New research has shown how Nazi propaganda exploited language to dehumanize Jewish people and help pave the way for the Holocaust. While the study only looked at this particular blot on 20th-century history, the researchers argue their work also provides some insight into how politics and racism still function today; perhaps it could even prevent us from repeating mistakes of the past.
Researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California and Tel Aviv University collected 140 pieces of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, including posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and political speech transcripts. These spanned from November 1927 to April 1945, totaling over 57,000 words. They then used a cutting-edge psycholinguistic tool that can dig deeper into the intentions behind the words.
Their findings suggest that Nazi propaganda leading up to the Holocaust implied that Jewish people lacked the capacity for experiencing human emotions and sensations, which is a clear indication of dehumanization. After the Holocaust had begun, Jewish people were still portrayed as inhuman but also depicted as possessing a high level of agency, as if they were a masterminding threat to the German people.
Together, these two components allowed the Nazis to create the perfect formula for dehumanization: the "enemy" was subhuman but, unlike an animal, extremely capable. In turn, this opened the door to violence by removing any moral inhibitions a person might have against harming fellow humans.
“We speculate this may have been an effort by Nazi propagandists to justify their continued persecution by portraying them as intentionally malevolent agents of evil,” Alexander Landry, lead study author from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told IFLScience.
“We suggest that this reflected a process of demonization in which Nazi propagandists portrayed the Jews as a highly capable threat, while nonetheless possessing a subhuman moral character,” Landry continued.
The Nazis were master propagandists who utilized the new technologies of film and radio for their evil ends. Given their keen awareness of propaganda’s importance, Landry believes the Nazi’s use of dehumanizing language against Jewish people was likely a calculated move, not merely an organic reflection of their beliefs.
It’s often said that dehumanization is a precursor of mass violence. However, this latest study is one of the first attempts to gather empirical evidence for this idea.
Typically, when a minority is violently persecuted, it simply starts with language that reduces their humanity. Prior to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, the Hutu majority would frequently refer to the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” in their radio broadcasts.
The findings of the new study only reflect the rise of anti-Semitism that defined Nazi Germany, but the researchers believe it raises themes that we see time and time again – even today.
“The fact is, the perpetrators of the genocide genuinely believed their victims were fundamentally evil – so evil it required all of them, men, women, and children, to be completely exterminated. Although genocidal extermination is a particularly extreme outcome, this process of demonizing our ‘enemies’ appears to be a very common aspect of intergroup conflict. We see it at play in the moralized political rhetoric here in our own country, for instance,” Landry argues.
“I think one lesson that we can draw on from studies of human psychology and history is to recognize – and resist – our tendency to demonize those we disagree with or believe to hold values that threaten our own,” he concluded.
The new study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.