Twisted fanatics

The Language of the Third Reich

September 1, 2000

Hitler established and kept his hold on the German people by the skilful use of propaganda. To appeal to the instincts of the masses, he corrupted the German language. The meaning of well-established words was degraded and new insidious ones were coined. The impact of Nazi language cannot be underestimated.

Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), who was Jewish by origin but not by religion, was able to survive the Third Reich because of the steadfast support of his "Aryan" wife. In 1935, he was deprived of his chair of Romance literatures in Dresden, and in 1938 he was denied access to the Saxon State Library and all other public libraries, which spelt the end of his research into 18th-century French literary history. Soon afterwards he was no longer permitted to buy or borrow books and newspapers. He found a lifeline in keeping a diary and in studying the Nazi degradation of the German language.

However much he was humiliated and harassed, he persevered in noting down National Socialist linguistic usage, which he called "LTI" ( Lingua Tertii Imperii ), the Latin term for "The language of the Third Reich", as a ploy to fool the Gestapo when it searched his room in the Jews' house where he had to live after having been driven out of his home. When the Gestapo found him reading any German book, he was let off only when he could prove that it had been borrowed by his wife. Once he was hit hard on the head with Alfred Rosenberg's infamous Der Mythus des Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the 20th Century) for daring to read that hallowed Nazi classic.

His training as a literary scholar stood him in good stead. A great admirer of the 18th-century philosophers, of Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire, he was immune to Nazi propaganda. Convinced that language brought the truth to light, he succeeded in spotting Nazi linguistic abuse,which he rightly saw as part of the Nazi attack on reason. Although he later became a supporter of the GDR, in his post-1945 diaries he could not help recording that regime's debasement of language, which he appropriately called "LQI" ( Lingua Quarti Imperii - "The Language of the Fourth Reich").

A few examples of Nazi linguistic practice must suffice. Klemperer focuses on the Nazi use of the word "heroism", with which many German actions are depicted, but which, as the fortunes of the war changed, sounded increasingly hollow. Another favourite was " fanatisch " (fanatic). In the 18th century, it was used in a pejorative sense to describe a man so impervious to reason as to appear mentally unbalanced. In the Third Reich, it was used to praise German attitudes. "Fanatic" fighting was also used to cover up defeat. German soldiers died "fanatically" and "heroically". A word borrowed from commerce, " liquidieren " (liquidate), became a euphemism for murder.

Above all, Hitler raided the language of sport, particularly that of boxing, since boxing imagery enabled him to indulge in hatred and cruelty. Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, incessantly spread Hitler's gospel and made sure that the German radio and press faithfully copied his words. Klemperer was aware that language pervades life and was dismayed that even staunch opponents of the regime, on occasion even he himself, used Nazi vocabulary. Nazi language also reveals the impact of German Romanticism on German writing of the day and makes plain its abandonment of western ideas.

Although The Language of the Third Reich is the work of an academic, it is not a scholarly study, but a scholar's personal account and, therefore, a valuable document, the more compelling because it is enlivened by continuous references to Klemperer's own sufferings - a whole chapter is devoted to the yellow "Jews' Star" that all Jews had to wear from September 1941 and that exposed them to danger when walking in the street. He also recalls many Germans' unshakeable belief in Hitler, which lasted until his death: another consequence of Nazi propaganda and debasement of language.

Martin Brady's translation is most readable. But " Humanität " ought not to be rendered by "humanitarianism". Admittedly, there is no exact English equivalent for this word, which has had an important connotation in German since at least the end of the 18th century and which signifies a humane attitude of mind characteristic of the Enlightenment in whose thought Klemperer was steeped. However, it is good for this German classic to be available to English readers.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

The Language of the Third Reich

Author - Victor Klemperer
ISBN - 0 485 11526 3
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 296
Translator - Martin Brady

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