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Victor Klemperer was a philologist, a German and a Jew in Dresden during the Nazi regime and the world war. As a former soldier, and married to an Aryan wife, he had some small measure of buffering, not afforded to others, and so survived, deprived of almost everything, but alive, with Eva.  From the early years of the 1930s, as Hitler came to power, consolidated it, and took the country to war, he began to sense, and keep track of the changes in popular and official use of the German language.

It was not just an abstract, or professional interest.  It was a means of survival.

“In moments of utter ignominy, when my heart was literally breaking … I was helped by the demand I had made on myself: observe, study and memorize what is going on—by tomorrow everything will already look different … keep hold of how things reveal themselves at the very moment and what the effects are…”

Above all, he noted, LTI (Language of the Third Reich) had “become destitute … as if it had sworn a vow of poverty.”  Spoken language — of both supporters and opponents of the regime– was modeled on official pronouncements, reduced to strings of clichés and euphemisms; the constant use of superlatives he says, came directly from American advertising.  New words were introduced from other languages, particularly English, and old words were resuscitated with new meanings.

Blitzkreig – Lighting war– was coined for the occasion;

Holen, previously meaning to “collect” was used to mean “arrest;”

Liquidieren, brought in from English,  meaning to divest company assets, came to mean killed

konzentrationslager was introduced, initially sounding quite foreign, having been heard only in reference to such camps during the Boer war.

After the war, he published a small pamphlet about his observations, examples taken from his diary, with a pedagogical purpose in mind.  Although war criminals were being tried, nationalist books being withdrawn from circulation and Hitler oaks being felled, he realized that many features of the language of the era remained embedded in popular use. Why was that, he asked, and he answered:

“The most powerful influence [on language] was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions.

Instead, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously … like a poison one swallows, drop by drop, without even noticing it.”

The Language of the Third Reich, is an expanded version of that pamphlet, first published in Germany in 1957 and in the current translation by Martin Brady in 2000.  Reading it not only pulls one back to the time of its writing, but sharply alerts us that we should be, at all times, but especially now, alert to how our own language is being used, how it is changing, who is being signaled and who excluded, and how ordinary folks may be “getting used to it,” as he says of Germans in the 1930s

I was reminded of the book this week, and pulled it from a shelf, still adorned with colored markers — red for ‘word mentioned,’ blue for ‘clarification,’ yellow for ‘background.’ Timothy Snyder, in his own short pamphlet – On Tyranny— which I’ve also recommended, recalled in a chapter titled “Be Kind to Our Language,” Klemperer’s important work.

“He noticed how Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition. The people always meant some people, and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning)…

It is not a long book, 264 pages, and divided into convenient, word-focused chapters. Reading it, not only do we see how language served the Nazis but how it can be made to serve others, how it is being shaped today.  This reference Klemperer makes to speeches and national media in the 1930s is just as true today

“…the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be.  And it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it … the hall or arena adorned with standards and banners can, to some extent, see seen as an integral part of the speech itself … [and] the roaring of the crowd, its applause and its disapproval have at least as powerful an effect on the individual member of the audience as the speech itself.”


Typewriter Key, Nazi Germany

For those who need something even shorter, a very good documentary was made in 2004 by Czech director Stan Neumann, titled in English Language Does Not Lie (Le langue ne ment pas).  In this day of everything on the internet, I found a copy at YouTube : Language does Not Lie. It is well worth the 1:14 minutes running time [forgive the odd teaser-ad you might have to get through.]

More than the book, it immerses us, not only in Klemperer’s dissection of words but, with archival footage, image, sound and music, in the times in which he heard them.  Ordered by cited dates, we hear oratorical bombast from Hitler and Goebbles, old “jokes” indicating the change in mood as the war began to be lost, we see children in Hitler youth organizations marching and reciting the slogans of the day.  We hear a recitation, chilling in its sequential order, of items and actions prohibited to Jews:

24 Libraries
25 Restaurants
26 Purchasing clothes
27 Fish
28 Chocolate, milk …
31 Shopping reduced to one hour a day, known as the Jews’ hour…


Even if you’ve seen older newsreel documentaries or newer commercial films  Language Does Not Lie is worth watching.