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Review of  Political Languages in the Age of Extremes

Reviewer: Maryam Borjian
Book Title: Political Languages in the Age of Extremes
Book Author: Willebald Steinmetz
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2897

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The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) once challenged the foundation of modern linguistics set by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as: “The entire destiny of modern linguistics is in fact determined by Saussure’s inaugural act through which he separates the ‘external’ elements of linguistics from the ‘internal’ elements, and, by reserving the title of linguistics for the latter, excludes from it all… the political history of those who speak it, or even the geography of the domain where it is spoken, because all of these things add nothing to a knowledge of language taken in itself” (Bourdieu, 1991: 33). Drawing on insights of his Russian predecessor, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Bourdieu argues that language is neither a means of communication alone nor is it a system of ‘internal’ rules alone. Situating language within society, Bourdieu perceives language as a mechanism for power and pleas for linguists to go beyond the ‘internal’ elements of language to equally take into account its ‘external’ elements and explore the interaction of language with many other variables within society such as power, politics, and ideology.

The volume under review, ‘Political Languages in the Age of Extremes’, can be taken as a response to Bourdieu’s call. Its fourteen papers were delivered at the conference of the German Historical Institute in London in March 2004. Blending scholarship on history and linguistics, the volume examines the relationship between language and political power in the ‘age of extremes’, or the ‘short twentieth century’, a term coined by Eric Hobsbawn (1917-2012), the British Marxist historian, to refer to the period between 1914 and 1991, which begins with the First World War and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, the short 20th century refers to a long epoch, in which the world witnessed not only several wars, but also the rise and fall of many short- or long-lived political ideologies, such as Bolshevism, Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. The central question of the book is: To what extent and in what ways was language used by those in positions of political power, or those fighting them, to achieve certain goals and objectives across various localities in the West—both in nations under totalitarian regimes and in those under democratic rule. The topics covered deal with a diverse range of subjects, with some examples being: leadership cults under Stalin and Mussolini, depictions of enemies in BBC broadcasts and a poster campaign in the USA, secret diary writing under Nazism, and the defense strategies of Soviet party members and Gestapo prisoners.


The volume is organized in four parts, roughly corresponding to various time periods in the long course of the ‘short 20th century’.

Part I, “Introduction”, comprises two chapters, with language and power as the underlying theme, but with different methodologies. The first contribution, by Willibald Steinmetz, the volume’s editor, investigates language in its relationship to political power through a political-historical lens. It introduces this topic, sets the scope and framework of the volume, and provides a run-through of its major themes.

In the second paper, Angelika Linke provides a brief introduction to the volume’s main topic through a linguistic lens, with an emphasis on pragmatics. She touches on a number of concepts, such as politics as linguistic performances, the function and magic of communicative practices, and linguistic performance and identity, among others. Taken together, both studies offer introductory insights to the overall theme of the volume.

Part II, “The Rise of the Dictators and the Semantics of Leadership”, covers two papers on political language in the cults of Mussolini and Stalin. The first contribution, by Emilio Gentile, challenges the idea that fascist political language can be examined through a linguistic analysis alone, such as by classifying it as manipulation, deception, and demagogy. Arguing that fascism consisted of three dimensions—military, bureaucracy and religion—the author compares the patterns of language use among fascist propagandists with those of the Catholic Church in order to reflect on their commonalities: the central place of a supra being (God vs. the leader), the importance of homeland (the Holy Roman Empire vs. the glorious nation), the absolute truth (Catholic vs. fascist), and morality and family values as central themes. This religious dimension of fascist political language, as argued by Gentile, was the main impute behind its popularity. A dimension that survived the fall of fascism and its traces can be found in the discourse of neo-fascists and post-fascists in today’s Italy.

The second contribution, from Judith Devlin, examines the Georgian art exhibition that was held in Moscow in 1937 for the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Narrowing down her focus on the posters, paintings, and films of the exhibition, Devlin explores the ways in which Stalin was portrayed by Georgian artists, whose portrayals, nonetheless, were carefully controlled by Stalin’s private office. Despite official suppression of religious beliefs in the Soviet Union, Devlin’s findings suggest that Bolsheviks, like their fascist counterparts, recognized the importance of religious myths, symbols, and narrations, judging by the way Stalin was portrayed: “Stalin had been transformed from the General Secretary of the Party… into a mythical figure, a sort of supra-historical persona, who transcended the constraints of historical circumstance and the limitations of individuality to become the Father of the Peoples, the embodiment of the Revolution, the State, and its inhabitants” (p. 102). In sum, the two studies of this part reveal that in both contexts, attempts were made to borrow from religious language as a means to transfer legitimacy from former, traditional beliefs to newly emerged cults. Whereas the borrowing was explicit in fascist political language, it was implicit in that of their Bolshevik counterparts.

Part III, “Mind Your Words! Policing Linguistic Boundaries (1920s -1940s)”, consists of five chapters. The first two deal with the representation of ‘self’, with the central question being how the powerless ‘self’, under exclusion, purge, imprisonment, etc., represents oneself to the omnipotent ‘other’, who is not only the absolute authority, but also the judge who provides a framework for and decides the ‘appropriate’ forms of behavior and verbal expression. Igal Halfin explores how the Russian intelligentsia adapted itself to one-party rule during the 1920s. Through a close examination of archival documents, Halfin concludes that the Bolshevik’s plan was far more ambitious than consolidating power. They were, in fact, determined to construct a new identity on the part of Soviet citizens—an identity not shaped by a sacred text or past tradition, but rather by rationality, intellectual rigor, inspiration, agency, and above all, a profound devotion to the brotherhood of the elect and the cause of proletarian.

The second contribution of this section is Isabel Richter’s paper, which draws on transcripts of Gestapo interrogations and clemency pleas found on high treason trails in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. While writing their confessional statements or clemency pleas, these prisoners, as argued by Richter, conformed to certain narrative patterns and patterns of arguments as a means to meet certain purposes, including being pardoned from death.

The next two chapters deal with the concept of representation of the ‘other’—the depiction of the enemy in the US and UK during the Second World War. Sian Nicholas examines BBC’s coverage of Germans and Nazis in the UK, and Olaf Stieglitz examines the portrayals of Japanese and Germans in the American media. Although in both contexts, government did not claim a center-stage position, it, nonetheless, coordinated the process. Both papers offer insights on the power of words, images, sounds, and tones of propaganda during wartimes.

Part III concludes with Heidrun Kämper’s paper on diaries written by dissidents in Nazi Germany. In addition to their strong commitment to telling the truth, or offering a counter-truth to those of the Nazis, the authors of the diaries saw their act of writing like having a conversation, which is regarded as an example of a ‘communicative act’ by Kämper. Taken together, the five studies of this section offer interesting insights on political languages, including individual agency, the function and purpose of language use under conditions of extreme ideological confrontation and terror, and the representation of ‘self’ and ‘other’, to name but a few.

Part IV is “The Growth of Linguistic Awareness in the Cold War Era”. Its five chapters analyze political language between the American-led West and the Soviet-led East from 1940s to 1980s. It begins with the contribution by Thomas Mergel, who offers a comparative analysis of the discourse of anti-Communism as the basis of political culture in the US and West Germany. The two nations differed substantially in sketching the Communist ‘other’—the unknown, faithless enemy in the US vs. the familiar enemy in West Germany—but their rhetoric converged over time.

On the other side of the Berlin Wall stood the East Germany, the subject of Ralph Jessen’s chapter. Narrowing down his focus to popular humor and jokes, Jessen demonstrates the limits of imposed official propaganda and the resistance of ordinary citizens of East Germany to such an imposition. If official propaganda of promoted a particular language and defined relations of inclusion and exclusion, popular jokes and humor served a similar purpose for those who refused to accept the state’s highly top-down, ideological, homogenized, scandalized, and territorialized identity, and thus, sought to construct their own counter-discourse.

In the next chapter, Martin Geyer takes on the fear of a rapid language change that arose among West Germans in the 1970s. They feared not only the widening language gulf between the two Germanys, but also the profound number of leftist terms and jargon introduced to the language of public discourse throughout the rise of the student movement. The outcome was the state’s intervention through a language purification strategy, removing all ‘unwanted’ leftist terms and jargon from German. The official justification for this action was the removal of ‘language barriers’ that blocked governmental communication with people.

The fourth chapter, by Gareth Jones, examines the impact of language on the field of history. It begins with a brief overview of the evolution of the field of linguistics in the 20th century, notably, Saussure’s descriptive, Wittgenstein’s empiricist, and Chomsky’s rationalist approaches to language. What all these approaches had in common, as Jones maintains, was the premise that there were no facts outside of language and no reality other than that which presented itself under some linguistic description. Their impact was notable on every area of the humanities, and in particular, on the field of history. Narrowing down his focus to British historiography from the 1960s to 1990s, Jones argues that academic disputes about the ‘linguistic’ turn in historiography are interconnected with the political struggle of the Age of Extreme

In the concluding chapter of the volume, Ruth Wodak examines the revival/continuity of anti-Semitism in post-WWII Austria. Using discourse analysis as her method of inquiry, Wodak argues that the new form of anti-Semitism in Europe, though it is built upon the old form, has new features, including a move away from past guilt. This is, in turn, due to many reasons, including the current crises in the Middle East and the formation of a new rhetoric in Europe, which, in Wodak’s view, equates Israeli policies with those of Nazis. Taken together, the contributions of the last part of the volume present insights on the growth of linguistic awareness during the long course of the Cold War in areas that include language change, language purification, communicative acts, communicative spaces, and the discourse of inclusion and exclusion, to name a few.


I believe that the volume as a whole has several noteworthy merits. First, it is interdisciplinary, as it blends scholarship on history, political science, and sociolinguistics, resulting in a rich collection of essays that introduces new perspectives to the study of language and power. Second, notwithstanding its focus on the West, the volume has a transnational focus and is enriched by its comparison-across-space approach. Many patterns of language use and function have been examined across various localities with antagonistic political ideologies. Third, the concept of ‘agency’, meaning the ability of individuals or institutions to act freely and independently, has received a balanced treatment in the book. Over the past two decades or so, agency has often been used as a means to assign power to bottom-up forces, the victims, or the ‘subalterns’, especially by postmodern scholars. Such a tendency has often led agency-oriented research to overlook the agency of top-down forces. Yet, we find in the volume under review the assignment of agency to both sides: to those in positions of power, such as politicians, state prosecutors, judges, chief ideologues and propagandists; and to those without political power, including opponents, dissidents, and even prisoners. And last but not least, the studies presented in this volume are mostly based on primary sources such as archival documents and records, autobiographies, and confessional statements. As such, they offer a fresh interpretation of old documents, which offers new dimensions to the study of political languages.

A word needs to be said about the types of language that are the objects of study in this book. What is meant by ‘language’ here is not precisely the type of device Saussure had in mind, i.e., a system of ‘internal’ rules, involving phonology, morphology, and syntax, that is an object of investigation for structural or generative linguists. It is, rather, the type of language Pierre Bourdieu, Jack Derrida and Michel Foucault had in mind. In this sense, language is a system of ‘external’ rules, or a mechanism of power. Thus, language, as studied in this volume, is a broad device that includes not just written and spoken forms, but also visual and audible signs, images and symbols. Another point that merits attention is the interdisciplinary nature of the book. Although it is the volume’s intention to blend scholarship on history and linguistics, the major contributions of the volume comes from historians rather than linguists, judging by the academic backgrounds of the authors. Eleven of the fourteen chapters are contributed by historians who crossed academic borders to apply a linguistic approach to examine language through a historical lens.

The volume is very well edited and provides a wealth of new ideas and information on political language. It is beneficial to anyone with an interest in language, politics and power, not only in the Western world of the 20th century, but also around the world in its global phase of the 21st century; after all, totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes are still ruling many nations.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. (edited and introduced by John Thompson and translated by Gino Raymond & Matthew Adamson). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Maryam Borjian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures and the Coordinator of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Language Programss at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Her research interests are in the areas of educational linguistics, sociolinguistics, and language policy and planning in the contexts of colonializtion, modernization and globalization. She is the author of English in Post-Revolutionary Iran: From Indigenization to Internationalization (Multilingual Matters, 2013).

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199663330
Pages: 416
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