The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer

To set the scene: Klemperer was one of the Jews to survive WWII in Germany because he was married to an Aryan. Prior to Hitler, he was an academic in the field of literature and, having been forced out of his job, he kept detailed diary notes on how language was used under the Nazis in Germany. It was his way of trying to deal with the situation he was in, utilising his linguistic talents for a far greater cause than his academic work would ever be able to do.

This volume is only part of his published diaries of the period and, as will be evident from the name, is concerned with a specific aspect. I can only imagine how horrifying the others must be. As is always the case, reading small details of one person’s life can be moving in a way large statistics fail to be. We see him being hit on the head over and over with a book because he dares to have one. Being spat at, abused in the street by fellow beings, because they can. Being forced to kill their cat because the Nazis decided that Jews couldn’t have pets. His angry bewilderment as he watches nice non-Jewish Germans explaining that Hitler is for the best. His even angrier perplexity that he has Jewish friends saying the same thing.

One cannot read this and not be reminded of the part of the movie Sunshine set in WWII where Nazis are trying to force a man of Jewish descent to say he is Jewish and he refuses. Klemperer must also have been rather astonished to find that he had become Jewish, despite being Protestant since before WW1. This is a man whose life was his obscure academic work, who ignored the developing flames around him until he was forced to see that he was in the middle of them. In the same way as Klemperer finds his friends so hard to understand – their support of Hitler – as one reading his thoughts much later, it is equally hard to understand how this man could have been so emotionally German. At every moment of the most horrific things happening to him, he never once lost or wanted to reject the idea of being German. After the war, he stayed in Germany.

I guess for us now, from the point of view of a linguistic study, this book has no particular surprises. But it is intertwined with this other thing, the way in which humans behave and this is something important we must keep in our sights. Maybe the way out of the dire situation we are in at the moment in terms of religious and cultural conflict throughout the world is to go back to this period and see how ordinary people behaved. Remind ourselves that we all have to keep our worst side at bay. Remind ourselves that the bad things happening aren’t about governments, they are about people. The bad thing that happened in Germany wasn’t Hitler, it was that ordinary nice people were willing to accept Hitler. There will always be somebody wanting to be Hitler. It is up to people to let him. It is up to people to stop him.

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