I wasn’t surprised to see a tweet pointing to the lack of knowledge about the racism of the Holocaust go viral on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy and author of several books on dehumanization, wrote:
“Reading social media posts about the Holocaust today, it is shocking to me how many Americans think that Jews were persecuted for their religious beliefs and do not understand that the Nazi project was a racial one.”
A flurry of responses ensued, with hundreds of comments and thousands of retweets and likes. Some expressed surprise and appreciation for the opportunity to learn and others shared their objection, but most expressed fear about the dangers of ignorance regarding such serious matters.
Because many people’s lives depend on overcoming such persistent and deeply entrenched supremacist ideologies that are visible around the world, this moment to learn should not become a wasted opportunity. Clarifying the connection between racialization and dehumanization and acknowledging different manifestations of such oppressive processes in more than one geographic context is essential to understand these intricate relationships.
As a Bosniak, a person of Muslim heritage from the Balkans, with white skin color, and from a people targeted with several genocidal waves throughout our history, I can relate to the complexity of Jewish identity. The latest Bosnian genocide from 1992 to 1995 was the worst mass killing on European soil since the end of World War II. The conflation of religion and ethnicity and the racialization processes, thanks to which the persecutors justified the ideological basis for killing, are familiar to Bosniaks. Nazis used racial inferiority arguments to dehumanize and then systematically exterminate primarily Jews and other persecuted populations — Roma and Sinti, individuals with mental and physical disabilities, Poles and other Slavs, Soviet prisoners of war, Afro-Germans, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals. Similarly, in the 1980s and 1990s, Serb elites and Croat extreme nationalists used discourses of racial supremacy in a presupposed hierarchical framework that led to genocide by Bosnian Serb forces. Bosniaks were said to be “genetically deformed material that embraced Islam,” made to be perceived as the existential enemy, and any affiliation with Islam, regardless of whether they were practicing the religion or were Bosniak atheists, provided sufficient grounds for them to be murdered. Just like Jews in Nazi Germany had to wear different clothing or badges to separate them from supposedly superior “Aryan” race members, in May 1992, non-Serbs of Bosnia’s Prijedor town were required to wear white armbands or mark their houses with white flags. Moreover, the perpetrators of the genocide claimed that the slaughter of Bosniaks was a sort of favor to all fellow zealots who’ve advocated and believed in the vision of a purely Christian Europe.
In the United States, the most recent conversation about race and the Holocaust took a new turn after Whoopi Goldberg, a host of the TV show “The View,” stated on air on Jan. 31 that “the Holocaust isn’t about race” but rather “about man’s inhumanity to man.” The comment was made in the context of a debate about a local school board in Tennessee voting to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonfiction graphic novel about the Holocaust, from an eighth-grade curriculum. Goldberg’s assertion immediately drew intense backlash. She issued a written apology on her social media account and the same night made an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” pleading that she did not “fake apologize.” On Feb. 14, she returned to “The View’” after a two-week suspension over her controversial comments. This series of events also provoked more discussions on the potential excesses of “cancel culture” and whether Black women are held up to different standards in U.S. media. Many other serious conversations focused on rising antisemitism and the consequences of a lack of knowledge about different racist ideologies, both past and present.
Smith argues in his latest book, “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization,” that perceiving others as subhuman creatures — lice, rats, snakes, wolves, or even demons and monsters, is “a kind of attitude … something that happens inside people’s heads.” In contrast to some of his colleagues, Smith states that dehumanization “is not primarily a matter of attributing subhuman traits to a person” but about “attributing a subhuman essence to them.” Traits that are perceived as unchangeable in racialized “others” guide such thinking, and visible features like skin color are not a prerequisite for dehumanization.
Smith stresses that “psychological essentialism” is critical to understanding patterns of racialization and dehumanization. Usually, racialization of a population occurs before the more extreme stage of dehumanization. “Racialized people are lesser humans,” as he puts it, “while dehumanized people are less than human.” This subhumanity implies a natural hierarchy, which for many centuries was invoked under the “Great Chain of Being” paradigm. In this framework every kind of being holds a fixed rank. For religious communities, God has retained the top place, while in the secular world, supposedly racially superior humans have held the highest position. Smith clarifies the distinction between racialization and dehumanization:
“The hierarchical notion has important implications for beliefs about morality, because the greater the intrinsic value we accord a being, the less permissible it is for us to harm that being. … When we racialize others, we think of them as occupying inferior rank within the human community. But when we dehumanize others, we exclude them from the human community.”
For European thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, white people were considered at the highest level of humanity, while Blacks and Native Americans were at the lowest. For Nazis, Jews were excluded altogether. This was also the case for Black people in the U.S. under slavery and Jim Crow laws.
The search for biological markers to distinguish between different social groups and rationalize oppression has a long history. Smith reminds us that during the Middle Ages the prevailing belief was that royal blood was distinct, and the nobility and commoners could be differentiated on this basis. And in 15th-century Spain, the so-called purity of blood laws, locally known as “limpieza de sangre,” excluded from public life Jews and Muslims who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Two centuries later, European scientists incorrectly associated blood with race, and the Nazi movement and Third Reich elites zealously embraced the concept of blood purity in the 20th century. For some racists, even bodily fluids such as breast milk or semen were thought to carry biological markers of race. So Nazis decided to look into “ancestral proof” of racial identity to determine one’s racial status. According to the Nuremberg Laws from 1935, one was Jewish if at least three of the person’s grandparents were Jews. (They sought inspiration in Jim Crow laws too, yet found the American “one-drop rule” too extreme. According to that rule, called “hypodescent,” even one Black ancestor made one nonwhite.)
Despite the volumes written on the ideological context of racialization and dehumanization of European Jews from the late Middle Ages to the present, disagreements remain about when this began. In the earliest Christian writing, like the Gospel of John, Jewish people were seen as Satan’s progeny. Then in late antiquity, philosopher Augustine of Hippo promoted the anti-Jewish stereotypes identifying Judas, the betrayer of Christ, with all Jewish people. Smith argues that European Jews began to be racialized as early as the 11th century, when the brutal Crusades signaled the beginning of systematic oppression, which worsened in the 12th and 13th century. The idea of an international Jewish conspiracy reemerged a century later with the association of Jews with the plague and cannibalistic “blood libel” in which Jews were accused of kidnapping Christian children and, once again, murderers of Christ.
Even when there was an option for medieval Jews to convert to Christianity, for example in 15th-century Spain, they were still “accused of retaining their Jewishness.” As Smith puts it:
“Strange as it may sound to the twenty-first-century ear, it was possible for the medieval mind to racialize Jews while at the same time holding that Jews can be transformed into Christians. … That this was possible did not entail that it was always actual. Jews might merely appear to open their hearts to the grace of God, deceiving the Christians around them and stubbornly protecting their Jewish essence.”
After the Jews were racialized, dehumanization as subhuman beasts followed, whether as serpents, bats, vermin or “Judensau” (Jew pig). Then came the phase of representation as diabolical monsters, manticores. In the 19th century, the idea of “Untermensch” — the subhuman enemy of the German race — replaced the Christ killer idea. As per an SS booklet, the Untermensch is described both with human features and nonhuman descriptions. Under Nazi ideology, Jews were not just rats — but even worse — they were rat humans. In German they were called “unheimlich,” a word that is translated in English as “uncanny,” but Smith finds the word “creepy” a more pertinent translation. Thus, dehumanizers see dehumanized people as uncanny, “wholly human and as wholly subhuman.” This makes way for even the most vulnerable parts of society to be perceived as dangerous monsters. Smith asserts that the act of “making people into monsters is a consequence of dehumanization rather than its aim.” To be able to hurt fellow human beings, dehumanizers need to turn their targets not into animals but into monsters instead.
In the Balkans, there has been a burgeoning scholarship on the ways in which race played a part in the construction of national identity over different periods in the former Yugoslavia and more broadly in Southeast Europe. Scholar Catherine E. Baker has addressed different applications of scientific racism, eugenics, and ideologies of racial purity and antisemitism as they were adapted to the “existing Yugoslav ethnonational identity hierarchies.” Marko Atilla Hoare, a British expert on Balkan history, wrote about racialization and dehumanization of Bosniaks that led to Bosnian genocide. In his book, “Bosnia and Herzegovina, Genocide, Justice and Denial,” Hoare discusses similarities between anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudice in the Balkans. With the exceptions of Albania and Croatia, he writes:
“In the Balkans, at least, the model for chauvinism that anti-Semitism provides — in which prejudice against a religious community evolves into an ethnic or racial prejudice — is the rule rather than the exception. Religious and ethnic prejudice are not distinct categories, and it makes no historical sense to see them as such.”
That is why, like the Jews, albeit for different reasons, people of Muslim heritage in the former Yugoslavia have also been perceived as “Christ-killers” and race traitors in Serbian national mythology. According to the ideology of Christoslavism, thoroughly explained by Michael Sells in his book “The Bridge Betrayed,” Slavs are held to be Christian in their essence. Religious conversion translates to “racial deformation.” Slavic Muslims, in other words, are “deformed” polluters. They are also held responsible for the death of martyred Prince Lazar of Serbia who was killed in the famous Kosovo Battle with the invading Ottomans in 1389. The Serb nation, which supposedly “died” with him, would be resurrected after he is “raised from the dead and the descendants of Lazar’s killers are purged from the Serbian people.”
During the 19th century, Lazar was transformed into a Christ-like figure in art and literature by Serbian nationalist writers. Montenegrin Serb leader Vladika Petar II Petrović, better known as Njegoš, played a central role. Njegoš — whose “vladika” title combined the roles of prince and bishop — became (in)famous for his hateful nationalist literature, particularly “The Mountain Wreath” (“Gorski vijenac”) from 1847, in which he wrote that Slavic Muslims are “Turkifiers” (“Poturice”), while “Turks” are “blasphemers” and “spitters on the cross.” The relationship between Orthodox Christians and Muslims is portrayed as a fight between good and evil. It is no wonder that Njegoš’s historical drama glorifies the extermination of Muslim men, women and children at the hands of Serb warriors on Christmas Eve. Genocidal violence is presented as being as sacred as baptism.
This racialization of Bosniaks has endured throughout history, while their dehumanization both retains old tropes and reflects new ones. Before the latest genocide, ultranationalist elites propagated these tropes through media smear campaigns and different state and religious channels, including the ideological bastion of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU).
Sells calls this persisting mythology “the Kosovo ideology,” which “helps efface the boundaries between notions of religion and race and turns religious nationalism into the most virulent form of racialist ideology.” Just one example: before the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s, on Oct. 24, 1991, the Serb members of the Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina formed a separate legislative body, the Assembly of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In his essay, “Genocide by Plebiscite: The Bosnian Serb Assembly and Social Construction of ‘Turks’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Emir Suljagić, director of Srebrenica Memorial Center, outlines his analysis of statements made by members of the assembly from October 1991 to October 1995. The documents show that Bosniaks were depicted as an outside political community and subhuman aliens who needed to vanish to satisfy the Bosnian Serb elite’s visions for “Greater Serbia.” Radovan Karadžić stated in October 1991 that the “Muslim people would just disappear because once armed conflict started, they could not defend themselves.”
The records and transcripts from these assembly sessions elucidate how the highest legislative and decision-making body in part of the Bosnian territory held by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) cultivated hate against Bosniaks. In May 1992, these deputies adopted a decision on “Six strategic goals of the Serb people,” which established genocidal intent against Bosniaks in eastern Bosnia. During the 24th Assembly session on Jan. 8, 1993, Vlado Kovačević described the Serbs as facing a “two-headed dragon … that has opened his jaws over the Serb people in order to swallow it, to destroy it, to wipe it off the face of the earth. Both heads, the Islamic one as well as the Vatican one, are equally dangerous for us.” During the same session, Savo Čorda attested that Bosniaks are worse “than the Turk himself.” At the next session, two weeks later, Vojislav Maksimović blamed “the growing Asiatic contagion” for the outbreak of violence. He added that Serbs, unlike Bosniaks — whom he referred to with familiar tropes as “renegades and apostates from our faith” — are not “an Asiatic sect, [sown] by an erratic wind across the Balkans.” On Jan. 9, 1994, at the ceremonial session of the assembly on the third anniversary of Republika Srpska, Karadžić stated that Serbs “knew how to recognize ancient danger posed by the toxic, all-destructive Islamic octopus that skillfully takes on various guises, but which is, with all its variability and ambiguity, constant in its irreconcilable poisonousness toward the Serbian Orthodox being.”
With a genocidal ideology in place, together with historical and literary myths and new frames that portrayed Bosniaks as posing a physical and political danger to local Serbs (for example by conspiratorially planning to outbreed them), the executions would continue unabated.
Today, politicians like Milorad Dodik and other propagators of the toxic “Greater Serbia” hegemonic ideology, now known as “Serb World,” continue to threaten the breakup of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian genocide denial aside, the continuation of overused but very potent racist tropes against Bosniaks and Albanians endures in the region. Strong currents of historical revisionism and extremist ideologies have also created fertile ground for regional and international far-right white supremacist groups. Terrorists in bloody attacks from Norway to New Zealand have copied Serb nationalist themes and anti-Muslim slurs. All of this is even more dangerous when considered within the geopolitical conjuncture of European populism, xenophobia and growing nativism. Moreover, in the post 9/11 world, as Baker states, Bosniaks have stood at a “specific intersection of identity and marginalisation. While Bosniaks’ skin colour would racialise them as white-but-‘ethnic’ in the US, white-but-linguistically-visible-as-eastern-European in Europe, their religious heritage positioned them in the racialised, stigmatised and securitised category of ‘Muslim.’ ”
All these circumstances have dictated possibilities for solidarities in the face of new and old threats. Therein lies the importance of understanding the relationship between racialization and dehumanization; we know, as Smith asserts, that once dehumanizing ideologies become entrenched, they can always reappear, “granting them new life and catastrophic power.”
While fighting against dehumanizing Serbian nationalist ideologies is not only exhausting, it has sadly continued to be a matter of life and death for Bosniaks. Hoare puts it well: “Just as Jewish atheists will always be the Christ-killers or ritual slaughterers of Christian children in the eyes of certain anti-Semites, so Bosnian Muslim and Albanian atheists will always be jihadis in the eyes of Islamophobes.”
What I fear is that such ethnofascist ideologies can’t change. They cause lasting harm across the world, and we must continue confronting them.