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When I Hear the Word "Revolver"...

I came across this interview with Slavoj Zizek last week on Obscene Desserts:

Zizek makes interesting points about the displacement of political conflict over economic interests into anodyne debates about multiculturalism and "tolerance" (Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here). Otherwise, Slavoj is in full-on vieillard terrible mode: advocating the death penalty for rapists, promising to send Peter Sloterdijk to the "gulag," even accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism. At one point, Zizek proudly announces that he has "Joseph Goebbels' reaction" when he hears multicultural platitudes: "I draw my guns." 

Zizek gets it wrong, but we won't hold him to that, because it's a live interview. The interesting thing is that everyone else gets it wrong, too. The famous quotation that everyone attributes to Goebbels or Goering is "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." It's even been used as the refrain of a pop song by Mission of Burma, later covered by Moby.

But there's no record of those two officials ever saying anything about revolvers. The quote everyone is actually thinking of comes from the first scene of a 1933 play, Schlageter, by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Schlageter tells the story of one of the first National Socialist "martyrs," Albert Leo Schlageter (g), a NSDAP member who was executed by a French military tribunal for acts of sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the early 1920s. Schlageter later became the focus of a Nazi martyr cult. Streets all over Germany were named after him during the Third Reich, and his biography (see photo above) was mandatory reading for students.

In Johst's play, Schlageter talkes with a fellow student, Thiemann, about politics. Thiemann utters a long rant which ends with the phrase: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning," which translates as: "Whenever I hear [the word] 'culture'... I release the safety on my Browning!" In the original, Schlageter reacts with shock to his friend's militance. But not the National Socialists: Baldur von Schirach apparently used the quotation in a speech.

But "release the safety on my Browning" isn't half so catchy as "reach for my revolver," which is how the phrase has been received into English. There are two problems here for the translator.  First, German actually has one catchy word for release the safety (entsichere="de-safety-ize"), but English doesn't. Second, Browning used to be a generic word for all sorts of pistols, but that's no longer the case.* Whoever first translated the phrase as "reach for my revolver" did a brilliant job, I would say. The translation preserves the original meaning, and makes the references more resistant to the passage of time. And it struck a chord, appearling both to American post-punk bands and Slovenian philosophers.

* These days, people are more likely to associated the word Browning with the English poet, which perhaps led to the ludicrous suggestion on the Wikiquote page that the reference to "my Browning" might actually be a literary pun. I like the idea of "releasing the safety" on a book of poetry, but that level of playful irony seems almost Wildean, and if there was one thing Nazi playwrights weren't, it was Wildean.

  

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