Insect Language and Genocide

Question:  How did the Nazis and the Hutus use language about insects to achieve their violent goals? 

Hugh Raffles: Well, and both of those cases were times when people wanted to do extraordinary and violent things to another group of people and in order to do that, what they did was try to turn those people into objects that you could do things to.  So, really what they did was they turned Tutsis into cockroaches and they turned Jews into lice, both of which are animals that we basically exterminate.

So, in Rwanda it was through this campaign through Hutu Power radio which has repeatedly called Tutsis cockroaches in the period leading up to the genocide.  In Nazi Germany it was a little different because there was this - because not only were Jews called lice - and they were called many other things as well.  They were also called cockroaches and they were also called rats as these very famous films of Jews being compared to rats with all this fast cutting.  But, also because they were - there was this whole structure, sort of infrastructure of disease control and also fear of disease that was called into action against Jews.  So, Jews actually really were not just sort of eliminated as vermin, but they were eliminated specifically as lice. 

And there's all these ironies, so really you sort of horrible ironies so that - Zyklon-B which was the gas that was used in Auschwitz and generally widely anyway for extermination gas chambers, was an insecticide.  When Jews were taken into - Jews and other people were taken into the gas chambers, they were told that they were being taken in for delousing and the rooms they were taken into were disguised as showers which was one of the first stages of the delousing procedures which people were familiar with.  And there was also a lot of language that was used by Nazi leaders in which they talked about delousing; cleansing the country of lice and this is tied to a history in Germany of fear of disease, particularly of typhus.  And there's the creation of border controls, delousing stations and border controls around the country and actively delousing and treating people in these very violent ways as they came into the country, particularly when they came in from the east from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe.

So, a lot of it has to do with language.  I mean, language is really important in that process of dehumanizing people and obviously I’m not the first person who’s pointed this out.  Many people have.  But, in Germany as well, it was tied to this - in some ways it was more complicated because it wasn’t just fitting the label and then the label letting you do something.  The label was really tied into - and maybe it’s always like this.  I’m not sure, but the name and the animal were really tied into all these fears which already existed and all these activities that existed, particularly these things around disease control and fear of disease and fear of parasites.  Yeah, so it’s a complicated and very dark history, but yet, insects were very important in that.  They were important, really, as vermin. 

I mean, it’s the stages of insects as these animals that you can destroy in any way that you want to and that you should destroy and have no right to live.  I mean, it was a way of turning Jews into lives not worth living was the phrase.

Recorded on March 22, 2010

The New School anthropologist explains how using language about insects in reference to people can lead to violent acts.

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