How does dehumanization work?

We look at the atrocities in the Killing Centers and other areas in WWII, particularly against the Jews, and we wonder how could human beings could degenerate into that degree of hatred. Dehumanization of victims though is a process and does not occur all at once.
One of the first moves towards 'dehumanization' is the objectification of the person, particularly of the 'other'. Martin Buber refers to the I-Thou relationship first between God and man, and then between men and others. When we maintain empathy for others, seeing humanity in them, we treat them as we would be treated: we see their joy, their pain, their visions and hope. When we begin to objectify them, we see them as an object either for our purposes or in our way, for our own means. This move towards redefining the person as an object begins the process of dehumanization.

In WWII the most eminent example of dehumanization was was the segregation, redefinition, and eventual genocide of the Jewish people from German society and citizen, but also of the 'devaluing' of life in the Nazi Euthanasia program called T4. In the T4 program, a concept arose of "lebensunwerte leben" or 'life unworthy of life' in which Nazi physicians and racial scientists argued that life that was not 'productive' nor valuable to the state, or which caused a burden on the state economically was not on the same level as normal life, and could therefore be terminated. The definition became inclusive of the mentally retarded and later the mentally ill, epileptics, alcoholics, and even the chronically unemployed. Over 65,000 people were killed before public outcry, mostly from the churches demanded an end to the murders.

Regarding the Jews, the first process was in the realm of both philosophy and religion: before the Reich came into power, Rudolf Kittel wrote doctrinally of the modern Jews as separate from the "Israelites" of old, beloved in the Bible , and his son provided the doctrinal framework for the 'alien status' of the Jews by arguing 'blut und boden', that a nation's people belong to the 'soil' or land they are from, and hence the Jews could not rightfully be considered 'citizens' but only of 'alien status' since they belonged to Israel and not Germany. Nietszche developed the idea of a superior people vs. an 'inferior people' and Blavatsky and others developed the idea of a 'root race' and evolutionary process in which superior races replaced earlier inferior races, serving to further dehumanize and ostracize the Jews. Many regional paganistic groups tied the German Aryan race to the superior groups, and Racial scientists intensified the process by 'scientizing' the concept of superior vs. inferior racial types. So the first major process was in retraining German thinking into racial pride against 'untermenschen' or sub-humans.

One of the next processes of dehumanization was in making the lesser racial type evil and morally inferior. The Jews were portrayed as misers, as bringing in inferior government styles, as associated with the enemies of Germany, as robbing and plundering the nation, taking German jobs, etc, in effect as seditious and morally inferior, ready to 'infect' the high moral standards and intellect of German youth and society. In the Reich's eyes, their influence in the arts and education was degenerate and must be purged. Eventually even German bloodlines must be made pure from Semitic influence.

Segregation followed the 'reasoning' for separation, and initially Jewish children were restricted in public schools from full activities and congregating, and then expelled from public education. Jewish educators and artists were expelled respectively from their fields---University professors were ousted from academic positions for fear of influencing German students, artists were required to register with a Reichskammer or chamber which required their name, address and Aryan status. Those of non-Aryan status could not perform nor display.

Restrictions increased with propaganda about superior Aryan qualities: Jews could no longer go to Parks, use public transportation, employ maids , or used German hairdressers. The Jews could not teach their children Hebrew, though they could sing hebrew songs. Books by Jewish authors and others were burned and removed from libraries and bookstores. Jewish authors were required to turn copyrights over to the Reich, and were not allowed to use the legal system, or in some cases make police reports. Jews could only go to Jewish physicians, and many Jewish physicians could not practice in hospitals.

When the Jews were separated, dehumanized and despised, then arguments were broadly made for their ousting from Germany, save for a few essential workers in the armaments industries. They were seen as seditious and dangerous, though they had committed no crime. They were charged large fees to take money out of the Reich, sometimes 90% to expatriate, and they were required to be approved by local Reich police departments. The Madagascar Document proposed the large island off the eastern coatline of Africa for a homeland for the Jews but even that was rescinded.


How far can dehumanization go? Every effort was made to debase the race spoken of in the Scriptures as 'chosen'. Deportations were in cattle cars from product loading platforms. Conditions were unsanitary and overcrowded and food was limited. Former acts of bullying and humiliation were nothing compared to the treatment in their destination of the Concentration Camps, in which they were processed into 'product': gold pulled from teeth, hair cut for hemp rope, skeletons selected from living victims for anatomy labs, soap and oil and leather produced from fat and skin and slavery of the worst sort on the way into death. The cruelty and hatred was so criminal, that by the end, it would go down in the annals of cruelty as surpassing any historical antecedent.


Dehumanization can be thwarted early in the process, but probably not later. There appears to be a 'threshold' in which it can be turned back. Studies of dehumanization in Zimbardo's Prison experiments, Milgram's (and later Buss's) Aggression studies, have demonstrated that the process will proceed even in a controlled experiment even among normals. This is a great deal to consider when we attend to lesser events occurring today, far away and years away from the holocaust. We take as minor occurrences acts of cruel bullying, threats, injustice, and erasure of tolerance and civil rights, not realizing where they can lead. Processes of dehumanization are always characterized by entropy, and start with our inability to see one another as persons like ourselves. ekbest