Tuesday, 24 January 2017

On the language of the Third Reich

Just as the twelve years of National Socialist dictatorship between 1933 and 1945 are a unique and in many ways unprecedented period in Germanic history, so too could the same be said of the National Socialists’ usage of language. The speed and efficiency with which the Nazis seized power in Germany, put the infrastructure of a murderous regime into place, and waged war against nearby nations can be seen, too, in the apparently radical overhaul of language usage in this era. The same caveats, however, apply to studying both: namely that, for all that it can be tempting to distinguish the twelve offending years in general as an isolated, bastardized form of Germany, and the Nazi Party’s prolific use of propaganda and a plethora of anti-Semitic, archaic and racially motivated terms in particular as an isolated, bastardized form of the German language, one must look beyond the confines of the specific to the broader historical narratives and to the distinctive language usage which lie in the past. Without a consideration of the ways in which German history and the German language made the actions of the National Socialists possible, we adopt the ethically bankrupt position of implying they, and their words, rose to power in a vacuum; to imply this is to falsely reassure ourselves of the fundamentally aberrant and unrepeatable nature of the 1933-45 dictatorship and of Nazi-Deutsch, as though the essence of both is impossible in another time or in another place (the common dictum “it can’t happen here”[1]). That is a position not only refuted by taking political history and, for our purposes, historical linguistics into account, but it is also a position of breath-taking - some would say dangerous - complacency.
As most studies of Nazi-Deutsch do, we must begin by paying credit to Klemperer. Victor Klemperer’s seminal account of National Socialist usage of German, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen first appeared in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, and despite the inevitably anecdotal nature of an account so intrinsically bound up with its present-day context, in its detail and immediacy it remains an unparalleled study of the linguistic usage Professor Klemperer heard around him - and of course which others, too, would have encountered - during the Nazis’ time in power. Many of the individual instances of superlatives, hyperbole, pathos, and racialist, medical, or mystical vocabulary which Klemperer lists and which others have listed after him are of interest to any study of Nazi-Deutsch, but equally worth returning to will be Klemperer’s (utterly understandable) fear as he expressed it in 1946 that Nazi-Deutsch might infect the German language hereafter.
One of Klemperer’s principal observations - and this has only been reiterated by his successors in the field - is that Nazi-Deutsch (or “Lingua Tertii Imperii”, as Klemperer called it: Language of the Third Reich[2]) was not a new, invented, internally consistent language, that it was not a dialect, and that it did not consist of coherent patterns of made-up words: in short, that it depended predominantly on taking old words and fashioning new meanings for them, or on distorting words for ideological purposes. Hitler and Goebbels were aided in this regard by German’s natural propensity for forming compounds, and thus a whole raft of examples were born, usually depending on a key “concept word” (such as Art, Volk, Blut or Rasse, all of which have fairly self-evident undertones of both eugenics and social Darwinism) and appending to this core component the additional element that needed a certain nationalist emphasis. Instances listed by C.J. Wells include artfremd (“alien to the species”), Volksgenosse (“member of the German nation”), blutecht (“of genuine/proper blood”), and Rassenschande (“racial defilement”)[3]. In the main, these words did not exist independently outside of Nazi Germany, though they obviously comprise of component parts that did (the exception is artfremd, which was until the 1930s a term reserved for usage in biological science - the distinction there being there that it was not primarily used in the political sphere). In other instances, the Nazis took a pre-existing term that was seen as derogatory or taboo, and altered its meaning or emphasis slightly to serve their ideology; Blutschande (“incest”) came instead to mean “miscegenation” and was used to denounce intermarriage between ‘Aryan stock’ and ‘sub-humans’.
Nazi-Deutsch’s usage of biological, medical and racialist expressions can naturally not be separated from their reliance on anti-Semitic language: Judenhaus (“Jewish house”), Judengeschäft (“Jewish business”), Entjudung (“de-Jewification”), Verjudung (“Jewification”), and so on. Robert Michael, in the essay The Tradition of anti-Jewish Language which prefaces his and Karin Doerr’s English lexicon of the language of the Third Reich, explores a vast history of anti-Semitic vocabulary that existed prior to the Nazis, both in German specifically and in European languages more generally - going back almost 2,000 years and stemming at first from the demonization of Jews by Christians as “Christ-killers” (a sentiment which Michael cites as appearing in the works of revered saints such as Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine), carrying on long into the Middle Ages and, perhaps most significantly, to Martin Luther, a hero for prominent Catholic and Protestant anti-Semites. In 1543 he published Von den Jüden und ihren Lügen, a 65,000-word treatise in which, among other things, he referred to the Judensau, using a raft of utterly obscene imagery, and he also went as far as advocating their mass murder in ways that chillingly pre-empt Adolf Hitler’s actions four hundred years later. It is little surprise that he influenced the Nazis. Around the time of the French Revolution, Fichte expressed much the same anti-Semitic sentiments, using language of death and violence to describe the Jews. There are of course many instances of anti-Semitic language usage in French and English, among other languages, but the pre-eminence of Luther in particular in the development of the German language has arguably led to an anti-Semitic component being historically more present in the vocabulary than it might otherwise have been[4]. It should go without saying that to identify this historical trend is by no means to exonerate Nazi persecutors of Jews or to render such behaviour more normal or acceptable simply because it has a long historical precedent; if anything, understanding that, in falling back on straightforward and obscene anti-Semitic vocabulary, Nazi-Deutsch was relying on atavistic, archaic language, is in fact to recognise Nazi-Deutsch for what it was: an impoverishment of language, a poisoning of it, and a derivative poisoning at that.
A key aspect of Nazi neologisms was the dynamic militarization of daily discourse - arguably the most significant way of using propaganda to motivating the nation and allowing the more sinister aspects of the regime to be put into place. Wells lists normal peacetime activities that Nazi vocabulary rendered warlike with the use of the suffix schlacht (“battle”), such as Erzeugungsschlacht, Ernährungsschlacht, Arbeitsschlacht, and Geburtenschlacht, or in a different example the Deutsche Arbeitsfront[5], whilst Klemperer makes a distinction[6] between kriegerisch (“warlike”) and kämpferisch (“militant” or “combative”), in that the former has the undertone of applying principally to times of war, whilst the latter neatly encapsulates the racialist, social Darwinist idea that daily life is itself a struggle, or Kampf, between ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ races. The idea of “struggle”, with its biological undertones, is also perhaps a better fit for Nazi ideology than “war”. Such military terminology (the “Heeressprache”[7], as Klemperer calls it) emphasises the importance of action over thought, lends itself well to frenzy and to the notion of a crisis that can only be overcome by great effort against the Feind, and aligns itself with dynamic artistic movements such as Expressionism (the “giving out of oneself” with all the Sturm and Aktion that implies).
Superlatives like eigenstes und totales Erlebnis; tausendjähriges Reich, totaler Krieg, totale Mobilmachung, Totallösung; lebendige Totalität; dem besten Soldaten der Welt sind die besten Waffen der Welt von den besten Arbeitern der Welt zur Ausrüstung geliefert[8] are also common, and help provide a constantly running stream of highly emotionally charged vocabulary for Hitler’s and Goebbels’ speeches. The historian Friedrich Stieve writes in Geschichte des deutschen Volkes of “welch starke Rolle das Gefühl bei den Germanen spielte[9]; Klemperer, too, explores the significance of “Gefühl” to the German psyche at some length[10]. Another, perhaps under-explored, aspect of this dynamic quality with which Nazi-Deutsch is so associated is the importance of being heard. Chronologically speaking, Hitler’s dictatorship occurred at just the right moment, that is to say the 1930s and 1940s, for mass media to project his voice - or the voice of Joseph Goebbels - into as many households as possible, and yet without the more ruthless and scrutinising 24/7 news cycle culture which would develop in the West in the following decades. Dynamic speeches at rallies were significant in promoting this new mongrel tongue of Nazi-Deutsch, yet just as significant was the proliferation of radios in ordinary people’s homes, allowing both Hitler and Goebbels’ voices to become as recognisable as those of family members, to the point that Klemperer can assert that even to read a column by Joseph Goebbels was to hear his voice[11]. In one of his book’s most distinctive passages, he observes that “Worte können sein wie winzige Arsendosen: sie werden unbemerkt verschluckt, sie scheinen keine Wirkung zu tun, und nach einiger Zeit ist die Giftwirkung doch da[12]. Constant reiteration of untruths can make them more easily palatable, as it were, and resistance is eventually worn down by meaningless buzzwords.
Archaisms are another significant aspect of Nazi-Deutsch; Hitler’s contacts with arcane Germanic societies such as the ‘Thule Gesellschaft’[13] were at least in part responsible for this strand in Nazi discourse, which also harked back to Old Norse mythos and the Nibelungenlied, explaining the proliferation of German men of a certain age bearing the name ‘Siegfried’ or ‘Sigurd’ (which no one would have christened a child post-1945). Typical archaizing aspects include emphasising links between the Third Reich and ‘Ariogermanic’ ancestry (words like arisch, indogermanisch, nordisch, germanisch, Arier, Ariertum, Deutschtum, undeutsch, Entdeutschung, and so on and so forth[14]), but could also see a quasi-mystical and indeed religious element (Erbsünde, “original sin”, gains a genetic or racialist undertone; the Third Reich’s goals became a heilige or ewige Mission; the parallels between presenting Hitler as a saviour and the Christ of Judaeo-Christian tradition are obvious; Goebbels would refer to das heilige Tuch der Blutfahne)[15]. Another clear lift from previous tradition is taking Nietzsche’s word Übermensch and adding its obvious mirror image, Untermensch. In this regard, the Nazis’ use of archaic language parallels their repurposing of ancient symbols - not just the swastika, originating from the Indian subcontinent and dating back at least 11,000 years, but also the extent to which the Star of David, or in Nazi-Deutsch the Judenstern, took on a different meaning in Nazi Germany: as an mark by which to identify and ostracise individuals rather than as a group symbol akin to Islam’s star and crescent or Christianity’s cross. In both instances, of course, the symbols existed long before 1933, just as did the majority of words on which the Nazis frequently relied.
This is a point worth expanding: the extent to which what the Nazis did with language was “mostly continuing familiar trends, even employing mostly familiar rhetorical strategies”[16]. We may go one further and discuss the extent to which their linguistic policy was never especially coherent or thought-through. Their ultra-nationalist tone was never a good fit for tolerating loan words, and yet the Nazi regime was opposed to linguistic purism, closed the Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein, and insisted that in correct usage one should “benutze[n] das Fremdwort nur da, wo du keinen vollgültigen und einfachen Ersatz im Deutschen dafür findest, in diesem Fall aber benutze es”[17]. While this may seem a clear breach of nationalist ideals - in rather the same way that the regime unsuccessfully tried to mash together ‘nationalism’ and ‘socialism’ - it was not even consistently applied: ‘liquidieren’ was used when the perfectly German word ‘töten’ would have sufficed. This example opens up a different question, that of euphemisms and veiled terms/Schleierwörter, but the point stands that the regime’s differing ideological requirements meant that it has never had an especially coherent or holistic linguistic policy[18]; just as it drew from a dramatic variety of different ideologies, from nationalism to socialism (ideologische Diversifikation[19]), so too was the heterogeneous construct we call ‘Nazi-Deutsch’ a hotchpotch of different ideas, impulses and ideals.
Nazi-Deutsch was fundamentally reactive and reactionary, as are most efforts to enforce language change on a population from on high, rather than organic and natural in its development, and thus it could never be described as a distinct and characteristic form of German in the sense that a legitimate language or distinct dialect could. Additionally (and though this is not the only measure of whether Nazi-Deutsch was a distinct and characteristic form of German, it is perhaps one of them), Klemperer’s fear that Nazi-Deutsch might cast a long shadow on the German of the rest of the 20th century appears not to have been dramatically realised. There are words that are now avoided - Führer in most instances not applying for Hitler, for instance; and some argue that we should avoid the term Endlösung ("final solution") altogether as it implies tacit agreement that there was a Judenfrage or a ‘Jewish problem’ in the first place for the Nazis to need a solution - but in the main, as Salmons argues, “ideology and propaganda were presented in the German language, but the Nazis had little impact on the language itself”[20]. In Klemperer’s judgement Nazi-Deutsch was “betterlarm” and “eintönig”[21]; the philosopher Berel Lang went one further, calling it “a linguistic lie”[22]. It is unlikely that today’s judgements will deviate much from this consensus.

  1. Bauer, Gerhard, Sprache und Sprachlosigkeit im ‘Dritten Reich’, 2nd edition, Bund-Verlag, 1990.
  2. Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009.
  3. Ehlich, Konrad (ed.), Sprache im Faschismus, Suhrkamp, 1989.
  4. Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
  5. Lang, Berel, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  6. Maas, Utz, ‘Als der Geist der Gemeinschaft eine Sprache fand...’: Sprache im Nationalsozialismus. Versuch einer historischer Argumentationsanalyse, Westdeutscher, 1984.
  7. Michael, Robert and Doerr, Karin, Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: an English lexicon of the language of the Third Reich, Greenwood, 2002.
  8. Polenz, Peter von, Deutsche Sprachgeschichte, de Gruyter, 1991-1999.
  9. Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012.
  10. Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000.
  11. Schmitz-Berning, Cornelia, Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus, de Gruyter, 2000.
  12. Stieve, Friedrich, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes, Oldenbourg, 1934.
  13. Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.

[1]“It Can’t Happen Here” is the title of a famous and somewhat prescient American novel by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1935 and describing the rise of a fascist dictator in the United States of America who manages to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt and impose a totalitarian regime.
[2]Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
[3]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.
[4]For a further treatment of the history of anti-Semitic language as referenced in this paragraph see Michael’s essay The Tradition of anti-Jewish Language in: Michael, Robert and Doerr, Karin, Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: an English lexicon of the language of the Third Reich, Greenwood, 2002.
[5]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.
[6]Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
[8]Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000.
[9]Stieve, Friedrich, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes, Oldenbourg, 1934.
[10]Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
[13]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.
[16]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012.
[17]Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
[18]Young, Christopher & Gloning, Thomas, A History of the German Language Through Texts, Routledge, 2004: “[a] reason why it is inaccurate to speak of Nazi language is that the regime had no coherent linguistic policy and acted in the arbitrary fashion typical of many dictatorships…instead, the regime was obsessed with the control of propaganda.”
[19]Ehrlich, Konrad in Sprache im Faschismus (ed. Ehrlich), Suhrkamp, 1989.
[20]Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012. Besch & Wolf argue much the same thing: “Sprache, Wörter sind nie vor Missbrauch gefeit, aber sie werden durch Missbrauch nicht eliminiert. Das Musterbeispiel dafür werde etwa das Verbum betreuen, in der LTI-Sprache gleichbedeutend mit ,Schaden zufügen, töten‘. Es lebt heute weiter in seiner schon im Spätmittelhochdeutschen belegten Bedeutung der Pflege- und Fürsorgetätigkeiten gegenüber Menschen, Tieren und Pflanzen. Da dieses Präfixverb den Object-Akkusativ erfordere, jemanden treu sein/bleiben, aber den Dativ der Person regiere, wurde die erstere Kasusform zum „inhumanen Akkusativ“ gestempelt. Grammatikformen, Präfixe, Wörter haben mit Kategorien wie ‚inhuman‘ oder ‚human‘ nichts zu tun - es sind die Menschen in ihrem Gebrauch oder Missbrauch der Sprache, die solches bewirken. In diesem Licht, aber auch insgesamt, hat die LTI nicht überlebt, entgegen aller Befürchtungen in den ersten Nachkriegsjahren.”
[21]Klemperer, Victor, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Die unbewältigte Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (3. Auflage), Melzer, 1966.
[22]Lang, Berel, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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