Tuesday, 24 January 2017

On the language of the Third Reich

Just as the twelve years of National Socialist dictatorship between 1933 and 1945 are a unique and in many ways unprecedented period in Germanic history, so too could the same be said of the National Socialists’ usage of language. The speed and efficiency with which the Nazis seized power in Germany, put the infrastructure of a murderous regime into place, and waged war against nearby nations can be seen, too, in the apparently radical overhaul of language usage in this era. The same caveats, however, apply to studying both: namely that, for all that it can be tempting to distinguish the twelve offending years in general as an isolated, bastardized form of Germany, and the Nazi Party’s prolific use of propaganda and a plethora of anti-Semitic, archaic and racially motivated terms in particular as an isolated, bastardized form of the German language, one must look beyond the confines of the specific to the broader historical narratives and to the distinctive language usage which lie in the past. Without a consideration of the ways in which German history and the German language made the actions of the National Socialists possible, we adopt the ethically bankrupt position of implying they, and their words, rose to power in a vacuum; to imply this is to falsely reassure ourselves of the fundamentally aberrant and unrepeatable nature of the 1933-45 dictatorship and of Nazi-Deutsch, as though the essence of both is impossible in another time or in another place (the common dictum “it can’t happen here”[1]). That is a position not only refuted by taking political history and, for our purposes, historical linguistics into account, but it is also a position of breath-taking - some would say dangerous - complacency.