The late Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) had a great deal to say about the use of language in Nazi Germany, having been an astute observer of his surroundings, and having kept meticulous diaries of his life as a Jew (although converted to Protestantism) in that country during the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler’s regime. As a professor and learned individual, Klemperer was perhaps uniquely qualified to comment on the subject of the use of language by an autocratic regime grounded in a thoroughly racist and nationalist ideology. While his diaries of his years in Nazi Germany, I Will Bear Witness, provide much of his first-hand observations regarding the use of language by the Nazis, his 1957 study of the subject, The Language of the Third Reich, provides a vital historical document in itself on that subject – a subject that deserves greater attention for those studying totalitarian regimes including Soviet Russia and North Korea as well.
What Klemperer refers to as “the language of the Third Reich” included a number of observations, including his comment in volume I of his diaries, “Everything is aimed at deafening the individual in collectivism.” Klemperer’s later reflections on the subject were summarized best in his statement that “It isn’t only Nazi actions that have to vanish, but also the Nazi cast of mind, the typical Nazi way of thinking, and its breeding ground: the language of Nazism.” Klemperer, clearly, was struck by the use of language in focusing the minds of the masses and reengineering the way people thought about certain subjects. Note the following from The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer relates the use of a particular word in his discussions with an old colleague and friend who has, to borrow a modern day colloquialism, “drank the Kool-Aid”:
“The very first word which struck me as specifically Nazi – not in its formation but in its usage – is associated in my mind with the bitterness surrounding the first loss of a friend brought about by the Third Reich . . . Strafexpedition [punitive expedition} is the first term which I recognized as being specifically National Socialist . . . and is the very last word I heard from T (the aforementioned friend).”
Victor Klemperer left behind an invaluable record of life in Nazi Germany. His observations on the use of language by the people directly responsible for over ten million deaths deserves broader study.