Last week, Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur led a chant at an election meeting in Delhi with the prompt: “Desh ke gaddaron ko…” (“Traitors to the nation…”) And the mob was happy to complete the slogan: “…goli maaron saalon ko.” (“…should be shot.”) We shall now witness the familiar waltz that parties perform to distance themselves from those who speak their mind too frankly, but given the volume of violent speech that’s been in the air already, the minister’s exhortation is not a novelty. However, the crowd’s response is interesting, indicating that the idea of exterminating certain classes of Indian citizens has been normalised.
The sudden popularity of gaddar, a word that was generally restricted to the popular stage and screen, is an instance of the manner in which the politics of hate seasoned with victimhood appropriates existing language and alters it for its own use. The classic study of the phenomenon is Victor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, published in 1957 by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Halle. The bilingual title in Latin and German suggests a scholarly work, and Klemperer was, indeed, a Romance scholar and philosopher, but the book, which follows the propaganda machine of the Nazi movement through its rise and fall, is extremely accessible in Martin Brady’s translation (Althone Press, 2000; Continuum Books, 2006). It was written after World War II had ended, and may not have been written at all but for a woman Klemperer met, who had been jailed by the Nazis for a year, “’cos of certain expressions (wejen Ausdrücken).” She had committed what we call sedition, having “insulted the Führer, the symbols and institutions of the Third Reich.”
Klemperer himself was the very antithesis of the woman. Born Jewish, he had turned Protestant (probably for professional reasons) and married an Aryan, Eva Schlemmer. It did not protect the couple, since Nazi anti-Jewish laws were about parentage. Progressively, he lost academic privileges like library access, and, eventually, his teaching job. The couple were denied the right to drive or use public transport, and were eventually sent to a ghetto and forced to do manual labour. The most thought-provoking restriction was a law depriving Jewish families of the right to keep pets, and Eva had to have their cat put to sleep. Though the Klemperers were used to the regular disappearance of friends and neighbours, the granularity with which the Reich organised the process of mass annihilation, finding time to even think about pets, was eerily inhuman.
Through this steady process of erasure, through Kristallnacht, the terror-bombing of his city of Dresden by the Allies, and life under communist rule in East Germany after the war, Klemperer clung fiercely to his German identity. He became a meticulous diarist — especially after he lost his teaching job — and his day-by-day observations of life under totalitarian rule appeared as Tagebücher (Aufbau-Verlag) in 1995, in which he bore witness as a minority citizen. But, for our times, the “certain expressions” that sparked off The Language of the Third Reich are more interesting, as we hear our own languages put to use.
The book concerns languages that the Thousand-Year Reich had fine-tuned, and which was used by both Nazis and anti-Nazis, even Jews. It begins with a chapter titled ‘Heroism (Instead of an Introduction)’, which celebrates the bravery of people in concentration camps, and “all those people who recklessly committed illegal acts”. The list of euphemisms examined by Klemperer is exhaustive, the most enduring being Konzentrationslager (concentration camp), which continues to signify a death camp. The disappearance of a Jewish family was entered in the official record as an “exit”. The SS recorded mass murder as Sonderbehandlung (special treatment). And, as WG Sebald noted in his last (and probably finest) novel, Austerlitz (2001), Jews were beguiled by extravagant euphemisms to surrender their properties and relocate to special lodgings — in this case, the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia, where many of the Klemperers’ friends were taken. Equally interesting is the list of much-used expressions in propaganda, like the “limitless hatred” of the Jews for the Third Reich, countered by the “limitless hatred” of the Volk (the German people) for the Jews. The same turn of phrase, indicating extreme illegimitacy and extreme legitimacy depending on who it is applied to, is a hallmark of divisive language. The prefix “Volk-”’ itself was used as a justification for policy, and lingers on in the brand Volkswagen. “Das Auto” had its origins in a very difficult period in Germany’s political and social history.
Klemperer suggests that resistance begins with the refusal to take coinages like “anti-national” at face value. Interestingly, a recent RTI application seeking to learn more about the “tukde-tukde gang”, which is alluded to almost every day, drew a blank. And now, police permission is being sought to hold a meeting where Thakur’s slogan will be raised, by the public. It’s a double bind — the authorities are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
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