Language not only has the potential to provoke certain images or metaphors, but it also influences ways of thinking and determines the perception of reality. It is an essential element of culture and therefore exercises enormous power to shape every individual, as well as society. Language is therefore not only a construction that shapes reality, but also a means to maintain differences and perpetuate patterns of subjugation (Fanon, 1986). By analyzing whether certain words actually exist in a society, how they are used, and which connotations they have, one can learn a great deal about the peculiarities, clashes, and characteristics of that society.
In the following essay I will intensively investigate the meaning of two German words: “völkisch” (ethnic community) and “Überfremdung” (over-foreignization). Both words are associated with Nazi ideology and are increasingly used in contemporary references to the myth of the threat posed by immigrants, mainly those of Muslim background. I will show the connection between the meaning of the words, the images that are created, and their consequences for political abuse in speech that depicts a clash of civilizations. I will also establish a possible linkage to Hito Steyerl’s “In Defence of the Poor Image,” as I argue that these are “poor words” that should have already been forgotten.
Words create images. Through language, these images are conveyed mostly unconsciously into what a certain society considers as normal, mainstream, morally acceptable or unacceptable. It is especially interesting to see how discourse changes over time and how quasi-banned words can become mainstream by constant repetition. In this context, I came across the discussion on the usage of certain words in German language that for many years have been marginalized to small ultra-right camps as they are associated with Nazi Germany. Lately, these “poor words” — words that were used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes to create racial hierarchies — are reappearing in broader public discourse promoted by the far-right German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and movements like PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”), a German political movement that is anti-Islam and wants to curb immigration. Former AfD chairwomen Frauke Petry, for example, announced last year that she found it necessary to revive the term “völkisch” (ethnic), as it would be associated with the word ‘Volk’ (people).
Other words like “Überfremdung,” a term especially popular with the PEGIDA movement, have already entered political discourse and are used even by moderate politicians without being put in quotation marks. The German Language Society (GfdS) argues that, even though many of these terms date back to earlier centuries, they are mostly popular in Nazi-context and describe “chauvinist, racist and demagogic intentions” (Fink, 2016). Cassirer (1973) analyzed three potential techniques that enabled the myth of Nazism: the magical use of words, the use of rituals and, finally, the recourse to prophecy. Nazi politicians managed to charge words with feelings and violent passions, therefore transforming their semantic meaning to convey magical imagery.
Thus, when we are talking about “völkisch” or “Überfremdung,” we are automatically producing images that are inevitaby linked to a fascist past. “Überfremdung” describes the fear of being flooded with foreigners, a foreign infiltration. The Duden dictionary explained the term in 1934 as “the intrusion of alien races.” During the Nazi-regime the defense against “Überfremdung” through Jews and other foreigners was one of the main aims. “Völkisch” is not the equivalent adjective to the noun “Volk” (people), but it derives its meaning from the suffix –isch (Indo-Germanic: –isk; theodisk — belonging to a people). The word was used to point to distinctions and was assigned the concrete designation of “Germanic people.” Both terms are clearly exclusive. “Völkisch” and “Überfremdung” mainly refer to race and characteristics that define a people by rather ethnic and cultural homogeneity than by considering liberal and tolerant ideas of multicultural nations. Hence, it is not only questionable, but extremely dangerous to redefine and rehabilitate words that can provoke these kind of exclusive imagery, injecting them back into the mainstream. This is especially important, as this language was thought to have been subdued in German post-World War II discourse (with the exception of some marginalized neo-Nazi groups and ultra-right groups).
What is concerning about these “poor words” in the first place is the imagery inherent to them, one that conveys fascism without speaking it. Such words are racist in establishing a hierarchy of ethnicity and, in that way, they have the potential to createm or exacerbate, false divisions between and within societies. The word “völkisch” creates a sense of belonging, an imaginal feature to help distinguish between the in-group and the out-group. The word “Überfremdung” works similarly by implying that there is an abundance of strangers invading the ‘German race.’ What seems to have changed, however, is the definition of the out-group or the enemy. Promoted by PEGIDA and the AfD, the new threat are Muslim immigrants and the idea of the “Islamization” of the Western culture. Thus, this becomes a powerful example for the political myth of the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
The myth of the clash of civilizations might be one of the most powerful modern myths of the late twentieth century, one that itself rehabilitates older forms of discriminationand terror. As proposed by Samuel P. Huntington in 1990s, the idea of clashing civilizations promoted a powerful narrative that has to power to shape reality. Therefore, by now this idea is not only a scientific theory, but reaches beyond that and into the collective psyche. Especially with the threat of terrorism, the myth of the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West developed into a powerful worldview that influences the way we perceive reality (Bottici & Challand, 2010). By the use of Nazi terms in the general public discourse, the idea of a superior “German Volk” in contrast to Muslim immigrants as a threat, is promoted in accordance to the political myth of the clash of civilizations and serves as a significant narrative for particular movements. The images that are created by these “poor words” are a call to reject everything that does not belong to one’s own people, in the current situation especially refugees and more generally Muslims. The words create a myth of purity and establish a feeling of fear that too many strangers could change the usual order, bringing different religion, language, and customs.
What is surprising and distressing is that this imagery, which is linked to regression and to totalitarian systems, is now used in a liberal democracy in order to defend modern liberal values. Cassirer (1973), who analyzed the Nazi myth of the Aryan race starting from the presupposition of Enlightenment, established this idea of the political myth as a form of regression. According to him, the myth of the Aryan race is a political myth that is used as a mean for domination. “Überfremdung” and “völkisch,” constitute a form of regression, in a modern society that has apparently not undermined the role of myths making sense of the world.
However, followers of PEGIDA and similar movements paradoxically use these terms, typically associated with this myth of race, to actually defend democracy and liberal values. They are not only re-using the old fascist myth against new Muslim enemies, but they simultaneously re-frame the myth as a form of liberation of democratic, liberal values against the threat of “Islamization,” with Islam usually perceived as a misogynist, fundamentalist and violent ideology. The shifting usage of language, therefore, pinpoints the role of political motives in spicing up the elements of a clash of civilizations. The myth of the clash of civilizations has become a cognitive scheme and politicians, by demanding a revision of the definition of such words, use this scheme to fuel the fear of the citizens. These politicians draw a picture of a situation in which the supposed “traditional” culture and values are threatened by this overflow of newcomers. They exaggerate the confrontation of different cultures but they do not provide realist overall approaches to make society more inclusive. Instead, they strive to rehabilitate long-banned words and imagery.
When we deal with these Nazi-terms that have been taboo during a certain period of time, we come across a “protectionist arena of national culture” (Steyerl, 2009) as the words have been banned from commercial circulation. The words have become poor images, or “poor words” because their status is illicit, they are no longer considered appropriate. Now, many of these words are back. Poor words regain value along the axis of visibility, meaning that high velocity and intensity of the media and social networks are the driving factor for creating more popularity for such words. Also, the possibility of worldwide distribution offers opportunity of participation and gives everybody the possibility to redistribute them and thus, to gradually change language. Especially when Nazi-words undergo this gradual change and somehow become mainstream in the use of language, this is a highly concerning phenomenon. “Hate speech, spam, and other rubbish make their way through digital connections” (Steyerl, 2009). In this environment, terms like “völkisch” or “Überfremdung” became particularly popular and can be often found in hateful comments and defamations. New platforms were created for people who share opinions and support each other in their perceptions of the world, networks also became a battleground for national agendas. “The poor image thus constructs anonymous global networks just as it creates a shared history. It builds alliances as it travels, provokes translation or mistranslation, and creates new publics and debates. By losing its visual substance it recovers some of its political punch and creates a new aura around it.” (Steyerl, 2009).
It is therefore even more concerning, that “poor words” and images are once again changing the use of language of many Germans. Not only politicians and traditional media channels, but social media haven taken on these words and are now reproducing them almost naturally, without questioning. And even if the words are critically challenged by many authors, by bringing the words into the discussion and talking about them, in a way, they still reproduce and spread them. Therefore, even critical comments unconsciously contribute to a mainstreaming effect of such usage of language. Furthermore, technology and the new media contribute immensely to the spread with high intensity and velocity.
Similarly, the “poor words” have made their way out of peripheral online platforms and into mainstream discourse. Used regularly in media, and by politicians, they spread quickly and become normalized. Their resurrection is more than worrying. Such words that convey images of domination, racial and ethnic discrimination, and feelings of nationalist superiority; they trigger neurosis, paranoia and angst. Thus, by spreading these images many of the words are conveyed mostly unconsciously into what society accept as normal. This gradual process might take place slowly and mostly unnoticed but is therefore not less concerning — but more so.
Bottici, Chiara (2009): “Philosophies of Political Myth, a Comparative Look Backwards; Cassirer, Sorel and Spinoza,” European Journal of Political Theory 8(3): 365–382.
Bottici, Chiara and Challand, Benoit (2010): The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations, London: Routledge.
Cassirer, Ernst (1973): The Myth of the State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Fanon, Frantz (1986): Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Pluto Press.
Fink, Anke (2016, October 16): “Die Sprache der Nazis kehrt schleichend zurück”, rbb|24, (9.6.2017).
Huntington, Samuel (1996): The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Steyerl, Hito (2009): “In defence of the poor image”, e-flux (10), (9.6.2017).