Monday, 8 August 2011

Book Review - The language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer

The language of the Third Reich : LTI - lingua Tertii Imperii : a philologist's notebook by Victor Klemperer (translated by Martin Brady)

London : Continuum, 2006                                 ISBN 9780485115260

This is a book that would repay multiple readings - in fact it's a book that should sit on one's shelves and be referred to again and again - despite it's somewhat quirky construction,  in a small way this book unlocks the secrets of the twentieth century's decline into madness and suicide.

Victor Klemperer was a middle-aged, middle-class Professor of French Literature, who had served his country in the First World War; in 1933 he had a comfortable post at the Dresden Technical University. In a normal world a middle-aged middle-class person living in Australia (which is me) would never had heard of him. Unfortunately for Klemperer, he was Jewish, and 1933 marked the beginning of twelve years of hell for anyone tagged as such in the "Thousand Year Reich".

The Language of the Third Reich is a collection of essays about how the German language was used and abused by the Nazi Party, and how this use and abuse actually affected the way Germans thought about themselves and the world, even if they didn't support Hitler and his party. Klemperer was in a unique position to write about this process - as an educated academic he was the ultimate insider, but as a Jew he rapidly became the ultimate outsider.

In particular, Klemperer focuses on how the usages of the Nazis infiltrated everyday life - words such as "system", "organization", "fanatical" - and how these words filtered through from the rantings of Hitler and Goebbels into everyday discourse, corrupting the thought process of everyone. He spends time on how the Nazis "mechanized" the human by using the language of technology to refer to people, beginning a process that culminated in the slaughter of millions.

Of course George Orwell in his futurist novel 1984 took this idea to a horrible conclusion, but Klemperer's work shows that it can and has really happened. Perhaps the scariest part of reading this work is that one slowly realises that this is still happening today, when words are skewed such that the original meaning is lost, or new words are coined to guide our thinking. Klemperer forensically dissects the language of the Nazis and opens our eyes to how we still succumb to the same sorts of things now.

Klemperer saves a lot of his vitriol for his fellow Jews (it is important to note that Klemperer was what was known as an "assimilated" Jew - he never followed any of the religious strictures that would have made him Jewish in the eyes of observant members of that religion). One chapter is an interesting comparison of Zionism with Nazism, showing disturbing similarities between the two ideologies, and in fact suggesting that Hitler may have developed some of his key concepts ("blood and soil"), from Zionist literature.

Klemperer survived the Nazi era for two reasons - he was married to an Aryan, so he was in a group of Jews who were among the last to be sent to be killed; and what could be termed a miracle in that the night before he was due to be taken away the Allies obliterated Dresden in one of the most destructive bombing raids in the European war. Klemperer and his wife used the resultant confusion to change their identities and escape the clutches of the Gestapo.

Victor Klemperer's diaries are also available in English translation and are well worth reading, if only to dip into, as they describe the alternating banality, terror, boredom and fear of living through the Nazi era.

Like the diaries, The Language of the Third Reich has been very well translated, and Martin Brady has managed the challenge of translating a book about language with skill - the German words referred to are always included, and the notes are invariably helpful.

The Continuum impacts series in which this volume is published is well priced and attractive, which makes this an easy book to own. As a guide to how language can be used to enslave us, this book is indispensable.

Check your local library for this book, or check out Amazon.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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