Linguists choosing the wrong side: Jacob van Ginneken and other alleged Nazi collaborators

Toon Van Hal
University of Leuven

Unlike the other posts to this blog, the present post is not intended as a contribution to learning. Its sole ambition is to open a discussion on a rather sensitive topic (which is not my own field of specialization). How do, or should, we deal today with linguists having chosen the ‘wrong’ side in the Second World War? The question came to my mind when I was reading Jac. van Ginneken under fire [“Jac. van Ginneken onder vuur”], the Dutch doctoral dissertation defended one year ago by Gerrold van der Stroom at the Free University of Amsterdam (Van der Stroom 2012). In English its subtitle reads “on contemporary and postwar criticism of the linguist J.J.A. Van Ginnekens S.J. (1877-1945)”. In the Interwar Period, Van Ginneken  ‒ professor at the Dutch Catholic University of Nijmegen from its 1923 foundation onward ‒ was a visionary and unconventional linguist, being prominently present on the European scene. Not only was he a trained scholar in Indo-European linguistics, he also tried to join linguistics with psychology, sociology and genetics in a truly interdisciplinary way. In the last year of the War Van Ginneken died of a brain tumor, and his intellectual legacy (almost) died with him. During and after the War Van Ginneken’s reputation suffered from his alleged sympathy for the German occupiers. The very fact that Van Ginneken had shown a profound interest for the interconnection between linguistics and biology made him suspect, not to say ridiculous, in the eyes of a later generation of scholars. Van der Stroom, a former employee of the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in English), argues in great detail that many of these accusations cannot be substantiated.

This is not the place to discuss nor to assess the arguments developed by Van der Stroom. In general, the author aims at demonstrating that most postwar accusations against Van Ginneken testify to a deplorable lack of context. The notion of ‘context’ is twofold. On the one hand, criticism of Van Ginneken’s views sometimes rely on isolated statements without paying attention to the general argument of the original texts (this is the ‘textual context’ of his scholarship). Some criticisms, on the other hand, are entirely independent of Van Ginneken’s historical context. Throughout his work Van der Stroom time and again emphasizes that the present-day linguistic historiographer works under circumstances that are endlessly more comfortable than the tough and confusing conditions the 20th-century linguists had to cope with during the war. One would expect this to be a well-worn cliché, but it is not. And the book once again makes clear the extent to which the war has impacted on all aspects of life, including linguistics. So, for instance, it took several decades before some sensitive topics (e.g. the interconnections between linguistics and biology) reemerged to the foreground of scholarly debates. In some of these recent studies, Van Ginneken is indeed given some credit.

The focus of Van der Stroom’s book is very much on the person of Van Ginneken and the specific Dutch institutional context. The author does not adduce parallels from other countries. This leads to the question as to what extent Van Ginneken’s case is an exceptional one. How many ideas have fallen into oblivion or disgrace, because their inventors were considered to be friends of the enemies by later generations of scholars and scientists? More generally, one might ask to what extent topics and themes in present-day linguistics are still co-determined by implicit or explicit judgements about the alleged political views of the protagonists of earlier generations.

It goes without saying that Van der Stroom’s book is not the first work that raises such questions. Scholars such as Christopher Hutton and Clemens Knobloch, for instance, have explored the linguistic research conducted in Germany during the Nazi era (see e.g. Hutton 1999 and Knobloch 2005 with further references given). Both authors maintain that linguistics conducted in Germany from 1933 onwards cannot be regarded as an entirely inward-looking branch of scholarship whose main aim was to sustain Nazi ideologies. They show that the field was not isolated from international discussions. On the first page of his work, Hutton (1999: 1), for instance, states:

Linguists working today assume that the concepts and paradigms within which they work differ markedly from those of the Nazi era. If they pay the matter any thought at all, they assume that Nazi linguistics fell from grace through the sin of identifying language with race. Modern linguistics sees itself as a forward-looking discipline, and regards the activity of linguistic analysis as either ideologically neutral (‘scientific’) or ideologically positive, in that most linguists rhetorically claim the equality of all language systems. […] The widespread belief held by linguists today that some great conceptual distance separates them both from nineteenth century German linguistics and from linguistics in the Nazi era is unfounded.

Browsing through these works, and reading statements like the above, one is once again left with many questions. To what extent does the reception of the legacy of interwar German linguists differ from the reception of non-German linguists with an alleged or proven sympathy for the occupational forces? Are there many other linguists who have been accused of having supported the Nazi forces on doubtful grounds? Is it a ‘dangerous’ thing that publishers publish new editions of standard reference works having been compiled by Nazi enthusiasts or downright collaborators without any warning? (See, for instance, the example of the prolific Dutch linguist Jan de Vries (1890-1964), author of many etymological dictionaries. His political ideas are discussed by Hofstee 2008). Is it, on the other hand, justified to downplay the merits or credibility of a linguist in case he was sympathetic to the Nazi regime, even if only as a young man? Or should we rather patiently try to understand their positions in context as Van der Stroom does? If this would help to disclose own ideological positions, and to reveal our own professional myths, I see an important task for the historiography of linguistics and intellectual history in general.


Hofstee, Willem. 2008. “The essence of concrete individuality. Gerardus van der Leeuw, Jan de Vries, and National Socialism.” The study of religion under the impact of fascism, ed. by Horst Jungiger, 543–552. Leiden & Boston: Brill.

Hutton, Christopher. 2012. Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language. London & New York: Routledge.

Knobloch, Clemens. 2005. Volkhafte Sprachforschung: Studien zum Umbau der Sprachwissenschaft in Deutschland zwischen 1918 und 1945. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Stroom, Gerrold van der. 2012. “Jac. van Ginneken onder vuur: over eigentijdse en naoorlogse kritiek op de taalkundige J.J.A. van Ginneken S.J. (1877-1945).” Amsterdam & Münster: Nodus.

How to cite this post:

Hal, Toon Van. 2013. ‘Linguists choosing the wrong side: Jacob van Ginneken and other alleged Nazi collaborators’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 20th century, History, Linguistics
4 comments on “Linguists choosing the wrong side: Jacob van Ginneken and other alleged Nazi collaborators
  1. James McElvenny says:

    There are of course many other instances of science and technology developed under the auspices of the Nazi regime. One example that springs to mind are the advances in rocketry pioneered by Wernher von Braun and his team, advances which directly aided the Nazi cause and were adopted by the victors of the war: their work gave us both the V2 rockets launched on London and formed the basis of the US ballistic missile and space programs. Tom Lehrer’s classic satire on von Braun represents a well-known non-academic assessment of his image, but it would be interesting to compare how he is perceived in the received history of aerospace engineering to how van Ginneken and others are treated in the history of linguistics. Since linguistics is a Geisteswissenschaft, the techniques and metaphysics developed within it are perhaps more susceptible to influence from overarching ideologies and values, so maybe there is a limit to how far we could take such a comparison.

    In a related vein, Chomsky has on several occasions explicitly tied his rejection of behaviourism to a rejection of the political philosophy it implies, e.g.:

    Now as far as the Skinner thing is concerned […] I just think it’s a fraud, there’s nothing there. I mean, it is empty. It’s an interesting fraud. See, I think there are two levels of discussion here. One is purely intellectual: What does it amount to? And the answer is zero, zilch … […] Now the other question, why so much interest in it? And here I think the answer is obvious. I mean, the methodology that they are suggesting is known to every good prison guard, or police interrogator. But, they make it look benign and scientific, and so on; they give a kind of coating to it, and for that reason it’s very valuable to them. […]

    What it does is give a cloak of neutrality to the techniques of oppression and control…

    (Chomsky ‘Class consciouness and the ideology of power’ 1974; emphasis original)

  2. Els Elffers (University of Amsterdam) says:

    Like Van Hal, I studied Van der Stroom’s dissertation on Van Ginneken and wrote a brief review, which can be read on (link: Taalkunde). Although our reviews exhibit some overlap, my text contains additional elements that might be valuable for readers of Van Hal’s text who are interested in the subject. As my text is in Dutch, I summarize these additions below.
    First, Van Ginneken was “under fire” not only because of his alleged sympathy for the German occupiers, as is suggested by Van Hal and especially by the title of his review. There are three separate issues. One is Van Ginneken’s alleged pro-German attitude. The other two are: Van Ginneken’s alleged anti-Semitism and general racism. The latter accusations are based upon works published long before WWII, namely 1914 (a text about the language of Jews) and 1925-1935 (several texts about relations between anatomical differences between races and articulatory differences between their languages).
    The three issues belong to different episodes of Van Ginneken’s life and intellectual development. Van der Stroom deals with them in separate parts of the book, and although his conclusion is always the same (namely: the accusations are unjustified) it is defended through separate arguments. So, for the sake of completeness and clarity, distinguishing them is desirable.
    Second, unlike Van Hal, I made a tentative attempt to evaluate Van der Stroom’s arguments, be it in full awareness of the difficulty and complexity of this type of discussion. Also for this task it is necessary to separate the three questions.
    Van der Stroom’s refutations are, in my opinion, most convincing in the racism issue. He argues that this criticism of Van Ginneken is based upon a total neglect of the distinction between the study of human races, a regular part of anthropology in Van Ginneken’s days, and doctrines about superior and inferior races (racism).
    With respect to Van Ginneken’s attitude during WWII I am less convinced. One controversial fact was Van Ginneken’s willingness to accept the occupiers’ offer to present lectures in Germany. Van der Stroom admits that this counts against him, but he feels that this is “compensated” by Van Ginneken’s (implicitly) anti-German lecture in 1944. By the way, neither this nor other facts that have been interpreted as symptoms of Van Ginneken’s pro-German attitude belong to the well-defined category “collaboration”, as Van der Stroom clearly explains. The suggestion of the contrary, made by title of Van Hal’s review, and, to a lesser degree, its content, is entirely mistaken.
    As to Van der Stroom’s the refutation of Van Ginnekens anti-Semitism, I find this by far the least unconvincing part of his argument. Of course, careful contextualization -Van der Stroom’s main intellectual tool, as was rightly emphasized by Van Hal- is obligatory when this term is applied to pre-Holocaust situations, such as the Dutch society during the first decades of the 20th century. Van der Stroom describes contemporary Dutch “bourgeois” anti-Semitism as non-violent and as widespread, but also controversial. However, thus contextualized, the term perfectly applies to Van Ginneken’s nasty prejudices about Jews. Moreover, his anti-Semitism was criticized also in his own time. It became a severe and controversial issue when Van Ginneken applied for an Amsterdam professorship, which was eventually canceled.

    • toon van hal says:

      Dear Els,
      many thanks for your comment, and for making the heart of your review accessible to an English readership. I agree that the title of my post does not fully apply to the case of Van Ginneken. However, this case was just a starting-point for opening a broader discussion on the fate of linguists who have been accused of having shown sympathy for ‘German’ ideas during the war (I will elsewhere publish a review of Van der Stroom’s book, which this post is not). In view of the very extensive recent historiographical literature on Van Ginneken (by e.g. G. van der Stroom, S. Daalder, A. Foolen, J. Noordegraaf), I just started wondering, as an outsider, whether there are many other cases similar to Van Ginneken’s, and how these have been evaluated in the scholarship.
      For the sake of completeness, I would like to refer to another online review of Van der Stroom’s book by Marc Van Oostendorp (in Dutch):

  3. Patrick Flack says:

    Thanks Toon for a very interesting post.
    I wanted first of all to react to the question of a connection between the Nazi or German sympathies of van Ginneken or other interwar linguists and the fact that their work has fallen into oblivion. In truth I have nothing to say as to van Ginneken’s specific case, but it is certainly interesting to point out that his near contempoarary and compatriot Hendrik Pos (about whom I’ll have the pleasure to post on this platform in november) has suffered a similar obliteration from the history of linguistics, whereas in his case he very clearly opposed the Nazi regime: he was the president of the anti-fascist Comité van Waakzamheit and had to spend a year in Buchenwald for his efforts. In this case, I venture the oblivion has more to do with a deplorable lack of interest in Dutch structuralism after the war than dodgy political associations.
    Secondly, regarding the question of evaluating linguistic ideas that might or might not have been tainted by the problematic anti-semitic, pro-fascist views of their proponent, my personal view is that one has in fact taken too much hygienical distance towards these theories, and thereby cruelly underestimated their role in the development of linguistics and the other human sciences, including psychology. I’m obviously not saying here that I condone the nasty political undertones (or clear orientation) of these theories, or that I wish to deny their problematic status. I believe however that one simply cannot ignore them if one is to understand the interwar period and its roots. Indeed, it is sometimes surprising to see how natural convergences between suspiciously nationalistic German theories and Jewish thinkers were before the war. Roman Jakobson for example, had no qualms as late as 1938 in praising the work of the musicologist Gustav Becking (also of Dutch descent by the way, but who was based mostly in Prague), an ardent defender of the cause of the Sudetengermans who was murdered at the end of WWII in Prague because he had become a member of the Volksturm… Somewhat ironically, the short association of the alleged nazi Becking with the Cercle linguistique de Prague was used against the CLP after the war by the socialist regime to accuse the Cercle of ideological deviancy.

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