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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 12, 2008

Years ago, when I worked in the field of so-called “marketing communications,” I used to tell colleagues that there were two fathers of modern advertising: St. Paul and Dr. Goebbels. Paul was a true believer who knew how to craft the message of a small sectarian movement and convey it throughout the Roman world. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was a hate-driven man who was a master of twentieth-century communications media and who knew how to use the power of the big lie to manipulate individuals and nations. Goebbels also understood the subtle power of contrived language to reshape people’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior and turn their ideals on their heads.

The classic, and possibly the only, study of the language of Nazi Germany is Viktor Klemperer’s brilliant Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Languague of the Third Reich”). Klemperer, best known in the West for his posthumously published pre-war and wartime diaries (issued in the US in a two-volume abridgment entitled “I Will Bear Witness”), was a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and professor of French literature in Dresden. Klemperer’s background was as rich as his interests; his father was an orthodox Jew turned reformed rabbi and his uncle was orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was saved from war-time deportation by being partner to a childless “mixed” marriage and later by the disappearing into the chaos that followed the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer chose to remain in Dresden — in East Germany, thus — proudly clinging to his German identity. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he chronicled in his book “The Lesser of Two Evils” and that later, in the aftermath of Stalin’s Anti-Cosmopolitan campaign and Doctors’ Trials, caused him no small inner anguish.

That “Lingua Tertii Imperii” remained relatively unknown in the west during the cold war was in part due to its East Bloc pedigree and also to the embarrassing applicability of its insights to the language of post-war denazification and the reinvention of national identity and political discourse in West Germany. This was a shame, not least because the language and style that Goebbels perfected and Klemperer documented survived the denouement of Nazism to manifest themselves in what on the surface seem the least likely of places — including the present US presidential campaign.

Two of the most oft-quoted, albeit simplest, examples of Klemperer’s treatment of Nazi reshaping of the German language refer to the words fanatisch and aufziehen. Under the Nazis fanatisch (fanatical) was transformed from something negative into something worthy of emulation, an exhortation to over-the-top true-believer-ship and transcendence of reason; aufziehen was transformed from a word whose meanings included the act of winding clocks to an approving term for the staging of manipulative events on a grand scale.

Both these words came to my mind during the recent Republican convention, especially during Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. The choice of Palin and her contrived stance as an establishment-hating populist were case studies in aufziehen. In her acceptance speech, Palin made good use of the Nazi’s big lie technique, repeating over and again, amongst other exaggerated claims, the absurd and easily disproved contention that the Democrats are responsible for America’s staggering national debt. Palin’s tone of voice and body language were also classic Goebbels, her references to Democratic candidate Barack Obama were laced with sarcasm and dismissive gestures. On the television screen, the facial expressions of many of the Republican delegates cheering Palin’s comments appeared stereotypically fanatisch, betraying mixtures of rage and near-ecstasy, the stuff that street brawls and civil wars are made of. As a coda, during the vice-presidential debate, Palin described how, if elected, she would expand the role and power of the vice presidency in the American congress, this redolent not only of current US vice-president Dick Cheney but also of the Nazis’ bullying tactics in the German parliament following their rise to power in 1933.

The Politics of Middle Names

Goebbels’s fellow Nazis understood the power of names as well as words. Raul Hilberg, the pioneer historian of the administrative workings of the wartime murder of six million European Jews, described the underlying method of the Nazi’s war against the Jews as identification, concentration, and extermination. Part and parcel of this process was the compulsory assignment to all Jews of identical middle names, “Israel” for men and “Sarah” for women. The desired effects were to make Jews visible, portray them as caricatures, rob them of their individuality, and break their spirits. Given the minority position of Jews and the scope of the power turned against them, such stigmatization invariably accomplished at least the first two of these goals and more often than not the last two as well.

Over the past week, a vicious undertone in the Republican campaign rose to a crescendo as Palin and McCain used Obama’s passing acquaintance with a long-ago member of the one-time Weather Underground in a manner worthy of the Nazis’ heavy-handed attempts to incriminate their opponents in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. During the same week, supporters of the Republican ticket increasingly and ever-more-archly referred to Barack Obama as Barack HUSSEIN Obama — this not as a paean to Democratic candidate’s mixed heritage but as an ad hominem slur and questioning of his “Americanism” and professed Christianity. By the end of the week, the flood of hatred proved too great even for John McCain to control and he was heckled and booed by his own supporters while trying to speak up for the “decency” of his opponent. The Republicans’ emulation of Goebbels, it seems, has created a Frankenstein.

Footnote: Call Me Hussein

I am particularly sensitive to the politics of names. My own family changed its name in the early-1950s in the shadow of the social and political pressures in America at the time. This said, this morning I decided — out of solidarity with Barack Obama and disgust with Republican stigmatization of his “un-American” names and origins — that from now until election day in November I will adopt “Hussein” as my own middle name and introduce myself on all occassions, informal and official, as “Stephen HUSSEIN Lewis.” Bigotry, innuendo, and the legacy of 1930s Germany call for protest and satire. Care to join me?

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One Response to “Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names”

  1. […] by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008 Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language edition of Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish […]

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