The Language of the Third Reich
December 4, 2023 1:02 AM   Subscribe

Victor Klemperer's The Language of the Third Reich (1947) describes how the Nazis manipulated the German language in order to get the general population using extreme right-wing words and phrases in their everyday discourse without them even noticing.

Compare this with what the far-right is attempting to do today with the English language, with terms such as 'cancel culture', 'culture wars', 'fake news', 'woke', etc., and of course 'free speech'.

This is not limited to English; for example, here's a study of how the Swedish extreme-right have been trying to normalise the term kulturberikare.

Importantly, as quoted in this study, 'it is broadly accepted that only a small number of the non-technical expressions of “Nazi-German” were actually coined during the Nazi period'. So it is today, in which terms originating from philosophy, media or popular culture have been appropriated and repurposed by the far-right for their own ends.

Klemperer's book is as disturbingly relevant today as it was then; it needs to be read.

(Scribd link, which may disappear any time; to my knowledge, the book is still in copyright.)
posted by Cardinal Fang (17 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
My favourite part of this book is the chapter on punctuation:

From time to time it is possible to detect, both amongst individuals and groups, a characteristic preference for one particular punctuation mark. Academics love the semi-colon; their hankering after logic demands a division which is more emphatic than a comma, but not quite as absolute as a full stop.

One might assume, Klemperer goes on, that the Nazis would use a lot of exclamation marks. But for them, everything was a command or a proclamation, so they didn't need a special punctuation mark to highlight the fact. No: their characteristic punctuation mark was the 'ironic inverted comma' used for purposes of sarcasm, e.g. describing Allied statesmen as "statesmen" or German Jews as "German".

I think I'll just leave this here: from 2017, Donald Trump and the rise of scare quotes.
posted by verstegan at 2:15 AM on December 4, 2023 [30 favorites]

A non-Scribd version of the book [though you need an account to see the full text].
posted by chavenet at 3:13 AM on December 4, 2023 [6 favorites]

Scare quotes are interesting. The far-right uses them to delegitimize legitimate language; we use them to delegitimize illegitimate language.

This throws up a few anomalies. Where a term once had a legitimate definition but has been repurposed to the extent that it is now practically never used except in its illegitimate sense, e.g. virtue signalling, I can say 'virtue signalling' to express 'I think this term is illegitimate'. But mainstream media is still used to mean 'traditional media which is likely to express or influence commonly held opinions', as well as its hijacked sense of 'corporate- or government-controlled media which deliberately attempts to discredit or suppress our particular opinions'. So, if I say 'mainstream media', whose side am I on?
posted by Cardinal Fang at 4:14 AM on December 4, 2023 [10 favorites]

The punctuation thing is interesting. That Grauniad article seems a little thin and more related to Trump's pop persona (and last fully-formed memories) being a product of the 80s. They do observe how dated it became in the 90s, and I do think there's something there, it would be interesting to see a deep dive. I suspect the rise of social media brought it back.

The cooptation of terms is very real and does feel like it has increased during roughly the same timeframe, as arguing in bad faith and no longer even pretending to govern became the norm in cartain political quarters.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:41 AM on December 4, 2023

I like to ask trumper nazis when the first time they cried about ‘woke’ was.

Has it been something you whined about your entire life, little fascist? Or has it been only recently?

Who told you to cry about ‘woke’? When was it? What else did they tell you?

Nazis love to subvert and twist language, but their bullshit doesn’t stand up to direct condescending mockery.
posted by chronkite at 5:57 AM on December 4, 2023 [15 favorites]

It's also one of the main points of 1984. Sometimes I think Orwell really wanted to just write an essay on language, but he realized he'd have to wrap a plot around it to get anyone to read it.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:25 AM on December 4, 2023 [17 favorites]

Wait didn't Orwell write that essay?

I suppose your point stands. He wanted people to read the essay, that was the problem.
posted by eustatic at 7:06 AM on December 4, 2023 [5 favorites]

This FPP detailed some interactions with parents who wanted to avoid “woke stuff,” “feminism,” and “critical race theory,” but when asked what they meant, couldn’t define them and even seemed sympathetic to some of the ideas. Language that becomes an in-group marker quickly loses all meaning.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:08 AM on December 4, 2023 [13 favorites]

Sort of off topic. German is one of the few languages where the moon is masculine and the sun is feminine.
posted by DJZouke at 7:40 AM on December 4, 2023 [6 favorites]

Klemperer previouslies; here is Stan Neumann 2004 documentary based on the book: Language does not lie / Die Sprache lügt nicht / La langue ne ment pas, and here a nearly complete copy on GoogleBooks.
posted by progosk at 9:29 AM on December 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

Whenever I see the name Klemperer I have to check and see if whoever it is could be related to Werner, of Col. Klink/musical theater fame.

And yes, they are. Victor was a cousin to the conductor Otto Klemperer, and first cousin once removed to Otto's son, the actor Werner Klemperer.
posted by 41swans at 9:59 AM on December 4, 2023 [10 favorites]

Thanks for the post. In Anti-Semite and Jew, I think, it is framed that the misuse of language forces the enemy to fight against the use of language, burning fuel to fight for agreed upon terminology. They delight in taking this track. This is met with different stages of response (you don't own the meaning you intellectual, can't you take a joke and dissent at a semantic level reveals who to punish). All the while they carry on their nefarious plans in the background.

I read through some of the archive and need to buy this book.

Sidenote: Got into a huge fight with my brother in law after describing the propaganda exhibit at Ellis Island. It was great and the themes were exactly the same as present day.He took the side of the fascists/nazis. He is an adult man of Jewish heritage, defending Nazis. I was shocked how spun he had become.
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:04 AM on December 4, 2023 [6 favorites]

I was working as an archives cataloger at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2005-6, using Robert Michael and Karin Doerr's Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich as one of my reference tools - one thing that immediately jumped out at me were the fragments of the language of the Reich (e.g. verschärfte vernehmung - 'sharpened' or 'enhanced' interrogation - as a euphemism for torture) then being used by the Bush administration.

All conservative parties are at some stage of evolving into a fascist one.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2023 [21 favorites]

Victor was a cousin to the conductor Otto Klemperer, and first cousin once removed to Otto's son, the actor Werner Klemperer.

What a family--the performer transition from this (Otto) to this (Werner) in one generation is interesting, a kind of fin de siècle in a single family. (Which happened a lot in those days.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:40 AM on December 4, 2023

You could 'um an 'ymn for 'er if you remember 'er
Drive a can for Karajan or for Klemperer
Shuffle on or off a fence
Add percentages to pence
Or you could
stop and point a finger at the emperor
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:41 PM on December 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

“All conservative parties are at some stage of evolving into a fascist one.”

Thank you, ryanshepard.. I’ve never seen it put so succinctly.
posted by chronkite at 1:55 PM on December 4, 2023 [4 favorites]

Aspiring totalitarians of all kinds want people to think in cliches/jargon/slogans/memes. I try, feebly, failingly, to express myself in my own words as much as possible.
posted by ducky l'orange at 5:18 PM on December 4, 2023 [7 favorites]

« Older only people who’ve taken LSD can receive the...   |   A crucial part of the ideology of work-discipline Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments