HMDT Blog: The language of prejudice

This blog has been written for HMDT by Laura Marks OBE, Chair of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

HMDT Blog: The language of prejudice

In your work you will kill people. Make absolutely sure that when you do, it is because of what they have done and never because of who they are.

So concluded the commanding officer at Sandhurst Military Academy after the first ever HMD ceremony held there, with 250 officer cadets hearing, in stunned silence, the harrowing life story of Zigi Shipper BEM, a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust.

The words of both the officer and the elderly survivor were profound and reminded me, yet again, that genocide never starts with killing, it always starts with words. The way we talk, tweet or write is not just the medium, it is also the message – a message delivered with hateful words becomes, in itself hateful.

The Holocaust was an atrocity. Six million Jews murdered, millions more displaced, a third of the world’s Jews wiped out violently, horrifically and with unbelievable cruelty. The survivors, and indeed the Jewish community, were traumatised for generations to come. And it started with words. Rabbi Dweck, translating Hitler’s words at City Hall’s HMD commemoration last week, reminded us how the Nazis crafted words to demonize the Jews. They described Jews as less than human, inferior to Aryans, money grabbing, Christian killing and power hungry. They even used specifically ironic language; calling Jews pigs would be particularly insulting.

The Holocaust was a genocide of incomprehensible proportions but it was not the only genocide, far from it. The Nazis slaughtered Roma and Sinti people, people with disabilities and Black people, again, not for what they did but for what they were. And each group targeted was demonized with hateful and very specific language.

Nor were the Nazis the only modern regime to commit genocide. Since 1945 we have seen legally defined ‘genocide’ committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia with ongoing genocidal killing continuing in Darfur, in each case innocent men, women and children slaughtered for who they are, not for what they have done.

The language or use of words in each case differs and gives us insight into the specific prejudices the perpetrators held, or hold, against the victims. In Rwanda, for example Hutus described the Tutsis as snakes – a local taboo which would be irrelevant elsewhere. In the genocide in Bosnia, however, the language and focus was on Islam – contemptible Islamophobic rhetoric which we hear so often even in the UK today. Whilst all genocidal perpetrators need language to justify the hatred, and whilst there are shared themes in that language ensuring that the victims are depersonalized and denigrated, there are also specifics which reflect the uniqueness of each genocide and the entrenched beliefs and prejudices which underpin it.

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust was established to commemorate and learn from the Holocaust (of the Jews) and, crucially, also the other victims of the Nazis and of the more recent genocides. They are all cases of killing people for who they are. It demands that we acknowledge the uniqueness of each. If we fail to address the differences, then we ignore the profound and ongoing suffering of the victims of that genocide and that is unforgivable. Ignoring the similarities, however, mistakenly allows many people to believe that genocide is something which won’t happen to them or to happen again.

When we look at the ongoing atrocities against the Yazidi people or the Rohingya, the language is of hatred, and of demonization but it is also specific and focused which is what makes it so powerful. As I attend HMD events this year, I hear many different survivors’ stories. My challenge is to ensure that I acknowledge not just the danger of hate speech, but just how it changes and taps into specific and deeply held prejudice.

Every genocide is a disaster, each destroys individual lives, hopes, families and communities. There are different victims, perpetrators, prejudices and words but each is equally destructive and frightening, and each is an affront to us. Using words only for tolerance, inclusion, respect and friendship may sometimes be challenging but it is, today, essential.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.