Saturday 16 August 2003

A quotation for all seasons

Victor Klemperer's diaries: book coversI started to read—at Language Hat’s suggestion—Victor Klemperer’s diaries, a remarkable account of the everyday life of a Jew living in Hitler’s Germany from 1933 to 1945.

In early February 1945, Klemperer was one of 198 registered Jews in Dresden, having thus far escaped being deported to Riga, Auschwitz, or Theresienstadt because, like all the remaining Jews in the city, he had a non-Jewish spouse. If his wife, Eva, had died or had divorced him, Klemperer’s name would have been instantly placed on the list for deportation. In fact, on Tuesday 13 February 1945, all physically fit Jews were ordered to report on the following Friday. Klemperer was headed for a death camp.

But on the night of Tuesday 13 February 1945, RAF Bomber Command launched a twin attack on Dresden: an initial raid, which marked the target area and set it alight, was followed by a much heavier raid three hours later, when the German fighter defence had run out of fuel and the firefighters and rescue workers were struggling to contain the fires that had already taken hold in the center of the city. The resulting firestorm was responsible for most of the estimated 35,000 fatalities. On the following two days the US Eighth Air Force launched further attacks on the beleaguered city and in the ensuring confusion Victor Klemperer and his wife fled across Germany for the next three months “until finally the village they had reached in southern Bavaria was overrun by American forces.”

A couple of months ago, in an post titled Provocation and Retribution, I wrote:

As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.

The cover photographs of the two volumes of Klemperer’s diaries illustrate this cause and effect relationship with great economy: firstly, the enforcement of a boycott against Jewish shops; and then, two women moving rubble in the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche.

I’d read less than a hundred pages of the first volume before realizing that I know too little of the history of the Third Reich to understand many of Klemperer’s references. So I went back to a book I’d bought around the same time, Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler. I’ve already quoted a conversation Klemperer had with two of his students who, despite being anti-Nazi, had no sympathy for two young women executed for allegedly spying for Poland:

They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights.

Klemperer’s first diary entry is for 14 January 1933. Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933. Two months later to the day, on March 30, Klemperer writes:

Frau Dember related the case of the ill-treatment of a Communist prisoner which had leaked out: torture, with castor oil, beatings, fear—attempted suicide. Dr Salzburg’s second son, a medical student, has been arrested—letters from him had been found in the home of a Communist.

The same entry ends:

In a toyshop a children’s ball with a swastika.

Gellately describes the ease with which the German people relinquished their civil liberties:

Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 was followed next day by the dissolution of the Reichstag. His slogan for the elections called for 5 March, “Attack on Marxism”, was bound to appeal to solid citizens and property owners. Hermann Göring, one of the few Nazis in Hitler’s Cabinet, took immediate steps to introduce emergency police measures. Over the next weeks the Nazis did not need to use the kind of massive violence associated with modern takeovers like the Russian Revolution. There was little or no organized opposition, and historian Golo Mann said of those times that “it was the feeling that Hitler was historically right which made a large part of the nation ignore the horrors of the Nazi takeover…. People were ready for it.” To the extent that terror was used, it was selective, and it was initially aimed mainly at Communists and other (loosely defined) opposition individuals who were portrayed as the “enemies of the people”.

By mid-February 1933, Göring had replaced numerous police chiefs throughout Prussia because they belonged to the Social Democratic party.

Reading about the tacit complicity of ordinary Germans in Hitler’s rise to power, one is inevitably reminded of Martin Niemöller’s warning about the consequences of capitulation in the face of tyranny:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing.
Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing.
Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist.
And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little.
Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.

Until I went searching for the correct wording on the Web—at first I thought that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had made the famous statement—I wasn’t aware that this quotation has, in Gerry Cordon’s words, “a life of its own”, that there is no “master” version.

The version above—the one quoted by Gerry Cordon—mentions Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, and me (Niemöller himself), in that order. A similar version is cited by the Jewish Virtual Library, with the explanation that the “exact phrasing was supplied by Sibylle Sarah Niemöller von Sell, Martin Niemöller’s wife”.

But, as Gerry Cordon points out, different people “use the quotation to imply different meanings—even altering it to suit their purpose”:

  • When Time magazine used the quotation, they moved the Jews to the first place, added Roman Catholics, and dropped both the Communists and the Social Democrats—Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
  • Former Vice-President Al Gore also added the Catholics, but dropped the trade unionists—Communists, Social Democrats, Catholics, Jews, me.
  • In the quotation inscribed on the Holocaust memorial in the heavily Catholic city of Boston, Catholics were added, Social Democrats removed, and Jews moved into second place—Communists, Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
  • The US Holocaust Museum includes the Social Democrats but drops the Communists—Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, me.
  • omits the Social Democrats and moves the Jews to first place—Jews, Communists, trade unionists, me.
  • The version read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin (14 October 1968, page 31636) omits the Communists, moves Jews to first place, and adds Catholics and industrialists—Jews, Catholics, unions, industrialists, me (and the Protestant church).

Harold Marcuse, a UCSB historian and author of Legacies of Dachau, has extensively researched the famous quotation—his Niemöller page addresses the questions:

  • What did Niemöller really say?
  • Which groups did he name?
  • In what order?

Martin NiemollerProfessor Marcuse describes Martin Niemöller as a Lutheran pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb—someone who, at least until the mid-1930s, was “a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had ‘brought the Christ of God to the cross.’” Initially a supporter of Hitler, he became an opponent of the Nazis when they started to interfere in church affairs. As a consequence of his outspoken sermons Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then moved in 1941 to Dachau where he was confined until the war’s end.

Marcuse suggests that the quotation arose from a visit by Niemöller and his wife to Dachau:

Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church’s “Confession of Guilt” (“Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis”). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition.

I think that it was in this context that Niemöller’s most quoted saying evolved. This early statement implies that he may have thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally countries conquered by Germany. However, it is also likely that he modified what he said for different audiences, perhaps including other groups, or changing the order depending on his goals. (I am suggesting that there may not be ONE SINGLE master quotation, but several versions used by MN himself.)

In the earliest texts that Harold Marcuse has been able to locate, Niemöller “spoke of the Communists, the disabled, and the Jews, in that order. He also mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Thus, despite the ambiguity, it seems certain that the Communists were named first—as suggested by Klemperer’s report of the Communist who was arrested and tortured in March 1933.

What is most interesting is not that Niemöller used different versions himself but rather the self-serving way the quotation has been “reworked” by others to suit their own ends: the version in the US Congressional Record being clearly the most egregious example of such distortion, since it replaces “Communists” with “industrialists”.

Ironically, it is just this kind of manipulation and subversion of language that Victor Klemperer exposed in his book The Language of the Third Reich, which describes how “the existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language.”

Happily, that is all in the past. As I recently heard George W. Bush say on television: “These are good days in the history of freedom”.

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Thank you for doing all that research. I too was struck by the rapidity of the Nazi takeover, and by the popular acceptance of it (or indifference to it), and I have wondered about the original formulation of the Niemöller quote - but would probably never have bothered to get all the background. The addition of "industrialists" is truly repellent; the omission of "Communists" is cowardly; putting "Jews" at the front is understandable if you're indifferent to both rhetoric and history. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by language hat on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Incidentally, here's another quotation for all seasons, courtesy of Dale Keiger:

But in later times most events began to be kept secret and were denied to common knowledge, and even though it may happen that some matters are made public, the reports are discredited because they cannot be investigated, and the suspicion grows that everything is said and done according to the wishes of the men in power at the time and their associates. In consequence much that never materialized becomes common talk, while much that has undoubtedly come to pass remains unknown, and in pretty well every instance the report which is spread abroad does not correspond to what actually happened.

--Dio Cassius (Roman History, Book 53, chapter 19, describing the period after Augustus overthrew the republic)

Posted by language hat on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Damn, forgot that HTML is not allowed, even though you put it right there in bold type. Meant to give a link to the Keiger entry:

Posted by language hat on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for this post, Jonathan. Together with "As we may incinerate," very fascinating reading. I'm reminded of the a couple of other writers:

Ernst Cassirer, whose essay "Der Mythos als politische Waffe" was posthumously published in the Amerikanische Rundschau in 1947, makes similar points in terms of alterations to language under fascism & totalitarianism. He echoes other writers from that time, ranging from the conservative Max Picard to the left-critical thinker Theodor Adorno. I translated a number of Cassirer's passages for my 1995 book (Reconstructing the Subject, PUP). Cassirer's analyses are especially interesting in terms of how he links language to rite or ritual (and action). First, he shows that today's myths (1940s) are manufactured: "They are, rather, artificially fabricated by skillful and clever experts. It was left to the 20th century, our great age of technology, also to discover a new technique of myths. From now on, myths can be manufactured in the same sense and with the same methods as machine guns and airplanes. This is what is completely new, and a matter of great significance. The form of our entire social life is hereby altered." Looking closer, Cassirer finds that language has been transformed, too: "The semantic word yields priority to the magical. (...) One is now in fact using formerly descriptive, logical -- in short: semantic -- words like magical ones which can have effects and are supposed to excite emotions. (...) The men who coined these expressions were masters in the art of political propaganda. They achieved their goal -- to excite vehement political passions -- with the simplest means. A single word, or even the alteration of a syllable, was often enough to achieve the desired effect. The entire scale of human emotion resounds in these new words: hatred, rage, arrogance, contempt, pretention, and disdain." And finally, Cassirer (who died in exile before the end of WWII) shows how that destruction of language is linked to the creation of new rituals that serve to erase the distinction between the public and the private sphere. In this way, "refunctionalized" language, coupled with "correct" ritual, restructures civil society and destroys individuality.

Cassirer wasn't alone in pursuing this line of inquiry, as I said. It amazes me that we already know so much about manipulation, yet still so many people fall into compliance with the new transformations exacted by the current US leadership.

Posted by Yule Heibel on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

LH, thanks for the marvellous quotation from Dio Cassius, and for the pointer to Dale Keiger's site to which I'll certainly return.

Yule, thanks too for alerting me to Ernst Cassirer's analysis. The situation in Australia is hardly different from that in the US -- we have a Prime Minister who is a virtuoso of duplicity and misdirection and a craven opposition whose primary concern is getting their snouts back into the trough. That they are unlikely to do so is due in no small part to their inability -- it cannot be reluctance -- to master the tricks of language and ritual that Cassirer unmasks.

Posted by Jonathon on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

And long before Klemperer and Cassirer, Thucydides was reporting on the transformation of language for political purposes, in this case during the Corcyran stasis (~revolution) of 427 BC (Book 3.82.4):

"Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered 'the courage of a loyal ally'; prudent hesitation, 'specious cowardice'; moderation was held to be 'a cloak for unmanliness'; ability to see all sides of a question 'sloth on every front.' Frantic violence became 'the attribute of manliness'; cautious planning, 'a nice-sounding excuse for desertion.' The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was 'to have a shrewd head,' to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was 'to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries.'"

And a little later comes this passage:

"Thus every form of base disposition imposed itself through these staseis [revolutions] on the Hellenic world. And simplicity, of which nobility in no small measure consists, was laughed off stage and in the absence of mutual trust man's intelligence served to spread conflict far and wide. For discourse lacked the strength, and oath the fear, to reconcile. All alike when they got the upper hand paid more attention through their contemplation of the impossibility of security to avoiding being attacked than to the exercise of trust. Those who made fewer claims about their intellect for the most part prevailed. For by distrusting their own insufficiency and the cleverness of their opponents, that is by fearing that they would get the worst of discussions and be taken unprepared by the cleverness of others' intellects, they moved boldly to action. But those who held in contempt any plotting which they detected and thought it unnecessary to put into action what they had thought out were less on their guard and more readily destroyed."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Posted by language hat on 17 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour