism that, during the nineteenth century, synthesised racist hostility to the Jewish Other with European nationalisms.

Hannah Arendt is attributed as being the original thinker of the contemporary idea of ‘imperial boomerang’. There is, however, a disconnect between this claim and what she actually said.

Below are key extracts from The Origins of Totalitarianism in which Arendt writes of the fear of the boomerang effects of imperialism. This is a point of distinction, she argues, between European or national imperialism and the totalitarian imperialism of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The latter, while in a dialectical relationship with the former, was exceptional in lacking the restraints imposed by the fear of the boomerang effect.

From “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie”:

“Three decades from 1884 to 1914 separate the nineteenth century, which ended with the scramble for Africa and the birth of the pan-movements, from the twentieth, which began with the first World War. This is the period of Imperialism, with its stagnant quiet in Europe and breath-taking developments in Asia and Africa. Some of the fundamental aspects of this time appear so close to totalitarian phenomenon of the twentieth century that it may be justifiable to consider the whole period a preparatory stage for coming catastrophes. Its quiet, on the other hand, makes it appear still very much a part of the nineteenth century. We can hardly avoid looking at this close and yet distant past with the too-wise eyes of those who know the end of the story in advance, who know it led to an almost complete break in the continuous flow of Western history as we had known it for more than two thousand years. But we must also admit a certain nostalgia for what can still be called a “golden age of security,” for an age, that is, when even horrors were still marked by a certain moderation and controlled by respectability, and therefore could be related to the general appearance of sanity. In other words, no matter how close to us this past is, we are perfectly aware that our experience of the concentration camps and death factories is as remote from its general atmosphere as it is from any other period in Western history.” (Arendt, 1962: 123)

“The so-called hypocrisy of British politics was the result of the good sense of English statesmen who drew a sharp line between colonial methods and normal domestic policies, thereby avoiding with considerable success the feared boomerang effect of imperialism upon the homeland. In other countries, particularly in Germany and Austria, the alliance took effect at home in the form of pan-movements, and to a lesser extent in France, in a so-called colonial policy. The aim of these “movements” was, so to speak, to imperialize the whole nation (and not only the “superfluous” part of it), to combine domestic and foreign policy in such a way as to organize the nation for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples.” (Arendt, 1962: 155)

From “Race and Bureaucracy”:

“There were […] real and immediate boomerang effects of South Africa’s race society on the behavior of European peoples: since cheap Indian and Chinese labor had been madly imported to South Africa whenever her interior supply was temporarily halted, a change of attitude toward colored people was felt immediately in Asia where, for the first time, people were treated in almost the same way as those African savages who had frightened Europeans literally out of their wits. […] Less immediately significant but of greater importance for totalitarian governments was the other experience of Africa’s race society, that profit motives are not holy and can be overruled, that societies can function according to principles other than economic, and that such circumstances may favor those who under conditions of rationalized production and the capitalist system would belong to the underprivileged. South Africa’s race society taught the mob the great lesson of which it had always had a confused premonition, that through sheer violence an underprivileged group could create a class lower than itself, that for this purpose it did not even need a revolution but could band together with groups of the ruling classes, and that foreign or backward peoples offered the best opportunities for such tactics. The full impact of the African experience was first realized by leaders of the mob, like Carl Peters, who decided that they too had to belong to a master race. African colonial possessions became the most fertile soil for the flowering of what later was to become the Nazi elite. Here they had seen with their own eyes how peoples could be converted into races and how, simply by taking the initiative in this process, one might push one’s own people into the position of the master race.”  (Arendt, 1962: 206)

“Of the two main political devices of imperialist rule, race was discovered in South Africa and bureaucracy in Algeria, Egypt, and India; the former was originally the barely conscious reaction to tribes of whose humanity European man was ashamed and frightened, whereas the latter was a consequence of that administration by which Europeans had tried to rule foreign peoples whom they felt to be hopelessly their inferiors and at the same time in need of their special protection. Race, in other words, was an escape into an irresponsibility where nothing human could any longer exist, and bureaucracy was the result of a responsibility that no man can bear for his fellowman and no people for another people.” (Arendt, 1962: 207)

From “Continental Imperialism: The Pan-Movements”:

“The chief importance of continental, as distinguished from overseas, imperialism lies in the fact that its concept of cohesive expansion does not allow for any geographic distance between the methods and institutions of colony and of nation, so that it did not require boomerang effects in order to make itself and all its consequences felt in Europe. […] Continental imperialism, therefore, started with a much closer affinity to race concepts […].” (Arendt, 1962: 223-224)

From “Epilogue”:

“[I]mperialism, both word and phenomenon, was unknown until the ever-quickening pace of industrial production forced open the territorial limitations of the nation-state. Its outstanding feature was expressed in the slogan of the time: expansion for expansion’s sake, which meant expansion without regard to what traditionally had been regarded as national interests such as the defence of the territory and its limited aggrandizement through annexation of neighbouring lands. Imperialist expansion was prompted not by political, but economic motives, and it followed the expanding economy wherever it happened to lead in the form of investment in capital, surplus money within the national economy, and of the emigration of unemployable people, who had also become superfluous to the life of the nation. Imperialism thus was the result of the nation-state’s attempt to survive under the circumstances of a new economy and in the presence of an emerging world market. Its dilemma was that economic interests of the nationals demanded an expansion which could not be justified on the grounds of traditional nationalism with its insistence on historical identity of people, state and territory. From beginning to end and for better and worse, the destinies of imperialism, the fate that befell the ruling nations no less than the lot suffered by their “subject races,” were determined by their origin. National consciousness was perverted into race consciousness, prompted by the natural solidarity of “white men” in alien lands, which, in turn, made the subject races color conscious. But together with racism, nationalism made inroads into the ancient cultures of Asia and the tribal wilderness of Africa, and if the imperialist-minded colonial bureaucracy could turn a deaf ear to the national aspirations which they themselves had aroused, the nation-state could not without denying the very principle of their own existence. The colonial bureaucracies lived in a perennial conflict with their home governments, and while imperialism undermined nationalism by shifting loyalties from the nation to the race, the nation-state with its still intact legal and political institutions always prevailed in preventing the worst excesses. The fear of boomerang effects of imperialism upon the mother country remained strong enough to make the national parliaments a bulwark of justice for the oppressed people and against the colonial administration. Imperialism on the whole was a failure because of the dichotomy between the nation-state’s legal principles and the methods needed to oppress other people permanently. This failure was neither necessary nor due to ignorance or incompetence. British imperialists knew very well that “administrative massacres” could keep India in bondage, but they also knew that public opinion at home would not stand for such measures. Imperialism could have been a success if the nation-state had been willing to pay the price, to commit suicide and transform itself into a tyranny. It is one of the glories of Europe, and especially of Great Britain, that she preferred to liquidate the empire. Such recollections of the past may serve to remind us of how much greater the chances of success are for an imperialism directed by a totalitarian government.” (Arendt, 1962: 503-504)

“No dichotomy of principle […] between home rule and colonial rule will impose restraint on totalitarian imperialism, and if it, too, has to fear certain boomerang effects from its imperialist adventures, they have other causes. […] Boomerang effects in totalitarian imperialism, naturally, are distinguished from those of national imperialism in that they work in the opposite direction – the few, faint-hearted stirrings of unrest in Russia probably were caused by events in Poland and Hungary – and so do the measures the government is forced to take to combat them. For just as European imperialism could never transgress certain limits of oppression even when the effectiveness of extreme measures was beyond doubt, because public opinion at home would not have supported them and a legal government could not have survived them, so Russian totalitarianism is forced to crush opposition and without all concessions, even when they may pacify the oppressed countries for the time being and make them more reliable in case of war, because such “mildness” would endanger the government at home and place the conquered territories in a privileged position. This last point was, indeed, of considerable importance in the initial stages of the satellite system, when the main concern of the ruling imperialist power was not how to maintain a distinction between national and colonial areas, but on the contrary how to equalize conditions in the newly conquered territories down to the level of Soviet Russia herself. Russia’s post-war expansion was not caused, and her rule of the conquered territories is not determined, by economic considerations; the profit motive, so conspicuous in Europe’s overseas imperialism, is replaced here by sheer power considerations.” (Arendt, 1962: 504-505)


Andrews, Kehinde (2021) “Is the West Fundamentally Racist?” Intelligence Squared, YouTube, last accessed 19th May 2023.

Arendt, Hannah (1962) The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books: Cleveland and New York.

Malik, Kenan (2023) Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics, Hurst & Company: London.

Woodman, Connor (2020) “The Imperial Boomerang: How colonial methods of repression migrate back to the metropolis”, Verso Blogs, last accessed 19th May 2023.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons: A Jewish boy surrenders in Warsaw)

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