THE HITLER SALUTE by Tilman Allert


On the Meaning of a Gesture
by & translated by
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A brief but revealing semiotics of the swastika set.

In his first book published in English, Allert (Sociology and Social Psychology/Univ. of Frankfurt) has found a grand subject in a gesture at once ubiquitous and overlooked, the straight-arm salute that for a dozen years replaced traditional greetings in Germany and beyond. He observes that in all human societies a greeting is “an initial and symbolic gift to the person to whom it is addressed,” something that, with luck, signals that the person issuing it means no harm. As they subverted and perverted the German language, a subject the linguist George Steiner has brilliantly addressed, so the Nazis twisted the Heil greeting of old—something meaning, at root, to heal, to cure, to be healthy—to praise their dictator. As early as 1933, when they took power, the Nazi leadership was promulgating laws and codes related to how and when the salute was to be used while simultaneously attempting to purge German of old greetings such as auf Wiedersehen and Guten Tag. Training the populace thus was an important step in the militarization of German society, though, obligingly, non-Germans joined in: As Allert points out, the English and French delegations at the 1936 Olympics, “in a show of deference to their German hosts, entered the stadium with arms outstretched.” For their part, the Germans took to the change quickly, by Allert’s account in a matter of a few weeks. One German university student recounts a 1946 lecture in which the professor stretched out his arm, claiming that it was “an ancient gesture of blessing” and not an invention of totalitarian propagandists. The salute persists, Allert notes, but only among the “socially disaffected and economically vulnerable, who can count on the sheer scandal value of this publicly reviled gesture to garner media attention.” Allert concludes with a warning about the dangers inherent in obligatory rituals, presumably including salutes of other kinds.

A penetrating work of paralinguistic analysis.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8178-7
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2008


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