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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 133-136

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Book Review

The Language of the Third Reich:
LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii

The Language of the Third Reich: LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii. By Victor Klemperer. Trans. Martin Brady. London: Athlone, 2000. 296 pp.

Leni Riefenstahl could not see or hear it while acting as an accomplice in its propagation. Martin Heidegger, in the 1933 rector's address, embraced it to a degree that is still shocking. Hans-Georg Gadamer surfed on it to a degree that seems to shock no one. 1 It haunted Paul Celan. Victor Klemperer took [End Page 133] its study as his personal mission. Ludwig Wittgenstein did not need the duck/rabbit image to convince anyone about "seeing as," for a generation of people viewed National Socialism in Germany in many different ways, some as a source of redemptive action for the German people, some as an unpleasant moment in history that required compromises to survive, some as the politics of murderers.

Klemperer wrote his LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen in 1945 and 1946, mainly from notes he kept in the diaries that make up Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten: Tagebücher, 1933-1945 [I will bear witness] (the English misses the teleological impulse and expectant doom of "until the last"). The work published in 1947, carried on despite numerous dangers, is a study of the modes of Nazi language and their development in popular speech and culture. Klemperer was able to study only a limited amount of material. His work is based mostly on the newspapers, leaflets, and books that fell into his hands in Dresden during the war. As a Jew in the Third Reich, he was banned from possessing books written by "Aryan" authors, though his wife, Hedwig Elisabeth Eva Schlemmer, who was a Protestant, helped him obtain books from libraries. During the war, moreover, the restrictions on Jews listening to radios, seeing movies, reading newspapers, and even talking in public became too great for Klemperer to fashion any truly comprehensive study. Call what he did produce a less sprawling Arcades project, one devoted mainly to linguistic inspection, for Klemperer believed that "language reveals all" (11). He thought of the words of Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazi Party leaders not as rhetoric in the usual sense, that is, as items to be dismissed as "talk," but as death-dealing discourse, "like tiny doses of arsenic" poisoning the population (15), often without its knowledge. Macbeth-like, their effects extend beyond their occurrence.

"Language reveals all" sounds akin to the point made by both V. N. Volosinov and James Baldwin about ways that language identifies its speakers, places them, marks them, as almost any utterance of "Heil Hitler" exemplifies. Baldwin put it this way: "To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to 'put your business in the street': you have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future." 2 However, as the names at the outset of this review attest, the language of National Socialism was not revelatory to everyone. National Socialism did put its business in the street, but not everyone grasped its messages, its program. The subliminal influences were programmed as well to sustain the thousand-year Reich, and it is not clear that Klemperer, despite [End Page 134] his training in French literature, possessed the philological, political, and philosophical tools to deal with that programming. 3

Klemperer did know that these unconscious effects were at work:

I have observed again and again how the young people in all innocence, and despite a sincere effort to fill the gaps and eliminate the errors in their neglected education, cling to Nazi thought processes. They don't realize they are doing it; the remnants of linguistic usage from the preceding epoch confuse and seduce them. . . . the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or...


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pp. 133-136
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