Diary: Durs Grünbein, Linguistic Devastation

“Düsseldorf, 1937,” postcard appearing in the Reich Exhibition of Working People. From the author’s postcard collection

When I was a student in East Germany in the seventies, the notebook of a Jewish philologist had alerted me to the distorted German of the war years. It had fallen into my hands in a Dresden antiquarian bookshop, which was on my way to school: Victor Klemperer’s LTI. The Language of the Third Reich (“Lingua Tertii Imperii”). One example among many of the ruined grammar of the time was Hitler’s speeches, in which the power of language came less to the fore than the violence done to language. From a speech to Berlin workers on May Day: “I will have no greater source of pride in my life than being able to say at the end of my days: I have conquered the German Reich for the German worker!”

The suspicion that there was also something wrong with the language of my school days, the German of the Workers’ and Peasants’ State, was substantiated by my reading. “The Third Reich speaks with a terrible uniformity in all its utterances and legacies: in the unbounded exhibitionism of its grandiose architecture and through its ruins … through its motorways and mass graves. All of this is the language of the Third Reich.” From this study I learnt that verbs such as ankurbeln (crank up, boost) and spuren (keep on track) that were brand new then, though ubiquitous now, originated in the technical vocabulary of the automobile industry, and had quickly penetrated everyday language before the propaganda specialists of the Third Reich began to use them in an inflationary way and for their own purposes. At the time, it struck me how quickly technical terms find their way into all areas of human existence and take hold of everyday life: “Everything is back on track (Es spurt schon wieder). (I had this specialist term from the field of automobile construction explained to me: the wheels on the vehicle stay on the right track),” Victor Klemperer wrote in his notebook.

And why is everything on the right track in the Third Reich with its rousing four-year economic plans? Because everyone, thanks to all-round organization, was “working at full capacity” (voll ausgelastet). And the turn of phrase “at full capacity,” a favorite expression of Goebbels at the time, was an incursion from the language of technology into the everyday language of the little people. Look: it turned out that human shoulders could be used to capacity “like any other load-bearing structure.” Such a phrase pinpointed the interface between human and Autobahn, the connection between technological changes to the environment and linguistic formatting. Who today honors the thousands of bodies ground down during the construction work that built by dint of force what everyone was happy to use afterwards? Who is still aware of the shifts in vocabulary that came with such progress, the prime movers under the political diktat and their cost to the individual? It was men, miserable, exhausted wretches for the most part, who took on the Babylonian construction, day laborers from the great army of the unemployed, who at that time gave the only thing they had to give, their declining labor power.

Whether action preceded language or vice versa, one was caught in a vicious circle from the beginning of the Hitler regime. Propaganda worked along with the mechanisms of intimidation within the dictatorship itself, until everyone found their language brought into line to such an extent that they could no longer think of any alternative, no longer knew what to do with their own thoughts. The present had closed over the life of the individual like the slab of a tomb.

The mendacious language of National Socialism, a prime example of the poisoning of language through deadening rhetoric, had in the end created a collective speechlessness that led to elementary forms of language withering away. It is here that the mystery of Fascism lies buried to this day. After the bitter end, a cloak of silence was laid over everything. For those of us born afterwards, accustomed to the pretty much permanent discussion of these twelve tragic years of history, this speechlessness seems remarkable. This much was clear, however: Germany was split in two. A red line on the map: and families, life stories, narratives were divided forever. The result was not only a geographical and political division but also the divided consciousness of a whole nation—the pathological German–German schism, a kind of schizophrenia. From that moment on, Germans were silent in two languages.

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In the East where I was born (in the ruins of Dresden), the straw men in Moscow’s pay, officials of the NKVD or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs such as Walter Ulbricht, who had survived Stalin’s persecution of the Communist International, the terror of purges, and the nightly arrests of like-minded people, built the GDR state. I was born into this state of affairs; someone who is still to this day trying to develop the whole film and gain a historical overview of this landscape of destruction.

The writer W. G. Sebald made the complex of this uncanny collective silence the subject of a series of lectures (held at Zürich University in 1997): Luftkrieg und Literatur (published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction). He found that he virtues so often praised as archetypically German—the work ethos, the thoroughness, the readiness to make sacrifices, the enormous craftsmanship—were in fact behaviors repeatedly activated by the inhabitants of this territory in historical situations of crisis. In the Third Reich these were exacerbated by the compulsion to self-sufficiency and the war-related economy of scarcity. The German ability to perform at its best, even with all sorts of substitute materials and a life dependent on food stamps and emergency rations. The erratic silence of most Germans thus proved to be the flip side of the will to persevere right until the last moment, something incomprehensible to neighboring countries. Sebald understood the signs of such social hardening and linguistic devastation and the noticeable emotional vacuum of the postwar years to be a result of the obedience internalized during the years of the reign of terror. Twelve years of being whipped into shape and subjected to an authoritarian education had taught the Germans not to ask questions. Looking back, hardly any of the survivors of the massive city bombardments get beyond a few stunned phrases. Rarely can they produce an unsparing and objective account of what they witnessed. The air war unleashed by the Germans themselves—in Guernica, Warsaw, Coventry, Rotterdam—had come home to roost. The corpses, the rats, the flies, the parasitic fauna of destruction, the whole landscape of decay and rot—the consequences of the war they instigated—that the Germans, accustomed to order, and with the declared aim of cleansing Europe of all human “vermin,” could never have dreamt of in their administrative areas and well-ordered cities.

The total chaos that eventually rolled over them, the death and debris, the bombed cities turned to wastelands that ushered in the end of their arrogance—this was what could no longer be talked about. At the end of Alexander Kluge’s account of the demise of his hometown, Halberstadt, he mentions an American psychologist conducting surveys among German survivors for a study by the Historical Research Centre, Maxwell Airforce Base, Alabama, in May 1945: “It seemed to him as if the population, despite an inborn pleasure in telling stories had, precisely within the contours of the destroyed areas of the town, lost the psychic strength to remember.”

The fall of the Wall was the saving grace for me. It was the experience of a total decay of hierarchies: a state had disintegrated, the dictatorship of the worker-and-peasant leaders. Not until this last turn did the German subject—the really existing socialist petty bourgeois, renegade of the great world revolution—die. Only then was Prussia really at an end, the reactive Prussia of the East. If the German Reich had been a Greater Germany under Prussian hegemony from Bismarck to Hitler, the divided Germany was until 1989 a stopgap, a provisional solution to the problem of dismantling the historical legacy and re-educating its populations.

Born in 1962, I was separated by only seventeen years from the great caesura of 1945—the year that those with a mentality that remains alien to me to this day wished to see declared zero hour. Seventeen years, what is that in historical terms? An adolescence, you might say—or an entire generation. I appeared on the freshly cleared terrain of the 1960s, a year after the building of the Wall that would determine my destiny until I could, after a further twenty-seven years that seemed like an eternity, head out into the big wide world—the world of today, still my favorite world?

It is no longer the specter of Communism that haunts Europe. It is the afterimage of authoritarian rule, the dream of right-wing populism among the people, realizable through propaganda and political marketing. All those discredited socialist utopias that vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union have been replaced by backward-looking visions of a strong nation with fortified borders and as self-sufficient an economy as possible. “Retrotopia” was what the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann called it in his critique of nationalist politics that lead, of necessity, to a restricted sense of nationhood, to the increasing violence to be seen in all spheres, first and foremost in language.

Every day, history drives us out of ourselves and confuses our imagination: history—that brutal translation of time into collective experience. The problem for the poet is how amidst this to lay aside the pretentions of poetry. In the end he only knows what anyone could know: there are so many realities, they exist independently of us and simultaneously, and the same is true of identities. Even if they are dreamers, the poets, the only thing they do not doubt is that the words and deeds of our predecessors will catch up with us. In this respect they are sensitive, specialists, constantly in radio contact with the dead. There is something the sociologists call transgenerational transmission: no one can jump out of their historical time; no one escapes being formed by history. Once perhaps in the unimaginable times of myth and fairy tale, but today it is impossible. In the same way, the much-vaunted attempt to draw a line under legacy of German fascism is impossible too.

There is no question of a flight from time, nor a flight inwards. History as a history of violence passes though time and imprints itself with all its dates on our bodies. There is something beyond literature that will always calls writing into question. And then there is literature, crisscrossing history in fictions, a “secret agreement between the past generations and the present one.”

Translated by Karen Leeder

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Durs Grünbein’s poetry and essays have appeared English as Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (translated by Michael Hofmann), The Bars of Atlantis: Selected Essays (translated by various hands), and Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City (translated by Karen Leeder). This post is drawn from his 2019 Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford, to be published by Seagull Books this fall under the title For the Dying Calves: Beyond Literature (available for preorder). Karen Leeder teaches German at New College, Oxford.

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