Every age and society has its characteristic idioms and figures of speech. It is only in the past decade that the British Foreign Office has discovered the virtues of "punching above its weight", and that the state has become obsessed with seeing "clients" for its "services". More rapid and spontaneous change takes place in popular culture: the new mockney has media hacks talking about the virtues of the bars in their "manor", while star chefs ham up their mateyness in a startling plethora of lad-friendly verbs.
Never has this process been charted with greater insight, wit and seriousness of purpose than by Victor Klemperer during the Third Reich. Klemperer is the German-Jewish philologist (a cousin of the conductor) whose diaries of life in Hitler's Germany have been published in Britain, to great acclaim, over the past two years. The Language of the Third Reich, although shorter and more focused in theme, is possibly even more important than the diaries. It is to the publisher's credit that it has dared to go where many bigger houses failed, offering perhaps the most profound and entertaining study ever written in English of the impact of political tyranny on language.
Klemperer was a philologist by training, and was a university professor during the Weimar years. Expelled from his job when the Nazis came to power, then prevented even from using the local library, he began in despair to make a detailed study of the everyday language of the Third Reich, which he called, for short, the Lingua Tertii Imperii. He scoured the press, jotted down street conversations and kept his ears and eyes open. Fortunately, the Gestapo did not read Latin and overlooked his notes in its periodic searches of his house and rooms.
Like the novelist Hermann Broch, Klemperer believed that the essence of an age was to be found in its own characteristic style. "People are forever quoting Talleyrand's remark that language is only there in order to hide the thoughts of the diplomat," he writes early on. "But in fact the very opposite is true. Whatever it is that people are determined to hide, be it only from others, or from themselves, even things they carry around unconsciously - language reveals all. That is no doubt the meaning of the aphorism - Le style c'est l'homme; what a man says may be a pack of lies - but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances."
The book itself is a series of fleeting sketches of words and phrases, summoned up and explained through a wealth of anecdotes. One four-page chapter, for instance, describes how the first "Nazi" word is brought into the Klemperer home in conversation with a younger man they had befriended. "Yesterday we had a great day," he tells them. "There were a few shameless communists in Okrilla, so we organised a punitive expedition [Strafexpedition]."
"What did you do?"
"You know, we made them run the gauntlet of rubber truncheons, a mild dose of castor oil, no bloodshed, but very effective all the same, a proper punitive expedition in fact."
Klemperer goes on to trace the word Strafexpedition back to European colonialism in Africa ("you could hear the encircled Negro village . . . the cracking of the hippopotamus whip"), and thence to Germany via the early years of Mussolini's Italy. At first, he comforts himself with the thought that the whole of Nazism was nothing more than "an Italian infection". Later, as it becomes clearer what Hitler's regime has in store, that first Nazi word seems almost modest in its ambitions. "The semi-private recreational sport of the punitive expedition was immediately replaced by the routine, official police operation, and castor oil by the concentration camp. And six years after the beginning of the Third Reich, the domestic expedition-turned-police operation was drowned out by the pandemonium of world war, conceived by those who unleashed it as a kind of punitive expedition against all kinds of despised peoples."
Klemperer's omnivorous analytic gaze takes in the full range of the LTI. From posters to obituary notices, from advertising to popular sayings, regime and people alike emerge through the living medium of a contorted and distended language in which meanings are reversed, exaggerated and bent to suit the needs of ideology. Only someone with Klemperer's care for language could show how punctuation itself bowed to the will of National Socialism, or deflate so elegantly what he calls "the curse of the superlative". For anyone who shares that care, and for all those concerned about how dictatorship exerts its power over the minds of its subjects, this book is a necessary and fascinating read.
Mark Mazower teaches history at Birkbeck College, London