Podcast episode 22: Interview with Christopher Hutton on linguistics under National Socialism

In this interview, we talk to Christopher Hutton about linguistic scholarship under National Socialism and how this relates to linguistics today.

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References for Episode 22

Primary Sources

Boas, Franz (1911), Handbook of American Indian languages, vol. 1, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40, Washington: Government Print Office.

Boas, Franz (1911), The mind of primitive man, New York: Macmillan.

Fishman, Joshua (1964), Language maintenance and language shift as a field of inquiry, Linguistics 2: 32–70.

Kloss, Heinz (1941), Brüder vor den Toren des Reiches. Vom volksdeutschen Schicksal, Berlin: Hochmuth.

Mühlhausen, Ludwig (1939), Zehn irische Volkserzählungen aus Süd-Donegal, mit Übersetzung und Anmerkungen, Schriftenreihe der Gesellschaft für Keltische Studien, Heft 3, Halle: Niemeyer.

Philipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, Edward (1949), Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Schmidt-Rohr, Georg (1932), Die Sprache als Bildnerin der Völker. Eine Wesens- und Lebenskunde der Volkstümer, Jena: Diederichs.

Schmidt-Rohr, Georg (1933), Mutter Sprache, Jena: Eugen Diederichs.

Weinreich, Max (1946), Hitler’s professors: The part of scholarship in Germany’s crimes against the Jewish people, New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute – Yivo.

Weinreich, Uriel (1953), Languages in contact: Findings and problems, New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York.

Weisgerber, Johann Leo (1939), Die volkhaften Kräfte der Muttersprache, 2nd edition, Frankfurt: Diesterweg.

Secondary Sources

Burleigh, Michael (1988), Germany turns eastwards: A study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutton, Christopher (1999), Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue fascism, race and the science of language, London: Routledge.

Hutton, Christopher (2005), Race and the Third Reich: Linguistics, racial anthropology and genetics in the dialect of Volk, Cambridge: Polity.

Knobloch, Clemens (2005), Volkhafte Sprachforschung, Tübingen: Niemeyer.



JMc: Hi, I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:19] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:23] In the most recent episodes, which have focused on central Europe in the first half of the 20th century, we’ve met a number of figures who were forced into exile by the rise of fascism. [00:33] In this episode, we turn our attention to those who stayed and found a place for themselves and their scholarship under the new regimes. [00:42] We also take a moment to consider the parallels between this period and today. [00:46] To guide us through these topics, we’re joined by Christopher Hutton, Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Hong Kong. [00:55] So, Chris, you’ve written extensively on the place of language study and anthropology in the so-called Third Reich. [01:02] Your publications on this topic include the 1999 book Linguistics in the Third Reich and the 2005 Race in the Third Reich. [01:12] Can you tell us what the main themes of Nazi language study were? [01:16] How did these themes differ from language study in the democratic countries of the time? [01:20]

CH: I think you have to start in the ’20s and ’30s. [01:25] I mean, remember that Germany is really the centre of linguistics internationally, I would say — I mean, certainly historical linguistics — and then you have… [01:33] So you have quite a lot of continuity with international linguistics, but there is, I think, one, a particular feature, which is the centrality of this concept of Volk. [01:43] This is very different from, say, French or Anglo-American linguistics. [01:48] And then you have these ideas about mother tongue and discussions of bilingualism, language islands, Sprachinselforschung. [01:58] I think there is a contrast with what’s going on in France, and in the UK, and the US. [02:04] Of course, you do have in the US the Boasian tradition – Humboldt, Boas – but it’s focused mainly on indigenous cultures of North America, so it has this kind of niche, and in there, it’s a sort of rescue operation in some ways, and in some politically liberal. [02:20] Boas himself counts as a liberal, although there is a more complicated story there, actually. [02:26] If you think of Saussure’s langue, a concept — whatever you make of it — which is very free of some of the ideology that sticks to the German concepts of Volk and then language community and so on, it seems almost Cartesian in its abstractness, and I think that is very significant. [02:45] Saussure does have a reception in Germany, and, you know, there is structural linguistics, but it tends to be, the idea tends to be that, well, the conceptual structure of the language should have some basis in history, tradition, and so on. [03:00] So it’s very different from the Saussurean structuralism, which, if you take it puristically, is entirely synchronic, and language history is… [03:09] There is no real narrative you can make of the history of a language, in a sort of ideological “The story of language X.” [03:16] So I think there is a kind of continental sensibility because of the effect of World War I on the state boundaries, and there is a level of insecurity and uncertainty which, you know, doesn’t apply in the US and the UK, so I think that really, really makes a big difference. [03:37] I think, because German linguistics falls largely under Germanistik, which was an extremely conservative discipline, the people in Germanistik on the whole were on the right. [03:49] They didn’t necessarily become true Nazis, but they were certainly on the völkisch side, you know, as opposed to, say, sociology in Germany. [03:56]

JMc: Can I just ask about what you said about Boas, that there’s a connection there with the German tradition but that Boas’ work was focused on American indigenous languages? [04:05] Do you think that there’s still a connection there, though, with how the Germans, the sort of German nationalists in Nazi Germany conceived of themselves? [04:15] Because if you go back into the 19th century, there’s a lot of sympathy, especially in German pop culture, you know, with the plight of indigenous people in America, like if you think of the novels of Karl May, for example. [04:27] There’s also this sort of German scholars’ fascination with like Tacitus’s descriptions of the Germanen and so on as a sort of indigenous people on the edge of civilization. [04:39]

CH: I think it’s a very, very good point. [04:41] I mean, maybe you can look at it this way. [04:44] There’s hostility to the Anglo-American model of a state, as well as to the French model, and so these are seen as assimilatory and lacking a kind of organic basis, so they’re capitalist, you know, and based in law, you know, in some kind of Common Law, which is an individualistic system and promotes, in a way, a social movement and also sees property as something, as a resource to be exploited. [05:12] So I think, yes, I think that’s a really good point, and although Boas, you know, being Jewish and also politically liberal, ends up attacking the Nazis, there are parallels there, and you could put it under hostility to modernity, in a way. [05:25] I mean, Sapir has some of the same point, you know, the ideal, the Native American fishing in that tranquil way, free of the pressures of the modern industrialized world, the timetable, and so on. [05:37] I mean, it’s an attractive image to everybody, but I think this form of Romantic primitivism or whatever was very powerful in Germany, and it also spills over into Celtic studies, you know, and the affinity to Celtic music, culture, again, in opposition to this hostile Common Law English state, you know, colonial settler state which then threatens to obliterate diversity, you know. [06:05] It’s true that Common Law gobbles up diversity — look at Australia — because of the terra nullius doctrine, although once you’re inside the Common Law it may protect you, but if you’re faced with it coming at you, it’s actually really brutal. [06:17] I mean, they’d had a point, I think. [06:19]

JMc: So on this point of Celtic studies, one of the major areas of applied linguistics that thrived under the National Socialist regime because it aligned very well with the regime’s interests was the issue of minority language rights. [06:33] This was very prominent in Celtic studies, as you mentioned. [06:37] So, first of all, in Germanistik, there was the issue of Auslandsdeutsche, so that is German speakers who were living outside the political boundaries of Germany — so predominantly in Eastern Europe, but also in migrant communities in North America, in the United States — but the issue of minority language rights was also deployed against the enemies of Nazi Germany — and this is where Celtic studies comes in — in alleged solidarity with oppressed ethnic groups such as the Bretons in France, the Welsh and the Highland Scots in Britain, and the Irish in Ireland. [07:10] So the Republic of Ireland was already an independent country by this stage, but the historical tensions between the Celtic-speaking Irish and the English colonial regime were still there, and Ireland itself was, of course, neutral in World War II. [07:25] But was this scholarship in Germanistik and Celtic studies really entwined with the Nazi ideology, or was it just an opportunistic appeal to the interests of the regime in order to secure funding and political support? [07:38]

CH: Well, I think the affinity was sincere. [07:41] I mean, I think… There’s a guy called Ludwig Mühlhausen, there’s Leo Weisgerber, and there’s other figures, I think, Willy Krogmann. [07:50] So they really… I think they had very deep affinities to this Celtic culture, and they were very hostile to what the British had done or were doing in Ireland. [08:01] So I think there is a sincere element to it. [08:05] I think there is also an opportunistic element if you look at Heinz Kloss who was also, who was much more concerned with Germans, overseas Germans, or Germans outside the Reich, but he did get a lot of funding, [08:17] he had these independent research institutes. [08:20] Another way to look at this question is to look at the east, actually. [08:22] Michael Burleigh wrote a brilliant book called Germany Turns Eastwards, and it’s about the scholarship of the Slavic east, mainly Slavic east. [08:32] What you can see there, I think, is a mixture, in policy terms, of getting people on board — so appropriating, assimilating — and also kind of settler colonial ambitions. [08:43] So, you know, some Ukrainians are working with the Nazis, and then you have the Latvian SS, you have collaboration, but in the long run, I guess there was a plan, for the whole of Europe, a mixture of ethnic states in the west and settler colonialism in the east. [09:00] And how exactly that would have worked is unclear, but some people… [09:03] [Alfred] Rosenberg was saying to Hitler, you know, “The Ukrainians hate Stalin.” [09:06] But Hitler was, you know, not, you know… Because Rosenberg was from the east. [09:11] And I think Hitler was, on the other hand, much more insistent on a kind of scorched earth policy because of this settler ambition. [09:18] But they did have a European plan, and I think it did include a more natural ethnic ecology of Western Europe which would have been, I presume, ethnic states under Nazi sort of tutelage, so sort of patron states or… [09:32] I don’t know. [09:33] I think they didn’t know themselves, really. [09:36] And certainly, Leo Weisgerber was active in Brittany. [09:39] There was an attempt to use Flemish nationalism. [09:42] Certainly from the academics, I think they were sincerely interested because they distrust basically the modern state, nation-state form, because it’s not organic, but I think there is an overriding cynicism, you know, in the higher levels of the Nazi Party. [09:55] It wouldn’t have been a great deal for them in the end. [09:58] The ruthlessness of it is so, is such that the kind of autonomy they would have got would have been very, very thin. [10:05] So again, I think the idea of drawing clean lines is this, is underlying all of this, and the back to the sort of organic state, but they don’t have the intellectual answers, actually. [10:18] And then there’s the overriding technocratic thing of — which becomes stronger and stronger as the war goes on — of just brutal, you need a powerful military, and you need to… [10:27] You can’t, you know, this sort of re-engineering project is secondary, I think, at a certain point, you know, because it’s a brutal battle for survival. [10:35] But the academics, I think a lot of them are sincerely invested in these projects, so back to your original question, especially with the Celts, I think, yeah. [10:45] I think there’s a lot of affinities, and the academic links went back way before the war, and they still continue, actually. [10:51] There’s still a Celtic Romanticism in Germany. [10:54] It’s nothing like it was, but I noticed that when I lived in Germany, you know, there’s a kind of a… [11:01] There is this Romantic attachment to a particular form of Celtic imagery and way of being as opposed to the kind of hard capitalist modernity of England or the US. [11:14] So I think that ethos remains — stripped, I should add, of its nasty toxic elements. [11:22]

JMc: Okay, so that brings us to the present. [11:25] So minority language rights are, of course, a major issue in mainstream linguistics today, but the focus today is perhaps on indigenous languages in places that have been subject to settler colonialism such as North and South America and Australia, so that sort of project that Boas was engaged in back in these days. [11:42] But also in Britain and France, the rights of speakers of Celtic languages are very much on the agenda and have managed to win some government support, and even in Germany, some small minorities such as the Sorbs in the Lausitz, in Brandenburg and Saxony, who speak a Slavic language, have been able to gain official support. [12:02] But today, minority language rights are usually considered a progressive issue, an effort to counteract the deleterious effects of colonialism and the aggressive spread of hegemonic cultures. [12:15] So how can an issue like this have such different, even diametrically opposed, political associations in different historical contexts? [12:23]

CH: I think one of the keys to this is that the language minority politics of Europe between the wars and into the war is about territory. [12:35] So if you… [12:37] So the whole tension underlying it is, “Whose territory is this?” [12:41] And basically — back to the organic state — if you want to consolidate and survive and not to lose parts of your Volk, then it seems that you need political power in those regions in order to protect that. [12:56] So, obviously, the Germans are hurting because they’ve lost a lot of territory and a lot of their speakers are now citizens of other states, so the whole issue is explosive at the level where people are going to be killed with this, to, in a way, to bring about this kind of ideal state, you’re going to have to move people or kill them. [13:15] So it’s very different from the sort of post-war US where it’s about, an argument about cultural space or about legitimacy or, you know, access to social mobility, and so there’s no underlying murderous potential to that. [13:31] There’s a lot of social tension around it. [13:33] So I think that’s one difference. [13:36] I think that sociolinguistics has suffered from a sort of single model of this, so if you say “mother tongue language rights”, everyone goes, “Great,” rather than, really… [13:47] You know, language politics should include politics, so if you look at the politics of these states, and then it becomes a much more muddled and complicated story, so, you know, I always thought, you know… [14:00] [Robert] Philipson would go around the world telling everyone to use their mother tongues, but they did it in English, of course, and in a way, it was a one-size-fits-all solution emanating from northern Europe. [14:10] So my problem, in a way, is that we don’t look enough at the actual politics, the real governmental system, the structures, the resourcing, and all the effects that we’re, so people can praise, you know, pat themselves on the back for saying, “I support language rights,” but they don’t actually cost it in any way, politically or economically. [14:29] Maybe it’s the problem with the identity left now that it’s not interested in economics. [14:35] Somehow it lost… [14:37] You know, when I was growing up or when I was young, Marxists and leftists would talk about economics all the time. [14:42] Now, they only talk about identity, and it seems to me this is a problem for sociolinguistics. [14:48] I think it’s good, you know, it’s obviously progressive and better… [14:53] You know, if you have a, like say Welsh. [14:54] Well, Welsh is now enjoying a degree of, quite a strong degree of official recognition, and that’s great. [15:00] I don’t see any problem, and I think this can keep going further. [15:05] I mean, every Welsh, every speaker of Welsh is a native speaker of English as well, so it’s a very unusual situation, and I think that’s really beneficial to the kind of possibilities of this situation. [15:18] But in other situations, people are on the, you know, on the edge of these modern states, like in South America. [15:24] I don’t know. [15:26] I mean, it’s very easy to sit here and go, “They should keep their languages and cultures,” but modernity is a brutal… [15:32] I mean, the Welsh are in modernity, and then, you know, whereas for, say, in Brazil or these Amazonian peoples, getting into modernity will destroy their cultures. [15:44] I don’t see any easy point of view from here. [15:48] Again, another huge block of states are the Leninist states or the former Leninist states, you know, which is, you know, a vast percentage of the world population – so China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma to a degree, and even India, in a funny way – where you have official minority classifications centrally organized, and the politics of that are very, very different from the minority policies of that from, say, the US. [16:17] Both Uriel Weinrich and [Joshua] Fishman in the ’50s and ’60s have a whole list of Nazis in their references. [16:24] I mean, not one or two, maybe 20 or 25. [16:28] So how is that possible? [16:30] You know, and Weinrich’s Languages in Contact, if you look in the bibliography, there’s a bunch of really nasty, toxic people there, you know, some of whom, one of whom was executed for war crimes. [16:42] So how is that possible? [16:44] It’s because, well, one, I think in Fishman’s case, he just was not interested in the problematic nature of minority politics in the interwar era, and he didn’t understand Kloss, who was his kind of, you know, close collaborator, and he was worried about protecting the program that he had, which was to promote, you know, ethnic revival in the US and globally in the sort of decolonizing world, a kind of rational language politics or language engineering. [17:15]

JMc: But maybe, I mean, maybe your average sociolinguist who, so someone like Weinreich or Fishman who would be citing heaps of Nazis, maybe their principle would be, you know, don’t say that they’re hypocritical, [17:26] say rather that they’re apolitical, like that the ideas that they have are separate from the politics that they were used to support. [17:35]

CH: Well, my theory with Weinreich was that he was trying to protect the discipline, and he did his fieldwork in Switzerland, so he was in the kind of only bit of Europe which was not damaged [17:45], you know continental Europe which was kind of intact in some sense, and I think he was such a sort of straight guy and a high-minded guy that I think he felt it beneath him to kind of lay into these guys. [17:59] But I pointed out in this article, Max, his father, wrote one of the first books on Nazi scholarship and was scathing in a letter quoted by another scholar about Franz Beranek, who was one of the Germans who worked on Yiddish, you know, so calling him complicit in murder and so on. [18:15] So there is something strange about that, and Fishman, I think, was protecting… [18:21] Or maybe he didn’t know. [18:22] I don’t know whether Weinreich gave him the references. [18:25] He certainly knew about [Georg] Schmidt-Rohr, you know, Schmidt-Rohr’s complicated evolution, because in ’32 Schmidt-Rohr got into political trouble for seemingly suggesting that language could create Volk, and then he kind of reoriented himself to kind of get past the sort of Nordicist attacks on him. [18:45] But he’s no liberal, you know. [18:48] And then Kloss, with Fishman, it’s a funny story, actually. [18:51] I think that all fades away. [18:54] I mean, no one’s… [18:55] After this, I think Fishman, it all kind of dribbles out and he doesn’t cite any more German sources. Again, noting that, because German language sources were the key to the history of linguistics, I mean, until the Second World War, right? [19:08] So in a way, it’s mapping the end of German dominance and the rise of the US as the preeminent linguistics power, I guess, yeah. [19:18]

JMc: What a claim to fame, preeminent linguistics power. [19:23] It’s not quite as impressive as being, you know, the greatest military power or economic power. [19:27]

CH: True, but, I mean, I think… [19:28] Yeah, but it goes together a little bit because look at the US university system, and then because of the ’60s expansion, it really took off, and sociolinguistics has a kind of virgin birth, I think, in the ’60s, they kind of, as if there never was a European background, you know. [19:47] There’s something slightly odd about it, and Kloss is there in those, one or two of those meetings, you know, with [Dell] Hymes and all these, [John J.] Gumperz, all these figures. [19:55] And there’s the, because there’s the Empire, the British Empire, which was a key place for linguistics research, and then there’s, you know, Central and Eastern Europe. [20:05] You know, the massive amount of literature on the ethnic politics of eastern, but then sociolinguistics comes along, it’s a very US thing. [20:12] It’s like, “We’re going forward,” technocratic, and then rights and equality, and so it kind of sets itself going, I think, often without really looking back. [20:24]

JMc: Okay. [20:26] Oh, that’s probably a good note to end the interview on, so thank you very much for your answers to those questions. [20:31]

CH: Okay, thanks very much. [20:33]

JMc: Okay. [20:34]

CH: It was good fun. [20:34] I enjoyed that. [20:35]


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