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Study of Nazi propaganda reveals role of dehumanization of Jews in Holocaust

As the Holocaust progressed, the propaganda went from depicting Jews as less than human to a malevolent people dangerous to German society.

(CN) — Dehumanizing propaganda has long been seen as a precursor to and promotion of mass violence. But Alexander Landry of the Stanford Graduate School of Business set out to prove this empirically, exploring how Nazi propaganda affected Jews before and during the Holocaust.

As detailed in a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, Landry and his colleagues studied hundreds of posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and political speech transcripts from November 1927, the earliest data point the researchers had, to the fall of the Nazi regime in April 1945. They found antisemitic material recovered from the German Propaganda Archive first portrayed Jews as possessing a lower capacity for human emotion. Often, the Nazis depicted Jews as the Judensau, what Landry described as a bestial mix of a large sow and a human, which has an added layer of antisemitism because Judaism considers pigs unclean.

As genocidal violence against Jews progressed, particularly after 1941, Nazi propaganda increasingly associated Jews with a malevolent agency to retroactively justify the violence. The researchers reported the prevalence of certain terms such as “hatred,” “sadistic,” and “arrogant,” along with “clever,” “lust,” and “eagerly hope.” To lessen the trauma of Nazi perpetrators when they harmed and murdered Jews, the propaganda created this image of Jews as knowingly hateful along with an allegedly inhuman nature.

“[Nazi propaganda] may have offered a rationalization for perpetrators and also ordinary citizens of the Nazi regime who were well aware of the ongoing persecution and extermination of the Jews to provide them with a rationalization for why that was happening,” said Landry during a phone interview.

Landry noted some correlations between antisemitism of the 20th and 21st centuries, mainly the portrayal of Jews as "less than fully human, subhuman creatures, whether that’s being demonic and insidious, or the classical depiction of them as the Judensau, this bestial mix of pig and human."

However, Landry said his team did not find causation and toward the end of the interview, he acknowledged the study had a few limitations.

According to Landry, the historian who collected most of the propaganda the researchers studied focused on antisemitism. The researchers found that while the rationalization of violence extended to other groups such as the Romani, LGBT+, and communists, they did not have as much of that propaganda to study. Also, the authors’ analysis included limited data for some time periods, particularly months before the onset of the Holocaust in July 1941.

Additionally, while the German Propaganda Archive proved a great resource, Landry said that it is one of the few propaganda corpora that translated the original content into English, meaning the researchers did not have access to untranslated propaganda.

Landry hopes future studies include researchers competent in German “who can implement those psycholinguistic tools in the original propaganda as well. I think my study would be enriched if I had a historian on my team as well, who spent a lot of time rigorously grounded in the study of the sociohistorical moment that we were investigating in the Nazi regime from 1927 to 1945.”

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