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Category: Non-fiction

Tilman Allert

Der deutsche Gruß. Geschichte einer unheilvollen Geste
[The Hitler Salute History of a Sinister Gesture]


Frankfurt-based sociologist Tilman Allert has written a remarkable microsociological essay on the function and effect of the so-called Hitler salute. By holding the "magnifying glass of sociology" over a phenomenon that was previously underestimated in its significance, he finds much more in this "sinister gesture" than the superficial function of a public demonstration of loyalty. Allert's case study outlines step by step how the public abolishment of traditional forms and functions of greeting promoted the deterioration of social morality on the one hand, while enforcing daily obeisance and the sacralization of Hitler on the other.

The author begins by explaining how the act of greeting serves as an opening for potential communication. For the recipient, a greeting signals that he has been perceived and that the greeter is in principle amenable to an exchange. Greetings often consist of good wishes or inquiries about one's well-being. Granted, they may differ in their regional formulations, but they work in similar ways.

Among others, one purpose of the mandatory introduction into public life of the German salute with its "Heil Hitler" formula - and this applied to oral as well as written communications in the public sphere - was to eradicate specific regional characteristics. Allert shows that replacing the traditional greeting rituals fulfilled an additional purpose: even the smallest element of peoples' ability to structure relationships in their own way was shaken, thereby subtly setting the stage for the later erosion of a sense of morals, the "abasement of morality." At the same time, offering the German salute became a public declaration since anyone who did not use the greeting came under suspicion of taking a critical stand toward the regime.

By analyzing the semantics and the accompanying gestures of the German salute, Allert shows that the greeting actually involved a daily oath, only thinly disguised. It styled the personage of Adolf Hitler into a supernatural, sacred figure thereby substantially contributing to promoting the internalization of the Führer-cult. Using Max Weber's concepts relating to charismatic authority models, and with reference to Rainer M. Lepsius's application of these concepts to the Führer-cult surrounding Hitler, the author documents the pivotal role that the German salute played in establishing and consolidating everyday power structures in society. This role by far exceeded that of a mere control function.

Allert devotes special attention to the examination of closed systems within society, such as the military, the church and the family. He poses questions of how the state's demand for control was handled within these systems; to what extent smaller frames of reference were defended or abandoned; and how various hierarchical structures both internal and external to the system were in competition or complemented each other. Although Allert's writing sometimes lapses into a very academic style in this section - in contrast to the rest of the book - the gain in knowledge is ample reward for the intellectual effort of comprehending his references to existing background knowledge in sociology.

In the final chapter Allert on the one hand analyzes the partly difficult but overall rapid return to traditional forms of greeting, while on the other he also points out the contexts in which the "sinister gesture" or its variants continued in use even after the Nazi era. In his summary, the author recalls a remark by Adorno about Hitler having confiscated laughter. From this he derives the image that "Hitler confiscated the act of greeting, thereby demolishing the foundation of human sociability" and contributing to paving the way for human values to be totally gutted.

Tilman Allert's "hermeneutic exercise," as he himself calls it, serves as an example of the outstanding role historical sociology can play in understanding historical processes and how pleasant and exciting such reading should be.

Translated by Philip Schmitz

Book cover The Hitler Salute History of a Sinister Gesture

By Heike Friesel