Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf

“… as if I were the master of the situation” – Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf


For Alan Dundes on His Sixtieth Birthday

While there is no dearth of scholarly studies on the language use in Nazi Germany,[1] recent investigators have pointed out that such analyses should not only look at the language of National Socialism, but also at the German language as it was used throughout the country during the years of the Nazi regime.[2] Two early documents from that time clearly illustrate the latter desideratum. In his satirical work Die dritte Walpurgisnacht (1933), the Austrian cultural critic Karl Kraus exposes and attacks the rising National Socialism by way of its slogans, phrases, and proverbial expressions. He points out that this “politische Phrasenvernebelung” (political smoke-screen of phrases) had a marked influence on the general German population right from the start which, however, for the most part did not become aware of “what reality lies hidden behind such expressions”.[3] Varying the German proverb “Die Sonne bringt es an den Tag” (The sun will bring it to light), Kraus writes that “Die Sprache [i.e., language] bringt es an den Tag”.[4] This altered proverb is also cited several times in the autobiographical yet scholarly book entitled L[ingua] T[ertii] I[mperii]: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947) by the Holocaust survivor Victor Klemperer[5] in order to point to the thoughtless and immoral language used during the Third Reich. And there is also the courageous essay with the Biblical-proverbial title of “An ihrer Sprache sollt Ihr sie erkennen: Die Gleichschaltung [i.e.; political coordination] der deutschen Sprache” (1938), in which Hans Jacob talks about the spreading “Vergewaltigung des Sprachgeistes” (rape of the spirit of the language) in Nazi Germany.[6] The title is a parody of the Bible proverb “An ihren Früchten sollt ihr sie erkennen” (Matth. 7:16; Ye shall know them by their fruits), and the article itself explains that German citizens should pay attention to the language of Hitler and his followers in order to comprehend their evil designs. Hitler actually used this very proverb on March 23, 1933, in a sarcastic speech against the Social Democrats. There he adds that “the fruits testify against them”[7] to the prophetic proverb, but little did Hitler know that it would be the fruits of his words and deeds that would in due time incriminate himself and his loyal Nazis.

Obviously the National Socialists had their special vocabulary which underpinned their political program with a pronounced rhetorical and propagandistic style. Detailed studies by Cornelia Berning, Werner Betz, Siegfried Bork, Rolf Glunk, Heinz Paechter, Wolfgang Sauer, Eugen Seidel and Ingeborg Seidel-Slotty, etc. have shown this in much detail,[8] but it must not be forgotten that the Nazis also made considerable use of all aspects of folk speech. At a party convention in 1934 Joseph Goebbels called directly for the use of such language: “We must speak the language which the folk understands. Whoever wants to speak to the folk must, as Luther says, pay heed to folk speech”.[9]

Hitler actually had already said something quite similar in 1925/26 in Mein Kampf: “I must not measure the speech of a statesman to his people by the impression which it leaves in a university professor, but by the effect it exerts on the people” (477).[10] What Hitler claims to be of specific importance to a speaker addressing the common folk is of equal significance for the language of propaganda which he analyzes in various sections of his book: “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be” (180).[11]

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

Finally, of special interest is also the title of a short chapter (see pp. 508-517) for which Hitler cites a “geflügeltes Wort” (winged word or sententious remark) from Friedrich Schiller’s drama Wilhelm Tell, namely “Der Starke ist am mächtigsten allein”[74] (The Strong Man Is Mightiest Alone; 508). One would assume that Hitler would then write about his own early rise to the leadership of the National Socialists. This is, however, not at all the case, because in this chapter Hitler wants to show how the National Socialist Party was able to bring the so-called “folkish splintering” (see pp. 512-514) under control in Germany. And yet, Kenneth Burke is absolutely correct when in his analysis of Mein Kampf he observes that throughout this chapter one senses “a spontaneous identification between leader and people”.[75] In his speech of March 20, 1936, Hitler explained this identity of “Führer” and National Socialists in the following manner: “From the people I have grown, among the people I have stayed, to the people I return!”[76] A second “proverbial” quotation from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell – one that has become quite popular in recent years because of its use as a slogan during the process of German reunification – also appears in Mein Kampf as “Wir sind ein einig Volk von Brüdern”[77] (We are a united people of brothers; 482). But Hitler warns his readers and later his listeners that in his German utopia only the Aryan race can be counted among these privileged people and that he as the only “Führer” will brutally exclude (later exterminate) all outsiders: “It must never be forgotten that nothing that is really great in this world has ever been achieved by coalitions […]. Great, truly world-shaking revolutions of a spiritual nature are not even conceivable and realizable except as titanic struggles […]. And thus the folkish state above all will be created […] solely by the iron will of a single movement that has fought its way to the top against all” (516-517). The quotation turned proverb “Der Starke ist am mächtigsten allein” thus becomes a metaphor for the grotesque behavior of Germany under the absolute leadership of Adolf Hitler.

It will not surprise anyone that towards the end of Mein Kampf Hitler employs proverbial metaphors that stem from the language of seafaring. Politicians have long referred to the ship of state and its captain.[78] Twice Hitler speaks of the “Ruhe vor dem Sturme” (calm before the storm; see pp. 158 and 194) and concludes the second to the last chapter with the oppositional pair of proverbial expressions “mit dem (gegen den) Strom schwimmen” (to swim with [against] the current) as well as the phrase “einen Damm aufrichten” (to erect a dam”:

Today, it is true, we must brace ourselves against the current of a public opinion confounded by Jewish guile exploiting German gullibility; sometimes, it is true, the waves break harshly and angrily about us, but he who swims with the current is more easily overlooked than he who bucks the waves. Today we are a reef; in a few years Fate may raise us up as a dam against which the general current will break, and flow into a new bed (666-667).

In the last chapter with its bellicose title “The Right of Emergency Defense” (see pp. 668-687) Hitler employs quite consciously the topos of the ship’s pilot. Doubtlessly in 1926 he was already thinking of steering the German ship of state in due time on a new course of National Socialism:

We might hope […] at long last to do what would have to be done in the end anyway, “das Steuer des Reichsschiffes herumzureißen” (to pull the helm of the Reich ship about) on some particularly crass occasion, and ram the enemy. This, to be sure, meant a “Kampf auf Leben und Tod” (life-and-death struggle) (673-674).

Here we have the pilot or “Führer” in his proverbial struggle for life or death. Hitler envisioned himself as this captain throughout Mein Kampf, and this struggle became a leitmotif for his entire existence in his later years. That he actually would bring death to millions of people he probably did not yet imagine in the middle of the 1920s. Or did he? At the time of composing Mein Kampf, he wrote with fanatical confidence that his National Socialist movement would be victorious in Germany. With about 500 proverbs and proverbial expressions on 782 pages of the German edition of Mein Kampf, Hitler reaches the high frequency of one proverbial utterance for every page and a half. This is indeed a clear indication that he has made ample use of metaphorical folk speech to underpin his program of National Socialism. In his “philosophical” and rhetorical fanaticism, it was obvious to him that his struggle would eventually make him the indisputable “Führer” of Germany. In this drive to absolute power, he shows a definite preference for the proverbial expression “Herr der Lage sein” (to be master of the situation), as was already mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. It is appropriate, therefore, to close these comments with yet another reference to this phrase in which Hitler describes one of his early speeches at a National Socialist meeting. This short passage shows his complex character and his pathological struggle to become the “Führer”. It should, however, be noted that at this early time he uses the still unfulfilled proverbial subjunctive:

“After about an hour and a half – I was able to talk that long despite interruptions – it seemed almost ‘als ob ich Herr der Lage würde’ (as if I were going to be master of the situation)” (505).

If only he had never become this master, who “marched straight to destruction, drawing the dear people behind like the Pied Piper of Hamelin” (149).[79] Even this last quotation out of Mein Kampf can once again today be read as an ironic and prophetic statement by the proverbially bankrupt Adolf Hitler.



1 See Michael Kinne, “Zum Sprachgebrauch der deutschen Faschisten: Ein bibliographischer Überblick,” Diskussion Deutsch, 14 (1983), 518-521.

2 See Utz Maas, “Sprache im Nationalsozialismus,” Diskussion Deutsch, 14 (1983), 499-517; ibid., Als der Geist der Gemeinschaft eine Sprache fand: Sprache im Nationalsozialismus. Versuch einer historischen Argumentationsanalyse (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1984); and Carola Sachse, Tilla Siegel, Hasso Spode, and Wolfgang Spohn, Angst, Belohnung, Zucht und Ordnung. Herrschaftsmechanismen im Nationalsozialismus (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1982).

3 See Karl Kraus, Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, ed. by Heinrich Fischer (München: Kösel, 1952), p. 208 and p. 211. It should be noted here that the translations of all secondary literature is my own. For additional comments concerning the use of proverbial texts during this period see Wolfgang Mieder, “Karl Kraus und der sprichwörtliche Aphorismus,” Muttersprache, 89 (1979), 97-115; also in W. Mieder, Deutsche Sprichwörter in Literatur, Politik, Presse und Werbung (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1983), pp. 113-131. O interest is also Andrea Hoffend, “Bevor die Nazis die Sprache beim Wort nahmen: Wurzeln und Entsprechungen nationalsozialistischen Sprachgebrauchs,” Muttersprache, 97 (1987), 257-299.

4 Kraus, p. 241.

5 See Victor Klemperer, LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (Köln: Röderberg, 1987; 1st ed. 1947), p. 16 and pp. 166-167.

6 Hans Jacob, “An ihrer Sprache sollt Ihr sie erkennen: Die Gleichschaltung der deutschen Sprache,” Das Wort, 1 (1938), 81-86. The Bible proverb is used as a powerful leitmotif throughout this article, and at the very end it is cited with an imperative exclamation mark, trying to activate the German population to deal critically with the language and deeds of the growing number of National Socialists.

7 All quotations out of Hitler’s speeches are cited from the standard edition by Max Domarus, Hitler: Reden und Proklamationen 1932-1945, 2 vols (Neustadt a. d. Aisch: Schmidt, 1962-1963), vol. 1, p. 244. All the translations into English are my own.

8 See Cornelia Berning, Vom Abstammungsnachweis zum Zuchtwort: Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1964); Werner Betz, “The National-Socialist Vocabulary,” in The Third Reich, ed. by Maurice Baumont, John Fried and Edmond Vermeil (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1955), pp. 784-796; Siegfried Bork, Mißbrauch der Sprache: Tendenzen nationalsozialistischer Sprachregelung (München: Francke, 1970); Rolf Glunk, “Erfolg und Mißerfolg der nationalsozialistischen Sprachlenkung,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Sprache, 22 (1966), 57-73 and 146-153; 23 (1967), 83-113 and 178-188; 24 (1968), 72-91 and 184-191; 26 (1970), 84-97 and 176-183; and 27 (1971), 113-123 and 177-187; Heinz Paechter, Nazi-Deutsch: A Glossary of Contemporary German (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1944); Wolfgang Sauer, Der Sprachgebrauch von Nationalsozialisten vor 1933 (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1978); and Eugen Seidel and Ingeborg Seidel-Slotty, Sprachwandel im Dritten Reich (Halle: Verlag Sprache und Literatur, 1961).

9 Quoted from Cornelia Berning, “Die Sprache der Nationalsozialisten,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Wortforschung, 18 (1962), 109. Berning’s long article contains more explanatory information than her book cited in note 8 above; it can be found in the following volumes of this journal: 16 (1960), 71-149 and 178-188; 17 (1961), 83-121 and 171-182; 18 (1962), 108-118 and 160-172; 19 (1963), 92-112. Klemperer (see note 5), p. 246, also quotes this statement by Goebbels.

10 All numbers in parentheses refer to the following edition of the English translation of Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin [Sentry Edition], 1962; 1st ed. 1947). Please note here and in other quotations from this book the use of italics in order to render Hitler’s affinity to the use of spaced type. I thank my friend Prof. George B. Bryan for lending me his copy of this book and for helping me with the translation of some of the proverbial language which Ralph Manheim failed to render into equivalent English. Thanks is also due my friend Veronica Richel for her help with some of the translations of proverbs and quotations. The English citations are all from this book, but where necessary I attempted a more colloquial translation of the German proverbial language. Reading Mein Kampf in the German original indicates Hitler’s frequent use of proverbial language much better than this otherwise excellent translation.

11 Compare also this additional irreverent statement by Hitler: “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan” (180-181). See also Walther Dieckmann, “Zum Wörterbuch des Unmenschen: Propaganda,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Sprache, 21 (1965), 105-114.


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

77 Schiller actually writes “Wir sind ein Volk und einig wollen wir handeln” (We are one people and united we want to act”. For the more modern use of this quotation turned proverb see Ulla Fix, “Der Wandel der Muster – Der Wandel im Umgang mit den Mustern. Kommunikationskultur im institutionellen Sprachgebrauch der DDR am Beispiel von Losungen,” Deutsche Sprache, no volume, no. 4 (1990), 332-347; and Hans-Manfred Militz, “Das Antisprichwort als semantische Variante eines sprichwörtlichen Textes,” Proverbium, 8 (1991), 107-111.

78 For a discussion of such proverbs and proverbial expressions see Irene Meichsner, Die Logik von Gemeinplätzen. Vorgeführt an Steuermannstopos und Schiffsmetapher (Bonn: Bouvier, 1983); and Wolfgang Mieder, “‘Wir sitzen alle in einem Boot’: Herkunft, Geschichte und Verwendung einer neueren deutschen Redensart,” Muttersprache, 100 (1990), 18-37.

79 Hitler speaks in this quotation of the politics of Austria and could, of course, not surmise that he himself would become the most terrible incarnation of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” motif. See also the numerous interpretations of Hitler as a Pied Piper in modern literature and caricatures in Wolfgang Mieder, “‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’: Origin, History, and Survival of the Legend,” in W. Mieder, Tradition and Innovation in Folk Literature (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1987), pp. 45-83 and 236-243 (notes).


Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405