Words can kill


To get serious for a moment, it’s Holocaust Memorial Day. The event has extra resonance this year. It’s 70 years since Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz. And there’s fresh alarm over anti-semitism in the wake of the Paris supermarket shootings.

One thing that anyone interested in the Holocaust soon runs into is the role of language. It paved the way to destruction, and oiled its machinery. The hate-filled, unsophisticated language of the Nazis’ propaganda. The bureaucratic language of laws that lent an orderliness to the prejudice (a strangely high number of senior Nazis were law graduates). The cynical, duplicitous language that helped strip Jews of their belongings, businesses and rights.

And finally, when it came to killing, the euphemistic language used by the people involved. First in quasi-clinical environments where they honed their methods on the mentally ill and disabled. Then in the logistical, scientific, industrial system they created to murder millions.

Removal, resettlement, evacuation, transport ‘to the east’, special treatment, disinfection. Words and phrases that meant something, yet obscured meaning. The people involved used them for various reasons. To lend their work a twisted propriety; to dress it up as duty and necessity. To shroud it in secrecy as well as to hoodwink the victims (though by the end of the war, no one was under any illusions). And to insulate themselves from the deed itself.

Why think about all this? Language is powerful. It can be liberating, positive, inspiring. And it can be the opposite. It just depends who’s using it.

 


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on Jan 27, 2015

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