Friday, October 2, 2009

Thomas Pegelow Kaplan's "The Language of Nazi Genocide"

Thomas Pegelow Kaplan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Davidson College and an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Language of Nazi Genocide: Linguistic Violence and the Struggle of Germans of Jewish Ancestry, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Language of Nazi Genocide discusses the intricate ways in which Mally Dienemann defied racial categories imposed on her by official discourse of the emerging Nazi dictatorship in the spring of 1933. Dienemann was a resident of Offenbach, Hesse, where her husband served as the rabbi of the town’s liberal Jewish community. In light of Max Dienemann’s prominent position, the couple swiftly became targets of the new regime’s linguistic violence that excluded them from society and marked them as “aliens” and “enemies” of the German people. The verbal assaults directed physical brutalities of local Nazis and culminated in the Gestapo’s arrest of Max Dienemann later that year.

As I write on page 99, “Dienemann reflected on the ‘continuity of fate’ of the Jewish people [in her semi-private writings]. This fate at the hands of the Gentile majority spanned from medieval anti-Jewish tales about well poisoning to the contemporary anti-Semitic accusation of atrocity propaganda... By evoking the concept of fate and referring to her own and the Offenbach religious community’s suffering, Dienemann reinserted her sense of self in the collective Jewish experience and ‘community of fate’ described in the German-Jewish press, particularly the Jüdische Rundschau, [the leading German-Jewish Zionist newspaper]... Aware of the impact of the intensifying Nazi press control, she began to ‘read between the lines’ and draw on the language from selected articles, especially on the Frankfurter Zeitung’s feature pages. Dienemann’s spring 1933 diary entries reveal the paper’s impact. She contrasted, for example, ‘Jewish stores, doctors and lawyers’ with a ‘Christian customer’ and thus emphasized the religious [instead of racial] meanings of Jewishness.”

The page captures a key component of the book’s argument. Its discussion connects language to the everyday life, reading and writing practices, and, ultimately, the survival strategies of German Jews, Jewish converts to Christianity, and people whom the Nazis termed “Mischlinge.” Like Dienemann, many Germans of Jewish ancestry engaged in what my book conceptualizes as acts of “discursive contestation.” These members of state-targeted minorities intervened by pointing to semantic contradictions of Nazi terminology, and sought shifts in the boundaries between Germanness and Jewishness in the hope of escaping persecution. An increasing number of German Jews strengthened their sense of Jewishness. During the early Nazi years, many more Germans of Jewish ancestry, highly acculturated men and women alike, embraced and defended a sense of Germanness rooted in their readings of German history, language use and other cultural practices. Anything but passive victims of state-organized violence, Germans of Jewish ancestry actively engaged in a struggle for their survival and sense of self against the Nazi onslaught.

Appearing at the end of the second chapter on the Nazifying of language in 1933, page 99 only indirectly points to the book’s other layers of analysis. In the previous sections, the reader learns about my discovery that only by analyzing the language of genocide can one comprehend how the perpetrators constructed their imagined enemy. Beyond the book’s exploration of the Nazi linguistic creation of difference, race, and the enemy, I investigate how official Nazi agencies communicated these constructions to the public via the nation’s press. Still, the most important part of the book, reflected on p. 99, demonstrates how Germans with Jewish forbearers, the very group Nazis sought to alienate and ultimately murder, both received and actively responded to the regime’s linguistic violence in their daily struggles.
Read an excerpt from The Language of Nazi Genocide, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue