From "National Socialists" to "Nazi": History, Politics, and the English Language

By Znamenski, Andrei A. | Independent Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

From "National Socialists" to "Nazi": History, Politics, and the English Language


Znamenski, Andrei A., Independent Review


The linguistic abridgements indicate an abridgement of thought which they in turn fortify and promote.

--Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

In downtown Vienna, there is a small square called the Jewish Plaza (Juden Platz). Right in the middle of this area stands a house-shaped marble monument devoted to the memory of sixty-five thousand of Austria's Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The names of various concentration camps to which these victims were relegated are carved around the foundation. On the paving in front of this symbolic "marble house" are three large inscriptions engraved in three languages: on the left German, on the right English, and in the middle Hebrew (see figures 1a, 1b, and 1c). The German one says, "Zum Gedenken an die mehr also 65.000 osterreichischen Juden, die in der Zeit von 1938 bis 1945 von den Nationalsozialisten ermordet warden" (In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were lolled by the National Socialists between 1938 and 1945). When translated, so does the Hebrew one in the middle. Yet the English version reads: "In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945" (emphasis added).

[FIGURE 1a OMITTED]

[FIGURE 1b OMITTED]

Two years ago when I visited this monument for the first time, I did not pay the slightest bit of attention to that small linguistic discrepancy. However, last summer when I visited Austria again, I became intrigued with this peculiarity. To be exact, my curiosity was sparked when on the same day after visiting that site, I strolled into Thalia, Vienna's largest bookstore. Browsing shelves with social science and humanities literature, I stumbled upon a German translation of Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, a 2009 book by the noted British historian Mark Mazower. The German edition of that book (Mazower 2009b), which has the same cover picture, is titled Hitlers Imperium: Europa unter der Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus (Hider's empire: Europe under the National Socialism rule) (see figures 2a and 2b).

[FIGURE 1c OMITTED]

I eventually decided to look deeper into the origin of this language oddity. The first thing one notices is that when English-speaking people write and talk about Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, more often than not they routinely use the word Nazi. Thus, in English we have books and articles about Nazi economy, Nazi labor policy, Nazi geopolitics, Nazi genetics, and so forth. In contrast, when Germans refer to the same turbulent years, they usually use the term National Socialism (Nationalsozialismus). If they need to shorten it, they occasionally write NS or NSDP; the latter is an abbreviation of the long and all-embracing name for Hitler's party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). In fact, Hitler and his associates never liked or used the word Nazi. They always called themselves "National Socialists." Incidentally, before 1932, when the British and American media could not yet make up their minds in which camp to place Hitler's followers, they too usually referred to them as National Socialists or sometimes simply as Hitlerites.

In the English language, the word Nazi acquired a very broad meaning. Like the term fascist, its linguistic twin expression, it moved away from its original context and entered the mainstream. Now it stays there as a loaded political smear, which people on both the left and the right use when they need to put down their opponents. Because in the West the crimes of Hitler's regime were exposed more widely and deeply than equivalent or more monstrous perpetrations committed by other modern villains, in popular perception, "Nazi" Germany became the symbol of the ultimate evil. If in a heated political debate people apply this sinister sticker to political opponents, they clearly want to drive them outside of a civilized discourse and turn them into moral outcasts. …

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