To be or not to be human: Resolving the paradox of dehumanisation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Dehumanisation is a puzzling phenomenon. Nazi propaganda likened the Jews to rats, but also portrayed them as ‘poisoners of culture’. In the Soviet Union, the Stalinist regime called opponents vermin, yet put them on show trials. During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus identified the Tutsis with cockroaches, but nonetheless raped Tutsi women. These examples reveal tensions in the way in which dehumanisers perceive, portray and treat victims. Dehumanisation seems to require that perpetrators both deny and acknowledge the humanity of their victims in certain ways. Several scholars have proposed solutions to this so-called ‘paradox of dehumanisation’ that question the usefulness of dehumanisation as a concept to explain genocidal violence, claim that dehumanisation is characterised by an unstable belief in the non-human essence of the dehumanised, or contend that dehumanisation revolves around a denial of metaphysical human status. The main aim of this article is to present a novel framework for theorising dehumanisation that offers a more straightforward solution to this paradox based on the idea that perpetrators deny their victims’ human standing in a moral sense without necessarily negating their biological human status or human subjectivity. The article illustrates this framework through examples drawn from Primo Levi’s memoirs of Auschwitz.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-95
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Journal of Political Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Auschwitz
  • dehumanisation
  • genocide
  • Holocaust
  • humanity
  • Primo Levi
  • propaganda
  • subjectivity
  • violence

Cite this