Language rules of the Third Reich

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

Under special circumstances, slight changes in the language rules became necessary. Thus, for instance, a high official in the Foreign Office once proposed that in all correspondence with the Vatican the killing of Jews be called the “radical solution”; this was ingenious, because the Catholic puppet government of Slovakia, with which the Vatican had intervened, had not been, in the view of the Nazis, “radical enough” in its anti-Jewish legislation, having committed the “basic error” of excluding baptized Jews. Only among themselves could the “bearers of secrets” talk in uncoded language, and it is very unlikely that they did so in the ordinary pursuit of their murderous duties – certainly not in the presence of their stenographers and other office personnel.

For whatever other reasons the language rules may have been devised, they proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose cooperation was essential in this matter. Moreover, the very term “language rule” (Sprachregelung) was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie. For when a “bearer of secrets” was sent to meet someone from the outside world – as when Eichmann was sent to show the Theresienstadt ghetto to International Red Cross representatives from Switzerland – he received, together with his orders, his “language rule,” which in this instance consisted of a lie about a nonexistent typhus epidemic in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, which the gentlemen also wished to visit.

The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, “normal” knowledge of murder and lies. Eichmann’s great susceptibility to catch words and stock phrases, combined with his incapacity for ordinary speech, made him, of course, an ideal subject for “language rules.”

This takes us into the territory of self-deception through language, and of “word magic”, which I think are common phenomena but which have rarely functioned to such disastrous or shocking effect.

Comments are welcome, but keep them apolitical.


16 Responses to Language rules of the Third Reich

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good morning (afternoon), Stan!
    Thanks for this poignant reminder of how we humans use language to deceive and to kill. Some former and current leaders of countries and the writings of George Orwell come to mind. (I also appreciate your request that we remain apolitical in our comments about this topic.) I also see myself in the mirror of human deception. I have not commented lately, but I remain a faithful follower of your posts, Stan, many of which are brilliant. Thanks!
    Vinetta Bell

  2. Orwell saw a link between vague language and poor thinking. But, of course, it can be more sinister. Interesting post, thanks.

  3. Sean J. says:

    Did you happen to read “Aus dem Wörterbuch des Unmenschen” by Dolf Sternberger, Gerhard Storz and W.E. Süskind ? Unfortunately it seems to be out of print.
    Oh, just found an excellent article by R.W. Leonhardt from 1957. In jedem Fall eine gute Gelegenheit, Dein Deutsch aufzufrischen, Stan.

  4. caro targamannu says:

    …the language rules of the Reich were there in order to disguise the reality and mislead the world; good comments about George Orwell,too; Saint Exupery was another one Master of the words

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    The euphemistic code-speak of the Nazi regime, in essence, created to secretively communicate the on-going cruel reality of one of the greatest grand-scale evils ever perpetrated on mankind, brought to mind another WWII-era use of secret code, namely the praiseworthy efforts of the U.S. Marine’s Navaho code talkers in the Allied military campaigns in the Pacific theater of action, used to stifle and confound rival Japanese intelligence operatives.

    The Japanese code breakers were completely baffled by the Navaho linguistic communications coding, a boon to the U.S. forces successful exploits against a proven formidable, and dogged foe.

    So historically we have the ‘insider’ coded words of the Third Reich contrived to give the impression to the outside world that nothing was amiss, and there was certainly no official Nazi plan to exterminate European Jewry; whilst somewhat ironically, thousands of miles across the globe, Native Americans were providing their unique language as a code to daze and confuse the enemy in the Pacific.

    Prime instances of how language can be used for both good and ill.
    In both the aforementioned cases, vital information is being concealed, or protected; yet clearly w/ 3rd Reich-speak, their intent was to hide the inhumanity, and horror of their ‘final solution’, while in regards to the Navaho code talkers, they were part-and-party to a logistical solution to a military challenge… in my view, a net positive in the final reckoning.

    • BenHemmens says:

      The Nazi language wasn’t just to conceal; it was also for the perpetrators to use among themselves, to encourage them to lose their inhibitions, because, you know, if you can joke about degrading, torturing and killing people while you’re doing it, it’s more “fun”; such, unfortunately, is (the nasty side of) human nature.

  6. Doré Bak says:

    Thank you for another great post and a welcomed history lesson. I wonder how we may apply the lessons learned to terminology coined in our present day. How shall we now understand current euphemisms such as, “Radical Islamists,” “water-boarding,” or “enemy-combatants?” I am not equating the US to the Nazis. Not at all, but the slippery slope is there. As a Catholic, I am both ashamed of our past and vigilant in regards to our future.

  7. Roger says:

    Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, auth. Viktor Klemperer (1881-1960): “Language of the Third Reich”.
    Christopher Hitchens reviewed Klemperer once, and the review appears in his “Arguably” of a few years ago. All I’ve been able to find are Klemperer’s journals of the Nazi period, “I will bear witness”, and from his life afterwards in the DDR, “The Lesser Evil.”
    But you’re right about George Orwell suspecting a decline in the German language under the impact of propaganda. He had immediate access to Germany in the post-war, whether or not to Klemperer.
    (But I doubt whether you discuss any of this “apolitically” (!?))

  8. Stan says:

    Thank you all for the constructive comments, thoughts, and links.

  9. languagehat says:

    I was going to mention Klemperer too; Amazon has the book for a very reasonable price.

    The Nazi style of euphemism is paralleled by that of the Stalinist gulag; when people were executed, their relatives were routinely told they had been given a sentence of “ten years without right of correspondence.”

  10. BenHemmens says:

    I don’t think the word Sprachregelung is terribly well translated by “rule”. In fact, the word Regelung doesn’t always mean a rule, it also has the sense of a solution, a way of fixing something. Ich habe die Angelegenheit geregelt doesn’t mean I have made up a rule about the problem, it means I have fixed it practically; it’s done and dusted. And if Ich habe die Angelegenheit mit ihm geregelt, then I have agreed on a solution with the person.

    Sprachregelung is a living word in current German and often crops up in the form of an agreed form of words for something, e.g. a joint statement by parties to a dispute, compromise language for a law, an agreed draft, etc. It isn’t usually a set of nefarious euphemisms or rules about how to use language; it is a concrete piece of language for some purpose that requires a careful formulation.

    And so these Sprachregelungen of the Nazis corresponded to the peculiarly evil genius of the Nazi regime by which it was not purely a closed, clockwork top-down machine; it also had this bit of looseness in it, of staring something off and seeing if people could be egged on to pick up the ball and run with it. The terms were agreed on by the high-up conspirators who were in on all the details of the Holocaust, but they were also carefully calibrated so that people lower down would get the drift and not only use them, but would willingly join in the game. And they did, unfortunately.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for this, Ben. I wondered about how appropriate a translation “language rule” was, and this is a very helpful analysis.

  11. Leif says:

    George Carlin would have had a field day with this kind of stuff.

    I think we see similar instances today in the manipulation of statistics, coded into positive phrases.

    Incidentally, the Nazis were huge on stats, using (IBM) punch cards to pigeonhole and organise the movement of people.

  12. BenHemmens says:

    The Nazis were huge on lots of things that are now perfectly normal parts of modern life. The statistics that go into organizing a single day in the current European rail network, or even switching the traffic lights in a single city, almost certainly dwarf anything Eichmann worked with. Last week Lufthansa had to close down almost their entire flight operations and then start them up again four days later, because of the pilots’ strike. How do you think they manage the logistics of that? Takes a bit more than a few punchcards …

  13. Christine says:

    Yes, well, we now have “harsh interrogation” instead of torture in certain well known parts of the world.

  14. […] for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics […]

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