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Journal of Genocide Research (2003), 5(2), June, 317319


On learning the language of

genocide: totalitarian German and
the Holocaust

Klemperer, Victor. LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (Leipzig: Reclam Verlag, 2001).
364 pp.
Michael, Robert and Doerr, Karin, eds. Nazi-Deutsch German: An English Lexicon of the
Third Reich (Westport, CT: Westwood Press, 2002). 457 pp, plus index.
Weiss, Herman, ed. Biographisches Lexicon zum Dritten Reich (Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer Verlag, 1999). 502 pp.

These three books make up an unintended set, each one complementing the other
two. They are in several senses reference books: two on the Nazified German
language and one on those who invented and who used it.
In brief, the heavy hand of ideological absolutism forced a new Orwellian
language upon Goethes and Heines poetic legacy, a language filled with crude
euphonims and violent innuendoes. In every sense of the word, Nazi-speak
became a lethal weapon, at its extreme a handmaiden to genocide. Which is to
say that more than German needs to be learned by the neophyte scholar of the
12 1/2 Hitler years. Besides acquiring a traditional skill of native German,
scholars must master the intricacies of the political jargon honed by the Nazi
ruling elite. From its countless acronyms (bested only by the Soviets!) to its
interminably long multi-nouned neologisms, fluency in German alone is insufficient: one must be able to crack the code and push aside the camouflage of
the original literal meanings to expose the cynical and euphemistic ones.
What is the uninitiated to do with Lebenunwertes-Leben (though historically
not a Nazi coinage)? Or the innocent sounding Kommando? Or with the
multi-meaninged Aktion and its dozen forms as a prefix nounal modifier?
Above all the ominous Sonderaktion? Then there is the tongue-in-cheek
nickname Reichswasserleiche! Triumphant in length is the tongue-twisting
Reichsippenforschungsstelle which played a tyrannical role in determining
the racial (im)purity of million of German non-Jews whenever their fullblooded Aryan status was in question. And finally there is the inimitable
ISSN 1462-3528 print; ISSN 1469-9494 online/03/020317-03 2003 Research Network in Genocide Studies
DOI: 10.1080/1462352032000079475


Vergangenheistsbewaltigung, a post-Holocaust academic construct, serving as

a warning that there is no monopoly in the uglification of a language, especially
of one mortally wounded by a decade of totalitarianese (also a euphonic
In his brilliant Lingua Terzii Imperii, Victor Klemperer, pioneered the psychopolitical analysis of the dark language of the Nazis. As with a surgeons scalpel,
Klemperer dissects every aspect of Germans criminal devolution into a barbaric
mode of communication. He demonstrates the corrupting reliance on superlatives; the inflation of words until they mean nothing; the overuse of negatives;
the absurdities of mendacity by unchecked propaganda; the replacement of one
word with its opposite in the hope of recreating reality; the detrimental
extirpation of foreign words; the campaign to Germanize German. Above all,
Klemperer traces the languages metamorphosis into a full-time servant of
absolute mendacity, a process in which the prime if not exclusive purpose of
language is to deceive, to confuse, to avoid the truth and to allow one to lie no
matter what is said.
One could write a book about Klemperers book-length disclosure of the
purpose of Nazi German. But that has partially been done by other commentators. There is no end to his philological narrative and analysis of Germans
decline into an anti-language. It allows no room for aesthetics, for humor, for
word plays, for metaphor; only for the pornographic, the worst of which is the
unadultarated lie.
Its practitioners, the Nazi Party members and their cohorts, hid the reality of
German policy behind a curtain of titles for sundryliterally hundredsof state
organizations. New institutions were given pompous (and always deceptive)
names ultimately reduced to acronyms. These always conveyed more than the
word itself suggested. Michael and Doerr have performed a yeomans job in
computing a list of these key words behind which the Nazis practiced euthanasia,
mass imprisonment, international war and, of course, genocide, and not just
against the Jews. Their explanations of each term are brief, accurate and to the
point; an ideal tool for the beginning graduate scholar-in-training. Used in
conjunction with Klemperers more philosophical approach, these two publications served as excellent introductions to Nazi German and the intimidating
linguistic climate it generated. To Klemperer, Nazi German was an abomination,
an integral part of his sufferinga scholar of literaturewhile he fearfully
awaited deportation. (That moment never came.)
And who were those who spoke Aryan German on a daily basis? The
principalsapproximately 1300are alphabetically listed in Weisss careful
selection. Each name is followed by a thumbnail bio-sketch, enough to place
each entry into the context of the Germany of 19331945. It is arguably
legitimate to suggest that without access to the Nazified German language, the
lethal work of Nazi Germans would have been severely handicapped, if not
made impossible. And why did they learn it so well? Because most in Hitlers
immediate entourage and future colleagues and supporters were very young. On
Hitlers assumption of power in 1933, 40 of his closest associates were on


average 3132 years old (e.g. Speer was 29; Goebbels 36; Eichmann, 27; and
Werner von Braun but 21!). Given that most spoke their ideologized German
throughout the Weimar period, they were young enough to absorb it and become
fluent in this hate-filled violent language.
The younger set of scholars of Nazi Germany can do worse than equipping
themselves with these three books. It is only with a grasp of Hitler-Deutsch that
they will be able to read the sources sensitively and enter the pathological
conceptual world of its murderous speakers.


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