PALO ALTO, Calif. — Nazi propaganda to relentlessly dehumanize Jewish people underwent subtle changes to try to “justify” the Holocaust, a new study reveals.
An international team of researchers conducted a thorough linguistic analysis of the propaganda of the Nazi regime, including hundreds of posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and political speech transcripts over an 18-year period before and during the execution of millions of Jews.
Their findings suggest “shifting dynamics” of dehumanization of the Jewish people over time may have served to promote mass violence. The research team adds that propaganda after the onset of the Holocaust portrayed Jews as having a greater capacity for agency, relative to earlier propaganda focused on “disengaging moral concern.”
Corresponding author Alexander Landry from the Stanford Graduate School of Business says there’s a widespread view of dehumanization which consider it a precursor to mass violence. Researchers believe dehumanization promotes violence because it removes moral inhibitions against harming others. However, there have been few studies examining this tactic throughout history.
Landry and his colleagues conducted a linguistic analysis of Nazi propaganda from 1927 until the regime’s defeat at the end of World War II in 1945. They assessed the prevalence of certain terms related to mental state, distinguishing between those with a connection to the capacity for agency — such as “planning” or “thinking” — and those with a connection to experience — such as “hurting” or “enjoying.”
Nazis changed tactics to ease their soldiers’ consciences
The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, suggest that propaganda leading up to the Holocaust progressively denied Jews’ capacity for experiencing fundamental human emotions and sensations. This is in line with the idea that dehumanization leads to disengagement of moral restraints.
However, the team notes that propaganda during the Holocaust increasingly used language related to intentionality and malevolence. This suggests that Jews were “demonized” and portrayed as possessing a greater capacity to plan and think out ways to use and gain power.
The researchers speculate that the shift took place perhaps to serve efforts to portray Jews as a “masterminding” threat, while also providing a rationalization in “soothing” Nazi executors traumatized by their experiences during the Holocaust.
Landry says, “overall, the findings suggest that the dynamics of dehumanization associated with mass violence may be nuanced and shift over time.”
“To eliminate violence, we must understand the motives that drive it. To do so, we examined the portrayal of Jews in Nazi propaganda. We found that Jews were progressively denied the capacity for fundamentally human mental experiences leading up to the Holocaust, suggesting that dehumanization can motivate violence by reducing moral concern for victim groups,” study authors say in a media release.
He said future research could further examine the dynamics of dehumanization for both the Holocaust and other genocidal contexts.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.