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How Nazi propaganda used language to dehumanize the Jews

Anew study said that language used by the Nazis in propaganda throughout their rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s served to slowly dehumanize Jewish people, with the language changing over time.

According to a study published on November 9 in the journal Plos One, linguistic analysis of Nazi propaganda from that period shows that the framing of Jewish people changed from focusing on disengaging the German peoples' moral concern for them to suggesting that the Jews had a much greater capacity for the agency to be "malevolent" after the Holocaust began.

"We investigated the use of mentally state terms considered fundamentally human: experience, the capacity to feel sensations and emotions, and agency, the capacity to have complex thoughts, plan, and act intentionally," Alexander Landry, an organizational behavior Ph.D. student at Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-author of the paper, told Newsweek.

Through propaganda, Nazis portrayed the Jewish people as having less and less capacity for experiencing fundamental human emotions and sensations, thus dehumanizing them in the eyes of the German public. This was potentially an attempt to make the idea of the mass murder of the Jews more palatable to the rest of the country.

"Recognizing another's capacity for experience grants them moral concern and protection from harm, while recognizing another's agency renders them morally responsible for their behavior. Jews' capacity for experience decreased from 1927 to the start of the Holocaust in June 1941, suggesting that they were denied moral concern and that this may have helped facilitate the start of systematic mass violence against them. However, after the onset of the Holocaust, the Jews were attributed greater levels of agency," he said.

Landry suggested that this may have been an effort by the Nazis to justify their continued persecution by portraying the Jewish people as intentionally malevolent and "highly capable of planning and intentionality", while also being of subhuman moral character.

As Hitler and his Nazi party rose to power during the 1920s, they made their stance on Jews clear, saying that Jews were to blame for a variety of misfortunes Germany had experienced, including the loss of World War I. Once Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and took full control of the country in 1934, he passed a series of antisemitic laws, including the Nuremberg Laws, which forbade Jewish people to marry or have sex with non-Jews.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Jews began being rounded up into ghettos and taken en masse to concentration camps. Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany systematically murdered approximately six million Jewish people, amounting to around two-thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe, and one-third of the Jews in the world, at the time.

Landry and his team collected 140 individual pieces of Nazi antisemitic propaganda spanning from November 1927 to April 1945 from the German Propaganda Archive, which contained a total of 57,011 words. They then assessed the prevalence of certain terms related to mental state, distinguishing between those associated with agency, such as "plan" or "think," and those with experience, including "hurt" or "enjoy."

"We then used a psycholinguistic tool to quantify the proportion of fundamentally human mental state terms in the propaganda text describing Jews. A nuanced pattern of results emerged. Jews were progressively denied the capacity for fundamentally human mental experiences leading up to the Holocaust," Landry said.

This pattern may have been even stronger had the researchers had access to more propaganda from the time.

"Inevitably a large swath of Nazi propaganda material was lost during the war, and even more remains untranslated to English. Most problematic is the relative lack of material we have from the period before Hitler's rise to power (1927-1933) when the Nazis were still a relatively fringe political party that did not yet have a stranglehold on Germany's media," Landry said.

Jess Thomson