BERLIN — In a recent tweet, a German lawmaker used a highly specific term to describe her anti-migrant angst. Suggesting that her country’s national identity was under threat, she cried “Umvolkung” — a word roughly translated as “ethnic conversion.”
It is also a word that was last in vogue when Adolf Hitler ruled the land, and its appropriation by a politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party sparked a raucous uproar. Yet the tweet highlighted the term’s resurgence in Germany — where a half-dozen words long associated with the Nazis are making a comeback.
Hitler and his propagandists wielded a toxic lexicon in the early 20th century, deploying vocabulary meant to exalt ethnic purity and own Germany’s only real “truth.” And the reemergence in social media, literature and political protests of words that were weaponized by the Nazis is generating a fierce debate here over the power of language in politics, especially as nationalists surge on both sides of the Atlantic.
“While we’re at it, why don’t we just give a positive meaning to the word ‘concentration camp?’ ” quipped television satirist Hans-Joachim Heist after a different German politician recently defended another word — völkisch — used by the Nazis to conjure images of a racially pure state.
Forces on the political right are hailing the exhumation of such words as a triumph over political correctness and war guilt — as well as a nod to free speech in Europe, which came under the spotlight after the guilty verdict Friday against Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders for inciting hate against Moroccans. Calling it time to reclaim German words tainted by the Nazis, proponents see a new tell-it-like-it-is discourse taking shape over an influx of nearly 1 million mostly Muslim migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
In a post-factual world, some reclaimed words are meant to stake ownership over truth. At least one — Lügenpresse or “lying press,” a slur aimed at the mainstream media — popped up among Donald Trump supporters on the U.S. campaign trail. In Germany, it’s become a fixture at anti-migrant protests and a word lobbed like a bomb on Twitter and Facebook against the media.
Critics, however, see heightened usage of ethnically charged terms as an attempt to detoxify them — as well as the racist notions they once represented.
As linguistic political tools, experts rank them alongside “alt-right” — coined in the United States to recast the white supremacy movement. Rather than mint new words, however, the Germans need only look to history for a nationalist thesaurus. Critics say those embracing such vocabulary are playing a coy game, winking at German nationalism without openly saluting Hitler.
“If someone said ‘Sieg Heil’ today, it would be clear this is about National Socialism,” said Georg Schuppener, a noted German linguist and language historian. But the words popping up now “at first don’t sound like National Socialism, but nevertheless suggest it.”
All the words in question predate the Nazis but became tainted in the public mind after their deployment in Nazi propaganda. After World War II, some terms lingered in beer-hall talk and neo-Nazi circles. During the Cold War, a few found a perch in communist East Germany.
But German linguists point to a resuscitation of nationalist terms in 2014, when the anti-migrant group Pegida began staging massive demonstrations nationwide. Two years later, the rapid rise of the populist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) — coupled with massive public skepticism of Merkel’s refugee policy — has these terms rolling off the tongues of politicians and flying around social media in a manner that has shocked many Germans.
In a September interview with Die Welt, the AfD’s chief, Frauke Petry, declared it an “undue simplification” to call the German word “völkisch” fundamentally racist. Though used by Hitler and his lieutenants to describe a racially pure population, she argued that modern Germans should give the term “a positive connotation again.”
Last month, AfD lawmaker Stefan Räpple described peers from German parties as “Volksverräter” — or “traitor of the people.” Used in the Nazi era as an official charge against enemies, the term has additionally burst forth from the mouths of protesters at anti-migrant political rallies and protests. In August, for instance, right-wing demonstrators taunted Merkel’s deputy chancellor by calling him “Volksverräter.”
In a 1933 speech, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joesph Goebbels used the word “Überfremdung” to denounce what the Nazis saw as the infection of German intellectual life by Jews. Following losses in local elections this year, conservative dissenters in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), used it to define citizens’ fears toward the migrant wave.
“The concern about a loss of identity and Überfremdung of the country has seized many citizens,” they wrote in a manifesto.
Previously known for his best-selling novels about cats solving crimes, the writer Akif Pirincci published a tome this year titled “Umvolkung — How the Germans are quietly being replaced.” Though Turkish-born, Pirincci has now aligned himself squarely with German nationalists. His book assailed Merkel’s open-door policy toward asylum seekers from the Middle East and beyond, warning that Germans were becoming “strangers in our own country.”
Ronald Gläser, a Berlin-based politician for the AfD, called it unfair to draw any parallels between those redeploying such words now and their use in Nazi propaganda.
“None of us deliberately use National Socialist vocabulary,” he said. Attempting to explain the increasing popularity of such words, he added that many Germans simply “fear that by 2040, Germany will be like a Third World country which doesn’t consist mostly of white people.”
Yet in a nation highly sensitive to any echoes of the Nazis — and where the nationalists have had a harder time gaining a foothold than in many other European nations — the use of such terms still risks a powerful backlash. In September, for instance, when Bettina Kudla, a lawmaker for Merkel’s CDU, used “Umvolkung” in her anti-migrant tweet, the retribution was swift.
Michael Grosse-Brömer, chief whip of the CDU and its sister party, the CSU, decried her tweet as “unspeakable.” The CDU’s secretary general, Peter Tauber, denounced it as “completely unacceptable in tone and content.” By October, Kudla’s office in her home constituency had been vandalized. Ultimately, the CDU did not nominate her for reelection next year.
But her linguistic bomb won high accolades, too.
“Making a Nazi comparison because of the word ‘Umvolkung’ is remarkably stupid,” one supporter — Peter Martin — wrote on her Facebook page. “In the 21st century, no one gives a damn about the Nazi era. . . . The future belongs to patriots.”