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. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/08/07/linguists-choosing-the-wrong-side-jacob-van-ginneken-and-other-alleged-nazi-collaborators/