Holocaust and Genocide Studies 18.1 (2004) 106-108
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As a professor of romance studies and a Jewish survivor of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer brought a sharp philological perspective to the study of language under the Nazi dictatorship. Readers may remember Klemperer from the publication of his two-volume diary, I Will Bear Witness (1998, 2000), which, similar to this study, includes some of the most insightful observations to be found anywhere on the dynamics of propaganda and culture under the Third Reich. Appearing originally in 1947 as LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii (Language of the Third Reich), Klemperer's book demonstrates with frightening clarity the powerful role played by propaganda in shaping individual as well as group identity.
That this volume even came to pass reflects an incredible journey for both Klemperer and Eva, his gentile wife. After losing his academic post at the Technical University of Dresden in 1935 under the "Aryan clause," Klemperer was forced to work in various factories while finding shelter in a series of Judenäuser ("Jew houses"). His marriage to Eva spared him from the early deportations. During his sojourn, he observed firsthand the pervasive influence of LTI over the daily lives of Jews and non-Jews in various settings, such as bomb shelters and apartments, stores and factories, an agricultural village, and the Dresden Gestapo. Klemperer noted that LTI became a kind of "balancing pole" that provided him a strong intellectual focus in the midst of oppression. Saved from almost certain arrest, he survived the Dresden bombing of February 13, 1945. As he fled to the rural village of Piskowitz, Klemperer decided to test the prevalence of LTI in the countryside. He discovered that the impoverished LTI "truly encompassed and contaminated the whole of Greater Germany in its absolute conformity" (p. 281).
Klemperer wrote LTI in 1946 while living in East Germany, his home until his death in 1960. With images still fresh from the Third Reich, he penned thirty-six tightly written chapters and an afterword. Klemperer's writing combines the voice of the philologist and the pedagogue: "The task of making people aware of the poisonous nature of LTI and warning them of the dangers is, I believe, not just schoolmasterish. If a piece of cutlery belonging to Orthodox Jews has become ritually unclean, they purify it by burying it in the earth. Many words in common usage during the Nazi period should be committed to a mass grave for a very long time, some for ever" (p. 16). [End Page 106]
Yet Klemperer points out that only a small number of words, if any at all, actually were coined by the Nazi dictatorship. Much of the lexicon was simply appropriated from the German language before 1933 or reflected foreign influences. For all the rhetoric about a "New Order," the language of the Third Reich rested firmly on a foundation of linguistic continuity. Evident throughout the book, however, is another kind of continuity, one just as disturbing to Klemperer: that between the Third Reich and successors. In postwar speeches broadcast by East German antifascists and at a meeting of the Dresden Cultural Association in 1946, Klemperer noticed the staying power of LTI through the use of wording such as the call for a kämpferisch (aggressive) kind of democracy in postwar Germany in support of Volkssolidarität (people's solidarity). The mechanistic verb aufziehen (to set up) used in describing the planning of an art exhibit in Dresden marked a propaganda continuity with the Third Reich replete with multiple and changing layers of meaning. Goebbels, for example, declared before the University of Political Science in June 1933 that the Nazi Party had "set up" (aufgezogen) a huge organization bringing citizens together with a variety of social activities. On another level, somewhat earlier, Nazi newspapers used the term in a pejorative...