black and white photo of an angry man speaking into a microphone
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister, in 1932.

How did Nazis use propaganda to justify their horrors? Stanford psychologist’s analysis explains

“The Jew works to infiltrate the peoples and hollow them out. He fights with his weapons, with lies and slander, poison and discord. He intensifies the battle until the bloody extermination of his hated foes. We say today, and forever more: The Jew is the parasite among the peoples!”

These chilling words, translated from a 1944 pamphlet written for Hitler youth troop leaders, carried a typical message; Nazi propaganda famously portrayed Jewish people as vermin and as villains. Even though by then millions of Jews already had been killed in the Holocaust, they were still being portrayed as powerful and nefarious.

Social psychologists have a term for that kind of portrayal: It’s agency, or ascribing to an individual or group “the ability to plan, to have control,” said Alexander Landry, a social psychologist and Ph.D. student at Stanford’s business school who has just published a paper analyzing 18 years of Nazi propaganda.

Attributing great agency to Jews, even during the Holocaust, is just one of the findings in Landry’s research, using software to analyze the language in a translated database of Nazi propaganda.

Landry, 25, and his co-author studied 18 years of pre-war and wartime propaganda, between 1927 and 1945, from an archive maintained by Randall Bytwerk of Michigan’s Calvin University.

“We found what we’d expect, preceding the Holocaust,” Landry explained.

He pointed to the use of “dehumanizing” terms that cast Jews as less than human. As Landry writes in his paper, this language meant that Jews “were progressively denied the capacity” to have the full human experience.

One example was located in the 1939 book “The Jewish World Plague,” part of the database Landry analyzed.

Jewry “grows and grows like weeds in the state, the community, and the family and infests the blood of humanity everywhere,” it said. “In brief, that is the pestilential nature of Jewry, against which every people, every state, every nation must, should, and wants to defend itself if it does not want to be the victim of this bloody plague.”

Academics have long connected dehumanizing language to genocide, not only related to the Holocaust.

“You’re opening the way to making it easier to harm them, because you’re overlooking their capacity to suffer,” Landry said.

You’re opening the way to making it easier to harm them, because you’re overlooking their capacity to suffer.

His analysis also noted a change in language once World War II started and Jews were being killed. As they began losing power and agency, “there seemed to be an increase in agency terms,” Landry said, with Jews described as “active agents of evil.”

Landry theorizes that these descriptions helped to rationalize the systematic destruction of the Jews by maintaining they were still a threat, despite the fact that in Germany, they had long since been stripped of their possessions, livelihood and personhood.

“That [rationale] could function as a psychological palliative,” he said.

Another theory relates to how Nazi Germany associated the Jewish threat with the Soviet threat. After June 1941, when German invaded Ukraine during World War II, the Soviet Union — which Germany considered essentially Jewish — became its biggest foe and one that proved harder to defeat.

“It could be a manifestation of an increasing sense of threat,” Landry said.

In another example from the database, German politician Robert Ley said in 1944: “I mean and prove that Judaism and Bolshevism were and are everywhere and at all times the same. Moses, the founder of the Jewish rabbi state, was the first proponent of the doctrine we today call Bolshevism.”

Explained Landry, “As these purported Jewish Bolshevists didn’t topple, like giants with feet of clay, it’s reasonable to assume they took on a greater threat.”

A native of Maine, Landry first got interested in the psychology of mass violence and genocide as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. Landry is not Jewish.

“It started with the Holocaust, and that was something that really stuck with me,” he said.

As a second-year Ph.D. student at Stanford, Landry has focused more deeply on the subject, as well as on the psychology of political polarization.

“I apply some of my work to conflicts here in the States as well,” he said.

He said that he would continue to examine the factors that allow people to commit genocide. “As far as imbuing my life with meaning … it’s definitely done that,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.