Recalling Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) and his ‘Language of the Third Reich’
Victor Klemperer around 1930 (Ursula Richter), public domain.

Victor Klemperer is remembered for his seminal study of the language of the Nazis. Born the son of a rabbi on October 9, 1881, in an East Prussian town that today is Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland, Klemperer grew up in Berlin. Baptized Protestant, he volunteered for the front in the First World War. With the rise of German fascism, he was declared a Jew. He lost his professorship in Romance languages, his home, had no access to radio, newspapers, or libraries, could not publish, go to the cinema or theatre.

After the war, Klemperer supported socialism as an anti-fascist new beginning. Having fled Germany after the Dresden bombing of February 13-14, 1945, he returned to Soviet-occupied Dresden after the war and was reinstated as a professor. He joined the Communist Party because he “wanted to finish with the Nazis for political reasons.” He died in Dresden in 1960.

Normally the 140th anniversary of an important person’s birth is no momentous occasion, but the continuing debasement of language, particularly on the right today, though the left is not a complete stranger to the phenomenon either, forces us to recall Victor Klemperer’s enduring contributions.

Klemperer kept a diary and after the war, he published The Language of the Third Reich: Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brady, and known by the initials in Latin, LTI. Klemperer, a keenly observant, middle-class scholar, grasped how the fascists’ language expresses their inhumanity. In the anecdotally written LTI, Klemperer focuses on the central terms of this Newspeak: Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf …fixed the essential features of its language. Following the Party’s ‘takeover’ in 1933 the language of a group…[took] hold of all realms of public and private life.”

Klemperer never identified as Jewish, even after 12 years of fascist persecution. However, fascist racism toward Jews occupies a central place in his thinking and experience. He highlights what was new: “embedding the hatred of the Jews in the idea of race.… Displacing the difference between Jews and non-Jews into the blood makes any compensation impossible, perpetuates the division, and legitimizes it as willed by God.”

Concern about the implications of postulating Jews as a separate people appears in a diary entry of January 8, 1939: “It seems complete madness to me if specifically Jewish states are now to be set up in Rhodesia or somewhere. That would be letting the Nazis throw us back thousands of years.… The solution of the Jewish question can only be found in the deliverance from those who have invented it.”

In LTI Klemperer reflects on one aspect of fascist conspiracy theory: “the adjective ‘jüdisch [Jewish]’…[binds] together all adversaries into a single enemy: the Jewish-Marxist Weltanschauung, the Jewish-Bolshevist philistinism, the Jewish-Capitalist system of exploitation, the keen Jewish-English, Jewish-American interest in seeing Germany destroyed.”

Victor Klemperer receives a national prize for the GDR from President Wilhelm Pieck, October 6, 1952 (Creative Commons)

Although Klemperer himself was critical of communism until the end of the war, he did have communist friends and describes the fate of communists in the hands of the fascists. In a journal entry of May 15, 1933, he writes: “The garden of a Communist in Heidenau is dug up, there is supposed to be a machine-gun in it. He denies it, …he is beaten to death.”

An interesting observation is that Hitler and his supporters presented the “Führer” as the new savior: “[T]he LTI was a language of faith because its objective was fanaticism…. [Although] national Socialism fought against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular…the first Christmas after the usurpation of Austria…[celebrates] the ‘resurrection of the Greater German Reich’ and accordingly the rebirth of the light…, the sun and the swastika, leaving the Jew Jesus entirely out of it.”

War is similarly cloaked in Christian terminology. War “became known as a ‘crusade,’ a ‘holy war,’ a ‘holy people’s war.’”

Occasionally, Klemperer focuses too much on the person of Hitler as a “madman.” One finds little about the larger connection with the social system, capital, and the economy.

Klemperer gives many examples of the renaming of thousands of localities. Parallels with the anti-communist renaming of places after the annexation of East Germany are striking. In East German subculture, certain streets, squares, towns continue to be used by their GDR names in protest: Dimitroffstraße, Leninplatz, Karl-Marx-Stadt.

Klemperer’s observations on the idea of “Europe” also resonate with contemporary readers,  “the ideas of the occident that are to be defended against the forces of Asia.… For Europe is now no longer simply fenced off from Russia—whilst also laying claim to large areas of its land as part of Hitler’s continent by right—but is also at loggerheads with Great Britain.”

The grave of Eva and Victor Klemperer in the Dölzschener Cemetery (Creative Commons)

This links to the right-wing extremist language of contemporary Germany, their slogans about “Fortress Europe” as a bastion against the “Great Replacement.”

Björn Höcke, a politician from the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD), speaks of “the so-called immigration policy, which is nothing other than a multicultural revolution decreed from above…the abolition of the German people.” Höcke’s hints at a conspiracy theory have roots in the Jewish conspiracy mentioned above. Such “race-mixing” would, it is implied, destroy the “civilization” and “identity” of the natives. Conspiracy theories create fear and present a chilling image of the enemy.

As in Nazi language, today’s neo-Nazis semantically recast everyday terms: “homeland” and “culture” are given racist undertones. It is only a small step to racial violence.

In linguistics, framing is a technique whereby two different things are associated. Where refugees are compared to natural disasters, such as “tsunami” or “flood,” this portrays refugees as undesirable disasters, ultimately life-threatening. Another example of such is the framing of refugees with “security.” It is ultimately about “us” against “them.”

Some of the linguistic strategies mentioned here, e.g., framing, are adopted by the establishment media. Klemperer pointed out how quickly this language, and thus thinking, spreads in society. It is well to remember him and his work on the 140th anniversary of his birth in a time and place that seem so far away in one sense, yet his achievement is still prescient and indispensable today.


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is the associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.