Linguistic analysis suggests shifting dynamics of dehumanization of Jews from 1927–1945 could have served to promote mass violence

A linguistic analysis of Nazi propaganda suggests that dehumanisation of Jews shifted over time, with propaganda after the onset of the Holocaust portraying Jews as having a greater capacity for agency, relative to earlier propaganda focused on disengaging moral concern.

Widespread views hold that dehumanisation is a precursor to mass violence. Many believe that dehumanisation promotes violence by removing moral inhibitions against harming fellow humans. However, few studies have actually examined empirical evidence for this idea.

To better understand the role of dehumanisation in mass violence, Alexander Landry of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, California, and colleagues, conducted a linguistic analysis of Nazi propaganda – including hundreds of posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and political speech transcripts – from before and during the Holocaust.

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The researchers assessed the prevalence of certain terms related to mental state, distinguishing between those associated with capacity for agency, such as ‘plan’ or ‘think’, and those associated with experience, such as ‘hurt’ or ‘enjoy’.

The findings suggest that propaganda leading up to the Holocaust progressively denied Jews’ capacity for experiencing fundamental human emotions and sensations – in line with the idea that dehumanisation leads to disengagement of moral restraints.

However, propaganda during the Holocaust increasingly used language related to intentionality and malevolence, suggesting that Jews were now demonised and portrayed as possessing a greater capacity for agency.

The researchers offer speculation as to why this shift took place; perhaps it served efforts to portray Jews as a masterminding threat, while also providing rationalisation to soothe Nazi executors who were traumatised by their experience of killing Jews.

Overall, these findings suggest that the dynamics of dehumanisation associated with mass violence may be nuanced and shift over time.

The authors note that their analysis included limited data for some time periods, especially in the months preceding the onset of the Holocaust in July 1941, and that only one researcher was involved in drafting data collection guidelines. Future research could address these limitations and further examine the dynamics of dehumanisation for both the Holocaust and other genocidal contexts.

The authors add: “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 dehumanisation can motivate violence by reducing moral concern for victim groups.”

The findings are published in PLOS ONE.

Image: The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.