Stephen Fry on the Power of Words in Nazi Germany: How Dehumanizing Language Laid the Foundation for Genocide

In a recent series of Tweets and a fol­low-up inter­view with MEL mag­a­zine, leg­endary alt-rock pro­duc­er and musi­cian Steve Albi­ni took respon­si­bil­i­ty for what he saw as his part in cre­at­ing “edgelord” cul­ture — the jokey, meme-wor­thy use of racist, misog­y­nist and homo­pho­bic slurs that became so nor­mal­ized it invad­ed the halls of Con­gress. “It was gen­uine­ly shock­ing when I real­ized that there were peo­ple in the music under­ground who weren’t play­ing when they were using lan­guage like that,” he says. “I wish that I knew how seri­ous a threat fas­cism was in this coun­try…. There was a joke made about the Illi­nois Nazis in The Blues Broth­ers. That’s how we all per­ceived them — as this insignif­i­cant, unim­por­tant lit­tle joke. I wish that I knew then that author­i­tar­i­an­ism in gen­er­al and fas­cism specif­i­cal­ly were going to become com­mon­place as an ide­ol­o­gy.”

Per­haps, as Stephen Fry explains in the video clip above from his BBC doc­u­men­tary series Plan­et Word, we might bet­ter under­stand how casu­al dehu­man­iza­tion leads to fas­cism and geno­cide if we see how lan­guage has worked in his­to­ry. The Holo­caust, the most promi­nent but by no means only exam­ple of mass mur­der, could nev­er have hap­pened with­out the will­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion of what Daniel Gold­ha­gen called “ordi­nary Ger­mans” in his book Hitler’s Will­ing Exe­cu­tion­ers. Christo­pher Brown­ing’s Ordi­nary Men, about the Final Solu­tion in Poland, makes the point Fry makes above. Cul­tur­al fac­tors played their part, but there was noth­ing innate­ly Teu­ton­ic (or “Aryan”) about geno­cide. “We can all be grown up enough to know that it was human­i­ty doing some­thing to oth­er parts of human­i­ty,” says Fry. We’ve seen exam­ples in our life­times in Rwan­da, Myan­mar, and maybe wher­ev­er we live — ordi­nary humans talked into doing ter­ri­ble things to oth­er peo­ple.

But no mat­ter how often we encounter geno­ci­dal move­ments, it seems like “a mas­sive­ly dif­fi­cult thing to get your head around,” says Fry: “how ordi­nary peo­ple (and Ger­mans are ordi­nary peo­ple just like us)” could be made to com­mit atroc­i­ties. In the U.S., we have our own ver­sion of this — the his­to­ry of lynch­ing and its atten­dant indus­try of post­cards and even more gris­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia, like the tro­phies ser­i­al killers col­lect. “In each one of these geno­ci­dal moments… each exam­ple was pre­ced­ed by lan­guage being used again and again and again to dehu­man­ize the per­son that had to be killed in the eyes of their ene­mies,” says Fry. He briefly elab­o­rates on the vari­eties of dehu­man­iz­ing anti-Semit­ic slurs that became com­mon in the 1930s, refer­ring to Jew­ish peo­ple, for exam­ple, as ver­min, apes, unter­men­schen, virus­es, “any­thing but a human being.”

“If you start to char­ac­ter­ize [some­one this way], week after week after week after week,” says Fry, cit­ing the con­stant radio broad­casts against the Tut­sis in the Rwan­dan geno­cide, “you start to think of some­one who is slight­ly sullen and dis­agree­able and you don’t like very much any­way, and you’re con­stant­ly get­ting the idea that they’re not actu­al­ly human. Then it seems it becomes pos­si­ble to do things to them we would call com­plete­ly unhu­man, and inhu­man, and lack­ing human­i­ty.” While it’s absolute­ly true, he says, that lan­guage “guar­an­tees our free­dom” through the “free exchange of ideas,” it can real­ly only do that when lan­guage users respect oth­ers’ rights. When, how­ev­er, we begin to see “spe­cial terms of insult for spe­cial kinds of peo­ple, then we can see very clear­ly, and his­to­ry demon­strates it time and time again, that’s when ordi­nary peo­ple are able to kill.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Yale Pro­fes­sor Jason Stan­ley Iden­ti­fies 10 Tac­tics of Fas­cism: The “Cult of the Leader,” Law & Order, Vic­tim­hood and More

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Warren Peace says:

    Ahem. Ich bin Berlin­er. Not to be out­done, OUR con­sent has been man­u­fac­tured for: a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of per­pet­u­al impe­r­i­al wars, sur­veil­lance and dataveil­lance that far exceeds that of any total­i­tar­i­an regime, and of course, tor­ture. And kid­nap­ping. Even kid­nap­ping and tor­tur­ing jour­nal­ists. Not to men­tion the sup­port for lit­er­al Nazis with Nazi insignia on their uni­forms in Ukraine who regard eth­nic Rus­sians as “cock­roach­es” to be exter­mi­nat­ed. Which explains the “civ­il war.”

    Not sure how we got back to eth­nic cleans­ing in Europe by Nazis again. But we now seem to draw a moral line at ‘indus­tri­alised geno­cide.’ Nazis are fine. Slow geno­cide is fine. Killing 100s of 1000s in 100s of places at the same time is fine. Tor­ture is fine.

    One final point of con­text: if fas­cists are on the rise in UK and US, it would be because the polit­i­cal and media estab­lish­ment chose to block any move to the Left that might have bal­anced it out. Thus, if you want change from banks and war today, you can… uh… Trump? The rul­ing class prefers fas­cism because neolib­er­al­ism is kept intact. The only cost is to vic­tims of big­otry and hate. Priv­i­lege is safe.

    We are sim­ply replay­ing 1929 in 2008. Even with Stephen Fry on our team, and despite KNOWING, we are mak­ing all the same mis­takes. Avoid­ing every les­son. I can’t help but think the rul­ing class in the 30s also rather pre­ferred the Nazis then. The eugenic foun­da­tions of aris­toc­ra­cy are of course pro­to-fas­cist. Fas­cism is not a phe­nom­e­non. It’s a choice. Made by “elites”

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