The 2000 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: "In Lingua Veritas" Proverbial Rhetoric in Victor Klemperer's Diaries of the Nazi Years (1933-1945)

By Mieder, Wolfgang | Western Folklore, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The 2000 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: "In Lingua Veritas" Proverbial Rhetoric in Victor Klemperer's Diaries of the Nazi Years (1933-1945)


Mieder, Wolfgang, Western Folklore


Scholars of language and culture who study the use and misuse of the German language during the twelve years of the Nazi reign have regarded the philologist and literary scholar Victor Klemperer as a key figure for decades. After all, as early as 1947, Klemperer was the first to publish his now famous book L[ingua] T[ertii] I[mperii]: Notizbuch eines Philologen [soon to be published in English as The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist' Notebook, in translation by Martin Brady], which started the still ongoing debate about the role of the German language during the Third Reich (cf. Bauer 1988, Berning 1964, Bork 1970, Maas 1984, Seidel and Seidel-Slotty 1961). While this book, based on diary entries, is still read with scholarly interest and deep compassion for the Jewish author who escaped the horrors of the Nazi era, a two volume edition of Klemperer's diaries has been published in 1995 under the title I Will Bear Witness: Diaries 1933-1945. In much greater detail, these volumes present disturbing images of the Second World War and the Holocaust from a victim's perspective. To a large extent, this is done through linguistic observation and analysis. The philologist Klemperer turns his own contemporary history into a "source of linguistic history" and "this philological interpretation is needed to understand contemporary history as cultural history" (Kamper 1996:328329). However, those who interpret "linguistic history as cultural history and cultural history as linguistic history" (Schober 1988:188) in Klemperer's sense will not only study individual elements of Nazi vocabulary, but will include the problematic phraseology of that time into their analysis as well. Naturally, proverbs and proverbial expressions are an important partial aspect of such an analysis, particularly since pre-set linguistic formulas played such an important role in Nazi propaganda from war mongering to the persecution of the Jews (cf. Mieder 1983 and 1993).

Victor Klemperer, born on October 5, 1881, in Landsberg as the son of a rabbi, began to write a diary when he was sixteen. Even if he did not make daily entries, he continued writing a regular diary until his death on February 11, 1960 in Dresden. He began to compile the most important aspects of his life and time by assembling a Vita out of dozens of diary notebooks. The first part of this Vita was published posthumously in 1989 in two volumes under the title Curriculum vitae. Erinnerungen 1881-1918. In his introduction, Klemperer muses about his manic obsession with writing a diary in typical openness:

Those who write a Vita ... are concerned about permanency, and want to stay here longer .... The wish to stay here means: The wish to play a role ... ; I studied and have achieved a professorship, a rather modest one at that. That is quite an average achievement, and if I were to use it as a claim for an autobiography, it would be bound to be ignored. .... Yet, I have often argued that the average has a special right to receive attention, since it is the fate of the majority to be average (Klemperer 1989:1,7-8).

Of course, Victor Klemperer was far more than an average person. This is evident from four more volumes of diaries now available in print, Leben sammeln, nicht fragen wozu and warum. Tagebucher 1918-1932 and So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stuhlen. Tagebucher 1945-1959 (cf. Klemperer 1995b, 1996, and 1999), which on several thousand pages present almost 80 years of history experienced and interpreted by Victor Klemperer. It is therefore hardly surprising that the journalist Volker Ullrich entitled his review of the diaries describing life in East Germany with the well-deserved headline "The Chronicler of the Century" (Ulrich 1999:19-20).

On the other hand, Klemperer's impressive scholarly contributions prove that he was anything but an "average professor." Not only was he a very popular instructor whose lectures were always well attended (cf. Borchert, Giesecke, and Nowojski 1999), but he was also a leading scholar with more than four hundred publications on Romance and Germanic literature and philology (cf. …

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