First published in 1947, Victor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (“The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook,” or LTI) remains one of the most influential works on National Socialism. LTI is a firsthand account, drawing upon conversations, newspaper articles, radio commentaries, nonfiction, and novels of the time. Klemperer was not only a competent scholar, but also a witness and victim of the regime; LTI was assembled from his diaries.


One of the first chapters in LTI is devoted to Partenau, the debut novel by Max René Hesse. Published in 1929 and billed as “The Novel of the German Army,” the book tells the story of a doomed homoerotic relationship between a Junker, Kiebold, and his Oberleutnant, the eponymous Partenau.1 Klemperer observes:

The whole thing is written in the Expressionist style of the war years and early Weimar Republic … the German Expressionists of that period were lovers of peace, they were humanitarian and, despite their affection for their native homeland, thoroughly cosmopolitan. Partenau, on the other hand, is filled with thoughts of revenge, and his plans are anything but fantastical; he speaks of “underground provinces” which are already in existence, of the underground formation of “organized cells.” All that is missing is an outstanding leader.2

Among Klemperer’s acquaintances in the late 1920s was Georg M., a young officer in the German Army. Klemperer had befriended Georg at the urging of the soldier’s aunt, a fervent admirer of the Soviet Union who was perturbed by her nephew’s chosen career. Klemperer passed on a copy of Partenau to the aunt.

She was familiar with it all already, both the style and the content; the author must have observed it all very accurately. “Georg, that harmless young man who hasn’t read a book in his life, has been writing in that style and toying with the same ideas for ages.”3

“How effortlessly,” Klemperer observed, “people with harmless average dispositions adapt to their environment!”

With hindsight we remembered how in Heringsdorf the good-natured young man [Georg M.] had already talked of a “clean, cheerful war.” At the time we took it to be a cliché endorsed without so much as a second thought. But clichés do indeed soon take hold of us. “Language which writes and thinks for you…”4

The novel is striking in its prescience.

What an extraordinary anticipation of the language and the fundamental attitudes of the Third Reich! At that time, as I noted the crucial sentences in my diary, I could only have had a vague premonition. And I didn’t believe it possible that these convictions could be put into action, that “conscience, remorse, and morality” could really be extinguished in a whole army and in a whole nation.5

In 1933, the inconceivable became reality. In his diary entries, Klemperer reflected on how the Nazis had been able to seize power. Their most effective propaganda tools, he observed, were not the speeches of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels. Nor were they the leaflets, posters, or parades festooned with flags, torches, and other symbols. The tenets of National Socialism had not, in fact, been absorbed by the population through conscious thought processes. Or, so it seemed to Klemperer. Instead it was only by the endless repetition of individual words, phrases, and sentences—the language of the Nazis—that these ideas were able to take root in the subconscious of the German people. “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic,” Klemperer observed, “they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”6

Whatever it is that people are determined to hide, be it only from others, or from themselves, even things they carry around unconsciously—language reveals all. That is no doubt the meaning of the aphorism Le style c’est l’homme; what a man says may be a pack of lies—but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.7

A Survivor

Victor Klemperer was born on October 9, 1881 into a rabbinic family in Landsberg an der Warthe, known today as Gorzów Wielkopolski. As a child, he followed his father’s work postings from Landsberg to Bromberg to the Reform Jewish community in Berlin. After an unsettled adolescence in the German capital and an abandoned commercial apprenticeship, Klemperer returned to Landsberg in 1902 to complete his high school studies. He then studied German and Romance languages in Berlin and Munich, with semesters spent studying abroad in Geneva and Paris.

In 1906, Klemperer married Eva Schlemmer, a painter and pianist, and began working as a freelance journalist in Berlin, reviewing literature for the Berliner Tageblatt. In 1907, he published two biographies of German writers: Adolf Wilbrandt: Eine Studie über seine Werke (Adolf Wilbrandt: A Study of his Works) and Paul Heyse.8 These were followed by Paul Lindau, published in 1909, and Berliner Gelehrtenköpfe, published in 1910, which featured sketches of Berlin scholars who had appeared in the Tageblatt’s monthly literary supplement.9 Despite his best efforts, a stable source of income proved elusive.

At the insistence of his family, Klemperer returned to Munich in 1912 to resume his studies. He had planned to pursue an academic career, and with this goal in mind he was baptized a second time, his conversion in 1903 having been inadequately documented. Without conversion and baptism, it was unlikely that a scholar of Jewish descent would be awarded a professorship at a Prussian university.10

Due to his limited knowledge of Old French, Klemperer was unable to study Romance languages in Munich. He instead pursued a doctorate in German studies. Klemperer’s dissertation, published in 1913, attracted the interest of Karl Vossler.11 It was through Vossler that Klemperer was finally able to pursue Romance studies. Klemperer completed his postdoctoral thesis in just two years. Vossler subsequently arranged a lecturing position at the University of Naples, which provided Klemperer with a regular income for the first time.

In November 1915, Klemperer volunteered to fight in the Great War, serving as an artilleryman on the western front and as a censor in Kaunas and Leipzig. After the war, he returned to Munich to work as a private lecturer. In 1920, Klemperer was finally awarded a professorship in Romance philology and worked at the University of Technology in Dresden until his dismissal in September 1935. A law barring Jews from civil service had been passed in 1933. Klemperer, who did not even consider himself a German Jew, but simply a German, was classified a Jew under the new law. In return for his military service, the prospect of immediate dismissal from the university was delayed by two years. Thereafter it was only his marriage to an Aryan wife that spared him from immediate deportation.

Klemperer was gradually stripped of his civil rights. “Every day,” he observed in 1938, “brings new restrictions.”12 Prohibited from driving, he was also prevented from owning pets, cars, bicycles, or a radio. Banned from libraries and unable to subscribe to newspapers and magazines, he was forced to abandon his academic work. In 1940, Klemperer and his wife were evicted from their home and relocated to a Judenhaus. In 1943, he was forced to work as a factory laborer.

After the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, Klemperer took advantage of the chaos to slip away with Eva. Together they began the long journey to then-liberated Munich. In November 1947, the Soviets reinstated Klemperer in his professorship in Dresden. He taught there, along with at the universities in Greifswald and Halle-Wittenberg, until his death in 1960.

Collecting Life

Klemperer began keeping a diary at the age of sixteen. It was a habit that he maintained obsessively throughout his life.

Only collect life. Always collect. Impressions, knowledge, reading, things seen, everything. And do not ask why and why. Whether it becomes a book or memoirs or nothing at all, whether it sticks in my memory or spoils like a bad photographic plate. Do not ask, just collect.13

In his diaries, Klemperer collected his musings and reflections on life at the University of Technology in Dresden, married life with Eva Klemperer, work and scientific plans, and the vicissitudes of his own health. The First World War marked a turning point. In its aftermath, Klemperer’s diary entries became more and more focused on political turmoil, inflation and the worldwide economic crisis, bourgeois social life and the Jewish educated class, and the rise of the Nazi Party.14 Once the Nazis had seized power, Klemperer’s motivation and objectives shifted. No longer content to merely collect the details of his private and professional life, he instead sought to chronicle public life in Germany.

Again and again during these years my diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a hundred times. In times of disgust and despondency, in the dreary monotony of endless routine factory work, at the bedside of the sick and the dying, at grave-sides, at times when I myself was in dire straits, at moments of utter ignominy and when my heart was literally breaking—at all these times I was invariably helped by the demand that I had made on myself: observe, study, and memorize what is going on—by tomorrow everything will already look different, by tomorrow everything will already feel different; keep hold of how things reveal themselves at this very moment and what the effects are.15

When an academic position was no longer open to him, Klemperer began reworking his diaries from 1881 to 1918 as memoirs. He called these his curriculum vitae (CV). Although he had planned to continue compiling the CV, after the Nazis came to power Klemperer became increasingly preoccupied with another project, the Lingua Tertii Imperii: “And very soon this call [to observe, study, memorize what happens,] to rise above the situation and to safeguard my inner freedom was concentrated into that consistently effective secret formula: LTI, LTI!”16

Lingua Tertii Imperii

The ideas and approach that would come to define LTI can be seen in Klemperer’s account of the early days of Nazi rule. His diaries from this period contain frequent references to the style of speech employed by National Socialists. Consider the following excerpt from July 1934:

Recently Jelski sent me a sermon he had preached for a deceased [Jewish] community leader. The heading was “To our leader…” I don’t know, Jacobsohn or Levi or Blumenfeld… How tasteless and how contemptible! Observant Jews purify vessels that have become tref by burying them. In the same way the word “leader” (Führer) will have to be buried for a long time before it is pure and serviceable again.17

That same month, Klemperer began working on the organization and presentation of the material from his diaries.

Five aspects so far: (1) the mechanical style, (2) the Encyclopedic style of the émigrés (Gusti Wieghardt [a friend] says that in France they are called Les chez-nous), (3) the Encyclopedic style of the government, (4) the advertising style, (5) the Germanic style: names, name changes…18

Ideas for the publication of an essay or book are also noted.

The study on the language of the 3rd Reich also increasingly preoccupies me. To be developed through literature, for instance reading Mein Kampf, in which the (partial) origins of the language of war must be evident.19

Among his peers, Klemperer found little enthusiasm for the project. Undeterred, he persisted with the project, immersing himself ever more deeply in his observations and analysis of everyday life under National Socialism. Birth announcements, obituaries, medical prescriptions were examined with the same attention to detail as the speeches of Goebbels, Wehrmacht reports, and the writings of Alfred Rosenberg.

But the language of the Third Reich always surrounds me and does not let me go for a single moment; while reading the newspaper at mealtimes, on the tram, I live with it, I unintentionally collect and register material for it, when I wake up in the morning it occurs to me: didn’t the gentleman next to me yesterday say… . Establish their spirit from their language. That must yield the most general, the most infallible, the most comprehensive description.20

To this end, Klemperer edited and arranged his diary entries into thirty-six short chapters, accompanied by an introduction and afterword.21 As the primary source material for LTI, the true worth of the diary entries is apparent in the chapter “From the Diary of the First Year.”

27 March. New words keep turning up, or old ones acquire new specialist meanings, or new combinations are formed which rapidly ossify into stereotypes. … Foreign Jews, particularly those from France, England, and America, are today frequently referred to as “global Jews {Weltjudgen}”. Equally prevalent is the term “international Jewry {Internationales Judentum}”, with the global Jew and global Jewry {Weltjudentum} presumably constituting the German version. This is an ominous translation into German: does this mean that Jews are to be found everywhere on earth, except, that is, in Germany? And where are they within Germany itself? The global Jews disseminate “atrocity propaganda” and spread “horror stories,” and if we report so much as a scrap of what happens here every day then we too are guilty of disseminating atrocity propaganda and are punished accordingly. Meanwhile the boycott of Jewish shops and doctors is in the offing. The distinction between “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” governs everything. One could draw up a dictionary of the new language.22

In his diary, Klemperer had already noted the public usage of the terms “atrocity propaganda” (Greuelpropaganda) and “world Jewry.”23 In LTI, he examines many other words and expressions, such as “punitive expedition,” “state occasion,” and “historical,” “fanatical,” and “group of followers.”24 Grammatical expressions are also analyzed, including the use of superlatives in numbers—“one hundred and fifty percent,” “the Thousand Year Reich”—as well as semantic superlatives such as “total.”25 Klemperer also examines signs and symbols, including a poster decrying the Kohlenklau (coal thief), meant to convey that anyone wasting energy by stealing coal also harms the national community.26

Klemperer also draws attention to the ways in which changes in expression illuminate underlying social changes.

In 1939 … announcements for those who had died in action filled a large square surrounded by a thick black line. … For the employees of a firm, the placing of a second announcement alongside that of the widow was an essential duty… If the deceased was a really big cheese, a high-ranking official, or on many different boards of directors, then there would sometimes be three, four or even more announcements of his heroic death, one below the other, and they could easily fill a good half-page of a newspaper. … By the end, however, there were rarely more than two lines of the narrowest column available for a single family announcement. The black line around the individual announcements was also dropped. The dead lay squeezed together in a single black-edged rectangle as if in a mass grave.27

The wordings of these announcements were also revealing.

For most of the time the majority of those who died in action did so “für Führer und Vaterland {for Führer and fatherland}”. … Greater degrees of enthusiasm for Nazism find expression in the following phrases: “he died in action {fiel} for his Führer” and “he died for his beloved Führer”, in which the Fatherland is not mentioned because it is both represented and contained within Adolf Hitler himself, just as the body of the Lord is contained within the consecrated host. And the expression of the highest degree of National Socialist fervor entails placing Hitler unambiguously in the place of the Saviour: “He fell believing his Führer to the last.”28

Obituaries intended to convey estrangement from the Reich abstained from any form of embellishment.

If, on the other hand, someone is not at all in agreement with National Socialism, if they want to vent their antipathy or perhaps even hatred without, however, showing any demonstrable signs of opposition, because their courage doesn’t quite stretch that far, then the appropriate formulation is “our only son died for the Fatherland” without any mention of the Führer.29

Similar observations can be found in the diaries of Friedrich Kellner, another German chronicler of the war years.30 Kellner’s overriding objective was to expose Nazi propaganda as a lie. He was interested in obituaries because he believed they showed signs of Germany’s impending demise. Klemperer does not make mention of any such signs, or dwindling public support. Nor does he acknowledge that the epitaph “for Führer and fatherland” was often reduced to “for the Fatherland” as the war dragged on. LTI was drafted immediately after the war during the Soviet occupation.31 It would hardly have been in keeping with Soviet propaganda of the era to suggest that large sections of the German population had distanced themselves from the Nazi regime and covertly expressed dissent. An alternative explanation is that Klemperer may not have considered such small demonstrations representative of a change in attitude.32

Lingua Quarti Imperii

In postwar Dresden, Klemperer hoped for a new beginning for both himself and his country. He joined the Communist Party and began giving lectures on cultural policy Even though he was able to return to academic life, the leadership in the East German Democratic Republic (GDR) quickly became a source of concern for Klemperer. In the propaganda and language employed by the new government, not to mention its veneration of Joseph Stalin, he began to see parallels with the Nazi regime:

administrative chaos, daily outrages, arbitrary acts by individual commanders, officially sanctioned looting, that matters are in fact quite different from how they are on the wireless. … The equivalence of the LTI and LQI [lingua quarti imperii], of Soviet and Nazi, of the new democratic and of the Hitlerite tune is horrifying! That fact obtrudes and intrudes everywhere from morning to night! In every word, every sentence, every idea… Utterly naked Russian imperialism!33

References to the LQI—the lingua quarti imperii of the new rulers—are subtly interwoven in the LTI.34 If presented too overtly, these references would have prevented the book from being published in the GDR.

In the GDR, Klemperer observed that he was “between all stools”: between his Jewish origins and German Protestantism, between academia and journalism, and now between East and West Germany.35 He was criticized by East Germans opposed to the GDR government.36 The absence of any discernible criticism of the new regime reinforced a view that he was a government-sponsored author and a Stalinist.37 At first, West German linguists also rejected LTI. Klemperer’s linguistic idealism seemed too closely aligned with the views of the previous government.38 His observation that words can be “like tiny doses of arsenic” that are “swallowed unnoticed” was interpreted as suggesting that the German people had been unwittingly seduced by the language of National Socialism. On the contrary, Klemperer sought only to explain its spread.39

During the 1990s, Klemperer’s diary was published for the first time and became a bestseller in Germany. A television series was also made about his life.40 Long dormant, sales of LTI also soared, and it too became a bestseller.41 Taken as a whole, the diaries present a more sophisticated picture of Klemperer’s observations and analysis. As a result of their publication, LTI and Klemperer’s contribution were seen in a new light. LTI is now viewed primarily as an attempt to understand cultural criticism as linguistic criticism, and linguistic criticism as ideological criticism. In a diary entry from January 1942, Klemperer remarked that he would like to become “the chronicler of the cultural history of the present catastrophe.”42 Seven decades after the publication of LTI, Klemperer’s own place in history has never seemed more assured.

Translated and adapted from the German by the editors.

  1. The publisher’s advertisements for Partenau were unambiguous: “Die Sprache ist biegsam und hart zugleich, rücksichtslos formt sie Dinge und Menschen mit einer seltenen und erstaunlichen Heftigkeit.” (Language is flexible and hard at the same time; it ruthlessly shapes things and people with rare and astonishing vehemence.) 
  2. Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 26–27. 
  3. Ibid., 27. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid., 15–16. 
  7. Ibid., 11. 
  8. Victor Klemperer, Adolf Wilbrandt: Eine Studie über seine Werke (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta 1907); Victor Klemperer, Paul Heyse (Berlin: Pan-Verlag, 1907). 
  9. Victor Klemperer, Paul Lindau (Berlin: Concordia deutsche verlags-anstait, 1909); Victor Klemperer, Berliner Gelehrtenköpfe (Potsdam: 1910). 
  10. Notker Hammerstein, Antisemitismus und deutsche Universitäten 1871–1933 (Frankfurt: 1995), 70. 
  11. Klemperer’s dissertation was focused on the German novelist, translator, and literary theorist Friedrich Spielhagen and was entitled Die Zeitromane Friedrich Spielhagen und ihre Wurzein (The Novels of Friedrich Spielhagen and Their Roots). 
  12. Entry for December 3, 1938 in Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1941, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 278. 
  13. Entry for September 3, 1929 in Victor Klemperer, Leben sammeln, nicht fragen wozu und warum. Bd. 2: Tagebücher 1925–1932, eds. Walter Nowojski and Christian Löser (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1996), 57. Translated by the editors. 
  14. Arvi Sepp, “Lingua Tertii Imperii und Autobiographie: Victor Klemperers Tagebücher der NS-Zeit als Epitext,” Germanica Wratislaviensia 140 (2015): 107. 
  15. Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 10. 
  16. Ibid. 
  17. Entry for July 14, 1934 in Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1941, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 75. 
  18. Entry for July 29, 1934 in ibid., 79. 
  19. Entry for July 27, 1934 in ibid., 77. 
  20. Entry for June 23 to July, 1 1941 in ibid., 403. 
  21. A commentary on LTI can be found in Kristine Fischer-Hupe, Victor Klemperers “LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen” (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2001). 
  22. Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 29–30. 
  23. Entry for March 27, 1933 in Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1941, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9. 
  24. See Chapters 6, 7, 9, and 33 in Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). 
  25. Ibid., 221–30. 
  26. Ibid., 87–90. 
  27. Ibid., 126. 
  28. Ibid., 125. 
  29. Ibid., 125–26. 
  30. See, for example, entry for November 3, 1942 in Friedrich Kellner, “Vernebelt, verdunkelt sind alle Hirne”: Tagebücher 1939–1945, eds. Sascha Feuchert et al., vol. 1 (Göttingen: 2011), 334. 
  31. For a discussion of the conditions in which LTI was written and their influence on the text, see Heidrun Kämper, “Sprachgeschichte – Zeitgeschichte: Die Tagebücher Victor Klemperers,” Deut­sche Sprache 28 (2000), 37–40; Kristine Fischer-Hupe, Victor Klemperers “LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen” (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2001), 66. 
  32. Jörg Riecke, “Überlegungen zu ‘Sprache und Beziehung’ unter den Bedingungen einer Diktatur,” in Sprache und Beziehung, eds. Angelika Linke and Juliane Schröter (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 235–57. 
  33. Entry for November 8, 1945 in Victor Klemperer, The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945–49, trans. Martin Chalmers (London: Phoenix, 2004), 68. 
  34. See, for example, the mention of “the language of the Fourth Reich!” in the first chapter. Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 14. 
  35. Entry for July 6, 1947 in Victor Klemperer, The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945–49, trans. Martin Chalmers (London: Phoenix, 2004), 207. The corresponding volume of Klemperer’s diaries in the original German is entitled: “So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stühlen” (So I Sit Between All Chairs). 
  36. For a discussion, see Kristine Fischer-Hupe, Victor Klemperers “LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen” (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2001), 514–16. 
  37. Klemperer’s LTI, if known, was mostly viewed quite negatively. The book was prohibited for export to Western countries and it was not until 1966 that a hardcover edition printed in West Germany. 
  38. Klemperer understood idealistic neo-philology to mean making the traits of “national spirit” visible, in turn, revealing the expressions typical of a people—and not only linguistic expression. This attention to historical and linguistic manifestations of national spirit was seen as similar to the outlook of the Nazi regime. 
  39. Klemperer demonstrated the poisonous effect of National Socialism on his own language, which is apparent from his diaries in his use of terms such as “extermination,” “work deployment,” and collectives such as “the Russian” or “the Jew.” LTI is an attempt to understand the mechanisms, spread, and potency of this language, with the goal that readers might build resistance to its toxicity. 
  40. Klemperer: Ein Leben in Deutschland, directed by Andreas Kleinert and Kai Wessel, 1999. 
  41. For details of the publishing house and the reception for LTI, see Kirsten Fischer-Hupe, Victor Klemperers “LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen” (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2001), 77–265. 
  42. Entry for January 17, 1942 in Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1942–1945, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: Random House, 1999), 7.