A religious experience:
SS soldier at the Nuremberg Rallies
I HAD NEVER HEARD of TV commentator Katrin Müller-Hohenstein before, but I know how her mind works. And doesn’t everyone else in Germany? As I made my way to the office this morning, I tried to think of how to explain why I didn’t bother watching the big Germany vs. Australia soccer game in South Africa yesterday (in the end, nobody did ask). I thought I’d say something like: “You know, I’ve never cared much for the Nuremberg Rallies. While this Soccer World Cup, with all the flags on the cars and all the shouting and trumpets and fireworks, is harmless enough, it sounds too much like Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fußball for my taste.’” Germany won 4-0 by the way, or at last that’s what I heard on the BBC at breakfast.1
The similarities are indeed more than obvious, but it doesn’t exactly do your career a lot of good to mention the fact. Ms. Müller-Hohenstein learned this the hard way yesterday when she made the following comment about a spectacular goal shot by German player Miro Klose: “For Miro Klose it’s an inner Nuremberg Rally [Reichsparteitag], honestly, that he shot this goal here today.” (Nuremberg Rally, that is, in the sense of “a profoundly satisfying experience.”) “Yes, it's like salvation,” former soccer star Oliver Kahn replies without missing a beat.
Oops! Open mouth, insert foot. After all, just as Hogwarts has its Voldemort, Germany has its Hitler: He who is not to be named, at least when you have something positive to say. Many a public figure has come a cropper this way, including conservative author and TV journalist Eva Herrmann, who was fired from the ARD network in 2007 when she suggested that the Nazis – as evil as they were in every other respect – were kind of / sort of okay because they promoted a positive image of motherhood and the family.
The ZDF network has since issued a formal apology for Müller-Hohenstein’s comments, stating: “That was a verbal lapse that both she and we are sorry about. It occurred in the heat of the moment. We regret it and it will not happen again. … This was a colloquial expression that does not belong in TV parlance.”
A verbal lapse?
Chastened TV commentator Katrin Müller-Hohenstein
So, if “inner Nuremberg Rally” is a “colloquial expression,” then how many others of this kind are there in German? As the newspaper Die Welt reports today, there are more than people might expect. Hey, even I was surprised, even though I make my living here as a writer, translator, and historian. For example, it appears that the German love of the word “Strategie,” which can be heard in even the most banal of contexts, is part of the language of the Third Reich. “Schlagartig” – meaning “abruptly” or “suddenly,” but containing the word “Schlag” or “blow/hit,” is pure Nazi German. The same goes for “Belegschaft,” a term meaning the staff or personnel of a company, whose origin goes back to the residents of a Reich Labor Service barracks. The term “Am Boden zerstört” (destroyed on the ground), frequently used to describe one’s feelings following an unhappy love affair, was unsurprisingly a term popularized by Göring’s Luftwaffe.
Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), a Jewish philologist who spent years under house arrest in Dresden, published a book after the war entitled Lingua Tretii Imperii (“The Language of the Third Reich”) in which he analysed the wholesale degeneration of the German language under the Nazis. The violent and fanatic nature of many German expressions can be traced back to Goebbels's propaganda ministry. One memorable term that has lasted to the present day is “Mahnmal,” a glorified word for monument which today – irony of ironies – is frequently applied to memorials commemorating Nazi atrocities.
But it's not only the Germans who let their language run away with them. Just take the language of capitalism in the Anglo-American world, a legacy of the British "Empire" and America's "Manifest Destiny." This is the unchallenged realm of corporate "headquarters," of chief executive "officers" and their managerial "staff," of business "strategies," advertising "campaigns" and "task forces" and media "blitzes." No wonder that Henry Ford and other American "captains of industry" inspired Hitler when he first dreamed up his "Führer State."
The annual Nuremberg Rallies were the ultimate feel-good event, attracting up to 400,000 of the Nazi Party faithful along with ordinary citizens on specially designed rally grounds on the edge of the historic city. But by no means everyone was impressed. The ironic term “inner Nuremberg rally,” it seems, actually goes back to an earlier term, “inneres Pfingsterlebnis” or “inner Pentecost experience,” i.e. a religious conversion, which irreverent spirits transformed into an ironic commentary on the pseudo-religious quality of National Socialism. Now it seems a new term was spawned just last week: “Gröspaz,” short for “Größtes Sparprogramm aller Zeiten” (“greatest austerity program of all time”). This is a satire on Hitler’s ironic Nazi-era nickname “Gröfaz” or “Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten” (“greatest commander of all time“). A satire of a satire, in other words. We'll see if it catches on.
What strikes me so much about such terms is not that people would dare use them in public, but rather that even young people seem to understand them without explanation – and how our past lives on within us in the words we speak.