Hate Propaganda: Words as Knives

Hate Propaganda: Words as Knives

Case Study Author

Paola Forgione

Paola Forgione is a Visiting Post-Doctoral Researcher at King's College, London. Case study published 2013.

Chapter 1 - Introduction

This case study analyses the use of hate propaganda in political discourse, moving from the Nazi regime to current European far-right parties focusing on Switzerland and Italy. The following sections will underline striking similarities that exist between early-20th century Nazi propaganda campaigns against the Jews on the one hand, and current campaigns against immigrants on the other. Both campaigns create, spread and tirelessly repeat identical stereotypes and prejudices targeting a specific group, the Jews for the Nazis and immigrants for contemporary far-right parties. In both cases, the members of the targeted group are pictured as inherently evil, and their removal is commended as the panacea which can solve all social and economic issues facing the country in a given historical moment.

Although propaganda campaigns do normally consist of coarse and simplistic messages, the ‘art’ of manipulation is quite sophisticated and complex. By presenting its contents in a captivating and simple way, propaganda provides the masses with a crystal clear solution to society’s problems, and spares the people from engaging in the analysis of social complexities. In times of recession hate propaganda is often used by political parties to exploit the electorate’s anger and frustration, by persuading them that a given group is the enemy at the very heart of the crisis, while at the same time promising to defeat this enemy. With that in mind, the following study will explore the sophisticated techniques used by propagandists to incite hatred, and the role this plays in furthering the political objectives of far right parties (see Chomsky and Herman 1988).


Chapter 2 - Nazism

Goebbels, well-aware of media power, launched a hate campaign against the Jews through all the means of communications media available at that time, including art, cinema and the press.

Between 1937 and 1939 Goebbels sponsored the travelling exhibition “Der ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”), which was held in Munich, Vienna and Berlin, and attracted approximately 412,300 visitors. The exhibit presented a collection of stereotypes and prejudices against the Jews

Nazi propaganda was also disseminated through cinema. For example, Goebbels commissioned a cinematic version of “Der ewidge Jude”, which was released in 1940. It was filmed in the form of a documentary, in order to appear more realistic and to strengthen its power of persuasion over the spectator. Through the use of contrast this self-styled documentary portrays the Jews as opportunistic, parasitical and individualistic; and the ‘Aryans’ as hardworking, honest and sensitive. 

The press also played a major role in spreading animosity and intolerance against the Jew among the German people. In particular, the weekly magazine “Der Sturmer”, published from 1923 until 1945, used provocative caricatures and inflammatory articles to label the Jews as the obscure force responsible for Germany’s disgraces. Every issues of the magazine read in the subheading: “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck!” (“Jews are our misfortune!”). 

Through propaganda the Nazis depicted the Jews as an insidious peril threatening German ‘Aryan’ society. Ultimately, the Nazis aimed to convince the people that the elimination of the Jews was not only legitimate, but also necessary.   



Chapter 3 - Hate Propaganda Today

Incitement to hatred is sometimes misunderstood as particular to those regimes where human rights are poorly implemented. However, modern democratic systems can also offer fertile ground for hate propaganda, often masked as the mere exercise of freedom of expression. Current issues of illegal immigration, combined with the economic crisis and widespread unemployment, have presented a unique opportunity for far-right parties in European democratic countries to use migrants as scapegoats.

Through the repetition of certain stereotypes, which play on people’s fears and emotions, some far-right European parties have been conducting Nazi-style hate propaganda against migrants for many years. In particular, there are striking similarities between Nazi caricatures and posters on the one hand, and propaganda campaigns launched by the popular Swiss party “Union Démocratique Du Centre” (UDC) on the other. 

Although targeting different groups, both the Nazi and the UDC campaigns have employed the same methodology – to spread intolerance by stigmatizing, classifying and dehumanizing the group. Both campaigns have been designed to cast a stigma on the members of the targeted group by holding them responsible for social and economic problems. To this end, portraying the members of the group as violent criminals is a constant feature of the Nazi and the UDC campaigns, both endeavouring to convince the public that the mere presence of these  individuals in the country is per se jeopardizing the security of the people.  

In both images to the left the members of the targeted group are trampling the country, symbolised by a German citizen in the Nazi magazine caricature, and by the Swiss flag in the UDC poster. The Statue of Liberty in the background of the Nazi caricature suggests a secret alliance between the Jews and the United States. 

Hate propaganda can also imply that the targeted group is the accomplice of the ‘great enemy’, who varies according to the historical period: the Allies for the Nazis during World War II, or Islamic fundamentalists for modern democracies during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. 

The Nazi poster (left) portrays the Jew as the mastermind who is leading the Allies in the war against Germany. The 2004 UDC campaign displays an imagined Bin Laden Swiss ID, in order to ‘warn’ people of the appalling consequences that the enlargement of citizenship would lead to. The poster calls on Swiss citizens to vote ‘No’ in the forthcoming referendum on the simplification of citizenship rules with respect to second-generation immigrants, and automatic birthright citizenship to third-generation immigrants. The ‘No’ vote won the referendum, held in September 2004.

Speaking to people’s most instinctive and primordial emotions, propaganda inflames consciences and incites animosity and frustration. Allegations of sex crimes at the hands of men belonging to the targeted group plays an important role in stirring such feelings. Indeed, in xenophobic propaganda these men are often presented in the act of assaulting women who belong to the dominant group.

On the cover of Der Sturmer a terrified woman is threatened by a Jew, as revealed by the Star of David marked on the man’s ring finger, and by the stereotyped shadow on the wall behind the victim. As for the UDC propaganda, the photo appears in a section entitled “To what extent shall we tolerate crime perpetrated by foreigners?” of the 20-page booklet “Which policy would you like with respect to foreigners in Switzerland?”, that the UDC delivered by post to Swiss households in 2010. Although shrewdly presented as informative non-political material, this document combines photos, statistics (often generally referred as “police criminal statistics”) and witness statements, all claiming that the presence of migrants in Switzerland has led to an increase in the number of rapes, physical assaults, robberies and other crimes.  

No slogan can express terror better than facial expressions. In the caricatures to the left the women’s faces are paralysed by fear, their eyes are staring and their hands are posed in a desperate attempt at self-defence. The unspeakable peril is impending. A profound sense of anguish arises. In the case of Der Sturmer, which often portrayed naked women (to be catchier), the woman is assaulted by a snake, whose body is marked by several Stars of David. The UDC campaign against the accession of Switzerland to the Schengen area on the free movement of persons warned of the peril of foreign nationals coming to Switzerland to commit crimes and to exploit Swiss resources. 

Xenophobic propaganda frequently tries to support the credibility of its allegations against the targeted group by providing statistics and data showing that this group is endangering public security and wealth. Quantitative data gives a semblance of objectivity to the allegations contained in propaganda. The dangerousness of the group is presented as an undeniable truth. However, often propaganda fails to disclose the source of the data provided.  

In the Nazi movie Der ewige Jude, a wide range of crimes, including murder and rape, are ascribed to the Jews by unreferenced statistics.

In UDC propaganda statistics are frequently employed to show a sharp increase in violent crime as a consequence of migration. The three rats in the poster (right) are popular characters featured in the UDC campaigns.

The rat on the left represents an Italian cross-border worker, allegedly guilty of stealing jobs from the Swiss people. The rat in the background symbolises the Italian former Minister for Economy, whose so called “tax amnesty” was widely criticised in Switzerland. The rat on the right is an Eastern Europe bandit. He wears a T-shirt with the European Union flag, hinting that EU policies on free movement of persons are supporting his right to freely circulate in Switzerland. Like the 1940 Nazi movie, the UDC poster does not reveal the source of its statistical data. 

In other cases data is altered, manipulated or misinterpreted. The Ethics Board of Swiss Public Statistics (Conseil d’éthique de la statistique publique Suisse”) has on several occasions denounced the “attempt to mislead the public” carried out by the UDC by providing figures that are “incorrect and founded on misconceptions”.

Furthermore, hate propaganda regularly compares the miserable nature of those who belong to the target group (‘them’, ‘the other’) to the outstanding character of those who belong to the leading group (‘us’). For example, the above mentioned Nazi movie “Der ewidge Jude” shocked the spectators with disturbing images of cattle slaughtered by pitiless and cruel Jews, contrasting their lack of humanity with the Nazi’s legendary sensitivity for animal rights and Nazi laws requiring the use of anaesthetic in the butchery of animals. Amid the countless qualities of the dominant group, even physical appearance plays an important role.

Here the supposed natural beauty of the predominant group contrasts with the people of the targeted group. In the Nazi poster, the German young lady’s delicate profile clashes with the Jew’s exaggerated features. The photos published on the website of the UDC local branch in 2010 compare the Lake of Zurich before and after the ‘invasion’ of migrants: ungraceful ‘Eastern European-looking’ women replace young, naked ‘Swiss-looking’ women. 

In addition to labelling the members of the target group as endemically criminal and inferior, propaganda also aims to portray them as an entity alien to humane society, in order to hinder any possible solidarity between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Therefore, the members of the target group are represented as sly and repugnant animals, such as worms, cockroaches, or crows, pictured in the act of attacking the country or its people.

In both images to the left the enemy is presented as a vicious and avid animal. In the Nazi magazine the monster, marked with the Star of David, is shaking the world. The symbols of the American dollar and the British pound tattooed on its arm are aimed at bringing into the public’s mind both the Jew’s complicity with the enemy and his alleged greediness. The UDC campaign was launched against the enlargement of the free circulation of persons to include citizens from Romania and Bulgaria, and portrays the latter as crows who apparently feed on Switzerland. The unreal and oversized proportions of the animals enhance the frightening impact of both images. 

Again in these images the wicked animal, symbolising 'the other’, is attacking ‘us’. In the Nazi caricature, Germans are trapped in the Jew’s web. In the UDC poster, which appeared in the Italian speaking Canton of Switzerland during the 2011 federal election campaign, the Swiss bear “Berni” is roasted by foreign rats. By using a naive and peaceful bear to represent Swiss citizens, the poster emphasises their vulnerability when faced with the evil of nasty rats. 

A sense of fear and anger is the desired response of these campaigns, as well as an overwhelming need for protection. Hate propaganda also suggests that the other political parties won’t respond to this need, as they are only focused upon pursuing their own particular interests, rather than the security and wealth of the people. 

While Germany is crucified in the name of the ‘Young Plan’, carved in the cross, the political parties in the background fight and the Jew smirks. The latter is taking advantage of the situation by living off the poor German people. In the UDC poster, the parties (Partito Socialista Svizzero-PSS, Partito Popolare Democratico-PPD, Partito Liberale Radicale-PLR) are represented as cats, who are sleeping instead of doing their job –capturing rats. Their laziness allows the rats, namely Italians and East Europeans, to go undisturbed and attack Switzerland, symbolised by its popular cheese. In both cases, the party aims to show itself as the only actor in the political scene willing to listen to people’s needs and to tackle the ‘problem’ represented by the presence of ‘the other’ in the country.      

During electoral campaign the parties strengthen their commitment to protect the people by getting rid of the ‘threatening’ group. 

A sword with a swastika on the hilt stabs the head of the snake, marked with the Star of David. The blood pours out of its body in the semblance of words such as “Usury”, “Unemployment”, “War guilt”, “Young-Plan”, “Corruption”, “Terror” and “Prostitution”. The same mirage of a country free from crime and unemployment is at the very heart of the UDC electoral campaign of 2007. Its message is clear: for more security, kick the black sheep out of Switzerland.

Chapter 4 - A ‘successful’ story of hate propaganda

The comparison between Nazi and UDC propaganda demonstrates that propaganda is built on certain recurrent patterns. However, unlike the Nazis, the UDC has never called on, nor planned the physical annihilation of any groups, and it has always used democratic means to promote its ideology. Indeed, the Swiss system of direct democracy has helped the UDC translate some of its ideals into law. In particular, in 2007 the party launched a popular, and ultimately successful, initiative to limit freedom of religion by outlawing the building of new minarets, labeled as a symbol of non-integration and “Islamisation”. 

The UDC succeeded in presenting to the Swiss Parliament more than 100,000 signatures of Swiss citizens, the minimum needed to force a referendum under Swiss law.

 Although the Swiss Parliament recommended that people vote against the ban, the referendum, held on 29th November 2009, resulted in more than 57.5 per cent votes in favour of the prohibition to build new minarets. Accordingly the Swiss Constitution has been amended, and it now reads: “The construction of minarets is prohibited”.

 A substantial part of the Islamophobic campaigns conducted by the UDC against Muslims over the years rely on the power of images portraying Muslims as a threatening and insidious force.

One month after the referendum, two complaints were lodged before the European Court of Human Rights, by the former spokesman of the Mosque of Geneva and by several Swiss-Muslim associations. Both applicants submitted that the amended Swiss Constitution violated article 9 (freedom of religion) and article 14 (discrimination on the ground of religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the Court declared both applications inadmissible, since none of the complainants qualified as victim or potential victim, given that they did not intend to build any minarets.

No applications have been lodged since. Therefore, the European Court of Human Rights has not decided on the merit of the issue and the provision is still in force. Both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe strongly condemned the ban.


Chapter 5 – The Italian case

As outlined in the previous paragraph, UDC’s hate propaganda stands out due to the impact of its campaigns on the right to freedom of religion. However, the case of Switzerland is not unique, and several other instances of politically-led incitement to hatred can be found in other European countries. Interestingly, hate propaganda is sometimes undertaken by ethnic groups targeted in the UDC’s xenophobic campaigns. For example, in Italy the far-right party “Northern League” (“Lega Nord”) has been promoting prejudice and intolerance towards migrants for years by characterising them through the very same stereotypes used against Italians by Swiss far-right parties, including accusations that they are threats to the economy and national security. 

Like the naive bear in the Swiss propaganda, the defenceless Native American in the Italian propaganda is a metaphor to express the vulnerability of the supposedly threatened group against the might of the invader. These campaigns impel the public to make a decision: ‘us’ or ‘them’?

This propaganda portrays migrants as trampling on the rights of the dominant group. In the poster on the left, the stereotyped-looking Chinese, Gypsy, African and Muslim persons are preventing the elderly Italian man from accessing social care. The campaign suggests that ‘extra-European nationals’, as migrants are generally referred to by Italian media and politicians, are taking over the country’s welfare system to the detriment of the Italian people. In the poster on the right, the Northern League praises itself for the achievements of the ‘push-back’ policy against migrants launched in 2010 by the Italian government, at a time when the coalition government was composed of the People of Freedom and the Northern League. This ‘successful’ immigration policy was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as a violation of the non-refoulement principle.

Over the years the Northern League’s campaigns have spread a climate of xenophobia and racism with respect to immigrants. They are portrayed as a generic and undifferentiated mass of people who are coming to Italy illegally with the aim of exploiting the country’s resources. Concepts such as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugee’ find no place in the Northern League propaganda. Division and exclusion promoted by prominent political figures initiates an atmosphere of hostility against ‘the other’, and a sense of apathy and indifference towards violations of their rights. In this scenario, large-scale human rights abuses perpetrated by Italians against immigrants have not been a matter of concern either to politicians or to the media, and they have received very little public attention. 

Racist statements by Northern League mayors and local leaders are widespread, but of utmost concern are those expressions of racial hatred put forward by members of the party who hold leading positions within Parliament and Government. For example, in June 2013 during his speech at a Northern League meeting, the Vice-President of the upper chamber (“Senato”) of the Italian Parliament stigmatised the appointment of a black woman, Cécile Kyenge, an Italian medical doctor of Congolese origin, as Minister for Integration. He also claimed that Italy doesn’t need a Minister for Integration.

Chapter 6 - Countering hate

All 28 State members of the European Union, as well as Switzerland, have ratified international, binding treaties which tackle, inter alia, hate speech (article 3, 1948 Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; article 4, 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; article 20, 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Social Rights). Nevertheless, hate propaganda still remains a matter of great concern to many European countries, which have so far privileged a repressive response to counter hate speech, principally by enlarging the list of hate crimes punished under international conventions.

In particular, the 2008 European Council Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia has called on EU member states to punish under national criminal law a large set of conduct, including trivialisation or denial of genocide. Even the Swiss Criminal Code provides for a (quite restrictive) prohibition of “Racial discrimination”, which also encompasses genocide denial. However, this purely punitive approach has not achieved much success so far. On the contrary, the excessive use of criminal law can be counterproductive, since it offers to those accused of hate crimes a unique occasion to portray themselves as martyrs fighting for the fundamental principle of freedom of expression. For example, those negationists convicted of Holocaust denial in European countries have been celebrated elsewhere as the brave defenders of a truth inconvenient to Western States. 

In February 2006, as a reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy, an Iranian newspaper launched the “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition”. The image on the left, by a French cartoonist, won the second prize. It celebrates the French negationist Robert Faurisson, who was convicted in France of genocide denial, for “knocking down the myth of gas chambers”. This contest anticipated the infamous “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust”, which was held in Teheran during December 2006, several European deniers were invited as speakers. Most recently, in August 2010, two Iranians, a cartoonist and a script writer, wrote the booklet “Holocaust”, available on the website “holocartoons.com”. In the cartoon some popular negationists, such as Robert Faurisson or the Australian Gerald Fredrick Toben, are martyred by the Jew, who amputates their hands and feet in order to prevent them from revealing to the world that the Holocaust is an international ‘lie’. The Jews are allegedly manipulating European countries to pass laws that prohibit Holocaust denial.  

Even the UDC has tried to exploit the criminal code provision on racial discrimination, alleging that it “muzzles” the people and prevents them from speaking out to “preserve their identity”. In 2007, the party launched an initiative to repeal the provision but it failed as ‘only’ 80,000 signatures were collected, below the minimum number of signatures required under Swiss law to force a referendum. These cases demonstrate that the excessive use of criminal law can elevate extremists who spread trivial and gross ideas of racial superiority to the status of refined intellectuals persecuted under draconian anti-democratic laws.

Furthermore, a criminal response can by no means be comprehensive. Indeed, even the most restrictive penal law would not include those statements that, without propagating the superiority of one group towards others, nevertheless spread a sentiment of indifference and apathy towards a group and its basic human rights. For example, in the Northern League’s political discourse the lives of migrants seem to be worth nothing, as revealed by the statement given in 2010 by the party leader, at that time Minister of Interior. Commenting on the shooting of an Italian fishing boat at the hands of an Italian-Libyan vessel which was patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, the Minister candidly said: “I believe that [Unable to find source titled 'the incident'] was a mistake. Probably the Libyans mistook the Italian fishing boat for a boat carrying illegal immigrants”, implying that in such a case there would have been a full licence to shoot and kill the people on the boat. Furthermore, the silence of the media and prominent figures with regard to human rights abuses facing migrants condemns them to invisibility. Disinterest and silence ultimately exposes minorities to discrimination, but they cannot be countered through criminal law.  

In order to develop ‘antibodies’ against hate speech, European countries should enhance positive preventive measures, rather than turning to the criminal law, which should only intervene as extrema ratio when all the other means have failed. For example, human rights education in schools should be enhanced, and new generations should learn that the plant of democracy needs to be watered every single day, and constantly protected against the insidious weed of xenophobia and hatred.


Amnesty International (2012), Choice and prejudice: discrimination against Muslims in Europereport available online


Amnesty International (2012), We wanted workers but we got humans instead: Labour exploitation of agricultural migrant workers in Italy, available online.


Chomsky N. and Herman E. (1988), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books.


Council of Europe (2009), European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Report on Switzerland,available online


De Saussure, L. (2009), ‘Minarets: question de pertinence’, Les temps, 9th December 2009, available online


European Agency for Fundamental Rights Agency (2010), Discover the Past for the Future. A study on the role of historical sites and museums in Holocaust education and human rights education in the EU, available online.


European Union Agency Fundamental Rights (2012), Making hate crime visible in the European Union: acknowledging victims' rights, available online


Forgione, P. (2013), ‘Does the end justify the means? The Italian Machiavellian response to illegal immigration’, Regarding Rights, Australian National University, available online.


Gast, P. (2013) ‘La votation helvétique à travers l’affaire des minarets’, in La démocratie participative : enjeux et réalités : (France, Brésil, Chine, Suisse, Union européenne), Lebreton G., Paris : L’Harmattan.


Hertig Randall M., McGregor E. (2010) ‘Reconciling Direct Democracy and Fundamental Rights: The Case of the Swiss Minaret Initiative’, Tijdschrift voor Constitutioneel Recht, (2010) 3, 428-436 

 Kelman H., ‘Violence without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehumanization of Victims and Victimizers’, Journal of Social Issues, 29, 4(1973), 25-61.


Lasson, K. (2011) ‘Defending Truth’ in Genocide Denials and the Law, Hennebel L., and Hochmann T. (eds), Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Moeckli, D. (2011) “Of Minarets and Foreign Criminals: Swiss Direct Democracy and Human Rights”, Human Rights Law Review, 11, 4(2011), 774-794


Pugiotto, A. (2012) Le parole sono pietre? I discorsi di odio e la libertà di espressione nel diritto costituzionale, presentation at the 5th National Conference of Italian Lawyers on LGBTI rights, 30 November 2012.


Semo, M. (2009), Le néopopulisme : un virus européen, Liberation, 30th November 2009, available online.



Contributor: Cover pictures


Chapter 3- Swiss panorama: Rezard Valeth  (Flickr)

Chapter 4-Minaret:Stefano Iori/ Ville de Neuchâtel

Chapter 5-Italy: Giulio Piscitelli


Contributors: Photos in chapters


Photo 4 (posters at Bern station): Radioross (from Flickr)

photo 12 (photo of the poster with mouse): © Ti-Press / G.Putzu

photo 16 (photo of the black sheep poster in Geneva): Sam Keam (Flickr)

photo 24 (minaret poster next to a poster advertising fashion): Rytc (Flickr)