when words lose their meaning

the Feldherrnhalle where the Bavarian State Police and the Nazis confronted one another

Was going through the papers this morning, and I knew I’d feel it necessary to finally write this today. It’s been festering in my brain for the last few days, and to be honest it’s something I knew I’d eventually be getting round to talking about.

Let’s start with the news today. The German government is threatening not to agree to the next instalment of the Greek bailout if the Greek government doesn’t show that they’ve instituted reforms. The Germans got specific about figures, and even went so far as to demand that so many government workers had to be laid off.

The Greek politician interviewed was incensed, and made noises about sovereignty, which under the circumstances are to be expected. His argument was essentially, ‘Hey, you can’t send EU officials in here that’ll be able to make decisions about the running of the Greek economy.’ It makes a lot of sense what the politician is saying, and the idea of a European bureaucrat running his country is exactly what makes the normal Greek citizen so uncomfortable.

Just the possibility of citizens losing their national sovereignty is one of the things that drives citizens in every EU countryto be a bit nervous if not aggressive. The pictures they see on their television are of German and French leaders getting together and making deals, and the news is always of tighter and tighter austerity.

And the easiest, least creative thing to call the Germans in this situations is a bunch of Nazis. When Germans travel, and people want to ridicule them, the most common curse they hear is ‘You bloody Nazi’. It’s mindless. It’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction to think German=Nazi.

Here’s the sad thing. There are, in fact, some Nazis left. Not the Neo-Nazis that march each February to memorialise the Bombing of Dresden. That’s not who I’m talking about. No, there are living Nazis, and they’re actually rather sad. They’re very old men who either served short prison sentences or avoided doing so by either convincingly arguing they were only following orders or simply blending back into society.

When I think about them, I have to believe that even they know they were on the wrong side of history. They must look around at the swirl of modern life, where people of all colours and creeds live in relative peace, and it must be self-evident that their suppositions and certainties were wrong. Even if it’s not the case, they’re old and brittle and they’ll be gone soon enough.

You could definitely argue the injustice of them being able to live to a ripe old age. I won’t argue with you there, but it’s not at all my point. My point is that the people who today are so casually accused of being Nazis are actually the least deserving of that moniker. They were raised in a society that was shamed and demoralised by the atrocities of the war.

The irony of me even writing about any of this is that I don’t know that much about the National Socialists. Oh, I’m sure I know more than the average person just from living here and visiting the historical sights, but I’m no expert. I’m fascinated with the economical miracle that occurred after the war. I’ve always been drawn to the music and art of the German people.

But the Nazis? Not so much. I understand why it’s important to know about what happened. I do believe that humans continue to be capable of some horrendous things. The thing is when you call a politician who’s trying to save the European currency a Nazi or when you compare the American President to a Nazi…when you do those things, then the meaning of Nazi no longer means anything. It’s just a brainless form of demonisation.

You’re saying more about yourself than you could ever begin to say about those terrible Nazis.



  1. Isn’t all forms of Nazi symbolism illegal in Germany? Which I believe makes it the country with the lowest number of Nazis in the world? If that’s not ironic I don’t know what is.

    On a different note: if it hadn’t been for the previous bank crisis (the Big Depression), the Nazis wouldn’t have managed to grab power in Germany in the first place. In the 1920s, the Nazi party had lost must of its influence thanks to the economic boom, but when the Depression hit America quickly spread across the world it gave Hitler the chance he needed to get people to rally up behind him and his extremist views. Which goes to show how important it is with economic stability.

    1. It’s true. Something people who haven’t been here don’t realise is that Nazi symbols are banned in Germany. Completely illegal.

      But no overt Nazi symbols doesn’t mean there are no Nazis here. There are plenty of old Nazis and Neo-Nazis who wear no obvious symbols, and then there are brands (Helly Hansen, Lonsdale, etc.) and symbols (HH, 88, etc.) that are not very well-hidden signs of modern Nazis.

      Your point about economic stability is an important one. One of the reasons the Germans are so unwilling to accept the ECB printing more money or letting Greece or any other EU country devalue their currency is that they remember the hyper inflation of the 20s and 30s.

      The parallels between that time and ours is eerie and important to keep talking about.

      1. eek!

        i have a helly hansen parka!

        happily it means nothing here – but what if i had come to visit and hadn’t known?

        when i came to berlin to have a migraine surgery i was worried i would say something offensive under anesthetic – i have been rude to people before under it’s influence, and it happened to be remembrance day as well… as it happened, the woman in the next bed was american, and i offended her instead. i asked her how she liked her new president – obama had just been elected, to hysterical happiness in london – and when she said NOT MUCH i totally dismissed whatever she was saying and just brayed on at length about how much we all loved him.

        oh well. she got 100% remission, i got nothing. but at least i didn’t do a john cleese.

  2. As someone who is constantly fascinated by the power words have, that’s what I take away from this – the power of words, and, subsequently, how they can lose their power if used too often (or incorrectly too often, even worse.) Everyone can’t be the Devil. Everyone can’t be a Nazi. Everyone can’t be Hitler. Everyone can’t be Bin Laden. Everyone can’t be a terrorist. When your team loses a game badly, they weren’t “raped” by the other team. By using these buzzwords for everything, they lose the original power they had. Worst of all, the people who abuse these things most egregiously wouldn’t understand a single thing I just wrote. They’re just words to them, not the power behind the words.

    1. That was *exactly* my point Amy.

      The other thing that happens when Nazis are the worst crime imaginable to humanity…it drowns out making mention of any other genocides or atrocities.

  3. One word insults are the result of a lazy mind. Unless you just cut me off in traffic.

    I imagine the survivors that you describe, just can’t believe the lives of their loved ones were wasted, so they still cling to some hope that there was a sliver of a good idea at the core of Hitler’s grand scheme. I would think life would be unbearable otherwise, That is their living prison.

    1. Was that you I cut off in traffic John? That’s not like me, at all.

      You make a very good point about how some of today’s very elderly Germans must see the result of their people’s history. I hate to say it, but the older Germans (many of whom were not officially members of the party) sometimes say that at least Hitler built the Autobahn and that everyone had a job during the National Socialist time.

      History is always far more grey than we want to believe.

      1. And the present times have a lot of grey as well. The frustration I have with politics, whether world or domestic, is with the refusal to see the grey. Everything is either/or.
        Thanks for opening up this topic for discussion.

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