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Opinion The man who exposed the Nazi language of hate

JENNY FARRELL looks at the ideas of Victor Klemperer

VICTOR KLEMPERER is remembered for his seminal study of the language of the Nazis.

Born the son of a rabbi on October 9 1881, in what is today Gorzow Wielkopolski, in western Poland, Klemperer grew up in Berlin, was baptised Protestant and volunteered for the front in WWI.

With the rise of German fascism, he was declared a Jew, lost his professorship in Romance languages, his home, had no access to radio, newspapers or libraries, and could not publish or go to the cinema or theatre.

Having fled Germany after the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, he returned after WWII to the now Soviet-occupied town and was reinstated as a professor.

He joined the Communist Party because he “wanted to finish with the Nazis for political reasons.” He died in Dresden in 1960.

Klemperer kept a diary and after the war in 1947 it was published as The Language of the Third Reich: Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brady in 2006.

Klemperer, a keenly observant, middle-class scholar, grasped how the fascists’ language expresses their inhumanity.

In the anecdotally written book, he focuses on the central terms of this newspeak: Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf … fixed the essential features of its language. Following the party’s ‘takeover’ in 1933 the language of a group … [took] hold of all realms of public and private life.”

Klemperer never identified as Jewish, even after 12 years of fascist persecution.

However, Nazi anti-semitism occupies a central place in his thinking and experience. He highlights what was new: “Embedding the hatred of the Jews in the idea of race … Displacing the difference between Jews and non-Jews into the blood makes any compensation impossible, perpetuates the division, and legitimises it as willed by God.”

Concern about the implications of postulating Jews as a separate people appears in a diary entry of January 8 1939: “It seems complete madness to me if specifically Jewish states are now to be set up in Rhodesia or somewhere.

“That would be letting the Nazis throw us back thousands of years … The solution of the Jewish question can only be found in the deliverance from those who have invented it.”

He addresses Nazi conspiracy theory terminology: “The adjective ‘judisch [Jewish]’…[binds] together all adversaries into a single enemy: the Jewish-Marxist Weltanschauung, the Jewish-Bolshevist philistinism, the Jewish-Capitalist system of exploitation, the keen Jewish-English, Jewish-American interest in seeing Germany destroyed.”

Although Klemperer himself was critical of communism before WWII, he did have communist friends and describes their fate in the hands of the fascists.

In a journal entry of May 15 1933, he writes: “The garden of a Communist in Heidenau is dug up, there is supposed to be a machine-gun in it. He denies it … he is beaten to death.”

An interesting observation is that Hitler and his supporters presented the “Fuhrer” as the new saviour: “[Although] national socialism fought against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular … the first Christmas after the usurpation of Austria …[celebrates] the ‘resurrection of the Greater German Reich’ and accordingly the rebirth of the light … the sun and the swastika, leaving the Jew Jesus entirely out of it.”

Even war is similarly cloaked in Christian terminology: “[it] became known as a ‘crusade,’ a ‘holy war,’ a ‘holy people’s war’.”

Occasionally, Klemperer focuses too much on the person of Hitler as a “madman.” One finds little about the larger connection with the social system, capital and the economy.

Klemperer gives many examples of the Nazis’ renaming of thousands of localities which has striking similarities with the anti-communist renaming of places after the annexation of East Germany.

In East German subculture, certain streets, squares, towns continue to be used by their GDR names in protest: Dimitroffstrasse, Leninplatz, Karl-Marx-Stadt.

Klemperer’s observations on the idea of “Europe” would resonate with contemporary readers: “The ideas of the occident that are to be defended against the forces of Asia … For Europe is now no longer simply fenced off from Russia — while also laying claim to large areas of its land as part of Hitler’s continent by right — but is also at loggerheads with Great Britain.”

The link to the right-wing extremist language in Germany today with their slogans of “Fortress Europe” as a bastion against the “Great Replacement,” are obvious.

Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) politician Bjorn Hocke speaks of “the so-called immigration policy, which is nothing other than a multicultural revolution decreed from above … the abolition of the German people.”

Hocke’s hints at a conspiracy theory have roots in the Jewish conspiracy mentioned above. Such “race-mixing” would, it is implied, destroy the “civilisation” and “identity” of Germans. Conspiracy theories create fear and present a chilling image of the enemy.

Today’s German neonazis semantically recast everyday terms such as “homeland” and “culture” with racist undertones.

In linguistics, “framing” is a technique whereby two different things are associated. When refugees are compared to natural disasters, such as “tsunami” or “flood,” it portrays them as undesirable disasters, ultimately life-threatening. Another example of such is the framing of refugees with “security.” It is ultimately about “us” against “them.”

Some of this terminology is adopted by the Establishment media.

Klemperer pointed out how quickly this language, and thus thinking, spreads in society. It is well to remember him and his work on the 140th anniversary of his birth in a time and place that seems so far away in one sense, yet his achievement is still prescient and indispensable today.


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