Dehumanization in World War II
From the years of 1939 to 1945, nations around the world had a sense of national pride stronger than ever before. Propaganda released by each country developed racial and nationalistic arrogance for both the Axis and Allied powers. Each of these nations soon became bolstered by the claim of their own superiority. This sense of dominance quickly led to the dehumanization of anyone not included in their circle of constructed superiority. The racial dehumanization created in World War II led to a war widowed of humanity. In both War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific by John W. Dower and Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, we see the causes and effects of dehumanization throughout the Second World War.
While America and Japan both held a strong culture of dehumanization throughout World War II, Germany was the worst offender. Four years prior to the war, the Nuremburg Laws passed which established the difference between Germans and Jews. This led to Germans often boycotting Jewish owned/run businesses and slowly segregating the Jews. Like all other countries, dehumanization in Germany was initiated by propaganda. Distributed by the Nazi regime, German propaganda created a negative image of Jewish people by placing the blame on them for Germany's economic and social problems. Like the Jewish segregation, this propaganda started years before the war ever began. The goal of the anti-Jew advertising was to dehumanize the Jews and label them an inferior race. Through this propaganda, the Nazis succeeded in creating an anti-Semitic culture in Germany prior to and during the war. This widespread anti-Semitism resulted in violence, degradation, and persecution of the Jews. Over time, Jews were eventually excluded from almost every part of German society. Ultimately, Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitic beliefs set the stage for a mass genocide. In Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, he references that James Waller explains that “‘ordinary people' [can] commit ‘extraordinary evil' by shaping how [they] perceive their victims: us-them thinking, dehumanization, and blaming the victim. ” (Browning, 216). The Holocaust was made possible by the years of Jewish dehumanization. Ordinary men were able to kill innocent Jews because they had been dehumanized to such a strong extent. Browning states in Ordinary Men that “the total debasement and humiliation of the victim facilitated the victim's dehumanization so essential to the actions of the perpetrator—‘to condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did.'” (Browning, 195). He goes on to state in the afterword “…we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” (Browning, 208). Germany had dehumanized the Jews to such a strong extent that ordinary men were able to kill innocent people without a second thought.
Across the world, America was also dehumanizing a racial group. Through anti-Japanese propaganda distributed by the American government, U.S. citizens soon developed a sense of national and racial supremacy similar to that of the Germans. John W. Dower's book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific, examines the role of American propaganda in creating the atmosphere of supremacy and spreading racial myths. One quote from War Without Mercy states “…Out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.” (Dower, 107). America was able to dehumanize the Japanese to this extent through propaganda and media. One example of how media was used to dehumanize Japan is a seven film series ordered by the then United States Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall, entitled Why We Fight. These films constructed the idea that America was “fundamentally peaceful, democratic, and rational” while Japan was “a thoroughly militaristic, repressive, irrational nation” (Dower, 46). This extreme racial stereotyping allowed American soldiers to slaughter the Japanese because they truly didn't see them as human.
Like America and Germany, the Japanese practiced this wartime dehumanization as well. In Japan, propaganda and media promoted Japanese arrogance and supremacy. Their history of racial sovereignty facilitated their extensive account of committing human brutalities. It was easy for Japan to think of anyone outside their culture as expendable. For example, committing an atrocity against their Asian neighbors of China, Korea, or Indonesia was simply a run-of-the-mill humdrum. The Japanese believed that these atrocities were justified by their own divine power. Dower states that the Japanese believed “their own race to be divine and all others hereditarily inferior.” (Dower, 61). Not only did the Japanese see themselves as worldly the best, but they believed that the gods had made them superior to all other races. This belief of divinity allowed the Japanese to become increasingly confident that they could conquer the western world. The Japanese atmosphere of divinity and supremacy combined with anti-American propaganda allowed them to dehumanize their western enemy. The anti-American propaganda in Japan portrayed the United States as a brutal place where hangings, discrimination, and hate crimes were uncontrolled everyday things. Committed to their identity as the superior race, the Japanese dehumanized the rest of the world in order to justify their brutal atrocities as just another step to conquering the earth.
Dehumanization changed the way all nations fought by making the nations themselves more brutal and their enemies more expendable. Dower states in War Without Mercy, “The dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitates killing, not only on the battlefield but also in the plans adopted by strategists far removed from the actual scene of combat. Such dehumanization, for example, surely facilitated the decisions to make civilian populations the targets of concentrated attack, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons.” (Dower, 21). Dehumanization was so important in World War II because it allowed each nation to be more brutal to their enemies than ever before. The unimaginable atrocities committed were made possible because of dehumanization. World War II was a war unlike any that had been fought before it because of the sheer brutality encompassed in warfare. While each nation's belief that their race was superior grew, so did the belief that all other races were inferior.
Browning states in Ordinary Men, “What is clear is that the men's concern for their standing in the eyes of their comrades was not matched by any sense of human ties with their victims. [They] stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility. Such a polarization between “us” and “them,” between one's comrades and the enemy, is of course standard in war.” (Browning, 79). The sense of dehumanization during the Second World War enabled brutality never before thought possible. National and racial pride and arrogance combined with toxic propaganda and marketing enabled both the Axis and Allied powers to practice inhuman atrocities. Each nation's dominance further dehumanized the rest of the world. Both War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific by John W. Dower and Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning demonstration dehumanization during the war to an extent that is terrifyingly real for readers. The dehumanization that took place during World War II was the beginning of a new era of war.
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