The Language of the Third Reich
By Victor Klemperer
274 pp | Continuum, 2006 | ISBN 0826491308 | US$18.95/£12. 99

Victor Klemperer, son of a rabbi (and cousin to the conductor, Otto), was professor of French literature at Dresden University. Being Jewish, he was removed from his post after Hitler came to power in 1933 and only survived deportation because of his marriage to an “Aryan”. His acclaimed Diaries of the period were published in three volumes in 1998. This work, first published in Germany in 1947 as LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, and issued in hardback form in 2000, has just been reprinted as a paperback. The notes towards its conception were extracted by Klemperer from the raw material of his Diaries. As an academic and philologian, with a scholar’s love of words and their origins, he recognised from the first weeks of the Reich that the Nazi debasement of language merited its own study; and as an intellectual he felt a moral obligation to use his scholarly gifts to record this linguistic degradation. Behind his investigation hangs the tormented question: “How was it possible for educated people to betray their entire education, culture and humanity to such an extent?”

“LTI” was at first a playful parody of the regime; then, as anti-Semitic humiliations and “Strafexpeditions” (punitive expeditions) hardened into law, it became an act of self-defence, a means of safeguarding and maintaining his inner freedom and integrity: “At moments of utter ignominy and when my heart was literally breaking…I was invariably helped by the demand I had made on myself: observe, study and memorise what is going on.”

Klemperer realised that the Nazis were systematically poisoning language with “tiny doses of arsenic”. As language governs what people think and believe and thus how they behave, this meant an insidious and systematic corruption of the culture in which Germans lived. No distinction was made between spoken and written language; everything was public and oral – “deklamieren” (declaimed). It was also subject to a dreary uniformity, like “brown sauce”. As the author understood, “LTI” was the language of mass fanaticism. The short chapters of his book are compressed studies of particular key words such as “fanatisch” (fanatical), “heroisch” (heroic) “historisch” (historical), “blindlings” (blindly).

As Klemperer notes, until the Third Reich “fanatical’ always had a pejorative meaning, suggesting irrationality and extremism; under Hitler it became a complimentary term, an inflation of “courageous” and “persistent”. The fascist ideology ensured that words like “heroic” were always used in a vainglorious way and attached to a military uniform; the quiet heroism of an “Aryan” wife like Klemperer’s, bullied and harassed because of the racial impurity of her marriage, was ignored. Similarly, when daily events are seen as instantly “historical” and when all orders are meant to be performed “blindly”, this grandiose inflation will have hideous ramifications.

Klemperer asks himself why so many decent people he knew would all remark of Hitler: “You can’t resist him”. His conclusion is that National Socialism was a religion and its publicly staged spectacles, with their floodlights, bands and “Blutfahne” (blood banners) “a mixture of religious and theatrical ceremony”. “LTI” phrases like “the 13th hour” are a deliberate misappropriation of the language of the Gospels, with the Fuhrer being seen as Germany’s Redeemer. Goebbels, the malignly influential Minister for Propaganda, had a cynical disregard for intellectual judgements: “He banks on the intoxication of the masses.”

The author makes an interesting distinction between German and Italian Fascism: while the Duce always “swam with the resonant flow of his native language”, the Nazis’ use of German was always distorted and perverse. The Italian Fascists were criminal – but not so bestial; indeed, by comparison with Germany, Mussolini’s government is “almost humane and European”. Where, the author laments, will he find within the regime “a single truly honest word?”

After losing his academic position Klemperer was forced to work long shifts in factories. He notes of his fellow employees that although none of them were Nazis, all of them had been “poisoned” by the constant, twisted, public rhetoric they were exposed to and used “LTI” phrases unthinkingly. The book does not detail the daily round except insofar as this elucidates Klemperer’s thesis. Yet life necessarily intrudes. He asks himself: what was the worst day for the Jews during the Reich, deciding that it was 19th September 1941, when it became compulsory to wear the six-pointed yellow Star of David. He relates many anecdotes of the degradation and suffering this caused, not least the bitter distinction between star-bearing Jews and “privileged” Jews who were exempt. “Every star-bearing Jew carried his ghetto with him, like a snail its shell” he records. On the morning of 13th February 1945 the order was given to deport all remaining Jews in Dresden, regardless of their mixed marital status. What saved Klemperer and a mere handful of his fellows was the Allied bombing of Dresden that very evening; in the ensuing chaos he and his wife were able to flee to Bavaria, there to lie low until the war ended.
This analysis of the “LTI”, the “secret formula” that gave its inventor the will to focus his mind on “the philology of misery”, is more than an important addition to the swollen shelves of Holocaust studies. It should be read by anyone who cares about language and the potential to warp it. As such it is a timeless document, as relevant to our own age as to the Nazi era. Klemperer writes out of a rich, ancient, rabbinical tradition; he also writes as a philologian, a cultured European scholar, familiar both with the language of Mein Kampf and of the New Testament; finally he writes as a moral agent, a sensitive human being appalled at the murderous system surrounding him. Forced from the ivory tower of academic life, he finds a new purpose for his former pedagogic training. Sometimes he asks himself whether his study of “LTI” is merely “petty schoolmasterishness”; then a new example of outrageous mendacity galvanises his pen.
Throughout the text there are numerous reflections and stories to illuminate what otherwise might have become a dry pursuit of words. Klemperer mentions that orthodox Jews always buried ritually unclean items; then he adds that the words used by the Nazis should be “committed to a mass grave”. The poetic intensity of his prose and its nightmarish context reminded me of Kafka, another Jew, who composed prophetic parables of later 20th century developments. The difference is that Kafka wrote fiction while Klemperer experienced that fiction’s enactment.

It has been truly said that if we do not learn from history we will repeat its mistakes. Today, when feasts like Christmas are being turned into “winterval” and a measured defence of Christian beliefs can be interpreted at a “hate crime” it is time to turn again to Klemperer’s legacy. He remarked at the start of his investigation, “I considered many things to be the depths of hell which I would later deem to be its vestibule”. Only recently the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sachs – whose forefathers sought refuge in England to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe – has appealed to Britain to rediscover its identity. He warns that a society that wants to redefine marriage and which does not welcome children is destined to die. Are we in the West already in that vestibule described so poignantly by Klemperer in this memorable document?

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.