War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength

Question: What do racism, ostracism, despotism, sectarianism, fanaticism, nationalism, evangelism, symbolism, jingoism, patriotism, puritanism, factionalism and totalitarianism have in common?

Answer: Euphemism.


Topography of Terror – Niederkirchnerstrasse, Berlin


Just back from Berlin and the Topography of Terror project, which catalogues the horrors of the Nazi era through images and texts. The building is located on the site previously occupied by the headquarters of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office – RSHO). Photographs of the SS staff enjoying away-days from the camps, and children subjected to medical experiments speak for themselves, but the extent to which language was used to intimidate, manipulate and subjugate still shocks. The revelation is that so many people who committed such unspeakable acts really believed they were simply ‘doing their duty’.


Auschwitz staff away day


The purpose of a political euphemism is to manage perception. Orwell called it ‘The defence of the indefensible. Language designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable. To give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ The Nazis weren’t the first and they won’t be the last, but they excelled in using language to alter people’s morality.


The RSHO centralised scientific research, intelligence gathering, monitoring opinion, indoctrination, criminal investigation and overseeing foreigners within a single super agency. It became the ideological engine of radicalisation, and developed a sophisticated understanding of misinformation and managing emotions. Experts with degrees in philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, economics and law transformed Hitler’s slogans into processes, directives and assignments. Staff were implicated in atrocities by constant rotation from desk jobs to ‘practical pursuits’. The Gestapo was not a fixed entity, but a ‘…constantly evolving organism’ that disseminated ‘…uncertainty and confusion to breed anxiety and conjecture’.


Death to Lies


One of the justifications for the Reich’s expansionism was Lebensraum or ‘living space’, which it needed to fulfil the 1000-year vision of world domination. Central Europe was regarded as ‘German cultural soil’ and anyone who threatened this had to be dealt with. The term ‘protective custody’ was introduced after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 to weed out ‘rogue elements’ that would obstruct the establishment of a totalitarian regime. The phrase had nothing to do with protecting the individual, but protecting the State from the individual. The language-driven paranoia that the Fatherland was ‘under attack’ from ‘subversive forces’ justified any means. The language was a societal anaesthetic, shrewdly administered to make ‘the unthinkable acceptable’. Every neighbourhood in Berlin had SA ‘club houses’ where suspects were ‘purged’ or ‘neutralised’. Nazi philosophy declared that ‘All Men Are Not Equal’, and anyone who questioned this was suspect. You proved your loyalty by reporting on friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who might be expressing ‘un-German’ tendencies. Opponents of the ‘Volk Community’ were ‘racial enemies’. They were invited to ‘assist the Gestapo with their enquiries’ and ultimately ‘excluded’ from the community without defence, trial or appeal.


Chart describing the Nuremberg Laws, 1935.


By 1938, occupational bans and revoked trade licences excluded Jews and Romas from employment, making them dependent on charity and the State. This ostracism generated public hostility, and accusations of being ‘work shy leeches’ justified forcing them into slave labour. Many companies such as VW, BMW, Daimler Benz, Siemens and Krupp who were already profiting from Germany’s rearmament benefited. Labour camps exploiting ‘racial inferiors’ from conquered territories were an integral part of city life. Definitions of ‘deviancy’ became increasingly bizarre and could range from a love of jazz to an appreciation of abstract art; anything that was deemed to be anti-Aryan. Once labelled and documented, stigmatised victims were dispatched to camps with Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you Free) emblazoned over the entrance. Presented as ‘re-education centres’, they were queuing systems for the gas chambers. The barracks were given names such as TRUTHFULNESS, SELF SACRIFICE and FREEDOM which referred to a speech Himmler made to all prisoners held by the Reich: ‘There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are obedience, endeavour, honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, a sense of self sacrifice and love of the Fatherland.’


Excerpt of Himmler’s speech on the Dachau service building


Graphic identities have been used by the military for centuries but the Nazi’s bought the coordinated visual language of insignia, colour, typography and hierarchy into the public domain. Individuals in the camps were identified by badges: Work-Shy Reich, Work-Shy Municipalities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavic Sub-Human, Female Race Defilers, Poles and Czechs. Homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangles, and Jews – marked by a yellow star – were the lowest category of all. Every aspect of the brand was tightly controlled through the precise language in the guidelines: ‘The Jewish star consists of a palm-size six point star outlined in black on yellow cloth with the word JEW in black. It is to be worn visibly, sewn over the left breast of the garment.’


Prisoner identity badges


Articles in popular magazines and cinema newsreels whitewashed the camps. Gushing editorials emphasised the ‘benevolent protection’ provided for the Jews, and described Dachau as a ‘…picture of cleanliness, order, light and air.’ The ‘…guests worked gladly and willingly with good food and a roof over their heads’. Photo features showed prisoners ‘…enjoying making things in the carpentry shop’ and ‘…returning from work singing’. A documentary about the Theresienstadt Ghetto called ‘The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews’ celebrated its ‘…rich cultural life’, and featured children staging theatrical productions. As soon as the film was completed, the director, cast and crew were despatched to Auschwitz.


Theresienstadt Ghetto children’s theatre


The ‘Solution to the Jewish Situation’ was underwritten by Hitler’s statement that anyone who was ‘flawed’ led a ‘life unworthy of life’. The ‘Euthanasia Programme’ (merciful death) was rubber stamped at the Wannsee Conference when planners began to calculate the numbers of people to be exterminated and the logistics to achieve the targets. The Reich was a bureaucratic behemoth recording data in obsessive detail. They used the detached language of lists, statistics, graphs and diagrams to distance themselves from the brutal truth. Directives were saturated in ‘amtssprache’ (officialese), but the language developed to obfuscate the genocide was called ‘sprachregelung’. The sick and disabled were transported from hospitals to ‘rehabilitation centres’ in ‘charitable ambulances’ as part of the eugenics cull. Those who were not compelled by the ‘Hereditary Health Courts’ to be compulsorily sterilised were ‘resettled’, then ‘specially treated’ and finally ‘cleansed’.


Wannsee Conference list of Jewish populations


The Nazis also understood that humiliating carefully targeted people with damning words and phrases can provoke hysterical hatred across benign communities. People accused of ‘transgressions’ were paraded through the streets with hand-written boards round their necks declaring ‘I am a blood sucker’ or ‘I forbade pupils to say Heil Hitler!’ or ‘I shopped in a Jewish store’. Romantic relationships between Jews and Aryans were a crime against the ‘people’s community’. Juda Rosenberg and Elisabeth Makowiak were forced to wear placards bearing the inscriptions: ‘I am a race defiler’ and ‘I, a blonde angel, slept with this Jewboy’.


Juda Rosenberg and Elisabeth Makowiak


The Nazis didn’t just celebrate language, they destroyed it as well. ‘Ideologically unsound’ writers were shipped off to the camps and their work was publically incinerated. Bebelplatz, Berlin was a favourite location for book burnings and in 1933 (six years before the war) Joseph Goebbels prepared students for their glorious fate. ‘The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. As young people, you already have the courage to face the fear of death, and this is the task for your generation. This is a great and symbolic deed, and from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.’


Book burning – Bebelplatz, Berlin


Euphemisms are alive and well and a thriving form of flimflam. We don’t bat and eyelid at ‘collateral damage’, ‘pacification’, ‘anti-personnel device’, ‘economy with the truth’, ‘friendly fire’. ‘Extraordinary rendition’ has been elevated to ‘air cargo’ thanks to the fax from the MI6 Head of Counter Terrorism found in the abandoned offices of Moussa Koussa – General Gadhafi’s ‘Chief of Intelligence’.


MI6 fax sent to Moussa Koussa


But I give the last words to the paradoxical Captain Beatty from Fahrenheit 451, who is the most literate and articulate book burner in fiction. ‘What is there about fire that is so lovely? Its perpetual motion, the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Fire is a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledegook about friction and molecules but they don’t really know. Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. A problem gets too burdensome, then into the furnace with it.’



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