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Review of  Sprachforschung in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus [Linguistic Research During the National Socialist Era]

Reviewer: Franz Dotter
Book Title: Sprachforschung in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus [Linguistic Research During the National Socialist Era]
Book Author: Utz Maas
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
History of Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 27.4373

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book is a follow-up of the author's two volumes on the persecution and emigration of ''language researchers'' (see below) in the time between 1933-45 (Maas 2010; not quoted in the references!). Because it cannot be understood without the earlier volumes, I refer readers to the relevant reviews (Naguschewski 2011 for the whole final edition of 2010, Haase 1997 and Pulgram 1998 for Maas 1996, the first printing of the first part of the latter 2010 volume 1). From the start at the congress ''Week of burned books'' (Osnabrueck 1983), Maas looks back at more than 30 years of work in the respective research field. The reviews of Maas 1996 and 2010 underline the immense efforts expended in acquiring the biographic and scientific data of about 300 victims of the NS-regime in the area of ''language researchers'' and their value for further research. The results from 2010 had been available on the internet (at the homepage of Osnabrueck University), because the idea of the author was that readers could easily use the electronic database while going through the 2016 book. Unfortunately, the database was destroyed by a hacker attack and is not available today, but it will be restored.

As the personal scientific achievements of the single researchers as well as their more or less tragical fates are documented in the two volumes of 2010, they are not repeated as a whole in the actual 2016 book, except for examples of certain types of persecution. The book only contains the list of 339 researchers (of which 301 were victims) with short notices as an annex. Instead, the historic context of the NS-regime and a broader context of language research in German speaking countries are the main themes of the book, i.e. murder, persecution and ''voluntary'' or enforced emigration are mostly generally dealt with, illustrated by extracts from biographies.

The author takes a very general perspective, documented in the first chapter (''Vorueberlegungen'' i.e. 'Preliminary Considerations'), where he discusses the constitution of the discipline of linguistics within a much broader context of ''language science'', the process of professional differentiation within the latter area and the different 'states of the art' or developmental stages of the various disciplines at one point in time. The author points out that linguistics emerged from the broad discipline of ''philology'' in the last decennia of the 19th century and that its professionalization processes - in the sense of the development of 'modern' linguistics as we understand it now - lasted until the 1960s. Especially the time after World War II brought essential turns in the construction of linguistics in German speaking countries.

Concerning the goal of presenting the history of ''language research'', Maas goes back to the 19th century and the dispute between more positivistic positions (cf. the Neogrammarians) and researchers who adopted a more holistic view of language (starting from e.g. Wilhelm Dilthey's conception of the humanities), which also led to the consideration of research in neighbor sciences like psychology, sociology, ethnology. Because he includes all research having language as its object under the rubric of ''language research'' (''Sprachforschung''), even research outside universities, Maas offers a comprehensive view of the area.

In Chapter 2 (''Verfolgte deutsche Sprachforscher'', i.e. 'Persecuted German language researchers') the author first describes that he used three categories for the respective researchers: alongside 267 persons suffering from extensive persecution, he identified 35 cases of researchers who were able to stay in Germany though they were discriminated against or suppressed and 39 cases where he could not find proofs that persecution led to emigration. He combines these three groups with 10 ''profiles'' which aim to classify the work done by the researchers contained in the database; four of these profiles describe linguistic research in a narrower sense: only profile 1 describes 'modern' linguistics (it includes 49 persons), profile 2 historical and comparative (indo european) linguistics (including Neogrammarians; altogether 143 persons), profile 3 descriptive and empirical linguistics (10 persons), and profile 4 applied linguistics (15 persons).

The greater part of Chapter 2 is devoted to the development of ''language research'' from the late 19th century until the 1970s. The chapter closes with two research results: The first tells us that 127 persons included in the database were members of the Linguistic Society of America. The second tells us that an inquiry about the publicity of 210 members of the database under the members of the German Society for Linguistics (DGfS) in 2007 showed that most of the names were unknown. Within the known, there were famous linguists like Sapir, Boas, Trubetzkoy, and Weinreich, as well as persons from neighbor sciences like Buehler, Lenneberg and Stern. The author takes this as the proof that after 1945 linguistics in German speaking countries did not continue the work that many of the persecuted and expelled language researchers had done before. Rather, linguistics had been more or less new constituted concerning theory and methodology after WW II.

Chapter 3 deals with persecution and its context. It calculates that about 80% of persecution was based on racist laws, the basis of which, anti-Semitism, represented a broad consensus: 13 persons were murdered in concentration camps (KZ), 2 as political opponents, 14 committed suicide, 4 survived KZ or the penitentiary. While 227 persons emigrated, others are examples of survival like the average of persons persecuted under NS-rule: Some were 'saved' by ''Aryan'' consort, some lived on under discrimination (partially ''arranging'' with the system), some hid elsewhere, some escaped as children sent to exile alone; and at least some died before their persecution came to its end. The chapter deals in detail with all aspects of persecution, with the - legally = racially grounded - measures of dismissal (87 cases are documented), discrimination and murder. Besides racism there was also persecution of homosexuals, politically ''not trustworthy'' persons and discrimination of women. For 62 persons in the database the author could identify overt political opposition.

Chapter 4 describes the conditions of emigration and exile in different countries and the work of organisations helping the emigrants. An overview presents the 37 states into which the single researchers emigrated and the dates of exile. Most positive examples of scientists being able to establish themselves in the country of exile can be found in the USA where some persons could contribute essentially to the development of the discipline (cf. e.g. Boas, Lenneberg, Reichenbach, Weinreich; Bar-Hillel for Israel). After 1945, only 35 researchers re-emigrated to the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Western Germany), 9 to the German Democratic Republic (Sowjet Zone, Eastern Germany) and 8 to Austria.

Chapter 5 goes back to the history of language research (in the broad sense already mentioned) and presents a detailed analysis of the development of linguistics as a special discipline of its own from the 19th century until the time after WW II. It may be noted that the persons later persecuted or exiled have contributed to this development.

Chapter 6 describes the taking over of language research by the Nazi regime (Maas: ''The politicization of the discipline''). This takeover partially changed the scientific questions or the formulation of research results under the leading perspective of service to racial (''voelkisch'') interests, be it by threat or ''voluntarily'' . Some persons decided to work on ''unproblematic'' issues, but even there they had to add portions which reflected the ideology of the regime. This caused a growing isolation of linguistic research from the international development, though some linguists tried to follow its trends.

The last subchapters (6.9 and 6.10) deal with the restoration of linguistics after the end of WW II. As in other areas like politics, it is characterized by the suppression of the Nazi time's crimes and oppression. One major factor was that the scientists who had been working in Germany and Austria during the Nazi regime faced or feared denazification (some were discharged for a few years but most of these were reemployed later). There was a lot of resistance against re-emigration because there was a widespread negative mood towards persons who had ''a good life in exile'' while ''others suffered'' in Germany. Almost no leading person fought this mood. This general psychic situation was one of the causes of the ''clash of generations'' in the late 1960s. Only then a more radical change towards international standards was possible also in science.

Chapter 7 continues this description by referring to the database. Maas evaluates the developments of German-speaking language research from his perspective: He denies that there should be a notion of ''Jewish language research'' as well as the frequently used notion of an ''decapitation'' of German science by the NS regime. He also argues against a simple identification of ''persecuted science = good science''.

Chapter 8 gives a conclusion and prospects. Maas summarizes his view on the history of language research in Germany and Austria. He emphasizes the importance of the culture analytical approaches which had been questioned since the Neogrammarian movement but had its adherents until 1945 in Germany, as well as in exile. His argument is as follows: Culture analytical approaches were discredited after 1945 because they had also been represented by at least partially discredited scientists working under the NS-regime. As only few exiled representatives of these approaches came back to Germany and Austria it was not possible to continue these approaches after 1945. This was the reason that the linguists who took the lead in Germany and Austria represented either traditional (e.g. 'soft' Neogrammarian), structuralist or more formal approaches. To do justice to the broken tradition of culture analytical language research - naturally in the light of modern standards of linguistics - the works of the persecuted scientists should be made better accessible to linguists.


As was already said concerning the two documentary volumes (Maas 2010), the author expended immense effort on the issue of language research in the NS time, especially on a complete presentation of persecution and expulsion of scientists: this collection of data, their ordering and analysis covers more than 1200 pages and includes a CD-ROM. The 2016 book under review now connects to this issue with the first small part of Chapter 2, Chapters 3, 4, 6, the last part of 7 and parts of Chapter 8. It is indispensable for anyone who wants to work on this theme, though most people will realize that they would need Maas 2010 or the hopefully soon restored website for parallel reading in order to get comprehensive information on persons and their work.

Concerning the Nazi regime, its laws and everyday practice, the book lacks respective original documents, either quoted as texts or as references. Just to take one example: the regime tried to exploit all work done for its interests. Therefore they created the notion of ''Kriegseinsatz der Geisteswissenschaften'' ('War service of the humanities') to which scientists had to officially relate in everyday presentations or in publications. In my perspective, this lack of original texts in Maas’ book creates the wrong impression that academic life was calm for scientists who did not adhere to Nazi ideology. Maas fails to describe the almost complete everyday system of surveillance, state spies (down to block leaders = ''Blockwart''), formal and informal censorship built up by Gestapo and SS which opened the doors for denunciation. This system also worked at universities.

Methodologically, Maas is very keen on keeping to proofs, and therefore often states that there is no proof for some sort of persecution of a certain person. While this is adequate, his numerous general conclusions from these single cases (e.g. ''Principally, the NS regime persecuted persons, not scientific positions'', p. 168; translation by the reviewer) are either wrong (cf. the argumentation against the burned books, or psychoanalysis as a persecuted science) or misleading, because they assist a discourse of the sort ''it was not as bad as you think'' (cf. also p. 174). A perspective combining 'not every denunciation had negative consequences' and 'there were also scientific reasons for conflicts' (cf. p. 165) can have the same effect. That Maas denominates some types of persecution as ''conflict constellations'' (title of subchapter 3.5), is equally inadequate. The same happens when he writes that ''especially the public visibility of a politically nonconforming attitude caused persecution and disciplining'' , he continues ''where such an attitude remained informal and colleagues or students did not denounce, there was considerable space for nonconformity'' (p. 165; translation by the reviewer).

There is also a lack of any description of the recruitments performed by the NS-regime to replace the dismissed or exiled scientists. A list of successors would be of great value. Additionally, it seems that some authorities of language research get a rather friendly interpretation of their activities in the Third Reich along with a high evaluation of their work (e.g. Porzig and Wuest; cf. subchapter 7.12; an earlier version of this was already criticized by Simon 1990). Finally, there are a number of important references lacking (see ''References not quoted'' below).

There are even a few weird claims, e.g.: ''Because the SS people saw themselves as an elite, they expected that the persons working in the SS science groups qualified under regular academic conditions.'' (p. 416; translation by the reviewer). I do not want to describe what the SS understood by ''regular academic conditions''. Or take ''One may not speak of resistance where only human solidarity was the case, though this could cause persecution.'' (p. 165; translation by the reviewer).

The second subject of the book, which aims at establishing a history of language research in Germany and Austria from the second part of the 19th century up to the 1960s, is partially questionable, however. It is distributed over Chapters 1, the greater part of Chapter 2, Chapter 5, the first part of Chapter 7 and parts of Chapter 8. This causes some fragmentation as well as partial overlapping and repetitions, lacking an overt chronology. The text is essay-like, offering neither original texts as proofs for the classification of single persons or groups nor systematic descriptions of their scientific orientation. The notions used for characterizing different approaches are very general and not based on examples; therefore they will be hard to (re)trace or reconstruct for many readers. Readers may also develop the impression of a somewhat idiosyncratic authorial view concerning historical, philosophical and linguistic developments (e.g. p.23-26, 293-296, or 511-515). Perhaps it would have been better to show the ''flow of linguistic ideas'' in its temporal and argumentative complexity. For these reasons, the author does not reach one of his main aims, namely to view the persecuted language researchers and those who remained in Germany and Austria during the NS regime within an integrated perspective, embedded in the development of the field from the second half of the 19th century to the 1960s.

To sum up: The book is very valuable for research in the persecution of language researchers under the NS-regime; its contribution to the broader history of linguistics may be questioned.


Naguschewski, Dirk. 2011. Review of Maas 2010. H-Soz-Kult, 08.04.2011. (1 July, 2016.)

Haase, Martin. 1997. Review of Maas 1996. (1 July, 2016.)

Pulgram, Ernst. 1998. Review of Maas 1996. Language 74. 365-366.

Simon, Gerd. 1990. Wider die Utzmaasereien in der Sprachwissenschaftsgeschichtsschreibung. Zeitschrift für germanistische Linguistik 18. 81-94.


Maas, Utz. 1996.Verfolgung und Auswanderung deutschsprachiger Sprachforscher 1933-1945. Vol. 1: Einleitung und biobibliographische Daten A-F. Osnabrück: Secolo.

Maas, Utz. 2010. Verfolgung und Auswanderung deutschsprachiger Sprachforscher 1933-1945. 2 Vols. Tuebingen: Stauffenburg

Dainat, Holger & Danneberg, Lutz (eds.). 2003. Literaturwissenschaft und Nationalsozialismus. Tuebingen: Niemeyer.

Eckart, Wolfgang U. & Sellin, Volker & Wolgast, Eike (eds.). 2006. Die Universitaet Heidelberg im Nationalsozialismus. Heidelberg: Springer.

Haupts, Leo. 2007. Die Universitaet zu Koeln im Uebergang vom Nationalsozialismus zur Bundesrepublik. Wien etc. Boehlau.

Kaemper-Jansen, Heidrun. 1993. Spracharbeit im Dienst des NS-Staats. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Knobloch, Clemens. 2004. Die deutsche Sprachwissenschaft im Nationalsozialismus. Kritische Ausgabe 2. 42-47.

Koonz, Claudia. 2003 The Nazi conscience. Cambridge, Mass & London: Belknap.

Ranzmaier, Irene. 2005. Germanistik an der Universitaet Wien zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Wien etc.: Boehlau.

Roemer, Ruth (ed.). 1989. Sprachwissenschaft und Rassenideologie. 2nd, improved ed. Muenchen: Fink.

Schwabe, Klaus (ed.) 1988. Deutsche Hochschullehrer als Elite 1815-1945. Berlin etc.: Oldenbourg

Seier, Hellmut. 1984. Universitaet und Hochschulpolitik im nationalsozialistischen Staat. In: Malettke, Klaus (ed.). Der Nationalsozialismus an der Macht. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 143-165.

Wilking, Stefan. 2003. Der deutsche Sprachatlas im Nationalsozialismus: Studien zu Dialektologie und Sprachwissenschaft 1933-45. Hildesheim: Olms.
Franz Dotter, Associate Professor for General Linguistics at the Alps-Adria University of Klagenfurt, Austria; retired since 2013. dr. phil.1975, habilitation on iconicity in syntax 1990. 1996-2013 head of the Centre for Sign Language and Deaf Communication ( Main interests: Typology and cognitive linguistics, sign languages, sociolinguistics of politics and minorities, text/discourse analysis, deaf education; email address: [email protected]