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Many commentators have noted that in order to murder their
victims, the Nazis had to murder the German language first,
associated as it was with high culture, rationality, and philosophical
thought. A new, degraded form of German came into being, first in
Germany itself, then in the camps, where it found its most brutal
I did not realize--I realized this only much later--that the Lager's
German was a language apart: to say it precisely in German, it was
Orts- und zeitgebunden, "tied to the place and time." It was
a variant, particularly barbarized, of what a German Jewish philologist,
Klemperer, had called Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of
the Third Reich, actually proposing for it the acronym LTI with an
ironic analogy to the hundred other acronyms (NSDAP, SS, SA,
SD, KZ, RKPA, WVHA, RSHA, BDM, etc.) dear to the Germany of that time.
About LTI, and its Italian equivalent, much has already been written,
also by linguists. It is an obvious observation that where violence is inflicted
on man, it is also inflicted on language.
Levi, Drowned, p. 97.
Some of the language of the camps:
Fressen, to eat, a term applied only to animals in polite German
(Levi, Drowned, p. 99.
Haftlinge, prisoners. When a young kapo referred to his charges
as men rather than haflinge, he was corrected. (Levi, Drowned, p. 92.)
Schmutzstuck, schmuckstuck--a woman weakened to the point of death, the female
equivalent of a Muselmann; literally "garbage" and "jewel", respectively.
(Levi, Drowned,p. 99.)
Spritzen, abgespritzt--to kill or be killed by phenol injection.
We immediately realized, from our very first contacts with the
contemptuous men with the black patches, that knowing or not knowing
German was a watershed. Those who understood them and answered in an
articulate manner could establish the semblance of a human relationship.
To those who did not understand them the black men reacted in a manner that astonished
and frightened us: an order that had been pronounced in the calm voice of a man who knows he will be
obeyed was repeated word for word in a loud, angry voice, then screamed
at the top of his lungs as if he were addressing a deaf person or indeed
a domestic animal, more responsive to the tone than the content
of the message.
If anyone hesitated (everyone hesitated because they did not understand and
were terrorized) the blows fell, and it was obvious that they were a variant
of the same language: use of the word to communicate thought,
this necessary and sufficient mechanism for man to be man, had
fallen into disuse. This was a signal: for those people we were
no longer men.
Levi, Drowned, p. 91.
What allowed...the degeneration of German speech, over the length of a half
century, from the rich, imbricated, responsible pursuit of truth into the
garbled, vulgarized German authorized and distributed by the Nazi press,
Nazi literature, and official bureaucratic speech [?]
Such an inquiry would be illuminating, but ultimately ineffectual,
since the debasement of language and the traducing of the psyche,
dependent as it is upon the organ of speech, is a process observable
in varying degrees in all western language. The case of the German language
is only an example of more so...one notes in advanced capitalist societies that the
command of nuanced and subtle language in public discourse has all but
disappeared. The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading
and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues
after he is gone. It will help us to explain a kind of cauterization of
conscience by the use of metaphor and euphemism; to understand that
in official Nazi language the extermination of Jews was precisely that--
the disinfectant of lice, the burning of garbage, the incineration
of trash, and hence language never had to say exactly what acts its words
commanded: kill, burn, murder that old Jew, that middle-aged Jew, that child Jew.
Cohen, pp. 7-8.
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