Dealing with Hate Propaganda: the similarities between Nazi and Interahamwe

Posted: November 3, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Discrimination and its promotion through hate propaganda disturb peace and can pave the way to massive human rights violations such as genocide. Hate propaganda is the public promotion or incitement of hatred against people and identifiable groups and that is likely to result in harm to those targeted. It is directed at persons or groups based on factors such as color, race, religion, nationality, or ethnic origin.

Hate propaganda causes harm to individuals by degrading them, attacking their dignity and sense of self-worth. It also hurts society as a whole, because it destroys social harmony and encourages discrimination and violence, thus creating a hostile environment for the targeted members of that same society. Hate propaganda is defined as a crime in most domestic law systems and in international law.

Propaganda serves to dehumanize the members of the targeted group. It degrades them and stigmatizes them, creating the necessary illusion that the identifiable group is the enemy. Propaganda has more than once contributed to the development of a climate that led to the implementation or toleration of exclusionary behavior, and hate speech has preceded massive physical persecutions. Propaganda is used to trivialize the importance of crimes committed against its targets, it confers a sense of social acceptability and even desirability upon those crimes. This was the case with both the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide.

Propaganda is the starting point of the progression that leads to genocide. Beginning with limited propaganda directed at an identifiable group, the crime moves to more systematic propaganda, then to state-sponsored hate speech, and finally to the direct incitement to hate, ultimately giving rise to publicly-supported, mass crimes.

The Role of Hate Propaganda in Causing Genocide

Propaganda has a long-term effect. Its repercussions can take years to appear, making it more difficult to regulate than direct acts and overt public incitements to genocide. Propagandist rhetoric dulls the conscience, thus furthering the development of a social psyche willing to tolerate inhumanities. It works to modify people’s normal and expected reaction, leading them to accept, rather than condemn, discriminatory behavior. The propagandist uses speech to persuade others to his view, or at least to create a climate in which the oppression he champions is acceptable.

Propaganda legitimizes aggression by conveying the message that something has to be done regarding a targeted group. Genocide requires such a collective agreement among perpetrators and also bystanders. Direct incitement to genocide is usually not enough, it generally needs to be based on a pre-established ideology, shared by an indoctrinated population. In a culture already inundated with anti-Semitic or anti-Tutsi propaganda, and in which inter-group tensions are high, innuendos about the killing of members of those groups may be enough to instigate violence, eliminating the need for explicit calls to violence. In a context of economic difficulties, social and political turmoil, or during a war, propaganda becomes even more efficient. In such situations people are often disconnected from certain aspects of society, and thus cannot assess the accuracy of what they are being told, allowing propagandists to create rumors and invent “facts” that suit their goals.

The Nazis raised anti-Semitic propaganda to an unprecedented level by turning it into a state-sponsored dogma. Nonetheless, the Nazis based their implementation of propaganda on pre-existing linguistic casuistry. They took well-known, popular anti-Jewish sentiment and systemized it, and in so doing they cleared the way for the devestation of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, in other words, required lengthy propaganda preparation to induce the different actors involved—the perpetrators to commit such actions and the population to be numb vis-à-vis such a catastrophe.

Propaganda was the springboard from which the Nazis launched the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was disseminated by many, including government representatives such as Josef Goebbels and full-time anti-Semitic propagandists and ideologues such as Julius Streicher, the publisher of the notorious anti-Semitic newspaperDer Stürmer. Streicher may not have been a murderer himself, but he created the climate for murder. After the war, Streicher was at Nuremberg for his propagandist’s role in bringing about the Holocaust. Without the climate Streicher established, the court held, the Holocaust would probably never have taken place, because too many would have rejected the orders to execute Jews. Thus, the court suggested that Streicher may have been even more responsible for the crimes than the other defendants who appeared with him in the dock. The final judgment rendered by the International Military Tribunal does not explicitly note a direct causal link between Streicher’s publications and any specific murders, but characterizes his work as a poison “injected into the minds of thousands of Germans which caused them to follow the National Socialists’ policy of Jewish persecution and extermination.” Streicher was found guilty of crimes against humanity because of his propaganda.

Form, Means, Strategy and Diffusion of Propaganda

Hate propaganda takes many different forms. It can be disseminated in public meetings, through radio, television, movies, books, pamphlets, graffiti, government sponsored messages, telephone messages, gestures, signs or other visible representations. More recently, the Internet has become a popular medium for the dissemination of hate propaganda.

Propagandists prefer simple and clear arguments and descriptions over complex ones. It targets the emotions of its audience, rather than the intellect, and it seeks to build up a disdain for rational dissenting arguments or explanations. Propagandists are often charismatic orators. They tend to use straightforward, colorful language. They employ images, symbols, and evocative examples. Effective racist propaganda is usually couched in simple terms, and touches citizens emotionally through examples and stories to which they can relate. Streicher, for example, used caricature and cartoons to represent Jews, and argued that the hard times that German’s were suffering were all caused by the Jews.

Propaganda themes are repeated frequently, preferably using all forms of the media. Exclusionary speeches, constantly repeated, break down the normal resistance of their audiences, and people soon begin to wonder if what is being said about the targeted group might actually be true. Such speeches are not intended to convert their listeners with genuine arguments; rather, they are aimed at creating a kind of emotional and intellectual numbness. As the message spreads through the various media, the messages become so omipresent that their truth begins to appear self-evident.

Key words are repeated to remain in the listeners’ minds. The technique is to hit the same themes over and over again, until the audience internalizes the major points. In the Rwanda genocide, a propagandist named Mugesera constantly repeated the warning that Hutus beware that the Inyenzi (cockroaches, an epithet used against the Tutsis of Rwanda) and their accomplices. Listeners were gradually conditioned to associate the Tutsis with the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR), a rebel faction that was accused of wanting and trying to overthrow the Hutu lead government. By constantly linking the term Inkotanyi (infiltrators, a term for the FPR) with Inyenzi, he effectively accused all Tutsis of being infiltrators as well. The intent was to blur the distinction between the rebels and Tutsi civilians in order to justify the widespread killing of Tutsis as a preventive measure.

Der Stürmer worked in much the same way. The publication helped the Nazis persuade as many people as possible that first, there was a problem in regard to the Jewish question, and second, that it was absolutely critical to solve it. The concept, reproduced in many different ways, was that the Jews were responsible for all the evils of the world in general, and for Germany’s misfortune in particular, and that the world would therefore be better off if all the Jews were wiped out.

Propagandists use various techniques and media to make their statements more appealing. Sex and horror stories in which Jews were portrayed as evildoers were frequently added to Der Stürmer, allowing Streicher to sell more copies and reach an even broader audience. The cinema played a central role in the Nazi’s propaganda strategy, as well. It reached a large audience and could add the power of visual imagery to the propaganda message. The Nazis spread propaganda by shooting fictional films and false documentaries such as Der ewige Jude, depicting Jews in very unfavorable ways. Goebbels himself ordered the creation of such films. Graphic representations, cartoons, and manipulated photographs of the targeted group are also common in the propagandists’ arsenal. Der Stürmer, in Nazi Germany, and Kangura, the anti-Tutsi newspaper in Rwanda, both employed these media. The “Fips” cartoons, which portrayed Jews in the most exaggerated stereo-types, were a regular feature in Der Stürmer. In Rwanda, Kangura regularly featured cartoons of Prime Ministers Uwilingiyimana, Twagiramungu, and General Dallaire (who lead the UN peacekeeping force), depicting them in unfavorable situations and employing popular stereotypes.

The use of stereotypes furthers the audience’s acceptance of propaganda because the images are so familiar. Stereotypes provide the audience with a common denominator. The Nazis based the identification of the Jews on exaggerated physical attributes. Propagandists added to the stereotypes by describing Jews as cockroaches, vermin, rats, and spiders. In Der Stürmer, Jews were described as bent-nosed, fat, and having unpleasant features. It then attempted to establish a link between stereotypical impressions of Jews with current or historical events. For instance, Der Strürmer accused Jews of conducting ritual murders during which Christians were killed.

In Rwanda, the Tutsis were stereotyped as inherent liars, thieves, and killers. Kangura also depicted the Tutsis as biologically distinct from the Hutus and as being consumed by malice and wickedness. Radio Télévision Libra Mille-Collines (RTLMC), the local media outlet, joined in the propaganda effort, accusing the Tutsis of being plotters and parasites, and using the Tutsis’ historical domination of Rwandan politics and society as a propaganda tool: Tutsis were still perceived as “the ones who have all the money,” a reference to the fact that a Tutsi royalty once ruled Hutus. Tutsi women were stereotyped as tall and slim with a “beautiful nose,” thus very attractive to male Hutus. Tutsi women, because of these alleged attributes, were accused of being enemy agents, used by the Inyenzi to deprave Hutu men.

Propaganda seeks to reverse normal allocation of the burden of proof, forcing their targets onto the defense. It also seeks to generate the sense of constant threat, so that its audience is forced to be vigilant vis-àvis the targeted group. By spreading fear, propagandists gather ever larger groups of supporters. Kangura persistently conveyed the message that Tutsis intended to conquer the country in order to restore the Tutsi feudal monarchy, subduing all Hutus. Kangura repeated that the enemy was among them, waiting to strike, and that the day would come when Hutus would have to defend themselves. RTLMC also played on the public’s fear of an armed Tutsi insurrection. In a speech, Mugesera made repeated references to this fear, not to ease it but to inflame it. Mugesera pleaded, “the one whose neck you don’t cut is the one who will cut your neck.”

The Role of Propaganda in the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide

The Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are two of the clearest examples of propagandist exploitation of racist beliefs among the broader popularion. In both cases, the propagandist’s work paved the way to genocide.

Propaganda in Germany

The Nazis exploited racist ideology and economic hardship to influence a nation to persecute a minority. It offered a scapegoat to a population that had been defeated in World War I and was suffering under the burden of a devastated post-war economy. Germany’s disastrous situation was portrayed as mono-causal: the Jews were to blame for everything. Anti-Semite propaganda had become common even before Hitler came to power.

The source of much of this early propaganda, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a famous anti-Semitic document—was widely circulated. It is a work of fiction that allegedly contains the minutes of a meeting held by a shadowy group of Jewish Elders, and sets forth their fictional plan to take over the world. The document employed all the commonly used religious and physical stereotypes associated with the Jews. Judeophobia, inflamed by documents such as The Protocols, proved an effective tool for bringing together a broad cross sampling of German society, drawn from religious, intellectual, and political walks of life. That the document was exposed as a fraud in the early 1920s did not stop anti-Semites from referring to it. In fact, it is still used by Holocaust deniers to support their claim that the Holocaust is just another myth created by the world’s Jewry to achieve their ultimate goal of global domination.

When the Nazis came to power, propaganda became a government policy, used to create a climate that would support the genocidal plans of Hitler and his followers. Goebbels, serving as the Minister of Information and Propaganda, controlled all of Germany’s media outlets and later assumed the same control over media in the occupied territories. Goebbels was the father of propagandist strategies such as the “Big Lie Theory,” in which he argued that by repeating lies about the Jews and progressively magnifying these lies, he could increase public acceptance of the lies and mobilize public support for Hitler’s policies.

Public boycott campaigns against Jewish businesses were made possible through propaganda. Legislation was passed to isolate and stigmatize all Jews. This was followed by state-sponsored, anti-Semitic propaganda to galvanize the intolerance of the non-Jewish population. This approach led to Kristallnacht, an anti-Jewish riot organized by Goebbels. The strategy was extremely successful. Beginning on November 9, 1938, and continuing well into the next day, German citizens who had been exposed to hate propaganda directed at Jews exploded into the streets to burn synagogues, destroy Jewish properties, and kill Jews.

Propaganda in Rwanda

The newspaper, Kangura, and the audio-visual media controlled by RTLMC were instrumental in systematically spreading propaganda against the Tutsis. Kangura published cartoons and editorials that inflamed Hutu prejudices against Tutsis, and ultimately published the so-called Hutus’ Ten Commandments, which comprised a blanket condemnation of all Tutsis on the sole basis of their ethnicity.

Rwanda’s high illiteracy rate meant, however, that Kangura could reach only a limited audience. For nonreaders, the radio played a significant role both before and during the genocide. RTLMC was used to broadcast orders and detailed information on the positions and names of Tutsis to be killed. United States–based NGOs pleaded to have the airwaves jammed during the genocide, but the U.S. government opposed the idea.

After the genocide was ended, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) brought charges against the management of both the RTLMC and Kangura. The court held that both media outlets indulged in ethnic stereotyping in a manner that promoted hatred for the Tutsis, and were thus implicated in the genocide.

Leon Mugesera’s Speech

On November 22, 1992, Leon Mugesera made a speech that was repeated on Rwandan radio and in which he frequently uttered incitements to hatred for the Tutsis. In January 1993, an international human rights fact-finding mission to Rwanda found the country in a state of turmoil and agitation provoked in part by Mugesera’s speech. Mugesera eventually fled Rwanda to take refuge in Canada, but the Canadian authorities tried to deport him for having committed a criminal act before obtaining his permanent residence. The criminal act to which they referred was the speech he had given, back in 1992.

In his speech, Mugesera claimed that FPR rebels were in secret collusion with all of Rwanda’s Tutsis. Mugesera’s speech was made two years after the Hutus’ Ten Commandments had appeared in Kangura, at a time when other propaganda outlets were increasingly active in the attempt to isolate all Tutsis. Mugesera’s speech was intended to build upon that propaganda effort, to encourage Hutus to seek out and kill Tutsis, civilian or otherwise, because they were all, in his words, infiltrators and traitors to Rwanda.

The Canadian courts failed to recognize the true meaning of Mugesera’s speech, and declined to deport him. The court failed to recognize Mugesera’s genocidal intent because he couched his incitements to violence in indirect and figurative language, but the incitement he intended was nonetheless clear to Rwanda’s Hutus as a call to mobilize against all Tutsis. The court only considered the literal content of the speech, and lacked the understanding of the social context in which the speech was made. It did not recognize that there was a direct link between the speech and the genocide that ensued eighteen months later. It could not understand that thousands of killers were following orders passed by various means after a propaganda campaign initiated years before. Mugesera was not deported, but the prosecution has filed an appeal to challenge the court’s decision.

Legal Issues Facing the Regulation of Hate Propaganda

Measures to eradicate harmful propaganda are controversial. Hate propaganda undermines the humanity of those targeted, but democratic societies are reluctant to pass laws limiting the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is probably the most universally recognized human right. Most international human rights instruments, as well as numerous national constitutions, contain provisions protecting it. The freedom to express one’s opinion constitutes one of the basic conditions for society’s progress and for the development of every human being. Unfortunately, such freedom is not always used for the benefit of that society. History, in many circumstances, has demonstrated that harmful propaganda has led to tragic events such as crimes against humanity and genocide. In most cases, propaganda is in fact the prerequisite for such crimes. That is why freedom of speech comes with duties and responsibilities.

Most international human rights instruments and international jurisprudence recognize that language can cause severe social harm, and that the suppression of hate speech is warranted when it is needed to protect other rights, such as equality. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that freedom of speech may be subject to restrictions when they are necessary to guarantee respect for the rights of others. Similar to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention), the ICCPR contains a provision that nothing in the instrument should be interpreted as granting any person the right to engage in an activity aimed at the destruction of any of the other rights recognised by the ICCPR. International bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights have developed a considerable jurisprudence on the limitation of freedom of expression. When faced with restrictions of that freedom, the court views that it is not faced with two conflicting rights, but with a freedom of expression that is subject to a number of exceptions, which, in turn, need to be interpreted narrowly.

There are two opposing approaches concerning the regulation of hate speech and propaganda. The causationist approach, supported mainly by the United States, requires that a direct causal link be proved to exist between the expression and the harm such expression has allegedly caused. Without that link, there can be no limitation imposed on the freedom of speech. The correlationist approach, supported by a broad international consensus, requires the regulation of hate speech if there is a rational correlation between the expression and the harm that ensues afterward.

Hate Speech Regulation in International Law

The regulation of hate speech revolves around the interplay between and the reconciliation of the freedom of expression and the right of equality. There is an international consensus that hate speech threatens democracy, justice, and equality, which is why so many countries attempt to prohibit it. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide declares direct and public incitement to commit genocide is a punishable act, but goes no further, and it omits hate propaganda in its list of crimes. Two subsequent international instruments have gone a step further than simply acknowledging the limits of the freedom of speech by requiring states to penalize hate propaganda.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law. Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination (CERD) is even more precise. States that are party to the convention must adopt positive measures to eradicate incitement to discrimination, and must declare a punishable offense all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin. The United States signed the document in 1966, but ratified it only in 1994. Ratification was made with reservations to protect the freedom of speech doctrine developed in the United States, thus making the ratification of that point almost pointless.

International jurisprudence recognizes the possibility, even the obligation, of limiting free speech when faced with expressions of negative value, like hate speech. The ICCPR Committee has affirmed the duty of states to restrict the freedom of expression in order to assure the protection of others rights. In a case involving Holocaust denial, which is viewed by France as a subtle form of anti-Semitic propaganda, the committee expressed the view that the prosecution of the defendant, Faurisson, did not breach his fundamental right of freedom of expression.

The European Convention does not contain any specific provision dealing with hate propaganda. In numerous cases, the European Commission of Human Rights has nonetheless excluded hate propaganda from the protection of Article 10, which otherwise safeguards the freedom of speech. For the commission, hate propaganda is contrary to the text and spirit of the European Convention and contributes to the destruction of the rights and freedoms set forth therein.

In two cases, the European Court of Human Rights has dealt explicitly with hate propaganda and has made it clear that hate speech regulation was compatible with the European Convention. Recognizing the utmost importance of the freedom of speech, the court nonetheless agreed that the convention should be interpreted, whenever possible, in a way reconcilable with the CERD, which explicitly prohibits hate speech. Denial of the Holocaust and the justification of pro-Nazi policies were considered to be a form of hate and racist propaganda that was not protected by the free-expression provisions of Article 10 of the convention.

Hate Speech Regulation in Canada

Canada has a comprehensive legal mechanism with regard to freedom of speech and hate propaganda. Article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the freedom of speech. Similar to the limitation clauses found in international instruments, Article 1 of the charter recognizes that fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression are nonetheless subject to limits which need to be reasonable, prescribed by law, and justified in a free and democratic society.

Willful public incitement to hatred for any identifiable groups is a criminal offense in Canada. The Canadian Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the findings in the case of Keegstra, which involved a teacher who had taught that Jews were “child killers,” and “treacherous,” and that the Holocaust was a myth. The court found that the defendant had abused his right to freedom of speech and recognized the role of the government in penalizing hate propaganda. The court further held that hate propaganda harmed both the targeted persons and groups—by humiliating and degrading them—and society as a whole. It emphasized the longterm harmful influence of propaganda, recognizing that messages of racial discrimination and hatred can remain in one’s mind for a long period of time. In other cases, the Canadian Supreme Court has stated that hate propaganda threatens society by eroding the tolerance and open-mindedness that must flourish in a multicultural society committed to the idea of equality.

Hate Speech Regulation in the United States.

In the United States, only the narrowest and absolutely necessary restrictions of the freedom of expression are justified. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It does not provide grounds by which the government may justify limitations of that freedom.

In most instances, jurisprudence in the United States does not recognize the link between propaganda and the harm that may ensue therefrom. It imposes the demonstration of a clear and present danger before a limitation of free speech may be considered constitutional. Under that test, restrictions can be justified only when violence is clearly likely to arise from the expression, that the danger will occur very soon after the expression, and that no other reasonable means of preventing the violence can be used. It is not sufficient to demonstrate that there is a probability that the expression might cause such violence. The Supreme Court does not recognize the long-term effect of propaganda. The First Amendment may allow legislation to prohibit hate speech that advocates the use of force, but only in very narrowly defined circumstances.

Suppression of expression based on content is generally prohibited in U.S. law, and is considered to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has extended this prohibition of content-based regulation, rendering the regulation of speech targeting identifiable groups even more difficult to justify. In a case involving the burning of a cross in an African-American family’s yard, the law became involved because the act was listed as a misdemeanour under a local St. Paul ordinance. However, the ordinance itself was found to discriminate against expression based on the content of that expression, and so it was found to contravene the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held the view that only a prohibition of all fighting words would be justifiable under the Constitution, whereas the selective prohibition of racist hate speech and anti-Semitic speeches or displays was unconstitutional. This ruling, along with the imminent threat test and the total lack of recognition of the long-term effect of propaganda, makes the prohibition of hate speech in the United States almost impossible.

The United States believes in an idealized free market of ideas, in which all acts of expression should be allowed to compete. Under this approach, it follows that citizens should be exposed to all sorts of expression. The approach basically considers an expression as a commodity, for it puts hate speech and any other expression on an equal basis, and it considers the opposition between hate propaganda and counter-argument as a legitimate debate. This relies on the premise that truth and reason will always prevail over hate propaganda, and that intolerance can be countered by more free expression. This idealism, however, is questionable in the light of history. Even in two of the most recent cases of hate propaganda, it was not reason but military victory that put an end to the hate speech that characterized Nazi propaganda as well as the Rwandan incitements to genocide.

Racist behavior takes time to gain general acceptance. Even when it does not pose an immediate threat to society, propaganda is the first step leading toward extermination policies. It establishes the basis upon which genocide can later be justified, however inappropriately. Propaganda prepares society for the crimes committed in its name by making the messages it is conveying acceptable to those who are systematically exposed to them. The Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide are but two examples in which propaganda was allowed, tolerated, and supported, ultimately paving the way to tragic events. This contradicts the philosophy underlying the U.S. policy toward freedom of expression. Unfortunately, there is little historical support for the idea that hate propaganda will simply go away by itself or fall to well-reasoned counterarguments. The more society tolerates hate speech, the more frequent it is likely to become accepted, thus increasing the probability of success of the message that is being conveyed.

SEE ALSO DenialDer StürmerGoebbels, JosephIncitementRadio Television Libre Mille-Collines


Bytwerk, Randall L. (2001). Julius Streicher: Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semitic Newspaper, Der Stürmer.New York: Cooper Square Press.

Guttenplan, D. D. (2001). The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gaudreault-DesBiens, Jean-François (2000). “From Sisyphus’s Dilemma to Sisyphus’s Duty? A Meditation on the Regulation of Hate Propaganda in Relation to Hate Crimes and Genocide.” McGill Law Journal 46(121):122.

Schabas, William A. (2000). Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tsesis, Alexander (2002). Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way to Harmful Social Movements. New York: New York University Press.

Source: Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

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