Linguistic traces of totalitarianism in Germany’s Red Army Faction: from Stalin’s Soviet Language Policy to National-Socialism.

By Léa Carresse

On the night of 18 October 1977, the remaining three key members of the first generation of the Red Army Faction died in mysterious circumstances in Stammheim prison. Another member barely survived severe stab wounds. Immediately following what became infamously known as the “death night” in West German history, the second generation of the Red Army Faction executed their hostage, Hanns Martin Schleyer, a prominent German business executive and former rabid SS officer. This marked the climax of the “German Autumn”, a series of attacks led by the Red Army Faction in 1977.

What was the Red Army Faction, better (and incorrectly) known as the Baader-Meinhof Group? In the words of Gudrun Ensslin, founder of the self-proclaimed urban guerrilla group, and among the dead on the night of 18 October 1977, the RAF embodied the expression of “the awareness of a duty of resistance in the Federal Republic [of Germany]”. Those words may seem incongruous to most readers, often brought up to see the former West German government as a shining example of democracy post-1945. And yet, it is easily argued that this was far from the truth. The FRG was filled with ex-high-ranking Nazi officials at the top of the system, many of whom would never face trial, and many more whose past would be swiftly forgotten.

A wanted poster containing details on prominent RAF members

Uncritical support of American policies by the government – such as the Vietnam war – also prompted a crisis within parts of the FRG population. In addition, the FRG had few qualms in using its monopoly of violence, exerted through police brutality and media companies such as Axel Springer, whose most well-known victims were Benno Ohnesorg and Rudi Dutschke. This existence of a form of repression triggered the creation of many underground left-wing groups who advocated for theories of self-defence and resistance. The RAF, possibly the bloodiest of these groups, saw themselves as leading the “compensatory resistance”, as Hans Kundnani so well phrased it, that their parents, fervent Nazis or passive bystanders between 1933-1945, failed to undertake. Led by two women, Gudrun Ensslin, a PhD student, and Ulrike Meinhof, a well-known intellectual and journalist, and motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the RAF fought against what they saw as the imperialist, capitalist and neo-fascist order in the FRG.

It is a popular view in academia and the mass media that one of the fundamental inconsistencies of the Red Army Faction was its authoritarian system, despite its pretensions of overthrowing capitalist society and establishing anti-authoritarian structures in its place. That view, if true, is certainly reflected in the language of the many tracts that the RAF produced within the three generations that it spawned. The various tracts – and even prison letters – of the urban guerrilla fighters are filled with conscious and potentially subconscious borrowings from Soviet language, and by extension, from GDR language, as well as, more chillingly, National-Socialist language.

Borrowings from both GDR and National-Socialist discourse would hardly be surprising. Ulrike Meinhof had been a member of the illegal KPD, establishing contacts with the Stasi in 1970, and the GDR had become a safe hub for RAF members fleeing West German imprisonment until reunification, taking in for example Susanne Albrecht, who assassinated family friend and Dresdner bank chairman Jürgen Ponto. As for the presence of National-Socialist discourse, it seems that the crushing weight of intergenerational guilt haunting the RAF unfortunately and ironically translated into the reproduction of linguistic patterns that the group would have otherwise done its best to avoid. Alternatively, the similarities with Nazi discourse can be seen as a logical consequence of using Soviet/GDR discourse, if it is possible to lump Soviet and GDR discourse into similar categories.

Ensslin’s, Raspe’s and Baader’s burial in 1977. Activists hold a banner stating “Gudrun + Andreas + Jan tortured and murdered”

But what is Soviet discourse, and how could it be extended to GDR discourse? And is there such a thing as Nazi language? It would appear too Orwellian to think of a language specifically created to shape the psyche of a whole population, or, in the case of the USSR, whole populations. And yet, special “Nazi dictionaries” have been published, chock-full of the various (invented) terms acquiring particular or new definitions under National-Socialism, from the infamous “Endlösung” (Final Solution) to “Julfest”, as used in adoring letters addressed to Hitler, better known as “Weihnachten” in today’s Germany, or Christmas, in English.

One would also have to take into account various linguistic effects of Nazi discourse, whether that be through the frequent use of superlatives and a tendency to use infinitive constructions in the place of modal verbs, or a form of “ideologizing” language through the adding of pejorative prefixes to adjectives (“undeutsch” literally “unGerman”, meaning foreign, or “nichtarisch”, “Non-aryan”).

Soviet discourse appears to be more complex and harder to define. Stalin dreamt of a common socialist lingua franca once the proletariat would rule the world, and with the creation of the USSR came about a whole new lexicon, whether that came about through redefining Russian words (for example “tovarishch”, which once meant co-worker in tsarist Russia, became the well-known term “comrade” across the USSR), or the invention of words such as “profsoiuz” (“professional union”). More relevant perhaps are the (disputed) differences between East German and West German discourses, with East German discourse described as “Sowjetdeutsch” by the FRG, a deviant of the standard German that the West Germans held claim to.

This “Soviet German” consisted mostly in the creation and redefinition of terms to reflect Marxist-Leninist ideology, such as “Staatsrat” (State council) or “Produktionsgenossenschaft” (agricultural cooperative – notice the use of the word “Genosse”, which is the German translation of the Soviet term “comrade”). GDR discourse was also marked by a certain stiffness and pedantic use of language, as primarily shown through SED General Secretary Erich Honecker’s speech for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Of course, one might have to bear in mind that these potential differences between GDR and FRG discourses might form part of the divisive myth of the GDR as being “other” to the FRG, deviant and degenerate, in desperate need of Western assimilation, rather than simply another part of the German nation under a different regime.

So how is this reflected in RAF tracts? Because Soviet and GDR discourse seems primarily based on lexicon, similarities established between both can be seen mostly in terms of vocabulary which reflect the same broad themes. Most striking is the consistent use of the term “Genosse”.  The only difference here would be that traditionally in Sovet and GDR discourse, the term “Genosse” would refer to fellow Marxist-Leninists or at least, fellow USSR citizens. In RAF tracts, “Genosse” acquires a far more ambiguous meaning in that it is also designated for RAF traitors, so that in their April 1971 tract, the RAF denounces the “viele Genossen…” that “verbreiten Unwahrheiten über uns.”[1]

Schleyer held hostage by the Siegfried Hausner Commando in 1977

Of course, a key feature of both RAF and GDR discourses is the integration and frequent use of Marxist-Leninist terms within the language, which includes terms such as “antifaschismus” and other nouns ending with the suffix “-smus” pertaining to both the chosen and enemy political ideologies, such as “Imperialismus”, “Chauvinismus”, “Militarismus”, “Sozialismus”. However, where GDR official discourse is arguably monolithic, painstakingly attached to its Marxist terms and formality, RAF discourse is fluid and lively, fluctuating from the aggressively provocative, almost vulgar to the highly academic or literary, or blending both, creating a highly original form of language.

Where RAF discourse is more similar to Soviet than GDR discourse, particularly in terms of early Soviet propaganda,  is in the use of rhetorical devices to attract the reader’s attention: slogans (“Sieg im Volkskrieg!”,[2] written at the end of an April 1971 tract); informality (both the RAF and early Soviet/Mayakovsky propaganda posters and advertisements use the informal second-person plural, instead of the formal plural pronoun use); and the use of linguistic caricature . Linguistic caricature would take the form of repetitive verbal abuse with which the RAF targets the State or passive by-standers, who are termed as “Schweine”,[3] “Superschwein”,[4] or “Hosenscheißer”,[5] where a same noun or adjective is often used to qualify the same person or institution in question, as though it is their only defining trait.

What about Nazi discourse? First of all, similarities between Nazi and GDR discourses are not uncommon, in the excessive use of superlatives for example, such as “heroisch”[6] or “episch”,[7] or in the constant impression that the GDR is in constant struggle/at war, with the use of “kämpfen”[8] and its variations. However, in RAF tracts, one could say that the similarities to Nazi discourse are primarily present in the linguistic dehumanization of the enemy, as well as in the construction of an oppositional, “you are either with us or against us”, discourse.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf infamously uses medical terminology to metaphorically designate the Jews as germs and parasites. While the RAF does not go to such lengths, it similarly denies the humanity of its enemies.Meinhof’s famous 1970 Spiegel article states: “Wir sagen, der Typ in Uniform ist ein Schwein, das ist kein Mensch […] und natürlich kann geschossen warden”. [9] The RAF borrowed the pig terminology to designate the police from the Black Panther Party, a major influence on the group. As for the oppositional discourse, this is present in National-Socialism through a multiplicity of ways; one example would be the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” to signify one’s allegiance to the Party.

Ensslin and Raspe in Stammheim

Of course, the invention of such terms as “undeutsch” also serve to reinforce the binary between who is considered of Aryan race as who isn’t, and therefore, who ought to be eliminated. In RAF discourse, this is clearly outlined in Holger Meins’s last letter where he pens “Entweder Schwein oder Mensch…Entweder Problem oder Lösung/Dazwischen gibt es nichts,”[10] as well as through the Mao quotes peppering the tracts, insisting on drawing the line against the enemy, what Ensslin describes in her prison letters as a “Trennungsstrich”, or a dividing line.

Finally, could there be a tie between both Soviet and National-Socialist traditions in RAF culture, so to speak, through the presence of the cult of personality present in all three? It is well-known that Stalin and Hitler invited adulation through all forms of propaganda. The RAF’s own kind of cult of personality could be interpreted in the given names of the commandos, usually the names and dates of death of fallen members, such as the commando Petra Schelm/15th July commando (the date at which 20 year-old RAF member Petra Schelm  was killed in a police shooting), the Holger Meins commando (who died in a hunger strike, protesting against deplorable incarceration conditions), and, more tellingly, the Ulrike Meinhof commando, after Meinhof’s death in mysterious and controversial circumstances.

Meinhof acquires a mythical, cult-like status in the April 1977 tract justifying Attorney General and former fervent Nazi Siegfried Buback’s assassination. This might firstly be shown through the use of her first name, Ulrike, rather than the last name Meinhof, used by the government in naming the RAF the “Baader-Meinhof Gruppe.”[11] This refusal to use Meinhof’s last name could therefore be interpreted as refusing to play into official discourse, in addition to “humanizing” Meinhof, so to speak, especially in the face of the “pigs” that are the State and the police. Meinhof also repeatedly appears as the sentence subject, such as “Ulrikes Zeugenvernehmung,”[12] “Ulrikes Geschichte”[13] or “Ihr Tod”[14]”. Verbs such as “verkörpert”[15], or the modal verb “sollte”,[16] demonstrate the symbolic force that the second RAF generation lends to Meinhof.

The 40th anniversary of the Stammheim “death night” combined with a reflection on traces of totalitarianism in structures and systems that claim the values of freedom, justice and equality for themselves – whether that be the FRG or the RAF, or any other state, government or group – is an interesting reminder that those in power, or those that claim power for themselves, may seldom follow through with the ideals they promulgate. It also provides an interrogation as to what resistance, revolt and revolution mean, and if it is possible to achieve ideological purity when leading resistance activities.

Though some of those apparent linguistic elements contradict the RAF’s ideology, as well as general left-wing ideology, particularly where Nazi discourse is concerned, aspects of RAF discourse still seems to live on in German left-wing circles, as evidenced for example by tweets and tracts produced by the #NoG20 movement in June of this year, or in anarchist graffiti on Neukölln streets. Such remnants testify to the enduring cultural influence of the RAF.

Léa Carresse is a French-American graduate of Oxford University (BA German and Russian, 2016). She recently delivered a paper on the linguistic analysis of Gudrun Ensslin’s prison letters to the Women in German Studies Conference at Oxford in June 2017, and was also part of a panel at an academic conference in Cambridge in May 2017. In this panel, she discussed the relevance of 1968 in Germany with several of Rudi Dutschke’s contemporaries. She is now a law student at McGill University, and intends to write a PhD on the linguistic aspects of the RAF after completing her degree.


[1] “Many comrades…spread lies about us”.

[2] “Victory in the people’s war!”.

[3] “Pigs”.

[4] “Super pig”.

[5] “coward”, literally: “someone who shits their trousers”.

[6] “heroic”.

[7] “epic”.

[8] “to fight”.

[9] “We say that the chap in a uniform is a pig, that it’s not a human being […] and so of course you can shoot.”

[10] “Either a pig or a human being…either a problem or the solution/There’s no in between”.

[11] “Baader-Meinhof Group”.

[12] “Ulrike’s witness examination”.

[13] “Ulrike’s story”. “Geschichte” also means “history” in German, so the word by extension may point to some sort of legend that Meinhof is/represents.

[14] “Her death”.

[15] “embodies”.

[16] “shall”.


A Bulwark Made of Words: the Francoist Press during the Second World War

By Miguel Rivas Venegas

In the opinion of Sir Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador in Spain, the Spanish press from the 1940s was a toy in the hands of the Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Newspapers were full of terminology described by the researcher Luis Veres as the ‘lexical arsenals’ of authoritarian regimes, and were as Hoare underlined, ‘literally illegible’.[1] The American ambassador, Alexander Weddel, who would accuse the Home Minister, Ramón Serrano Suñer, of organizing a propaganda campaign coordinated by Nazi agitators, shared the opinion of the British diplomat in Spain.

According to Weddel, the German Press Attaché was indeed behind many of the articles and editorials of the Falangist newspaper Arriba, which were ‘clearly translated from another language’. Stanley Payne also discussed translations in reference to the early fascist newspaper El Fascio,[2] promoted by the J.O.N.S member,[3] José María Alfaro, close collaborator of the German Press Attaché Hans Lazar.[4]  Research on Jonsist language reveals possible translations and adaptations of the ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’ within the language and rhetoric of Spanish Jonsists, Falangists and Francoist propagandists of the late 1930s and 1940s.[5]

Report in Spanish newspaper, ABC, on Hitler’s activities in Berlin. Source: ABC (Sevilla), 9/4/1943

The enormous power of journalists and Spanish correspondents in Germany under the command of Hans Lazar, as well as the influence of the media in general should not be underestimated. As Weddel would claim, a systematic, coordinated press could be enough to drag the exhausted masses of Spain into a ‘new battle of the same war’ –asserted Franco– against the enemies of the Fatherland.

Spain was represented by the Spanish Caudillo, German propaganda, and General Moscardó (who was in charge of the Deutsch-Spanische Geschellschaft),[6] as the first front of the crusade against bolshevism and its ‘allies’. The press should be, as Home Secretary Serrano Suñer claimed in 1940, ‘Military column, militia, and fundamental backup to the State’.[7] As stated in one Diario Norte article signed by the National-Socialist press agency Arco-SPES, the journalist should become a soldier,[8] and get rid of his civilian clothes. Discipline under a strict chain of command included linguistic discipline:[9] dilettantes or propagandistic improvisation could be more dangerous than enemy counter-propaganda. Arsenals of words, or, ‘purr’ and ‘snarl words’, as Hayakawa would categorize certain political vocabulary,[10] should be cautiously and meticulously chosen.

The so-called ‘New Spain’ needed its journalists on the front lines of combat. Germany would be the best example of the strong power of persuasion of media under a rigid, sophisticated and, according to General Director of Propaganda Dionisio Ridruejo, ‘perverse’ control of the State.[11] Spanish news correspondents were positioned in many European countries, another one of the Generals’ weapons since the First World War.[12]

At first glance, Spanish newspapers showed not only a non-belligerent attitude towards the political and imperialistic aspirations of the Axis, but clear support of their propaganda and propagandistic language. Information relating to Japanese expansionism presented to Spanish readers in the newspaper ABC was similar to the allusions that appeared in Arriba or Levante, in which German imperialism and the offensive against Poland was described as a ‘vital necessity’, clearly supporting the hitlerian principle of Lebensraum. According to these newspapers, the egoism, incompetence, and lack of empathy of the so-called decadent democracies provoked the German reaction and made any pacific solution to the conflict impossible. The newspaper El Norte de Castilla would affirm that German troops were obligated to penetrate the Polish territory, as the Poles rejected any pacific alternative.[13]

The Falangist daily, Arriba, delivers Hitler’s speeches to a Spanish audience. Source: Arriba, 31/1/1941

Germany was pictured as a proud nation reacting to the constant provocations and warlike offenses of those ‘false democracies’ that according to Franco ‘did not want peace in Spain’. [14] Salvador Merino, Head of the Falangist Trade Unions, would talk about an ‘obliged war’, a defensive war, of Germany against its offenders. The opinion of the prominent Falangist appears in the Pueblo newspaper right after one of his ‘formative trips’ to National-Socialist Germany.[15] According to his own description of these visits, he contacted prominent Nazi leaders and studied (and in many senses reproduced) the structure of the German Labour Front.

The same subjective, laconic, imprecise and propagandistic description can be found in El Alcázar referring to the German offensive in Norway.[16] The position of certain Catholic newspapers towards Nazi racial measures in occupied territories can be easily perceived in the pages of El correo de Andalucía. They exhale the same anti-Semitism found in the pages of Onesimo Redondo´s Libertad:

‘When going down Nawrek Street the citizen formation decreases and changes, turning, degenerating into filthy residences corresponding to the Jewish suburbs. Even the three-floor buildings look nauseating and disgusting. The “doroskas” stroll around streets full of dirty and ragged kids. The Jewish caftan stands out over any other clothing and the beards are legion as the fear of an epidemic disease’.[17]

The Spanish press commonly pointed towards ‘British egoism’, which was described constantly in ABC. The origin of the Japanese occupations was, according to this newspaper, an ‘obliged’ defence against the British manoeuvres:

The fight of Japan against the Anglo-Saxon powers is a transposition of the social war on the international scene (…) the Japanese archipelago is too small for it’s almost one hundred million inhabitants (…) if the Anglo-Saxons would have understood the vital necessities of the Japanese people, the actual conflict could have been avoided.[18]

The first Press Office Director and member of the Office of Press and Propaganda, journalist, and correspondent Luis Antonio Bolín considered, at the beginning of the conflict, that the war should be won by force of arms. Maybe his early contacts with non-Spanish journalists and propagandists in Salamanca changed his mind. Propaganda and the press were, as Bernays claimed in 1928,[19] a fundamental tool in modern times. Weapons were not enough. A bulwark of words, also serving the propagandistic goals of National-socialist propaganda in Spain, was successfully built in the newly-born ‘España Nacional’.

Miguel Rivas Venegas is a second year PhD student in the deparment of Art History and Theory of the Autónoma University (UAM) in Madrid, where he forms part of the research group  ‘Artistic and Audiovisual Cultures in the Contemporary World’. Miguel currently lives in Berlin, where he has spent time as a scholar at the Humboldt University. His PhD research investigates the similarities and differences between the totalitarian language of Nazi Germany, and that of Francoist Spain. 

[1] Ingrid Schulze Schneider, ‘Éxitos y fracasos de la propaganda alemana en España: 1939-1944’. Melanges de la Casa de Velázquez 31-3, (1995), pp. 197-217.

[2] Stanley Payne, Falange. A History of Spanish Fascism (Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 31.

[3] The Juntas Ofensivas Nacional Sindicalistas was the first relevant political movement in Spain.

[4] Schulze Schneider, ‘Éxitos y fracasos’, p. 200.

[5] The German philologist Viktor Klemperer defined the particular use of language and rhetoric of the Third Reich as “Lingua Tertii Imperii”. See Viktor Klemperer, LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen (Berlin, Aufbau,1947).

[6] Speech by General Moscardó, president of the German-Spanish Society- Quoted in El Alcázar, 6 August 1941.

[7] Speech by Serrano Suñer to the journalists of Valencia. As quoted in Informaciones, 24th April,1940.

[8] ‘La prensa en la guerra’ Norte. Diario de Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las J.O.N.S., 27th February 1940.

[9] The propagandistic possibilities of the press, particularly during armed conflicts, had been obvious to German propagandists since the First World War. For more information, see Almut Lindner-Wirsching,‘Patrioten im Pool. Deutsche und französische Kriegsberichtestatter im Ersten Weltkrieg‘ in Ute, D. (Ed.) Augenzeugen. Kriegsberichterstattung von 18. Zum 21. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 2006).

[10] S. I. Hayakawa, Language in thought and action (Orlando, A Harvest/ HBJ Original, 1990 [1939]).

[11] Francisco Sevillano Calero, ‘La estructura de la prensa diaria en España durante el franquismo” Investigaciones históricas: Época moderna y contemporánea, ISSN 0210-9425, Nº 17, 1997, p. 316.

[12] Reinhard Stauber, ‘War and public Sphere. European examples from the Seven Years´ War to the World War I.’ in Seethaler, J., Karmasin, M., et al., Selling war. The role of Mass Media in Hostile Conflicts. From World War I to the “War on Terror”. p. 28.

[13] Appeared in the newspaper El Norte de Castilla. Quoted in Virginia Martín Jiménez, ‘La prensa vallisoletana ante el final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial’, in Pena, Alberto (ed.), Comunicación y guerra en la historia, pp. 343-344.

[14] Paul Preston, Franco (1995), p. 415.

[15] ‘La estancia del Delegado Nacional de Sindicatos en Alemania’. Appeared in Pueblo. Diario del trabajo nacional. 5th of May,1941.

[16] The Carlist newspaper would briefly refer to that 1 September ‘in which the democratic powers declared war on the Third Reich (…) on the triumphal Germany (…) that possessed the moral of victory’. In ‘En vísperas de las grandes batallas’, El Alcázar, 10 May 1940.

[17] ‘La paz  no depende de Alemania’, El correo de Andalucía, 11 October 1939.

[18] ‘Los japoneses han ocupado la capital de Tailandia.’ ABC, 10 December 1941.

[19] Edward Bernays, Propaganda. (Brooklyn, 2005 [1928]), p. 54.

Max Nordau’s pre-Fascist Discourse of ‘Degenerate’ Art and the Authority of Scientific Language

by Charlotte Armstrong

The notion of ‘degeneracy’ in music has often been associated with Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party’s attempts to galvanise public hatred of music deemed ‘un-German’ at the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938. However, in an interview for the documentary Forbidden Sounds: Composers in Exile, Hans Ulrich Engelmann said:

‘It is not Hitler’s or Goebbels’ fault that after 1945 the appreciation of contemporary music did not increase much […] the word ‘degenerate’ is still used by the older generation, especially in Germany. But I must emphasize, we don’t get much further if we believe that it is purely a legacy of the Nazis. The Nazis simply picked up on it.’[1]

Indeed, whilst the classification of certain art as ‘degenerate’ is almost exclusively associated with the Third Reich, discourses of degeneration in fact emerged within mid-19th century scientific contexts, and were translated into artistic critique as early as the 1890s. Such discourses  condemned artists and artworks deemed to pose a threat to ‘healthy’ aspects of society, due in part to the contamination of the artist by negative aspects of modernity.

Perhaps the most influential of these works was written by the physician Max Nordau in 1892. Degeneration, or ‘Entartung’, ­drew its conclusions on degeneracy in the arts from the

Max Nordau. Source: Wikicommons

bio-medical foundations of degeneration theory, and utilised the language of science and medicine to associate certain artworks with the idea of ‘sickness’.

As a physician, Nordau believed that it was his duty to undertake the ‘long and sorrowful wandering through the hospital’ of European culture, and to diagnose the ‘severe mental epidemic’ of the contemporary arts.[2] Suggesting that ‘we now stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’, he lamented that civilised society was growing ‘fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria’.[3]

For those who theorised artistic degeneration, the legitimacy of medical expertise enabled them to make claims about society that were crafted from medical language. By adopting the biological language of disease, Nordau was able to harness the authority of science in his attempt to prove that the cultural avant-garde was an atavistic and regressive influence on the masses.

During the nineteenth century, doctors were regarded as forward-thinking men of reason and science, and were characterised by their specialised knowledge and commitment to serving others. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept a scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians became accustomed to methodically describing diseases, thus developing an esoteric medical language which was utilised and shared amongst other doctors to classify and treat disease. The development of complex medical language began to elude patients, thus placing the doctor in a position of power

Poster for the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition, Dusseldorf, 1938. Source: Wikicommons (Reproduced under the Fair Use Rational for the purposes of critical commentary)

and trust.

Foucault has considered the doctors’ associated power of ‘governance’ over their patients.[4] The innate authority of doctors helps to explain Nordau’s use of medical terminology: his reliance upon the works of notable exponents of socio-biological degeneration theory highlights his attempts to measure subjective, artistic value by using an objective, scientific paradigm. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

Degeneration warns against the infectiousness of degenerate art and literature, but for the author, music is perhaps the most noxious of all. The distinct approach to artistic criticism conceived by Nordau in his Entartung became increasingly adopted in music criticism following the publication of the work.

In 1912, the Austrian composer and conductor Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again’.[5]

The notion of degeneracy had begun to appear in German music criticism from the closing years of the 19th century, and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to

Richard Wagner. Source: Wikicommons

the Second World War. The fact that musical ‘sickness’ became an increasingly popular concept around this time was due – at least in part – to the influence of works that engaged with the concepts of decadent and degenerate art.

Alongside the growing prevalence of ideas about the dangers of ‘diseased’ music, the insidious nature of Nordau’s rhetoric is evidenced in the adoption of the notion of degenerate art by the Nazis.

The Nazi Party would not acknowledge Nordau, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage and his role as a Zionist activist, or even conceivably because of his derision of Wagner and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the value they awarded to German artworks that celebrated the ‘blood and soil’ ideology echoed Nordau’s derision of late 19th-century decadent culture. It certainly seems likely that, as Richard Taruskin wittily imagines, ‘many copies of Dr Nordau’s Entartung must have fed Dr Goebbels’s bonfires even as the book’s theses were being oh-so-selectively appropriated to fuel the latter’s propaganda mill’.[6]

Charlotte Armstrong is a PhD student in the Department of Music at the University of York. Her research takes place at the intersection between opera studies, disability studies, and the history of science and medicine. In her thesis she considers early-twentieth-century discourses of disability, disease, and degeneration, and their relationship to the presence of a ‘degenerate condition’ in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with a particular focus on the representation of physical disability in these operas. You can find her on Twitter: @CharlotteArms


[1] Verbotene KLÄNGE: Komponisten im Exil, directed by Norbert Bunge and Christina Fischer-Defoy (Vienna: Winklerfilm, 2004), DVD.

[2] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 537-538.

[3] Nordau, Degeneration, 40.

[4] See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 159-198 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2003), 8-9.

[5] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsatze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, “Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival” in On Mozart, ed. James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 204.

[6] Richard Taruskin, ‘The Golden Age of Kitsch’ in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, ed. Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 243.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: via Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under fair use rationale

Image 3: Franz Hanfstaengl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

History Matters: ‘On the Language of “Authoritarian” Regimes’

Written by Hannah Parker, this post originally appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog on February 25, 2016

On February 12 2016, Steph Wright (who works on disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War) and I held a conference on ‘The Language of Authoritarian Regimes’. The day aimed to explore the creation, dissemination and reception of discourse in regimes commonly considered to be ‘authoritarian’ from an interdisciplinary perspective; to discuss how to effectively analyse discourse through a range of different sources; and to understand any broad parallels that can be drawn between different regimes. 1

The speakers addressed a fascinating range of topics, covering Soviet literacy campaigns and the texts of Soviet citizens; the ‘emancipation’ of Tunisian women to create a modernised national identity; personal naming and mental health discourse in Franco’s Spain; music and ballet in the Soviet Union; Nazi language in the context of historical discourse analysis; and the translation of foreign texts for Soviet citizens.

Though there was clearly much ideological variation between the different regimes discussed, many of the processes occurring within these societies were in fact very similar, and so I’ve taken the liberty of articulating some of my own, quite general observations. The workshop originated in an interest Steph and I share in the ways citizens negotiated and shaped the discourses of gender and citizenship they were presented in our respective research fields. I was aware, based upon my own research into Russian women’s self-perceptions and social roles, of the degree of ‘negotiation’ of authoritarian government and discourse in the Soviet Union, but after listening to the other papers delivered, I was struck by the extent to which this process of negotiation was a key feature of authoritarian societies more generally.

Zhenshchina na rabotye

Due to these processes of negotiation, a common feature of the running of ‘authoritarian’ regimes is risk management. Inherent to the nature of all the regimes and societies discussed at the workshop was the task of balancing policies geared – often very sincerely – towards politically ‘emancipating’ a population, and managing this sense of ‘emancipation’ so as to maintain the acquiescence of the people.

Within this process, literacy, language, arts, and practices of personal naming were all key strategies for interaction with the discourse of a regime, through which citizens could express identity, dissent or compliance. These strategies also presented the regimes with a significant problem: how to manage these interactions, and the risks posed by the ways in which they contributed to a sense of discursive heterogeneity which coexisted uncomfortably with the idea that there should be a ‘homogenous’ character to state, society and the arts.

International LiteratureSamantha Sherry’s paper on the translation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union, and its inherent challenges, encapsulated this risk management problem precisely. Officials feared ‘opening the floodgates’, so to speak, to Western influences and so they censored foreign texts by removing not just whole passages or texts, but manipulating the entire ideological premises to ‘complement’ the broader principles and finer details of Soviet ideology.

The interdisciplinary element of the event worked really well, and definitely broadened my perspective on discursive matters within and between authoritarian regimes. In particular, the papers given on the development of Soviet ballet, and the use of time in the choral music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the importance of conceptions of time, movement, and space as a ‘language’ to negotiate dominant discourse.

The concept of monumental time as the time of oppressed people, discussed by Claire McGinn in her paper on the music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the dichotomy of time in application to both state and society. All of the societies in question sought to ‘modernise’ or ‘mechanise’ their populations in some way: a future-driven linear historical time characterises state discourse and understandings of ‘progress’ in authoritarian (and ostensibly many other twentieth-century) regimes.

Oppressed people on the other hand belong to monumental time – devoid of the linear regularisation of historical time – which is something the Tunisian state arguably sought to address in its framing of the 1956 personal status code, attempting to link the modernisation of the Tunisian state to concepts of kinship to create.

To some extent this is also reflected in the development of ballet in the early Soviet Union: the use of folk dance, the reworking of old narratives, as well as the evocation of non-verbal discourse all functioned as a means of negotiating life under such severe creative restrictions. And this speaks directly to the problem of ‘risk management’ with which policy makers – and censors – in these states sought to grapple.

The papers delivered on the day have brought me closer to an integrated understanding of ‘authoritarianism’ as a social and discursive phenomenon, and have added invaluable insight to my own research on the reception of Soviet gender ideology by ordinary women. Steph and I were also delighted with the variety and cohesiveness of the programme overall, for which our guest speakers are entirely responsible.

Based on the success of the day, we will be starting a blog based on the same theme. Any relevant contributions would be much appreciated, so please send any expressions of interest to or!

Hannah Parker is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the reception of gender ideology by women in early Soviet Russia. Steph Wright is a WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She’s researching disabled nationalist veterans and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. You can find them both on twitter @_hnnhprkr and @EstefWright. A full list of speakers and their papers can be found in the conference programme.

Header image: Language of Authoritarian Regimes poster, courtesy of Guy Parker.

In-text image 1: Women at work in a large textile factory. Picture extracted from the article ‘Woman at Work’, from “Женский журнал” (Women’s Journal), 1928.

In-text image 2: Internatsional’naia literature (International Literature) No. 1.