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The Verbal Imperialism of “Germany, Awaken!”

Karl Kraus

A literary man sensitive to fine writing might even understand my position and recognise that, in the journalism and rhetoric of the new creed, we have not seen or heard a single German verbal expression that has not belied its purported content. Among the many neologisms inspired by the upheaval, this is already indicated by “Nazi”, the concept on which a revelation of the World Spirit is supposedly based, together with other phrases that could never have been conceived or formulated before the onset of the new order. I don’t mean those egregious formulations we encounter (in the Jewish press too), where, as a matter of principle, the handling of every word is inflected and distorted by twists and turns; nor the misuse of the dative, consistently treated as if it were the only grammatical case (cassus), thus revealing the war footing (belli) on which German journalists operate with their own language; nor the inability to convey the most undemanding intellectual content logically and maintain the simplest construction consistently; nor do I mean the persistence with which every propagandist for Greater Germany “prescribes” interference from abroad. Not even the muddle when Germany’s National Socialist press exhorts its readers:

Germans, pursue only Aryan newspapers!

Misprints, admittedly, can be revealing:

Germans, take pride in your notional identity!

Nor do I mean the modest contribution to Anschluss made by the sister paper of the German press in Austria:

Follow instructions as proscribed!

It is certainly shameful that on account of such exertions, which alas do not extend to any primer of German grammar, nationalistic German journalism must endure mockery from the most prominent illiterates on the other side. But for those living every day from hand to mouth, such lapses are not easily avoided, especially while the imperative is in force:

Clinch your fists! Be prepared!

even though one of the incendiary slogans heard at the book burning was

against the mangling of the German language! For the preservation of the most precious asset of our people!

Easily said, less easily done. If I were bold, I’d have foretold that if people whose linguistic sensitivity and grammatical knowledge enabled them to gain power and wealth by demanding that “Germany arise!” and “Every Jew dies!” were examined about the construction of those very phrases, they would have struck (or, as they insist on saying, “stricken”) difficulties. They certainly don’t know that a comma is needed here, since each of the named nations is being hectored not in a second-person address, but in the third person, so that the action called for—arise or die—is not an imperative but an optative, merely expressing a wish, which particularly in the case of Jews would scarcely be appropriate. If, for example, in a comparable passage from Schiller’s Fiesko, we were to read “Verderben, gehe deinen Gang!” (“Perdition, take your chosen path!”) without the comma, it would be an address not to perdition but to some political leader on whose path perdition might well follow. The exclamation mark does not in itself signify a command, it could simply intensify the wish. Still, we can accept that the punctuation error in the quotation about Germany and Jews has some justification, given that those brusque demands would be weakened were they expressed more carefully. After all, the Caesars were always above grammar, so better for those campaigning for autarchy to speak bad German than to use foreign words they can never really understand. (For example: “dynamic” or “synthesis”.) It is precisely the attempt to replace them that has led to that enrichment of German vocabulary which is the envy of other nations. But this enrichment also results from the expanding needs of trade and commerce, a development which—at the end of the day—justifies the unthinking adoption of Jewish idioms and an acceptance of the inflated patois of profiteers already in vogue among republican authors. So now all variants of the primal soul’s awakening can claim to be “one hundred percent guaranteed”—with “expedited delivery”. What is exceptional, however, is the ability to continue in this creative spirit with true-to-type neologisms that adapt language to the needs of the regime’s profound duplicity and accentuate its sanctimonious bent, the tendency to draw a veil over ignominious actions. Virtually every communiqué adds further examples of violence disguised as the norm, as when forcible entry into someone’s home is described as “rehabilitation”. Or when failure is presented as imminent success and someone stretches the facts by reporting that a rival militia has been “deconstructed”. Even I have no choice but to register the new atrocities of word and deed that are embedded every day, such as “Reichskulturkammer”, “Gaukartei”, “Reichsschaft”, “Fachschaft”, “Reichfachschaftsleiter”, “Gaukulturwart”, “Werberat”, and all ranks down to “Blockwart”. As ever, I turn to Goethe for a response:

A new word irks you? But how narrow-minded
To ban all but the old familiar kind! It
Shouldn’t matter, there are more in store.
Surely you’ve heard the strangest things before.

The most disturbing feature of the massive expansion of hallucinatory idioms is surely the use of innumerable “disguised” expressions, which German nationalists would attribute to the guys from the ghetto were they not using them to conceal heartfelt German impulses. Or consider “schlagartig” (“at a stroke”), suggesting an astonishing and indeed shattering blow, used to signal both the start and the end of a boycott. And—not to forget the central issue—that weasel word “Gleichschaltung” (alignment), that coercion to toe the party line which cannot even promise to spare us the sight of VIPs. It’s true that Goebbels, with his profound knowledge of the journalistic vernacular, imposed a prohibition on reporting formal state occasions in language “appropriate to former times”, for instance by referring to “the cream of society”, which might offend those who are now on top (foremost among them Goering, who repeatedly uses such phrases for that very reason). But now that newspaper reporters have to toe the party line, the resultant language will be a poor substitute for what was once “an object of love and delight to the human race”. There can be no doubt that, in all matters of substance, this language signifies a compelling disruption of nature’s harmonising tendencies, a plenipotentiary power as inventive as that which dispatched “human raw material” to the trenches in the World War.

This procedure, which makes short shrift of human lives, already encompasses the syntax and stylisation of the ideas which constitute this system of violence. Primarily the terminology, of course, which must adjust to the pressure to save time and gain space. The subversion of language, its enrichment through abbreviation, to which we owe such phantom phonemes as Hapag and Wipag, Afeb and Gesiba, Kadewe and Gekawe, and all the magic formulae promulgated by the same law that now gives us Osaf and Gausaf. One no longer knows what is more ominous: intrusion by the Gestapo, the Fepo, or the Uschla, protest by the NSBO, or compliance by the DHV; while the writing on the wall, Mene Tekel Upharsin, prophesying the destruction of a kingdom, could only be a Metufa film. But since the inception of the SA and the SS, an SOS to the USA is our only option.

So long as these techniques for the exclusion of language do not reduce us to reading the runes, they offer ample scope for “alignment”. But sometimes it is as if Germany’s expansionist drive were also asserting its entitlement to annex further living space for the German language, disrupting the very boundaries of thinking in words. One can see that such verbal imperialism strongly resists usages which seem, from its perspective, to contain traces of the suppleness and informality of the hated âme latine, which since the war have indeed been relentlessly subjected to a punishing process of “Germanisation”. Consequently, “Monsieur” as a title is reduced to “Herr”, but, in more ill-bred times, public conveniences, even those reserved for expressions of the âme latrine, came to be designated “Männer” and “Frauen”. (It is a personal idiosyncrasy of mine that, here as elsewhere, I reject Nietzsche’s no less German diminutives “Männlein und Weiblein”—likewise the “Hojotoho!” and “Wagalaweia!” of Wagner’s whooping Valkyries and Rhine maidens.) But when the two sexes are gathered together in public, they are still customarily addressed as “Meine Damen und Herren”—on the model of “Mesdames et Messieurs”. The possessive pronoun lightly hints at camaraderie, not the aim of seizing possession. That sense was first enacted in the German Reichstag, when—at a stroke—we were confronted with the inscrutable formula:

“Meine Männer und Frauen!”

Since the plural “my wives” is hardly compatible with possession as normally understood, at least in the West, we are left instead with a retinue of henchmen and henchwomen, fully compliant with the Führer Principle. Whether we call this expansionist drive or verbal assault—new linguistic territory would be conquered.

From The Third Walpurgis Night by Karl Kraus, translated by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Karl Kraus (1874–1936) was the preeminent German-language satirist, who conducted a sustained critique, notably of propaganda and the press, in his Viennese journal Die Fackel. Translators Fred Bridgham and the late Edward Timms were awarded the MLA Scaglione Prize for their translation of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind.

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