April 23,1998

When meaning changes over time

by Sylvain Comeau

University German studies courses still fail to come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust, according to Karen Doerr. The Concordia professor of German languages and literature is trying to fill the void in her own classes, while prompting others to do the same.

"Maybe people think I feel guilty [about Germany's Nazi past]," said Doerr, a German-Canadian. "I don't. I do it because I feel a responsibility to the truth."

Doerr's concerns began with her own education. "I got my PhD in 1988, after I had already been teaching for years. And I realized that there were blanks in my education, both in Germany, and here, at the graduate level. So I decided to inform myself [about Nazi history] and I realized that this information should be integrated into any course dealing with German language, literature, et cetera, not just in German history courses."

Five years ago, she started to bring in guest lecturers on World War II, and to initiate class discussions based on newspaper articles about Nazism.

"I don't teach about the Holocaust, as such; that information is widely available. I give historical background on developments that could have led up to this period, or that contributed to the events of World War II. The Holocaust didn't come out of the blue; it's important to examine some of the reasons why it happened."

But on a more basic level, Doerr said that the Holocaust is beyond understanding. "When I first started to educate myself about the Holocaust, the more I learned, the less I understood how they could have wanted to destroy a whole people."

Doerr said that she was surprised to see swastikas in the articles published here; in Germany, it is illegal to show Nazi symbols.

"The students have often commented on just how important the Nazi period is to North Americans. We get a steady flow of articles on it over here. But in German textbooks, references to that period are often omitted."

In response, Doerr has collaborated on a book, due out this spring, which offers guidelines on how German studies professors can redress the situation. Doerr wrote an essay for the book on her integration of the subject in the classroom.

She is also conducting a study on how the German language itself has been affected by the Nazi period. "I found that certain neutral words that had no negative connotations before the war now have terrifying connotations for Holocaust survivors.

"The command 'Halt' -- Achtung -- which has the same meaning in German as in English -- can still give them panic attacks when they hear it. Because when someone ordered you to halt, you didn't know whether or not you were going to be killed."

At the same time, words and phrases that were loaded with negative connotations during the war have since acquired more neutral meaning.

"The Nazi period, for Germany, meant 15 years of a brutal regime that created new laws, and used language to express these laws. They used euphemisms like 'protective confinement,' which meant jailing someone, or 'special treatment,' which meant execution."

Another example of meaning changing over time is the word Aktion. "During the war, it meant to round up, transport and kill Jews. But since then, the word Aktion can mean a business campaign. In combination with another word, it is also the name of a program of German-Jewish reconciliation."

Doerr said that language is a living thing that changes constantly, "but that is especially the case in a country that wants a part of its history to go away. It changed even faster because people wanted to stop thinking about it and talking about it."

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