Dehumanization: A Psychological Process
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Keywords: Dehumanization, psychology, Nazis, Primo Levi
Dehumanization is defined as a psychological process whereby members of a group of people assert the inferiority of another group. Opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration, and are treated as less than humans through subtle or overt acts or statements. Experiencing dehumanization can often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion and these people are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal. In the holocaust, the Jews, in the eyes of Nazis, are a group of people that do not deserve moral consideration. The Holocaust affected the lives of millions because of the hate inside of one certain group of people: the Nazi's. The victims of the Holocaust provide an excellent example of individuals who suffered from the torment of this psychological process as, for a variety of reasons, the Nazi's goal was to deprive human qualities such as individuality, compassion and most importantly, identity through the process of dehumanization. In his attempt to bear witness to the horrors of the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor provides his own personal testimony of his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp in the form of his memoirs, If This Is a Man. In these memoirs, Levi not only exposes the actions of the Nazi's in the Holocaust and their demonstration of dehumanization, he goes beyond retelling his story and seeks to consider and analyze the power of the human condition in all of it's extremes.
In his attempt to create an absolute Nazi hegemony and New Order in Europe based on the concept of racial hygiene, Hitler and his devoted Nazi's began a deadly conquest around Europe consisting of Hitler's goal of seizing and conquering land for the Aryans and mass murder and extermination of non-Aryan people. In the 1930's, Hitler and his Nazi regime led a campaign of propaganda spreading lies about the Jews. As the so-called "Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda" of the Nazi party, Josef Goebbels created a negative image of the Jewish people and blamed them for the economic and social problems of Germany and the world. With the intention of dehumanizing the Jews and naming them as an inferior race, Nazi propaganda successfully created widespread anti-Semitism which lay down the foundation to eliminate the rights and freedom of the Jews. In the form of art work, posters, films and books, the Nazi's preached that the Jews must be excluded from society, resulting in prevalent ridicule, violence, humiliation, persecution and an ultimate sense of dehumanization for the Jews, setting the stage for a mass genocide.
To dehumanize means to treat someone like an animal or to encourage him or her to behave like an animal, to take away all the good human qualities such as friendship, trust, and kindness. During the Holocaust, The Nazi's employed numerous techniques of dehumanizing their captives which forced the Jews to endure treacherous conditions. One of these techniques is demonstrated in the way that the Jews were conveyed in cattle cars to the concentration camps. Purposely withholding a proper mean of transportation, the Nazis place the Jews on the same level as animals and therefore undermine the importance of Jewish existence. To enclose the Jews in a transport meant for animals is to limit their freedom and further dehumanizing the Jews as well as belittling their self-esteem. Also, the Nazi's hospitality for the Jews depicts another form of the dehumanization of the Jews. The Jews were given a small crust of bread every day and a small bowl of soup. People sometimes fought each other for extra rations and later on during the Holocaust, killed each other. The Jews were also barely clothed, and their shoes were taken away from them. They were forced to work all day with no breaks and were beaten if they stopped. In doing so, the Nazi's treated the Jews as animals in the true sense of dehumanization. Continuing this process, the Nazi's treated and tortured the Jews cruelly and relentlessly. People were burned alive, stripped of all possessions such as, shoes, watches, gold crowns, beaten and put through selection where the stronger lived and the weaker were burned. However, one of the most extreme efforts at dehumanizing the Jews was through the various experiments done by the Nazi's. Some of these experiments included: sun lamp, internal irrigation, hot bath, warming by body heat and freezing/hypothermia. The internal irrigation system occurs when "the frozen victims would have water heated to a near blistering temperature forcefully irrigated into the stomach, bladder and intestines (Medical Experiments of the Holocaust and Nazi Medicine). The Nazi's wanted to make the victims do degrading things in order to strip the Jews of their identity and make them appear to be subhuman.
Among the many unanswered questions regarding to the Holocaust is the question of why the Nazi's went to so much trouble to dehumanize the Jews if their main goal was to kill them and eradicate the Jewish race. In the case of the Jews in the Holocaust, it is believed that the main purpose of dehumanizing the Jews was to help the Nazi's, and not necessarily to torture the Jews. If the Jews were completely dehumanized, killing people who are less than human was justifiable to the Nazi's. The Jews went through dehumanization simply to make the killing of others psychologically easy for the Nazi's. The Nazis had to mask their atrocities, and conceal their agenda cleverly with the use of semantics. Through the use of dehumanization, they conditioned society to accept the Jews as "the Plague" and "Germany's Misfortune. Pure Germans became the Superior Race and murder became racial cleansing. In a short span of time, the societal perception of the Jews turned into the people who are nothing. Epitomizing the mentality that facilitated and allowed the deaths of millions of victims of Hitler's Nazi regime, is a quote from an anonymous Holocaust survivor: "It is easier to kill a nothing than a somebody.
Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy in 1919, to a family of assimilated and fairly non-religious Jews with Spanish roots. Levi was handed over to the Germans and deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He spent 10 months at Auschwitz, where he survived by working in a synthetic rubber factory in the Monowitz labour section of the camp. Two years after being liberated, Levi published If This Is a Man, a testimony of his first-hand experiences in Auschwitz. Included in his experiences, Levi discusses the true nature of man and his ability to adapt when faced with evil and dehumanization in degrading circumstances. Levi maintains that although the prisoners of Auschwitz were degraded and demoralized, they were not able to be dehumanized for the choice to give up is a personal decision that cannot be made by another. Primo's work provides insight into the lives and nature of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as man's ability to adapt and handle dehumanization. In If This Is a Man, Levi discusses how he and many others were dehumanized in order to survive. He explains that people live from day to day by stealing food from the sick and healthy alike.
Levi writes, "To eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp," to explain how the society is set up so that if one follows the rules, one dies. A man has to have a cunning ability to steal. He has to finagle extra rations of soup and less-strenuous workloads. In order to continue to live, Levi gave up moral and decent standards of living, he must live in constant fear that at any moments he will be caught, doing something wrong. In his memoirs, Levi emphasizes the effect of the mindless slavery inhabited by the Jews in the concentration camps, "Becoming a mindless slave one would soon forget the point of life itself almost not caring whether you live or whether you die is the most inhuman trait imaginable. Every waking moment you had to keep an eye on your clothes, bowl, or spoon, or they would be stolen by another prisoner. They didn't have free will or any other type opinions, turned against each other, these people couldn't be considers humans.
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