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Comrade, Study the Geist of your Volk!

As part of the Gleichschaltung of the German nation behind National Socialism, universities were gradually purged of political unreliables, and all university fraternities were progressively banned or co-opted into the National Socialist German Students' Union (g). The leading program of this organization can be found in the '10 Laws of German Student Life' (Zehn Gesetze des deutschen Studentums), promulgated in 1938. Here is my translation of them:

I. German student, it is not necessary that you live, but rather that you fulfill your duty to your People (Volk)! Whatever you become, do so as a German!

II. The highest law and greatest dignity of a German man is honor. Injured honor can be expiated (gesühnt) only with blood. Your honor is your loyalty to your People and to yourself.

III. Being German means having character.  You are among those called upon to struggle for the freedom of the German spirit (Geist)! Seek the truths that lie concealed in your People!

IV. Lack of restraint and attachment are not freedom. There is more freedom in service than in obeying your own command. Germany’s future depends on your faith, your enthusiasm, and your fighting spirit.

V. He who cannot imagine new things will never achieve anything. You cannot ignite that which is not already burning within you. Have the courage to feel and show admiration and respect!

VI. A man is born a National Socialist, but is also trained to be one, and, most of all, trains himself to be one.

VII. If anything is more powerful than fate, it is your courage to bear it stoically. What does not kill you makes you stronger. Praised be the things that make men hard.

VIII. Learn to live within a system! Obedience and discipline are the essential foundations of any community and the beginning of all education.

IX. As leader, be unyielding in the performance of your duties, decisive in standing up for what is necessary, helpful and good, never petty in judgment of human weakness, large-minded in recognizing the needs of others and humble in respect to your own!

X. Be a comrade! Be knightly and humble! Be a role model in your personal life! Your moral maturity will be judged by your interactions with others. Be one in thought and deed! Follow the Fuehrer’s example!

(Source: Justiz im Dritten Reich, Ilse Staff, ed., Fischer Verlag 1978, pp. 117-18).

There can be little doubt that these rules were posted above the writing-desk of many a student of law (especially law), history, accountancy, and medicine during the 1930s. Since most outsiders have learned only about the unfortunate consequences of National Socialism, they have a hard time understanding how so many apparently intelligent people believed in it. Some were opportunists and hacks, of course, but many National Socialists were sincere in believing that the core ideology was instrumental in achieving the glorious renewal of their Volk.

You can just get a glimpse of this in these rules. Some of them sound bizarre to modern ears, but others tie in to values that Germans have always at least claimed to hold dear: order, discipline, honesty, humility, sound character, self-control, and sincerity. Of course, brilliant misfits would mock these soppy-stern admonishments, but the National Socialists weren't interested in brilliant misfits, except to exile or kill them. They were interested in the much larger mass of people who were intelligent enough to get into university, but stolid in thinking and conformist in character.

To really understand why the great mass of conformists students might find these rules appealing to live by, it's important to understand how untranslatable lots of the words are. Words like Geist, Volk, Ehre, Kamerad, and Ordnung are, to Germans, like spectacular conch shells, layered with hundreds of years of elaborate, filigreed connotation. Translating them into English is like ripping the sea-snail out of its magnificent shell and exposing it as a moist, palpitating little gastropod. Some of these words (especially Volk or Kamerad) were, in fact, so central to Nazi propaganda that they remain under a brownish suspicion to this day. 

Comments

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noribori

Translating them into English is like ripping the sea-snail out of its magnificent shell and exposing it as a moist, palpitating little gastropod.

How poetical!

But...

... is there really such a long historical process which adds more and more meaning and connotation to such words? I'm not convinced of that.

I prefer to think of such words as empty shells which lost their living content a long time ago. It's their emptiness which makes such words so attractive for rulers, politicians and religious leaders of all ages. They can take the shell and fill it with whatever they want.

It's their emptiness which makes the common man shiver. He sees the shell but he can't quite get the content. He feels inferior and tries to fill the emptiness with his imagination. So it's his imagination which makes the shell spectacular and magnificent – not a historical process.

And it's the emptiness which makes such words untranslatable. Because the value is not inside (nor the shell itself). The value is given by the way the shell is handled. It's a big difference if a shell is seen like a common thing which you throw away when you don't need it anymore. Or if it's handled like something very very precious which nobody is allowed to handle with disrespect.

(Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon would be a good start to deepen such contemplation.)

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