The German-Jewish scholar and diarist Victor Klemperer wrote in his 1947 work, The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook, that resistance required knowing the language of the oppressor.
Wise words, and, 71 years on, Nazi language is once again being heard in Germany.
In particular, critics are eyeing the powerful far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland — AfD — some of whose leaders pick up on the terminology and even minimise Nazi crimes.
Founded five years ago, the anti-refugee, anti-Muslim party today has representatives in 14 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. Last year, it broke the five per cent electoral threshold to enter the Bundestag for the first time.
Many contend that it is better not to give the AfD too much attention, because that is exactly what the party wants. Others argue that its outpourings are simply too appalling or dangerous to be left without a response.
Only last weekend, AfD co-vice chair Alexander Gauland, who leads its Bundestag faction, told a party youth gathering that “Hitler and the Nazis are just bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”
His words were reminiscent of French, right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le-Pen’s 1987 remark describing the Auschwitz gas chambers as “a detail in the history of the Second World War.”
Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Munich and Bavarian Jewish communities, said Mr Gauland had insulted everyone who suffered in the war.
“I hope that the voters in Bavaria will realise what a disaster the AfD — with its many Gaulands — is for our country. Anyone who votes for this destructive, hate squad is voting for the downfall [of our homeland],” she said in a public statement.
Behind the major controversies, however, there are insidious, everyday events that can in some ways be more revealing.
Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany, as is the use of Nazi propaganda and praise for Nazi ideology. But it is not forbidden to refer to news media today as the Lügenpresse (lying press) or Journaille, as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used to denigrate newspapers that Hitler did not like.
Joachim Scharloth, a German linguist and professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, noted that some AfD people were using words straight out of the Nazi lexicon and trying to rehabilitate them.
He told the JC that if, for example, politicians said that Chancellor Angela Merkel had turned away from the gesundes Volksempfinden (healthy national attitude) by welcoming refugees and was threatening the Lebensraum (living space) of the German people, “then these terms become positive points of reference again, even though they were used by the Nazis to justify their expansionist and racist politics.”
Though the AfD does not always use such terms in the same way the Nazis did, Prof Scharloth pointed out that, by using them at all, the party “raises the social acceptability of ideologies [that] the AfD believes should be revived.”
Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations, said the statements trivialising the Nazi regime’s deeds were “extremely worrisome for the Jewish community.
“It feels as if echoes of the Nazi era keep rebounding,” she added.
“This is particularly unsettling because we don’t know if such thinking is limited to a few people or if it is representative of how most of the party members think. In any case, no one seems to suffer internal party consequences for minimising the scope of Nazi atrocities.”
Rabbi Andreas Nachama, a Berlin-based historian, who runs a museum focusing on the history of the Gestapo secret police, said he preferred to starve groups like the AfD of publicity.
“It’s better not to make them important. The more you react, the more they think this is the right way.”
Prof Scharloth agreed: “We should keep a cool head. The AfD uses these terms in part to gain more attention from the media.”
But, he added, we must “analyse and explain what these terms [originally] meant, how they are appropriated and what their functions are in the current political discourse.”
Helmut Kellershohn, who has been studying the AfD’s tactics at the Duisburg Institute for Language, said the party’s aim was to provoke, and that it was “not good to ignore it. You should pay attention and make it clear what it meant, and where these terms come from.
“Language influences the consciousness, and words can be incendiary,” Mr Kellershohn said. “They can lead to actions. You can’t just let it go.”
But incendiary language can also be used in reverse. The satirical TV show extra 3 famously mocked AfD co-vice chair Alice Weidel for saying: “Political correctness belongs on the trash heap of history.”
“Right on! No more political correctness,” moderator Christian Ehring said on the programme. “Let’s all be incorrect. The Nazischlampe (Nazi slut) is right. Was that incorrect enough? I hope so.”A Hamburg court later ruled that Mr Ehring was exercising legitimate freedom of speech by using the term Nazischlampe. ”