Language is greatly powerful, as it can use words to impose ideas and ways of thinking that can turn into behavioural patterns. It’s no coincidence that dictatorial regimes closely monitor language, using censorship and promoting specific linguistic styles. Nazi language is a clear example of how ideology can alter the thoughts and worldview of a nation. Before 1933, Nazi language’s words and expressions mostly circulated in far-right circles. After Hitler seized power, they spread to the entire population, which unknowingly adopted the regime’s language, and along with it, its ideology.
Nazi language, poor language
When a regime lays its hands on language, it would be easy to think that it creates an entirely new language, with neologisms and a lot of of words that strike and overwhelm the listener. But it’s not quite so. The fundamental characteristic of Nazi language is indeed its poverty. Obsessive repetition of a few words and scant content. Observing how Nazism simplified language to the bare minimum is shocking, especially for those who know some German.
German is a very complex language with potentially infinite expressive possibilities. Through compound words, it gives voice to ever-different nuances and expresses highly elaborate concepts. Just think of the universe encapsulated in words like Sehnsucht or Fernweh. Sehnsucht indicates a strong yearning for a place or person, but it can also be nostalgia for something that hasn’t yet happened. Fernweh is the “longing for faraway lands,” tinged with suffering for something unattainable; weh means “pain.”
But this is precisely what Nazism fights against: nuances. In the Nazi world, there’s no room for doubt, ambiguity, complexity. Everything must be clear, simple, unambiguous. How does Nazi language achieve such a result? Through the imposition of a single style, a single linguistic register. From the university professor to the illiterate, everyone uses the same words, always the same, without the possibility of experimenting with a personal style. The language is frighteningly standardized, and even creative works like novels don’t allow writers to show their personality.
“You are nothing, your people are everything,” proclaimed one of the most famous Nazi slogans. This holds true for Nazi language too: eradicating individuality, people merge into an indistinct mass without thought or will. This is the purpose of the regime’s language.
Religious Exaltation in Nazi Language
Merely repeating the same expressions and standardizing style isn’t enough to deprive a population of their reasoning ability. To obliterate critical doubt and rationality, there’s nothing better than exaltation. Or better, fanaticism that evolves into religious faith.
A common mistake that affects the study of Nazism is attempting to rationalize it too much. An important mystical-religious component is present in Nazi ideology, which is crucial to consider. Nazism positions itself as a replacement for Christianity, adopting the lexicon and rituals typical of a religion. It particularly draws from the Catholic tradition, as evident from the words expressing absolute loyalty to the Führer and the Nazi cause. Hitler and the Nazi leaders employ terms like martyrdom, crusade, holy war, Providence, and faith in their speeches. Providence is especially emphasized by Hitler, who in “Mein Kampf” already felt endowed with a providential mission to save Germany from the racial degeneration he believed it was sinking into.
Two words are particularly characteristic of Nazi language and ideology, whose literal meanings can be challenging to accept. They are faith and fanaticism, often combined in the phrase fanatical faith. In all languages, fanatic carries a negative connotation, as it signifies the rejection of reason and the irrational adherence to a cause or religious faith. Its fundamental feature is the rejection of rationality and thought, a mind clouded by hatred that dedicates itself entirely to its purpose, disregarding the harm it inflicts on others—or even taking pride in it, especially when it comes to enemies.
According to Nazism, this is the rightful attitude every German should possess. Fanatic takes on a positive meaning and becomes so widespread among the population that it’s used in various contexts. For example, a great animal lover becomes a fanatical animal lover. Alongside the acceptance of the term, the underlying idea gradually becomes acceptable too. People are proud to forsake reason in favour of blind faith.
Faith is the word that unequivocally illustrates that we cannot separate the religious component from Nazism. It’s not merely propaganda: what’s created around Hitler is a true religion, and he presents himself as a new Messiah. The faith in the Führer remains so deeply rooted in the Germans that even as the Allies invade Germany, many continue to believe in him, in the possibility of a turnaround. This was truly fanatic faith because even in the face of evidence, people couldn’t cease believing in the man who proclaimed himself their saviour until the very end.
Exaltation and exaggeration
Exaltation of religious fervour is accompanied by exaggeration. Nazi language is replete with superlatives and bombastic expressions such as eternal, total, unique. Enemy losses are innumerable, battles are historic. Concrete numbers and data lose their importance because they pertain to the rational realm, not the emotional one, and those with blind faith don’t require proof to believe. In fact, in times of war, the numbers that appear are so inflated that they lose their significance and become interchangeable with innumerable.
The abundance of superlatives is also found in fascist language. One only needs to consider the leggi fascistissime (« very fascist laws ») of 1926 that marked the beginning of the transformation of the Kingdom of Italy into a totalitarian regime.
A Racial Vocabulary to Isolate the Enemy
We’ve seen how the entire Nazi language is permeated with a sense of religiosity that serves to unite the population into the most uniform and numbed entity, given the Nazi historical mission. What is this mission? To save Germany from ruin and destruction, which its historical enemies are pushing it toward. The Jews.
Given the significance of racial themes in Nazi ideology, a substantial portion of its vocabulary is inevitably dedicated to addressing this subject. From the earliest days following Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship, the Nazi language endeavours to segregate Jews from everything German. The enemies are the Weltjuden, the global Jews. Gradually, even German Jews come to be referred to in this manner.
They are kept out of everything German. They can’t read German books, they can’t consult German doctors or lawyers, they can’t shop in German stores. Above all, they can’t identify themselves as German. Because Jews are something else, they are alien to the race (artfremd). They are individuals without roots or homeland, scattered across the world as indicated by the noun Welt (world) in the compound global Jews.
Furthermore, euphemistic expressions are reserved for Jews, aiming to conceal the violence and injustices they endure. So, those who are deported are taken away, and those killed in gas chambers die of cardiac insufficiency. When dealing with Jews, Nazi language almost seems to split, using different terms depending on whether it refers to members of the German Volk or Jews. Professional names even change, because a Jewish doctor lacks the dignity of a non-Jewish one and becomes a curator of the sick.
Everything serves to showcase the Jews’ distinctiveness, as it must become an absolute truth, a matter of faith—the idea that Jews are a wholly foreign body to the German people, to which they’ve clung like parasites. According to Nazism, Germans constitute a Volk, which indeed translates to “people,” but it’s tinged with religious connotations. The Volk is a community founded on blood and rooted in German soil for centuries. Integration is impossible because to be member of the Volk, one must share racial belonging. Thus, German Jews, integrated, deeply patriotic, even those baptized, are considered foreign elements to be expelled.
During World War II, Nazism directed its racial hatred toward Jews and Eastern European Slavs. Slavs also occupy a distinct place in the Nazi vocabulary, for whom they are Untermenschen, “subhumans.” They are juxtaposed with the Übermensch, the “superman” theorized by Nietzsche and embodied by the Nordic man, the ultimate expression of the race according to Nazi beliefs.
The Language of the Camps
Although considered half-human, Slavs are still situated higher on the racial pyramid than Jews. During the war, a variation of the Nazi language emerges: the language of the camps. This is the language spoken within concentration camps, where there is no need to discuss feelings, faith, and fanaticism, as those words are reserved for the Volk. In the Lager, orders dominate, and the first words that non-German deportees learn are schnell (fast), raus (out), and Kapo.
The only permissible language is German, and prisoners must quickly learn the sound of the identification number imprinted on their skin because once they cross the camp entrance, that becomes their name. German numbers are difficult, and Primo Levi recalls the struggle of memorizing his lengthy number: 174 517, which is hundertvierundsiebzigtausendfünfhundertsiebzehn. The imposition of the number completes the dehumanization of the Jews: isolated, stripped of their homeland, they are now just numbers, or rather, pieces (Stücke), as the prisoners were referred to.
Cleansing German from Nazi Language
Nazi language deeply penetrated the German consciousness, and after the war, denazification also dealt with it. While words like subhuman were easy to eliminate from everyday use, for others, many others, it wasn’t so simple. In its poverty, Nazi language hadn’t invented new words but distorted existing ones, and erasing Nazi language with a stroke of a pen would have meant erasing German itself. Over time, words regained their original meaning, and the emphatic and fanatical style of the regime years was abandoned in favour of a more measured one.
However, despite eighty years having passed since the end of World War II and the Nazi language now finding its place only in history books, German still drags along the unsettling shadow of its past. With every Schnell!, every word shouted in German, a shiver runs down the spine of the listener. And it hardly matters if it’s an angry mother scolding her child for dropping an ice cream on the beach: we associate shouted German with that of the SS in concentration camps in Nazi films. It will take quite a while before German can free itself from this burdensome comparison.
In “Language of the Third Reich. LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii” (1947), philologist Victor Klemperer combines the analysis of Nazi language with the story of his dramatic personal experience. As a professor of Romance philology at the University of Dresden, he was compelled to leave his post in 1935 due to his Jewish heritage. He managed to escape deportation thanks to his non-Jewish wife, Eva.
Many have written about Nazism as a religion, but one of the most enlightening texts remains the old “The Nationalization of the Masses” by Georg Mosse (1974).
In addition to various specialized texts, an example of Lager language can be found in “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi.