The Night Side of Speech
. . . in this Lager . . . the rubber truncheon was called der Dolmetcher, the interpreter: the one who made himself understood to everybody. . . .
-- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved
Of all the weapons in the Nazi arsenal, the most deadly by far was the spoken word. In view of the brutalities of the Third Reich, this bald formulation may well strike one as a perverse overstatement. Yet the obsession of Nazi leadership with public speeches and radio broadcasts, with slogans and chants, with word coinage and euphemism, prevents our dismissing it as mere intellectual construct. While the survivors of l'univers concentrationnaire despair of ever finding vocabulary adequate to their experience of horror, the Nazis did, in fact, develop the lexicon to set this night world into motion and perpetuate it for over a decade. It is not merely a question of orders given, of policies stated, of brutal purpose put into words. The Sprachregelung--the language rules--of the Third Reich interposed a linguistic barrier before the reality of atrocity; Nazi jargon galvanized a nation, often overriding personal conscience. Filtered through the screen of catchphrases and abstractions, the most heinous acts acquired an aura of heroism.
Unlike Hemingway who deplored the use of empty abstractions to mask what he perceived as the meaninglessness of wartime carnage and suffering, the Nazis deliberately encoded morally reprehensible acts in a vague idiom. The "simulated innocence of the Nazi language," as one linguist terms it ( Esh134), masked the structures of mass anni-