This is the second in a short series on dehumanization and compassion.
One of the lessons Christian students of World War 2 must learn is the evil result of dehumanization and the healing power of compassion. Not only in Nazi Germany but in Japan, Russia and among the Western allies the War was characterized by the treatment of people groups and nations as subhuman. But Scripture commands and Jesus models compassion, which I believe protects us from the corrosive tragedy of dehumanization. This is the first of three brief posts in this topic.
A few weeks ago I finished teaching a one year course on World War II. Using Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance as our main text books, we walked through the whole period from 1939 to 1945. One of the conclusions we reached was that when one group of people is dehumanized by another, atrocities not only can but probably will happen.
The clearest example, of course, is the Holocaust. To Hitler and to many of his followers the Jews were sub-human, Untermenschen. In Mein Kampf Hitler likened the Jews to a bacillus and a parasite. They were called rats and vermin, or blood-thirsty animals. Thus the German people came to regard the Jews not as human beings but as a dehumanized embodiment of evil, that must be eliminated.
But German dehumanization of its enemies did not stop with the Jews. The Slavs (Russians) in particular were considered animals. It is telling that something like 98 percent of British and American POW’s survived the war. Something like 90 percent of Russian POW’s died. In return, of course, the Russians demonized the Germans – rats being the most sanitized term for them. In his fascinating book Less Than Human – why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others, David Livingstone Smith says
While the architects of the Final Solution were busy implementing their lethal program of racial hygiene, the Russian-Jewish poet and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was churning out propaganda for distribution to Stalin’s Red Army. These pamphlets seethed with dehumanizing rhetoric: they spoke of “the smell of Germany’s animal breath,” and described Germans as “two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war” — “ersatz men” who ought to be annihilated. “The Germans are not human beings,” Ehrenburg wrote, “… If you kill one German, kill another — there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses.”
So also with the Japanese, who demonized both the Chinese and Westerners, and who were in turn, it should be noted, demonized by their enemies (monkeys, lice and roaches being some of the more popular terms.) Germans were portrayed as wolves and monsters. And many feel that this dehumanization was a prerequisite to the wholesale killing of civilians that was carried out by all the belligerents. Smith says
“More than seventy million people died in the war, most of them civilians. Millions died in combat. Many were burned alive by incendiary bombs and, in the end, nuclear weapons. Millions more were victims of systematic genocide. Dehumanization made much of this carnage possible.”