The Canon: The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer

June 17, 2010

Victor Klemperer's vital contribution to academia doesn't take the form of an influential theory, or a path-breaking conceptual framework, or even a scholarly mastery of his field (although he was an extremely gifted professor of French philology).

Instead, his achievement, and its signal importance, was thrust upon him by circumstances. Ousted from his post at Dresden University in 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws, and avoiding deportation to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt only through marriage to his "Aryan" wife, Klemperer was left to make sense of the cultural derangement of Nazism using his proscribed expertise. Thus his attentiveness to the development of new terms, and old terms wrought with new meaning, became "an act of self-defence": furtive, and everywhere overshadowed by the likelihood of death. The Language of the Third Reich (first published in 1947 in German as LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen) is the result. It is obscene, in a sense, to relate Klemperer's situation to any subsequent intellectual enquiry conducted unmolested by tyranny. But studies of language - whether social, political or aesthetic - owe him a debt. They implicitly gesture towards his act of witness, and towards others like it.

This cannot be called a conventional work of scholarship for obvious reasons; time and again, Klemperer laments the absence of his library, his papers, his reference works: the things that would have allowed him precisely to trace the genealogy of a particular term or expression that Goebbels dispensed for popular use ("Poison", writes Klemperer, "which you drink unawares and which has its effect - this can't be said enough").

Consequently, the book is sui generis: part memoir, part history, part scholarly disquisition on philology, perhaps even part experimental anthropology, as Klemperer attempts to track the abasement of a people through the concoction of hateful myths, and through the relentless insistence on the truth of lies. To Klemperer's anguish, universities became hothouses of such lies. Many of his colleagues prostituted themselves to hatred, and this is one of the most salutary episodes he records. The academy was not immune from collective derangement: far from it.

That derangement was all-encompassing, and certain linguistic tics crystallised the moral squalor of the times - the elevation of fanatisch (fanatical) to a term of high praise; or the love of runic figures, drenched with sentimentality; or the trademark mixture of organic and mechanical imagery in describing the German virtues. All represent a flight from reality, and it is the task of the philologist to call people back to it.

Rather than proclaiming this grand task, however, Klemperer's focus is always on the ambience of everyday life under Hitler. Frequently he marvels at the success of the Nazi propaganda machine in moulding not merely opinions but one's entire cast of thought - in Nazi argot, one's entire Weltanschauung. On the basis of his painstaking ethical-linguistic examinations, Klemperer is one of the most valuable witnesses to the methods of totalitarian mental corruption. The lasting message of this book is one of constant vigilance: wherever the machinery of atrocity is in motion, the misuse of language will be supporting it.

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