THE HITLER SALUTE: ON THE MEANING OF A GESTURE
By Tilman Allert
Metropolitan, 106 pages, $20
What if the Nazis had greeted each other with high fives instead of that stiff-armed, sharp-handed salute? What if Germans had been allowed to say hello to one another by name instead of invoking their Führer?
Tilman Allert’s The Hitler Salute, a joyously sharp account of a massively evil slice of human history, doesn’t treat the Nazis’ obligatory two-word, one-arm greeting as a product of evil, but as its enabler. He argues, movingly, that the salute wounded Germans’ sociability, connectedness and personal sovereignty, warping the holy human order.
A nation that’s forced to adopt inhuman gestures, in other words, is fated to oblige inhuman horrors: First hellos disappear, then morality.
MR. ALLERT IS a professor of sociology and social psychology, not a historian, and it shows. He gives almost nothing in the way of a pre- or post-Nazi account of the Hitler salute—which is odd for a book that happens to be titled The Hitler Salute. (It would also have been nice to learn how nearly the same gesture, the Bellamy flag salute, earlier came to accompany the pledge of allegiance in American schools.)
But if you’re willing to piece together the historical details that get sprinkled around, a terrifying chronology emerges. It starts on July 13, 1933, when the Hitler salute officially became “a general civic duty” (that’s half a year after its namesake became chancellor, and one day before he banned all other German political parties). An Interior Ministry memo instructs that the right arm, or left “in the case of physical infirmity,” must be raised voluntarily and joyfully, palm down and open at eye-level, and the accompanying hail must be articulated clearly. Even written correspondence had to end with the salute.
On July 24, 1933, students and teachers were ordered to salute one another at the beginning and end of the school day, between classes, or whenever an adult entered the classroom. Plus: “Individual pupils who encounter fellow pupils inside the school building or on school grounds are also required to use the Hitler greeting.”
In a local police memo sent on July 23, 1934, the government complains about “traveling vaudeville performers training their monkeys to give the German greeting on command.” The police are ordered to “see to it that said animals are destroyed.” By the end of that year, special courts were established to punish the Germans who refused to salute. Offenders, such as the Protestant preacher Paul Schneider, could be sent to concentration camps.
By 1935, the “greeting” entry in a German pictorial dictionary has the Hitler salute as the first illustrated example (a handshake is ninth); toy figures were fashioned with pivoting right arms; Sleeping Beauty was reworked so that the prince gives Hitler’s salute to his damsel when she wakes up.
And by 1937, Jews were forbidden to use the Hitler salute; street signs reminded True Germans how to greet one another; department store clerks said, “Heil Hitler, how may I help you?”
ALL THIS TOOK its toll. Mr. Allert reverently imagines social greetings as dramatic dances over wide personal gulfs, expressions of individual character that also make for communal bonds in a shared moment. So a disruption of traditional German gestures presented a massive threat to interconnectedness—especially because of the strange and estranging stiffened arm, which pushed people away just when they should’ve been brought together.
The slogan “Heil Hitler,” which essentially translates to “health to Hitler,” or “may Hitler keep you well,” was just as odd. The Führer wasn’t there to enjoy his subjects’ good wishes, or to bestow wellness on them—so each salute hoisted him further above reality. The Hitler salute wasn’t an actual human greeting; it was a one-on-one party rally.
Consider, also, that Hitler was invoked in place of the greeted person’s name—or in place of goodness (“Guten Tag”) or God (“Grüß Gott”). A link with one’s neighbor, or a shared link with the divinity, was replaced by a tense-armed, tense-tongued oath to Nazism. “There are no free spaces in which the individual belongs only to himself,” the chairwoman of the National Socialist Women’s League boasted. “The age of personal happiness is over. From now on we will know only communal happiness.”
Even in translation, the prose of The Hitler Salute can be just as stirring as that fantastic fascistic slogan. This 100-page English edition, which comes three years after the book was first published in Germany, is handled acrobatically by Jefferson Chase, who has previously translated Nazi nonfiction and also Thomas Mann. Within the span of two sentences, we’re liable to hear about “ghostly spectacle,” “magical fascination” and the “triumph of social radicalism over the fragile space of human dignity.”
And the moral of the story? Tilman Allert urges us, in parting, to be “wary of obligatory rituals, especially when they are imposed from above.”
Max Abelson is a reporter at The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.