The best books on inhumanity

Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.


I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

The books I picked & why

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Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

By David Brion Davis,

Book cover of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Why this book?

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner David Brion Davis was an unequaled scholar of American slavery, and this is one of his most important works. It describes in galvanizing detail the full arc of North American slavery, the emergence of African American culture, the evolution of anti-Black racism, and the abolitionist movement. It is unique in explicitly focusing on White people’s dehumanization of enslaved Africans.


Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

By Amy Louise Wood,

Book cover of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Why this book?

Most people’s idea of lynching is the sanitized version that they have picked up from movies and TV. However, the practice of lynching, as it was carried out in the United States from the late 19th to well into the 20th century, was far more hideous than a few people hanging a man from a tree. This classic contribution concentrates on spectacle lynchings. These were public lynchings attended by hundreds or even thousands of spectators. They involved hours of torture and bodily mutilation, often culminating in the victim being burned alive. Lynching and Spectacle is a vital read for anyone wishing to understand the full horror of American Racism.


The Nazi Conscience

By Claudia Koonz,

Book cover of The Nazi Conscience

Why this book?

Nazism is typically understood as pure evil, and the title of this book may therefore strike you as an oxymoron. But historian Claudia Koonz takes readers by the hand and leads them to understand that National Socialism was a highly moralistic movement that was dedicated to the ideal of ridding the world of evil and depravity, as embodied by the so-called inferior races, especially the Jewish race. This book is extraordinarily significant both as a study of the past—how Nazi racial ideology came to capture the hearts and minds of a large swathe of the German public—and as a warning of how something similar might happen once again.


The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi

By Johann Chapoutot, Miranda Richmond Mouillot (translator),

Book cover of The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi

Why this book?

I recently described this book on social media as possibly the best book on National Socialism that I have ever read (and I’ve read quite a few). Chapoutot is a brilliant French historian, and in this book (which is a great follow-up to Coonz) he delves deeply into the Nazi mindset, focusing on the interlocking set of beliefs and values that made the extermination of the so-called inferior races not only possible but necessary. One of the unique features of this tour de force is Chapoutot’s description of how it was not just Hitler, Goebbels, and their ilk, but also distinguished German scholars and jurists, that shaped the genocidal Nazi agenda.


Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law

By James Q. Whitman.,

Book cover of Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law

Why this book?

My first two picks concern the inhumanities that White Americans perpetrated against Black people, and my second two picks concern the inhumanities that Nazis perpetrated against Jews, Roma, and others. My fifth pick brings both of these seemingly independent strands together. In it, Yale University historian James Q. Whitman documents how, during the early years of the regime, Nazi lawyers looked to racist American legislation as a model for the infamous 1935 Nuremburg laws, which were the first step down the road that led to Auschwitz. This short, eye-opening book leads readers to see how American racist values were not only bad in themselves, but also contributed to the most horrific genocide of the twentieth century.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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