I have meant to write this post for a long time. Christmas holidays this year seemed like a good opportunity. The post, though, doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, or New Year’s. It actually doesn’t even provide a list of fun facts on Hitler. However, Hitler is the lead for the following deliberations. And his name still makes for catchy titles. As German journalists say, children, animals, sex, and Hitler will always sell. You only need to check out title pages of magazines such as Der Spiegel or Stern. (I guess it is not much different in US journalism). If you found this post because of Hitler’s name in the title, my plan worked. Welcome. Besides, it means that colleagues who suggested I change the title of my forthcoming book from Fellow Tribesmen to Chief Hitler or Hitler’s Indians had a point. However, I am still convinced the book’s title is good as it is since it is by no means about Hitler’s perception of Native Americans alone. Nor is this post.
This entry is about an article in the Washington Post, published on 27 November 1940. Titled “Wer niemals narrisch war (He who has never been silly)” [this was before the era of gender neutral terms], it is part of the popular syndicated series On the Record by Dorothy Thompson. Thompson was one of the leading female journalists in the United States during the early 20th century and had spent several years in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s. She was also the first foreign journalist to be kicked out of Germany for criticizing the Nazis. The article discusses Hitler’s alleged attempt to outlaw the public use of Saxonian dialect because, apparently, “it made the German people seem ridiculous.” I say alleged because I never had the chance to follow-up Thompson’s claim and check my facts on this. So, I don’t know whether Hitler really tried to outlaw Saxonian dialect or whether he even suggested it. I don’t recall coming across discussions of Saxonian dialect while researching collections of Hitler’s speeches for my dissertation. And here, my post’s title finally falters, because we don’t know if, while funny, this is really a “fact” about Hitler. Bear with me, though.
I found this article while researching American newspapers for discussions of German Indianthusiasm during the Nazi era in 2007. I used the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers which holds a number of American daily newspapers, digitized and available for full-text search, from their first issues. This means you can conduct a full text research of New York Times issues from the 1860s. I still marvel about the simplicity of this research instrument: I only had to type in the search terms “Indian” and “Nazi,” specify my period of interest (1925-1945) and came up with the most remarkable articles. I had to refine my search because there were so many articles about Gandhi, and about Indianapolis, that were not pertinent for my research (I forgot how the city was related to Nazis, but it came up quite often).
Still, ProQuest led me to a number of gems. Particularly because the article’s titles would never suggest anything pertinent to Indians and Nazis, such as Thompson’s. Full text search functions made it possible. I cannot help but wonder what other gems I would have found if German newspapers had been digitized and available for full-text search, as well. Instead, I had to rely on the Internationale Bibliographie der deutschen Zeitschriftenliteratur, called Dietrich after the publishers, and on the indexing criteria of their editors. They indexed 90,000 articles from 5000 periodicals including daily newspapers, academic journals, weekly magazines, and single issue magazines (on topics such as hunting, medicine, and gardening) in 1940. For my research, I located some 1200 articles via Dietrich, but I also found a number of great sources by browsing in magazines, newspapers, and articles, leading me to wonder about Dietrich’s selection criteria.
Back to Thompson and Saxonian dialect, though. Thompson speaks of “Saxonian,” other sources of “Saxon,” I’ll stick to her version for now. First, Thompson explains to her American audience the significance of Saxony and the Saxonians’ dialect in German culture: “The Saxonians are not, by nature, soldiers and administrators but sober folks whose lives are industrial and commercial.” I like to tell my American friends that the difference between Saxonians and Prussians in history was that Saxonians invested their money in building marvelous palaces and filling them with marvelous things, while the Prussians invested theirs in armies to plunder Saxonian (and other) palaces. This is a bit harsh and overgeneralizing but that seems to be the gist of Saxonian history.
I once saw a satirical sketch on TV in which a Saxonian is invited by the Federal Government during the 1990s to come to Berlin and tell the leaders what Saxonians, their recently re-acquired constituents, are about. This Saxonian character rattles off a long list of wars in which Saxonians weren’t too lucky with their alliances: “To our friends, we are trouble. In the Seven Years War (1756-63), we sided with Austria and Russia against Prussia, and we lost. In 1806, we believed Prussia was great so we sided with them against Napoleon, and we lost. So, we thought Napoleon was a great guy, and went to Russia with him in 1812, and we lost. We even lost a major battle in our city of Leipzig in 1813 (against Prussia, Austria, and Russia). In 1866, we went with Austria against Prussia again, and lost the Battle of Königgrätz. As for 1914-1918, the end of that story is well-known. In 1939-1945, we went with the Nazis, and lost as well. So we thought, ‘the Communists have won the war, we should go with them.’ Today, Communism has become extinct and we’ve lost again. And now,” the Saxonian told the German chancellor, “we’re with you guys.” And that’s when they angrily chased him out of Berlin. So, given our historical ill luck in soldiering and making alliances, it is no wonder that Thompson says “Saxonians, it is clear, are not a breed of heroes, but, alas, of babbits.”
Thompson adds that there is a “tolerant myth in Germany that the Saxonians are stupid.” It is surprising to hear that this was an issue in the 1930s already, for it certainly is true today. Ever since the Fall of the Wall, if you want to make fun of East Germans, and if you want to portray East Germans as stupid, babbity, and backward, you imitate Saxonian dialect (to the detriment of Thuringians and North East German coast dwellers, who are thus conveniently lumped together with us). I once explained this cultural malpractice of portraying East Germans as stupid Saxonians to fellow graduate students in Tucson. One of my friends put her arms around her lover and said: “Oh, he knows what you’re talking about, he’s from West Virginia.” Over and over again, newspapers and TV stations publish surveys stating that Saxonian is the least popular dialect in German. You get the picture. However, Thompson adds in her description that Saxonians, albeit being perceived as stupid, shrewdly put this reputation to their advantage by “presenting themselves as innocent idiots.”
Thompson’s examples of the hilarity of Saxonian dialect, and her depictions and explanations for an American audience are awesome, especially for a Saxonian who knows the dialect and has been the butt of jokes about it. It’s a shame that you have to read this, rather than have somebody perform the pronunciations for you. Thompson uses her examples to mark Saxonian dialect as “full of ‘bulls,’” as “skeptical,” and as “the idiom of debunking” that is “a caricature of all that is sophisticated and highfalutin.” So true. The high German term “Die Blüte der Kultur,” which she translates as “the flowering of culture” (I’d say something like heyday or prime of culture) would be pronounced by a Saxonian as “Die bleete de kerltur,” Says Thompson. She adds: “immediately culture bleats rather than blooms.”
I find this a perfect observation and example, both of the pronunciation and what it does to the conveyed meaning of what is said. I should add, though, that Thompson missed some of the signature elements of Saxonian pronunciation: We round our consonant’s edges: t, k, and p will mostly be pronounced as d, g, and b. Our vowels are usually diphthongs: o is mostly ou, e pronounced more often as ey, and so forth. Check this wikipedia entry for more technical information on the dialect. A British plumber I once met at a bar in Leipzig told me it was especially these diphthongs that revealed to him how close relatives Saxonian and Anglo-Saxon are. I don’t know if a linguist would agree, but my friend’s reasoning sounded convincing.
Regardless of the fine points of Saxonian pronunciation, Thompson is right on the money saying “[t]he reason that Saxonian has become the stage language of broad comedy lies precisely in its capacity to pull down to earth everything that is romantic, overblown, boastful, heroic.” A Saxonian lover, “apostrophizing his adored,” she says, “will begin by likening her to a gazelle and end by rapturously calling her his little iltis. It is a sweet-sounding word, but an iltis is a polecat.” I can confirm that I have never called a woman an iltis, so this may have been a term specific to the era – I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if my grandfather said things like that; he had some very funny-sounding nicknames for my grandma.
In any case, Thompson’s gist should become clear, especially when she goes on to relate anecdotes about Friedrich August III, the last Saxon king who, as popular lore has it, told revolutionaries in 1918 when they demanded his abdication, “Nu, macht doch Euern Dreck aleene!” (Thomson translates this as “Okay! Do the dirty work by yourselves.”). Refusing to go into exile and living out the rest of his days as a citizen in Saxony, he is said to have reprimanded a crowd cheering him in the 1920s: “And a fine set of Republicans you are! Ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The wiki entry on him linked above provides slightly different translations than Thompson’s.
None of these quotes can be verified by historical sources, but the fact that Saxonians are still proud of these stories today proves Thompson’s point:“It is very hard to pin anything on a Saxonian because he is so ‘dumb.’ It’s never clear whether he really means his irony. His ‘dumbness’ is his excuse. His sabotage of the great abstractions is expressed in mere inflection – or a contempt of vowels.” This was true for Thompson’s observation in the 1930s, and it still works today. Comedians such as Uwe Steimle and Olaf Schubert have brought the unreliable dumbness of the Saxonian to perfection, both in their attire, their facial expressions, their topics, and the way they wear their dialect and its accompanying cultural reputation on their sleeves.
Thompson is very clever in using the Saxonians’ reputation against the Nazis, invoking some of Hitler’s idols: Wagner, Nietzsche, and Karl May, all of whom were Saxonians. She remarks on Wagner’s and Nietzsche’s “revolting from the ‘common people,’ the Babitty atmosphere that surrounded them” and that had an impact on Europe but apparently not on Saxony because “at home, in their slippers, Wagner and Nietzsche both spoke dialect. When the two now-acknowledged harbingers of the Third Reich fell out with each other in a quarrel that shook the world of international culture, they probably fell out in Saxonian.” I am very grateful to Thompson for putting the image of Nietzsche and Wagner having an argument in Saxonian in my head. Although, to be fair, it should be said that, today, Nietzsche is not so much considered as a harbinger of the Third Reich anymore among historians. One of the reasons Nietzsche and Wagner fell out with each other is that Nietzsche couldn’t stand Wagner’s anti-Semitism.
Thompson muses that Saxony produced all three geniuses, who imagined popular dream worlds, but that it probably could only be Saxony to “furnish a comfortable world in which genius could compose, flagellate and dream.”
This leads her to her attack on Hitler: “I have a hunch that Hitler’s rage against Saxonian is really a rage against the Common Man, whose unheroic desire for a small comfortable life – flowers in the window, a secure job, home and family, a canary, a daughter who plays the piano, and a lot of food – is so stubborn and so very un-Nazi. ” In this description of the Saxonian as the “Common Man”, she basically matches most of the traits Americans at the time might have agreed upon as an American ideal: to live a simple, good life far away from any government activity. She portrays Saxonians as actually closer to American ideals than to those of the Nazis.
In Thompson’s perspective, “it isn’t that the Saxonian spirit is rebellious. It is just infuriatingly unmartial and skeptical.” Because they are so “infuriatingly unmartial,” Saxonians singing the Horst Wessel Lied or “’Today we own Germany, tomorrow the whole world’ … would frighten no one.” I do not agree with her jape that Saxonians could not produce really good Nazis. Saxonians did their share to make these twelve years as miserable to the whole world as they were. This example illustrates how the attribution of group character traits most likely produces overgeneralizations that can, and will – back then as much as today – be used for either aggrandizement or defamation of these groups, be it notions of the babbity of the Saxonians, of the backstabbing deviousness of the Jews, the diligence and perfectionism of the Germans, or of the inherent zealous warmongering of the Muslims. However, to go back to Thompson’s notion of Saxonians and Nazis, the public reputation of Saxonians and their dialect does, indeed, not seem to be reconcilable with the heroism, militancy, and bombast of Nazi propaganda.
Comparing the features of Saxonian dialect with “the Bostonian ‘a,’ the Middle Western ‘r,’ the Southern vowels,” Thompson launches into a linguistic history of the English language. She details the various languages English borrowed from, and lists a number of very diverse writers who published in English, claiming that all these incorporations, borrowings, and simplifications have made English the “only world language since Latin. This way, not Hitler’s, is imperial, in the transcendental sense of the word.”
The article’s grand finale returns to Hitler’s claim that Saxonian dialect endangers the Germans’s reputation throughout the world: “Hitler argues that the German language, if it cannot be pure, must never be ridiculous. But the cramped effort of man never to be ridiculous can only end in the most gargantuan and ridiculous caricature of man ever drawn. ‘Wer niemals narrisch war, er ist der grösste Narr’ (He who has never been silly is the silliest of all).” Thompson’s final sentences suggest that the suppression of Saxonian dialect, if the rationale behind it was to be taken serious and the ideas would be followed through, would suppress all other dialects and public expressions until only one man, Hitler, is left speaking: “Perhaps all the rest can sing – in one of those gigantic Wagnerian choruses. Or perhaps the rest is silence.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Thompson’s notion on the political power and the double meaning of silliness in this wonderful example. As a historical document, her article brilliantly deconstructs how silly the Nazis’ arguments on culture actually were, especially in their attempts to be anything but silly. This article is also, in a way, timeless, and not simply because Saxonian dialect is still considered silly and its speakers as stupid. Especially in the realm of politics, a bit of silliness is often the best way to bear the rhetoric, logical, and polemic garbage that political leaders (and those who professionally report on our leaders’ activities) dish out every day, be it in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Daily Show and Colbert Report are more popular sources of information than some of the news shows they mock. I’m glad to live in a society where one can call on the silliness of leaders, without having to fear the reprisals the Nazis held in stock for anybody deemed disloyal. Still, leaders’ silliness as an affliction is not restricted to the most oppressive regimes. We face it every day.
So, thanks for tuning in, I’ll go watch a few silly YouTube clips now, or maybe read a few politicians’ speeches. In Saxonian.