As Germans learned after World War II, combatting fascist language is harder than just deleting offending terms. Can we find a creative solution that serves today’s needs?
What to call the rightward drift in politics? Experts quibble: some caution against tossing the “fascist” label around, while others venture bold political and historicalparallels. Describing the parlance of the right, by contrast, occasions fewer disagreements. “Fascist language”—a subset of “toxic” or “dangerous speech”—makes headlines and merits insightful analyses. Concrete examples—take the proverbial “14 words” of a popular white supremacist slogan—make fascist language easier to spot, to skirt, to excise. Such has been the widespread dissent formula.
It is possible to prune away all dog whistles, slurs, and dehumanizing tropes—and still not know what good language does, to whom, or why.
What does this formula achieve? A less fascist language? A non-fascist language? Certainly not an anti-fascist language. Indeed, despite it being seventy-five years since the world fought to defeat European fascism, an anti-fascist language remains elusive. While fascist rhetoric has been a subject of discussions almost continuously since the 1930s, and anti-fascism as a set of practices has never been more popular (witness the global rise of Antifa), an explicitly anti-fascist language is largely terra incognita.
Certainly, going after bad language is important and necessary, as George Orwell highlights in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). But on its own, the method goes only so far, and the purges have a tendency to derail quickly, at times turning into the very thing they repudiate. Some of Orwell’s demands echo the fascist obsession with purity (he lashes out against loanwords, for example). Worse yet, avoidance and elimination are rarely generative: a focus on verbal poison makes it easy to forget why language is more than a pile of chores, perils, and liabilities, why it can be a source of strength rather than weakness, why it can inspire rather than suffocate. It is possible to prune away all dog whistles, slurs, and dehumanizing tropes—and still not know what good language does, to whom, or why. This is the trap we fall into whenever fascist language returns. And it returns partly because we have no lasting, recognizable alternative to it—only some antidotes here and there.
No country knows this predicament better than Germany. Since 1945 its citizens and denizens have spotted, skirted, and excised vestiges of fascist language in diaries, essays, slogans, keyword compendia, government pamphlets, and annual “non-word of the year” votes. And yet, the seemingly uprooted abides and, worse, thrives. There must be, it follows, practices beyond the tried-and-tested trio of identification, avoidance, and excision. What are they—and how can they move us closer to understanding what an actual, live anti-fascist language is?
In 1967 Wolfgang Fritz Haug, then editor of the Marxist journal Das Argument, posed the following challenge in his essay “Helpless Anti-Fascism”: Where is the guarantee that whatever isn’t fascist is actually anti-fascist? (The title of the essay did not exactly ring with optimism for the answer.)
The ghosts of Nazi verbiage got in the way of a new vernacular. With such hauntings, there could only be one kind of language, ‘the language of helpless anti-fascism.’
The inconvenient question vexed him as he pored over more than forty ostensibly anti-fascist speeches delivered by prominent faculty and administrators across West Germany during the three preceding years. The speeches had come in response to student demand, first voiced at the University of Tübingen in 1964. Anti-fascism begins at home, the students reckoned, facing down their alma mater over complicity in the Nazi regime. The administration countered by announcing an ambitious public lecture series. From Munich to West Berlin, other universities followed suit, often under the pressure of student investigations that had turned up damning evidence of widespread “political coordination,” or Gleichschaltung, of teaching and scholarship with the Nazi tenets. Professional associations, too, jumped on the bandwagon. At their annual conference in 1966, Germanists, the academic trade that had carried the Volk’s torch the farthest, committed to self-criticism. Confronting the past finally seemed inescapable even in the bastions of critical thinking. Its arrival was tardy, but late was better than never.
Haug’s analysis, however, warned that victory laps were premature. While all-out tyranny received unambiguous condemnation in all the lectures, “measured fascism,” he established, continued to vegetate under the thick cover of a language never truly denazified.
From their early days, the Nazis were invested in shaping the German language to support their aims, although their efforts were scattershot. The lack of a consistent linguistic strategy befitted “the movement,” as they dubbed themselves. A “movement,” after all, can take some chaos. Nazi party leadership imposed official restrictions on relatively few words—“democracy,” “pacifist,” and “class” count as examples—but the National Socialist education program promoted standard German at the cost of the supposedly more völkisch local dialects. Worn-in nationalist vocabularies were at times upgraded (“Volk Army” to replace the allegedly ignominious “soldiery”), while other time-honored words were recoded (Volksgenosse, once applicable to any member of the German nation, now connoted racial purity; to be “fanatical” was a positive trait). Quasi-spiritual platitudes—“predestination,” “faith,” and “myth”—swarmed. Euphemizing was constant: in 1935 German militarization progressed under the aegis of a “peace program,” while the antisemitic Nuremberg laws declared no conduct forbidden—only “undesirable.”
This obsessive but unsystematic purveyance of language subsequently compounded the difficult task of removing the linguistic remnants of fascism. By the mid-1960s, Haug found, almost no progress had been made. In the material he analyzed, the speakers’ anti-fascist creed was awash with accidental fascist diction: pathos, tired clichés, invocations of hygiene and irrationality, inscrutable abstractions. Nazism, as if Voldemort avant la lettre, could not be named. Instead, it appeared as a “natural catastrophe,” a “degenerate afterbirth of the nineteenth century,” a “madness-turned-method.” Its forever-incubating “utopian bacillus” threatened to “contaminate” universities, lest these step up “the purification of the intellectual climate.”
Yet the anodyne regurgitations of Nazi metaphors—part funeral oration, part lackluster Manichean mythmaking, part commonplaces, in Haug’s description—weren’t even the worst of it. The worst was that they occupied the place where there should instead have been a precise and factual encounter for Germans with the reality of life in the Third Reich and of the death that its citizens had perpetrated across Europe. The ghosts of Nazi verbiage got in the way of a new vernacular. With such hauntings, Haug diagnosed, there could only be one kind of language. He called it “the language of helpless anti-fascism.”
Language inevitably takes on a proto-fascist bent when it becomes wrapped up with national identity.
Haug’s conclusions were dismaying, given that denazifying language had been a significant intellectual project in Germany ever since 1945. Romance philologist Victor Klemperer, who made his name exposing the omnipotent overreach of Nazi idiom, is only one example of many. Journalists, literati, and academics expurgated such telltale features as pathos and hyperbole. They struck down hollow or abused notions, from “fanatical” to “hatred,” from “community” to “idea.” The very word “health,” according to scholar and writer Urs Widmer, was suspect, given its place in the Nazi “blood-and-soil myth.”
Still, health was taken to be the main concern and excision, the panacea: Nazi language looked like a metastatic cancer that needed to be cut out. The influential postwar writer gathering, Group 47, swore by “clearcutting.” The less-is-more aesthetic—plainspokenness, bare backdrops, unvarnished plots—aimed to shake off the “cover of unreadability,” as the future Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll characterized Hitler’s style. “Forget beauty” was a common refrain, although forgetting German, as the rare female voice Ilse Aichinger once offered, beckoned as an even more tempting alternative.
The paragon of this approach was From the Dictionary of the Inhuman (1945), an early and popular collection of essays alphabetizing the Nazi language crimes example by example. To stage a defamiliarizing confrontation with those, leading up to a catharsis, was its manifest goal. At least this was how the mastermind Dolf Sternberger, a philosopher and political scientist, imagined the publication’s future in the ebullient foreword to the original 1945 edition. This was no quick-and-dirty wordbook but a series of sophisticated glosses that presaged the British critic Raymond Williams’s influential writings on keywords as windows onto society. Each entry began with etymology and shades of semantics; a section on pernicious usage followed. The explanation of “to organize,” for example, outlined how natural entities such as organs and organisms morph into metaphors for social mechanisms with humans as cogwheels. The breakdown of “propaganda,” to cite another case, traced the transformation of tentative Christian debates on proselytizing into entrenched, near-invisible modern-day institutions. Recycling or resignifying these words would be tantamount to affirming the order that they had just served.
And yet, recycle and resignify Germans did. By the time the second edition came out in 1957, Sternberger’s despair was palpable. True, the “violent syntax,” “stilted grammar,” and “monstrous . . . vocabulary” of Nazi German may have crumbled with the ruins of the bombed-out country. But “no pure and new, no modest and more agile, no friendlier language entity has emerged,” Sternberger lamented. Nor was the crumbling complete: he and his two coauthors added eight new entries, while only two had expired for lack of use. The expanded third edition in 1967 breathed resignation. “The evil is sprawling tenaciously,” Sternberger wrote of the Nazi language, “and it’s gradually becoming difficult to remain as hopeful as we had promised ten years ago.” He and others “had blamed all linguistic evils on the Third Reich,” but, it turned out, “the inhuman” drew sustenance from all words’ inherent manipulability. They may have realized this earlier, had they recalled the crusades of the nationalist General Association for the German Language, founded in 1885. Its zealots outdid even the Nazis by lobbying to “Germanize” borrowings such as “concentration camp” and “euthanasia” and relented only after Hitler forbade “artificial replacement of loanwords long anchored in German” in November 1940.
The rub was that the fascists did not invent so-called “fascist language,” nor were they even its most ardent practitioners. The roots went much deeper, taking a kind of proto-fascist bent that language seems inevitably to possess whenever it becomes wrapped up with national identity and unbridled quests for power.
This is not to say that the postwar German impulse to purge lacked relevance. Relevant it was, helping to establish language as a public good rather than some hallowed preserve where only professionals could roam. Problems arose mostly from its hegemonic position as the method, despite its mostly male adherents’ failure to fathom a new vernacular beyond the rubble years or to seek out visionary successors for the future. The purgers’ demands had “few real consequences,” Urs Widmer remarked in 1966, adding that “the practical realization must begin only now.”
Recently, the right-wing Alternative for Germany suggested that the federal government ‘dispose of’ its Turkish-German Commissioner for Integration and has clamored that Germany is being ‘overrun’ by refugees.
A related issue bedeviled their view of the past. Victor Klemperer—unrealistically by any standards of present-day linguistics—insisted on the “absolute rule” of the “language of the Third Reich” over all subjects. A collateral effect was to render the idiom of oppositional individuals or groups meaningless, to discredit any manifestations of anti-fascist language that could have possibly withstood Nazi “poison.” When fellow Romance philologist Werner Krauss dared to interject that rank-and-file Wehrmacht soldiers such as himself had never adopted the officer corps’ Nazi German but devised their own jargon to circumvent and weaken that of the superiors (and that this jargon’s manifestations in postwar Germany were no holdovers of Prussian militarism but symbols of the soldiers’ enduring social alienation), Klemperer enlisted as Krauss’s nemesis. Misconstrued as the only legitimate form of linguistic anti-fascism, purging careened toward its own brand of totalitarianism.
As a result, the first brief sketch of actual anti-fascist language saw print only in 1988. The author, Erika Ising, opened with praise for her country’s role in uncovering “the full spectrum of political, social, and intellectual resistance against Nazi policies.” The concomitant neglect of language struck her as jarring. Could this be because there was no coherent anti-fascist language—at least, none for which one could pen a chapter-by-chapter lexicon? To make sense of it, she identified a few components. There were sociolects: of political and religious resistance groups, concentration camp inmates, or émigrés. Foreign borrowings. Tweaked, satirized legalese. And, predictably, the unavoidable scraps of fascist diction. Real-life anti-fascist language, Ising learned, was a contradictory, confused mess devoid of heroics. All too human.
Why Ising or her colleagues did not continue this work is not entirely clear. Were the findings too disappointing? Was the project too daunting? Ising’s country and the project’s implicit backer—East Germany, the self-proclaimed bastion of anti-fascism—too frail, on the brink of slumping in 1989 and dissolving in 1990? Reunified Germany would have other worries.
Or would it? Right-wing violence accompanied Germany’s reunification. Between 1991 and 1993, skinheads set refugee homes on fire in Hoyerswerda, Mölln, and Solingen. The so-called National Socialist Underground murdered immigrants between 2000 and 2006. Fascist rhetoric was there all along.
It thrived at neo-Nazi concerts, rallies, flash mobs, and in publishing, all of which helped the National Democratic Party of Germany, the Identitarian Movement, Pegida, and other far-right groups draw the line between “us” and “not-us” and promote the Holocaust as an “American cultural product.”
There is a vast horizon of possibilities that lies beyond avoidance and excision, between civility and punching Nazis. It’s time we explored it.
It pervaded the useful idiocy of half-witting fellow travelers. The Turkish-German writer Akif Pirinçci berated immigrants as a “Muslim garbage dump.” The ostensible Social-Democrat Thilo Sarrazin, whose great-great-uncle had expunged loanwords during World War I, dubbed Muslim presence “hostile takeover.” The Green Party mayor of Tübingen, Boris Palmer, a staunch opponent of Germany’s “welcome culture,” criticized attempts to rescue drowning refugees as an example of Menschenrechtsfundamentalismus (“human rights fundamentalism”).
More recently, fascist rhetoric entered provincial and national parliaments—prime platforms for large-scale language meddling—with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party suggested that the federal government “dispose of” its Turkish-German Commissioner for Integration by deporting her and has clamored repeatedly that Germany is being “overrun” by refugees. Meta-linguistic interventions followed, with calls to enshrine German in the constitution and reject gender-inclusive language. The last frontier has been unpredictable linguistic subterfuge, from toying with the emotion-laden “civil war” notion to deploying laughter and interruption as divisive strategies in the parliament. Just how do you avoid and excise laughter?
A decennial ritual of sorts is to publish tallies of Nazi words that remain pervasive, preaching avoidance. The most recent came out this February to lukewarm reviews, damning “supervise,” “asocial,” and “degenerate” as forever irredeemable. Meantime, avoidance efforts appear more and more absurd, out of synch with new realities. When Germany’s government curbed its refugee-friendly policies and opened extraterritorial detention camps in 2018, the word “camps” was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was talk of “disembarkation platforms” and “anchor centers.” The euphemisms came under fire, and fast. Skirting “the inhuman word par excellence,” as Sternberger’s coauthor had described “camp,” only played into xenophobes’ hands. Euphemizing, too, was once fascist.
It is no surprise that neither avoidance nor excision inspired the single most memorable anti-fascist quip in Germany’s recent history. As the parliament debated the AfD’s proposal to enshrine the German language in the constitution on March 2, 2018, Social Democrat Johann Saathoff switched to Low German, a northern dialect. Which German language? Who gets to set the limits to diversity? These were the implicit questions. Saathoff’s performative exposure of AfD’s cultural bankruptcy neither abided by traditional codes of obedience—public use of dialects rarely does—nor was it egregious. Rather, it hinted at the vast horizon of possibilities that lies beyond avoidance and excision, between civility and punching Nazis. It’s time we explored it.
Planning for emergency interactions with fascists should be a part of everyday communication. What if we had a few simple, agreed-upon informal protocols that people could fall back on instantly?
That so much writing on opposing dangerous and toxic speech exists and that so little of it has entered public consciousness exposes the idle melancholia beneath the panic over fascist language. Lawyer Sunsan Benesch’s team at the Dangerous Speech Project lists pages upon pages of materials on counterspeech and its dos and don’ts. Philosopher Lynne Tirrell’s work on the use of toxic language against women and minorities is full of valuable thought experiments that apply epidemiological frameworks to curb language’s emotional contagion, to tap into resilience, or to block hate speech. Pamphlets abound, be it the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s global handbook on diffusing hate speech or communication scholar Anna Szylagyi’s quatrilingual guide to iterations of antisemitism on the website Get the Trolls Out. These are today’s must-reads and blueprints for the long term; they should be widely shared, discussed, and used.
In the short term, however, these sources’ emphasis on procedural, predictable, controlled, or avoidable interactions—court testimony, university lecture or a reading, social media posting—merit rethinking. This emphasis presumes a modicum of conversational turn-taking and a semblance of familiar protocols. It creates a sense that even in acts such as doxing and siege- and shitposting, parties typically share a language (or have access to translation). That individuals can choose: to log off or not, to ask a question or not, to challenge or not, to engage or not, to quit or not.
But increasingly, real-life fascist language-meddling suggests that choice is a luxury. Not only for immigrants, Deaf people, or people of color, for whom two-way access to language and mutual comprehension is not guaranteed, but also for white Anglophones. To see how anti-fascist language could respond to this new exigency, consider the April 27 book presentation of sociologist and psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl in Washington, D.C.—an event hijacked by ten Identitarians. Metzl was reading from Dying of Whiteness, his new book arguing that Trump-style politics render white blue-collar lives disposable. In the midst of Metzl’s remarks, the group of fascists stormed the front of the room and lined up in a row facing the audience. One, a megaphone in hand, delivered talking points that attempted to undercut Republican policies as much as Metzl’s own research. The monologue lasted about a minute, after which the group briskly walked out along the side isle, all members chanting “AIM,” some grinning, and one even excusing himself as he passed. No explicit slurs or dehumanizing tropes were uttered—there was even an ostentatious if meaningless flourish of civility—but the damage (shock, confusion) was done.
During this interlude, the audience remained seated, motionless. At some point, booing began in the back, spreading forward and growing stronger and more audible, though not loud enough to drown out the megaphone. In a cell phone recording shared on social media, a nervous voice is heard to say, “Let’s process here for a second,” once the disruption has ended.
Such unanticipated situations, too short to let us think but too long to erase from memory, will likely become more frequent. They also outline the most immediate challenges for anti-fascist language now: to be spontaneous yet also sustainable, memorable yet also less dependent on individual responses, assertive yet also critical of compulsive style-prospecting—the right’s tendency to interrupt for the sake of interrupting rather than out of interest, to talk for the sake of talking rather than to negotiate meaning, to use irony for the sake of putdowns rather than to signal distancing or reflection. Michelle Moyd, David Gramling, and I describe this dynamic as “interactional hegemony”—a linguistic power play that can be civil by most standards yet fascist in its incessant quest for winning the upper hand at any cost.
We need verbal self-defense, a type of language that not only de-escalates verbal abuse with dignity, but also establishes an environment in which abuse is rare.
Metzl’s audience does the best under the circumstances—it responds collectively and vocally, it maintains a united front, nobody is personally humiliated or assaulted—and deserves every credit. But there are downsides: people sit motionlessly, below the disruptors’ eye level, appearing smaller despite the greater numbers. They get no chance to project corporeality or to deliver content besides booing. Booing is relatively untethered from language abilities and democratic, but it offers no gains for anti-fascist language when fascists get to sprawl unconstrained.
Perhaps the lesson is that planning for such emergency interactions can and should be part of everyday communication not only for individuals but also for collectives. What if we had a few simple, agreed-upon informal protocols that people could fall back on instantly, understanding that a language’s grammar depends on gestures, pauses, and emotions as much as on words? These practices must be simple and straightforward, and not dependent on the facility of “native speakers” (incidentally, a favorite term of Nazi linguists). They can and should involve other languages: in and after the Spanish civil war, ¡No pasarán! (“They shall not pass!”) served as a rallying cry for anti-fascists across borders. Memorizing easily-deployed language—as a chant, a song, a poem to beam back at the disruptors (as people do at protests)—can be a way to stake out what cannot be easily reclaimed or appropriated, what comes from poetry and not from rhetoric, to paraphrase Audre Lorde. In such cases, to create what is unusable to latter-day fascists would be the ultimate goal.
This set of suggestions updates what linguist and novelist Suzette Haden Elgin called “verbal self-defense” in her 1980 self-help manual for surviving in misogynist corporate environments. By verbal self-defense, she meant a type of language behavior that not only de-escalates verbal abuse with dignity, but also establishes an environment in which abuse is rare. Four years later, Elgin would make up Láadan, a secret language that women contrive to speak against the patriarchal exploitation of their linguistic talents in the novel Native Tongue, to be reissued later this year. Elgin believed that dominant Western languages conform to patriarchal norms by allowing little room for reflection on what is spoken and how. Láadan, which her novel captures in the process of being constructed, seeks to overcome that. But having everyone learn Láadan, cherished as it remains by some in glossaries and online tutorials, Elgin knew, is unrealistic. Verbal self-defense, by contrast, was and remains within reach.
Of course, we would have to contend with the widespread dissident opinion, which Russian-American poet and anti-totalitarian icon Joseph Brodsky represented most tenaciously, that only extreme individualism can prevail against stark collectivism. But in the so-called liberal democracies, unlike in Brodsky’s native Soviet Union, individualism has become the prime mechanism of consent, not dissent. So far, it has offered few reliable solutions against right-wing politics. Verbal self-defense, like its physical counterpart, is difficult to practice in isolation. It requires forms of togetherness, and it is only in togetherness that Sternberger’s vaunted “friendlier language entity”—any language entity, for that matter—can emerge. When it does, we’ll know that anti-fascist language exists.