When Words Take Lives: The Role of Language in the Dehumanization and Devastation of Jews in the Holocaust
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
This thesis will examine the ways in which anti-Semitic and more generalized racial theories were powerfully and effectively mobilized under Hitler and his Nazi regime. In the establishment of Nazi ideology and the practice of its principles, Hitler drew upon an old, extensive and specific genre of animalizing language. Hitler's regime skillfully employed contemporary and diverse modes of discourse to dehumanize and devastate the Jewish people. By juxtaposing traditional anti-Semitic beliefs with ideals of Aryan superiority, the Nazis were able to expand and strengthen pre-existing anti-Semitism whilst reaffirming Germany as the ultimate example of evolutionary progression. Integral to Hitler's success was the use of animal imagery and its respective connotations, associations and evocations. Throughout Hitler's regime, the term "animal" remained without an exact or precise definition; the ambiguous definition of "animal" allowed for multiple applications – both destructive and constructive. When used in reference to the Jews, the term "animal" was loaded with a barrage of degrading references, images and emotions. The Jews were described as dirty, disease-ridden rats: weak, despoiling animals that needed to be exterminated and bloodsucking parasites that presented an imminent threat to German bloodlines, culture, morality and economy. These images all stirred feelings of disgust, abhorrence and fear especially when linked to ideas of unpredictable and overwhelming plagues and swarms. The concept of human "animals" was also applied to the Germans but with completely different consequences. The German "animal" was a natural predator, a super wolf, a noble and loyal dog. This wolf/dog was upheld for its prowess, its commitment to the pack and its virile bloodline. This image of animalism was not a degradation or an admission of German inferiority; rather, it was a declaration of evolutionary achievement and innate superiority. The flexibility of the term "animal" was always loaded with emotive connotations and representations whilst remaining fluid in its applicability – only to be temporarily fixed as and when it suited Nazi ends. Hitler utilized the ascribed authority of scientific and pseudo-scientific theories to reinforce a sense of legitimacy and add a compelling rationality to Nazi ideology. Modern media were efficiently employed to spread Nazi beliefs: emotive speeches and new legislative measures were broadcast on the radio; propaganda was printed and circulated whilst cinematography captured the imaginations of many Germans and represented the Jews' "animal" nature. With a wealth of resources available to his purposes, Hitler was able to form and strengthen an ideology that had every appearance of being credible, necessary, righteous and legitimate. Innovative concepts and practices of industrialism were important in the mobilization of Hitler's racial campaign; the employment of new technologies appealed to a sense of progress and national self-improvement as well as providing effective and detached methods of removing the Jewish presence from Germany. When placed within multiple modes of discourse, images of animalism became increasingly pervasive and the dehumanization of the Jews was well underway.