Are the Germans still Nazis?

Burned Words: Do We Still Speak Like the Nazis?

He's not interested in obvious Nazi terminology. The journalist and author Matthias Heine historically classifies prejudiced terms that we use impartially in everyday language. Because the problematic origin is often difficult to identify. Other terms, on the other hand, are wrongly placed under Nazi suspicion. With his book "Burned Words: Where we still talk like the Nazis - and where not", he wants to raise awareness for a conscious use of the German language.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Heine, was our language really influenced by the National Socialists?

Matthias Heine: In any case, there are a lot of terms that we use without realizing that they are words that - at least in part - have a Nazi story: words that have been shaped in their word history by the Nazi linguistic usage or are coined. And words that the Nazis invented, or that were only really used by the Nazis. A famous example from recent years was that a journalist colleague from "Spiegel" wrote in the morning newsletter that the special treatment of Israel by German foreign policy must be over. Then a veritable little shit storm flew around her ears because "special treatment" was demonstrably a frequently used synonym for mass murder, for murder in the concentration camp system and in the National Socialist murder system.

Journalist and author Matthias Heine

Is "party member" also such a term?

Yes. "Party member" is certainly not the worst word, but it is a word that was reserved during the Nazi era - because there was only one party anyway - for members of the National Socialist Party, the NSDAP. "PG" was also abbreviated, because the Nazis had a craze for abbreviations. Immediately after 1945, Willy Brandt, Erich Ollenhauer or Kurt Schumacher would probably not have called their comrades in the SPD party comrades because everyone still had the word in their ears. That is why it is not without a certain irony that SPD people are now addressing each other as "party member".

They checked 87 terms for their Nazi past. How did you choose these terms?

There is a lot of relevant literature that begins with Victor Klemperer's "LTI" and "From the Dictionary of the Unmenschen" by W.E. Süskind and others. Both appeared immediately after the war in the late 1940s and dealt with the language of National Socialism for the first time. Of course, you look at them first of all. And then there is the hard-to-beat standard work by Cornelia Schmitz-Berning: "Vocabulary of National Socialism". She knows more than anyone else about National Socialist word usage.

In contrast to her, however, I consciously decided to use words that were not part of the official Nazi usage, i.e. not part of the vocabulary of murder or organization, but rather everyday terms, words like "stew", "clear out" or "Groschengrab". For example, that's a word that comes from Nazi propaganda. The aim was to encourage people to save - and we use it quite freely. In my opinion you can do that too. These words have often interested me more, because with "Aryan", "Rassenschande" and "Untermensch" we all know what to think of them.

I was amazed that a word as small and harmless as the article "the" made it onto your list.

Yes, this is the collective singular "der" that is typical in National Socialist parlance: "the Jew", "the Russian", "the Englishman". "The German" is of course always used in positive contexts. But apart from "the German": Once a group was addressed with "the" in the collective singular, you knew that they were in danger. "The" was an attempt to drive out individuality, almost dehumanization. It is a phenomenon of many Nazi vocabulary that they dehumanize their opponents.

This use of the article was also somewhat in keeping with the language of the times. Just think of the essay "Der Arbeiter" by Ernst Jünger, who was quite critical of the Nazis, although he himself was right-wing. But in the Nazi language the generalization has taken on a particular sharpness - it has stigmatized groups of victims.

How does a modern-sounding term like "cultural workers" get on your vocabulary list of Nazi language suspects?

He comes there because it is clearly a word that was coined by the Nazis: in 1933, when the Reich Chamber of Culture was founded, the word "cultural workers" suddenly appeared in connection with reporting and public appeals. It was shaped and used by people who had a positive view of the creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture and by artists and "cultural workers" who wanted to express their National Socialist sentiments - it cannot be proven beforehand.

There is an ironic component to the fact that the word saved itself in the GDR and stayed in left-wing West German vocabulary for a long time - probably via the GDR. And when last year artists protested against the supposed racist efforts of Horst Seehofer and this call was then called a call by so and so many hundreds of cultural workers, then there is a certain irony that one can use a name that comes from the Nazi language originated, protested against the emergence of a new racism.

Surprisingly, they have also rehabilitated some words or idioms, at least in part, that are immediately suspected of being Nazi, for example the "Inner Reich Party Rally" and the absolutely suspicious "Up to the gassing". Can you explain that?

Both idioms definitely do not come from the Nazi language and do not mean what one associates with them. "Until gassing" can be proven before a gas chamber was built for the first time. It comes from the student language and comes from chemistry. Even today we use language images such as "I'm boiling" or "a conversation comes to the boiling point".

It is similar with the "Inner Reich Party Rally". This is more of a language from the 1930s with which the official language was ironically used. Attempts have been made to prove that this was supposedly also used in the Hitler Youth, which is certainly true. But the Hitler Youth consisted of completely normal students - everyone had to be a member. Of course, they also used the youth language of their time, words like "colossal" that were part of the fashionable vocabulary of the 1930s. That does not mean that it was particularly fascist, even if the Hitler Youth said "inner Nazi party rally". You can already hear a certain ironic distance - at least I can't imagine Adolf Hitler as he says: "This is an inner Nazi party rally for me."

Your observations and analyzes are very entertaining. However, you have also decided to include a recommendation under each term as to whether we should use the word or not and to what extent we should be particularly aware of the historical background. Do we need something like a language police? An authority that closely observes our language and speaks out when it comes to suspicious terms?

Definitely no. My book is not about acting as a language police, but about tact, politeness, appropriate word use, sense of the level of a word - in short, everything that defines style. One should simply use this information and then be able to consider, is the word appropriate here? For example, I advised against using an expression like "until gassed". Not because it comes from the Nazi era, but because it arouses these associations.

It's about education, and it's also about satisfying curiosity. I just found it fascinating to come across that "clear out" is a word that only came up in the 1930s in connection with certain Nazi measures.

Can it be determined which social groups or currents are still using terms that are particularly heavily influenced by Nazi?

In connection with the emergence of right-wing populist movements in recent years, there is a use of language that these people have deliberately cultivated. On the one hand, they use - at least the right-wing extremist right-wing interpreters - Nazi terms as used by the Nazis. The word "decompose", for example, was used by Mr Poggenburg, who is also considered a legal interpreter within the AfD, which not all AfD people find good. In connection with women in the Federal Armed Forces, he spoke of "decomposition of military ability" - one is already very close to "decomposition of military strength". "Decomposing" was a standard Nazi charge. Then on the other hand there is this strange phenomenon that terms are taken and easily reinterpreted. Right-wing populists, for example, often speak of the "press in line" and the "state radio in line" and thus portray themselves as victims, as it were.

Another term that occurs very frequently in right-wing populist linguistic usage in recent times is "Umvolkung". In the Nazi era, however, that was more of a term that was used actively and positively. It has been said that in Eastern Europe there are certain population groups, Belarusians, they can be "umvolken", they can be made into Germans or "Teutons". Now it is suddenly the case that the Germans in right-wing populist parlance are threatened by the "Umvolkung". There is an active revival of this vocabulary.

Matthias Heine, born in 1961, works as a journalist in Berlin, since 2010 as the cultural editor of "Welt". His book "Burned Words: Where we still talk like the Nazis - and where not" was published by Dudenverlag (2019). Other books by him are: "Since when has 'geil' nothing to do with sex?" (2016) and "Last day of school in Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. How the First World War changed the German language forever" (2018).

The interview was conducted by Sabine Peschel.