Last week, German television host Juliane Ziegler was fired from her job after jokingly using the phrase Arbeit macht frei while chatting with a guest on-air. Translated as “Work sets you free,” these words were inscribed above the gates at the Auschwitz death camp. The saying is among hundreds of German expressions—from “degenerate” to “Final Solution”—that are taboo due to their association with the Nazi regime. Now, a new dictionary catalogues these Nazi sayings to help German-speakers navigate their linguistic minefield. “We don’t mean to wipe out those words,” explained co-author Thorsten Eitz. “We want to make people more sensitive to [their] power.”
Titled Wörterbuch der “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (.Dictionary of“Comi?ig to Terms with the Past”), the book looks at some 1,000 expressions, from Lager (“concentration camp”) to Selektion (“selecting” victims for execution), to Endlösung (the “Final Solution,” which spurred mass killings of Jews). These words are specific, technical terms used by the Nazis to carry out their program of genocide, explains the University of Toronto’s Jennifer Jenkins, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern German History. “They’re toxic,” she says. “They have a purely negative power. [To use them] immediately calls up that past.” For example, German Cardinal Joachim Meisner faced calls for his resignation last year after he publicly described art disconnected from religion as entartete (“degenerate”)—a word the Nazis also used to attack modern art.
Jenkins notes that this dictionary is part of an ongoing process in postwar Germany: grappling with a genocidal past. “This has gone on at all levels,” she notes. “There’s no silence or amnesia; it’s a very open confrontation.” But as the Third Reich drifts deeper into the history books, “people are nervous the awareness that’s been so hard-won perhaps could be forgotten,” Jenkins adds. A dictionary of these highly ideological words, which were used to such destructive ends, “is a monument,” she says. “It makes it visible.” M
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