the corruption of words

i. the language of the third reich

Victor Klemperer, a professor of Romance language who was fired from his teaching position in Dresden in 1935 because he was Jewish, and spent the war years with his "Aryan-born" wife writing daily in his diary, recently published as the two-volume I Will Bear Witness. He methodically recorded what he called "LTI"—Lingua Tertii Imperii (Language of the Third Reich)—in his entries and, after miraculously surviving the war, managed to publish a volume with that title. Klemperer raises the question of what was Hitler’s most powerful propaganda tool. He argues that it was not Hitler’s and Goebbels’ incendiary speeches. Instead he makes a passionate argument that language was the most lethal weapon in the Nazi arsenal:

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…

..[Nazi language] changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence, it makes common property out of what was previously the preserve of an individual or a tiny group, it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures with its poison. Making language the servant of its dreadful system it procures it as its most powerful, most public, and most surreptitious means of advertising. (Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady, London: Athlone Press, 2000, pp. 15-16.)

American authors of a 1944 dictionary for decoding Nazi language concurred. They saw Nazi language as characteristic of totalitarian regimes (as opposed to democratic ones). It calls such language "an instrument of social control"

"...The language that is spoken in totalitarian countries conveys the climate of the totalitarian mind. It is more than a vehicle of communication. It is a vehicle of command which helps shape the pattern of a social structure into its ritual." (Heinz Paechter, et al., Nazi-Deutsch: A Glossary of Contemporary German Usage, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1944, p. 5.)

Certain words appear especially frequently in Nazi discourse and text: ewig (eternal), historisch (historical), einmalig (unique). Their repetition made people feel part of an unparalleled enterprise of particular importance. Who wouldn’t want to help build an eternal, historically unique society? The words seduce the listener into participation, but the listener inevitably makes an active decision—conscious on some level--to heed the message of the words.


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