Title: Between Control, Reification, and Discursive Contestation. The Politico-Cultural Conflicts over Germanness and Jewishness in Germany, 1928-1948
Name: Thomas Pegelow Kaplan
Department of History
Davidson College
P.O. Box 7009
Davidson, NC 28035-7009
Ph: (001) 704-894-2284
Fax: (001) 704-894-2071
Year: 2003
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: My research project analyzed official government policies to change the language Germans used to write and speak about what it meant to be Jewish and German during the late Weimar, Nazi, and early postwar periods. We have learned in great detail about the political violence of the Nazi party’s SA in the Weimar Republic, the Hitler regime’s brutalities against political enemies and racialized opponents in the 1930s, and the SS and police’s genocidal violence against the European Jews during the Second World War. My project shifted the focus to violence inflicted via language and discourse and asked how these factors preceded, accompanied, and made possible physical violence against racialized minorities in Germany and Central Europe. My study connected language to the everyday life, reading practices, and, ultimately, the survival strategies of German Jews, Jewish converts to Christianity, and people whom the Nazis termed “Mischlinge.”

In my research, I discovered that only by analyzing the language of genocide can one comprehend how the perpetrators constructed their imagined enemy. Beyond my exploration of the Nazi linguistic creation of difference, race, and the enemy, I investigated how official Nazi agencies communicated these constructions to the public via the nation’s press. Perhaps most importantly, my study demonstrated how Germans with Jewish forbearers, the very group Nazis sought to alienate and ultimately murder, both received and actively responded to the linguistic violence in their struggle.

My project introduced the concept of “discursive contestation” to capture and analyzed the private writings and public statements by Germans of Jewish ancestry to defy racial categories imposed on them by official discourse. These members of state-targeted minorities intervened by pointing to semantic contradictions of Nazi terminology, and sought shifts in the boundaries between Germanness and Jewishness in the hope of escaping persecution. Anything but passive victims of state-organized violence, German Jews, converts, and “Mischlinge” actively engaged in a struggle for their survival and sense of self against the Nazi onslaught.

By focusing on the language of genocide, I investigated the process of conceptual separation between groups of people, the means by which social aggression is disseminated, and the responses of victims to the onslaught. By working on a methodological level of discourse analysis and focusing on a empirical study of Weimar, Nazi, and early postwar Germany, I advanced a model which may be used to study other instances linguistic violence, hate speech, and genocide in the modern world.

Bibliography: Kaplan, Thomas P. The Language of Nazi Genocide. Cambridge University Press (Forthcoming 2009)