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Nr. 96, 20.10.2018  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

The power of words

There is more Nazi language in our everyday German than most people realise. Therefore, the German studies Professor Jörg Kilian is dedicated to raising awareness of this language heritage, in research and teaching as well as in German language lessons at school. Especially when Nazi language comes to prominence in the political context.


The word "Lügenpresse" (lying press) also has a sordid history. Photo: picture alliance

Mädel, abholen, betreuen (girl, fetch, take care of). All three words may sound harmless, but rose to prominence during National Socialism. “Abholen” (fetch) was a euphemism for deportation. “Betreuen” (take care of) was used when people were abducted and murdered in concentration camps. And the “Bund deutscher Mädel” (League of German Girls) brought the belittling term for the female gender into permanent disrepute.

With these examples, Jörg Kilian highlights the difficulties in dealing with the language of the Nazis: "Should we condone the use of certain words, because society no longer remembers their former meaning, and we use them quite naturally in everyday life?" In most cases, this question is purely rhetorical for Kilian, because of course, from his point of view, words that were used during National Socialism with clear ideological intent, but then once again become part of everyday vocabulary, should be rehabilitated after a reasonable period of time.

Nevertheless, Kilian is convinced that a linguistic appraisal of words in our modern vocabulary, which lost their innocence when used by the Nazis and are historically tainted, is particularly important in times like these: "In the AfD, for example, there is a campaign to reintroduce the word völkisch into everyday use, protesters are outraged about the supposed Lügenpresse (lying press) and alleged Volksverräter (traitors against the people)." For Kilian, all of this sounds suspiciously like attempts to reinstill in the minds of the people a time long-believed to be overcome - and this is exactly why he wants to raise awareness amongst his students, who will later teach German in the classroom. "If you also observe that the word Jude (Jew) is once again becoming a swear-word in schoolyards, then it is obvious that the course of history of language use sometimes also encounters impediments," he added.

Professor Jörg Kilian wants to sensitise people to choose their words carefully. Photo: Geist

"Language and language use during National Socialism" is the name of a seminar which Kilian is offering this winter semester, and which has generated huge interest amongst prospective teachers. On the one hand relaxed ("I don't want to play at being the language police"), and on the other hand with the necessary serious scientific focus, he wants to sensitise the students, especially to formulations which initially appear harmless. If, for example, someone speaks of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), "then anyone with an average education would shudder," explained Kilian. However, if the abbreviation SS for summer semester is displayed everywhere in the corridors of the university buildings, hardly anyone thinks of the former paramilitary political organisation of the Nazis. Kilian is therefore not calling for a ban on the abbreviation, but wants to ensure that the future German teachers are aware of such situations.

Perhaps, the Kiel-based German scholar concedes, he is a bit idealistic in this respect. But he firmly believes that although National Socialism could probably not have been completely restricted, perhaps some of its worst excesses could have been contained, if the path had not been smoothed beforehand linguistically, if the majority of language-users in society had opposed it by consciously refusing to copy and join in the Nazi talk. Kilian thinks of the 1920s, when a whole generation grew up hearing people described as Parasiten (parasites) and Schädlinge (pests), who did nothing other than to live at the expense of the German public. "In this way, their world view was distorted to such an extent, that it was no longer a big step to murder," he said.

This phenomenon can be described scientifically as a change in the “Sprachspiel” (language-game). The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) developed the concept of "language-game", that describes the specific situations in which terms appear, and become part of the way of life. Precisely this approach can also be very revealing today, assures Kilian. For example, he has noticed that the word wuchern, (to commit usury / profiteering) has recently become popular again. And if politicians like AfD member Gauland say "We will take our country back", then it contains "the assertion that something has been taken from 'us', by someone who does not belong to 'us'."

According to Professor Kilian, fighting against these emerging language patterns, and teaching children and adolescents about the sometimes disastrous power of words - not by moralising, but factually and objectively - is certainly worthwhile. At the same time, in his opinion science as well as schools would be well-advised not to go overboard and over-analyse every word for political correctness.

Martin Geist
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