Op-Ed: How subtle changes in language helped erode U.S. democracy — and mirrored the Nazi era

Trump supporters gathered at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington near the White House
The Washington rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. (Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Victor Klemperer, a literary scholar, saw the Nazi era begin in the subtlest of ways, through a shift in language. Trained to examine linguistic nuances, he noticed the Germans around him started to talk differently. They used new words, slogans and expressions that didn’t always seem political. But in retrospect, he realized that these new speech patterns had begun undermining democracy long before Hitler rose to power.

In the aftermath of the recent assault on the U.S. Capitol, much attention has been paid to the speech President Trump gave just before the attack. It was rife with talk of an "election victory stolen" and demands that his supporters “fight much harder” against those who committed “outrageous election fraud.” The groundwork for this speech, which many blame for provoking the assault, had been laid by a much broader shift in language instigated not only by Trump but also by niche networks and chatrooms.

Klemperer’s work can help us understand how this shift eroded democracy in our own time.

Klemperer, born to a Jewish family, had converted to Protestantism, considered himself German and was married to a woman the Nazis considered “Aryan.” He chronicled the intensifying prosecution of Jews he personally experienced, first as small chicaneries, such as when he was no longer allowed to sit on park benches, then as draconian measures — he was fired from his job as a literature professor, forced to leave his wife and made to work in a factory.

Prevented from doing his chosen work, Klemperer used his training in language and literature to listen to those around him. Initially he focused on the core falsehood of the Nazi regime, that victory in World War I had been stolen from Germany by leftist (read: democratic) politicians. He also observed the proliferation of right-wing groups such as the Storm Troopers (SA), each with its own symbol and slogan, flooding the language with new acronyms.

Gradually, he realized that the Nazi assault on language went much deeper. He noticed that the Nazis had cunningly borrowed from Christianity, above all the term “belief.” Detaching the word from its religious meaning, they demanded “blind belief” in their conspiracy theories and the lie of the stolen victory. Taking things on faith suddenly was seen as a virtue.

He also saw that the Nazis disguised their most violent acts by using misleading words, such as “concentration camp,” a word borrowed from South Africa, instead of calling them what they were — “death camps.”

But Klemperer’s well-trained ear also detected subtler changes, including a sudden rise in superlatives such as “gigantic,” “great” and “huge.” He even thought the Nazis overused exclamation marks to signal that they held questions in contempt. Klemperer called it “the language of the Third Reich.”

Some of Klemperer’s observations are eerily similar to our own Trumpian time, from the lie of the stolen victory to the right-wing groups involved in the assault on the Capitol and the symbols they displayed — such as MAGA Civil War and Camp Auschwitz shirts and the white-power "OK" hand gesture. Trump’s extensive use of superlatives as well as ALL CAPS tweets with exclamation marks speak (loudly) for themselves!

Even when Klemperer’s analysis isn’t directly applicable, his work is a reminder of the weight words carry. Words can distort realities such as the results of a fair election; change values, causing distrust in media; and warp how we see the world.

Klemperer was expecting to be deported when the end of the war set him free. He stayed in Germany to continue his linguistic analysis. While many Germans seemed to support democracy, their language still betrayed traces of the Nazi assault on language. For instance, they continued to speak of “concentration camps” (or their acronym, “KZ”) and favored superlatives. It had taken decades to establish the language of the Third Reich, and it would take decades to get rid of it.

The process involved establishing the realities of the death camps through the Nuremberg trials, and the complicity of individuals and organizations through the Allied initiative of eradicating Nazi ideology as well as historical research and education. It also involved dialing back the frenzy of Nazi speech by instituting a culture of deliberation. Over time, these changes made Hitler’s screeching voice and the aggressive language of the Nazi era look like remnants of a frenzied past most people were glad to leave behind.

What can we learn from this history? Even more so than 9/11, the Jan. 6 attack will have to be recognized as a major inflection point in the nation’s self-understanding. This means that the threat the attack posed will need to be established through trials of those who were behind the assault — the perpetrators, instigators and funders. The findings of those trials will need to be supplemented by historical research and taught in schools.

At the same time, the language of democracy will need to be shored up, an effort that requires modesty instead of superlatives, evidence instead of blind belief and thoughtful questions instead of exclamation points. Social media makes fostering measured language doubly difficult. President Biden’s team reportedly was unhappy that he would inherit the @POTUS handle but not its millions of followers. But a fresh start, and a calmer style of presidential Twitter, is precisely what we need.

It won’t be enough. Social media companies have often been accused of enabling increased partisanship but the real problem lies elsewhere — their algorithms favor heated engagement over cool thinking. That’s how they ratchet up engagement and advertising dollars, and it is supercharging the assault on language.

Biden is temperamentally suited to setting a new tone, as he demonstrated during his inaugural address. But to more fully shore up the language of democracy, he will also need the courts, journalists and historians. Otherwise the heated slogans behind the Capitol attack could return to haunt his presidency and America’s fragile democracy.

Martin Puchner is a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University. He is the author of “The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.