Are You Really Going to Make Me Defend Hitler? Style, Grammar, and Usage Edition

Are You Really Going to Make Me Defend Hitler? Style, Grammar, and Usage Edition

In 1958, Dr. Franz Jetzinger published Hitler’s Youth, a scathing repudiation of the Führer’s adulatory backstory as advanced in Mein Kampf and August Kubizek’s The Young Hitler I Knew.

Jetzinger had been a bitter opponent of the Nazis since before Hitler became Chancellor and annexed Austria. During Hitler’s reign, Jetzinger lost multiple jobs because of his anti-Nazi allegiances, he was arrested multiple times, and he was interrogated by the Gestapo, who were looking for Hitler’s military file from Austria in 1914 (which Jetzinger had, in fact, stolen and hidden in his attic). He hated the Nazis and with good reason.

By the time he wrote Hitler’s Youth, Jetzinger was the Librarian of the Provincial Archives in Linz, Austria, where he had the resources and connections to collect extensive evidence about Hitler’s young life. Jetzinger was also raised in Braunau am Inn, the town where Hitler was born, and he drew extensively on his close connections in the region to study Hitler’s youth. As well, he had exclusive access to Hitler’s military file.

Given Jetzinger’s unique access, Hitler’s Youth was a revolutionary book when it came out, and it remains an invaluable resource for scholars of Nazism.

And, yet…

One of Jetzinger’s conceits is that, because he (justifiably) hated Hitler and the Nazis, he has a penchant for loaded language, pedantic examples, and self-righteousness. As Alan Bullock notes in the Foreword to the book, “At times [Jetzinger] appears to be preoccupied with…tedious and embittered quarrels” and “He rarely resists the opportunity to scold Hitler” (8).

Hitler ruined Jetzinger’s life—I’m not mad at him for being mad. But one place where this unfortunate tendency toward moralizing appears is in Jetzinger’s assessment of Hitler’s writing style, grammar, and usage, and it’s surprising relevant more than 60 years later.

There are several instances where Jetzinger tsk tsks about Adolf’s error ridden letters and postcards (125n1); his appalling spelling (128); and his “unsatisfactory” style, spelling, and punctuation (155). He makes such observations in the context of explaining, for example, that Hitler was in trouble with the authorities for dodging his military draft registration.

What is worth noting in these asides is not that Jetzinger was wrong about Hitler’s prose, but that what he’s done is load Hitler’s (mis)uses of language with moral condemnation. Jetzinger equates “bad language use” with “bad moral character.”

There’s one example, in particular, that really sheds light on Jetzinger’s close equation of bad language with bad character.

About halfway through the book, Jetzinger considers four postcards that Hitler wrote to his friend, August Kubizek, in 1908. Mind you, Hitler was nineteen, an orphan, living away from home for the first time, and jotting off hasty notes to a childhood friend. The situation hardly called for formality. Still, Jetzinger’s assessment is withering.

“For a youth of his age who had passed through four forms at secondary school, the spelling in the postcards is extremely bad” (92).

Jetzinger proceeds to enumerate the spelling and punctuation mistakes for several sentences. He then concludes the paragraph by comparing Adolf’s postcards to a document written by Adolf’s father, which was “far more complicated, but there is not a single mistake.” This despite the fact that Alois “had only attended elementary school, and a primitive one at that” (93).

The comparison really drives home Jetzinger’s loathing for Adolf, and again, I don’t want to take that away from him. But in making these observations, he implies, not very subtly at all, that Hitler’s bad language use should have been an early warning sign that he was fundamentally corrupted—lazy, self-centered, ignorant, and so on. Why else would he be less correct than his primitive father?

Jetzinger’s not the only person who uses Hitler’s language use as a gauge of his fundamental deficiency, either.

In his landmark Hitler’s Letters and Notes, Werner Maser notes Hitler’s uneven spelling, punctuation, and handwriting depending on who he was addressing. “That he could write correctly…is shown by the fact that whenever he was trying to make a good impression he made no mistakes,” but otherwise Hitler seemed unconcerned about correctness.

“Whether his cavalier attitude was due to carelessness or to rebelliousness against rules that struck him as quite pointless, or again to show some of his correspondents that he lived and wrote as he pleased, is difficult to decide” (22).

In his massive, two-volume biography of Hitler, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian John Toland also considers Hitler’s postcards to Kubizek and explicitly connects Hitler’s “Hitler’s usual self-pity” with “mistakes in grammar and spelling” (40). All just indicators of character, apparently.

Over and over and over again, Hitler scholars make connections between Hitler’s use of language and deficiency in his character. Sometimes the connections are explicit and sometimes little more than insinuation, but it’s an oddly common feature of the literature.

The fact that scholars do this with Adolf Hitler, one of the most reviled leaders of the 20th century, should give us pause. Given the gravity of their subject matter, why do so many commentators feel the need to go on tangents about Adolf Hitler’s comma errors?

As someone who has taught writing for more than 15 years, I don’t find it at all surprising. In fact, it betrays an incredibly common (and insidious) practice of presuming that people who use language well are fundamentally better than people who aren’t proper or correct users of language.

In Hitler’s case, the implication is that his infelicitous use of language should have prevented his rise long before he even had the chance to become Führer. It’s gross elitism, at best.

At worst, it’s racist and xenophobic. As myriad scholars of linguistics, language acquisition, global Englishes, second-language writing, translingualism, composition, and so on have documented for decades, the assumption that “good language = good person” informs all manner of harmful language, education, and cultural policies around the world. And it’s not uncommonly used to reinforce damaging race-, class-, and gender-based hierarchies, even by people who would otherwise reject such hierarchies.

For those of us in education, it’s way past time to abandon the “good language = good people” equation because it’s deeply harmful to people who don’t speak or write perfect “Standard English.”

Elitism about Hitler’s language has another implication apart from education that should deeply concern us. By equating good language with good people and bad language with bad people, we trick ourselves into believing that we (that is, people who use language well) could never fall for someone like Hitler.

At least implicitly, correctness gets treated as a prophylactic against demagoguery and harmful politics, as if smart, well-trained, well-spoken or written people can’t get tricked by some hateful monster who splits his infinitives because split infinitives (or dropped commas or misspelled words) betray the monstrosity.

Yeah, no.

As it happens, (1) most people think they use language more consistently correctly than they do; (2) really smart, well-educated, well-spoken people went head-over-heels for Hitler and will go for the next hatemonger; and (3) language correctness or incorrectness don’t have ANYTHING to do with the content of their character.


But when we convince ourselves otherwise — when we convince ourselves that good usage equals good people — we literally make ourselves more vulnerable to charlatans. And just as importantly, we rob ourselves of the richness and beauty of human difference.

In conclusion, great book, Jetzinger, thanks for writing it. But f*ck off with that language elitism b*llsh*t. There’s enough about Hitler to despise without heading down a parallel path.

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