The Hitler Salute

On the Meaning of a Gesture

Tilman Allert

Metropolitan Books


In 1937 Samuel Beckett took an extended trip to Germany. As he was walking through the streets of Regensburg, Bavaria, on March 3, a sign above the portal of the Dominican church caught his attention. He noted in his travel diary: “Walk away past Dominikanerkirche, that I don’t look at, except to see on northern door notice Grüss Gott crossed out+replaced by Heil Hitler!!!”

This observation, part of the “flotsam” of names and dates with which Beckett filled his journal, became one of the many “straws” he collected so as to retain the chaotic and incoherent aspects of his experiences in the hope that he might one day understand them. Hostile to unifying theories of any sort—he found historical determinism particularly repellent—Beckett simply marked the importance of his observation through his use of punctuation. What he saw in Regensburg was added to the impressions he had taken away from interactions with Germans in Hamburg, Berlin, and elsewhere in his travels, where he had already noted the ubiquity of the Hitler salute. “Even bathroom attendants greet you with ‘Heil Hitler.’” But this note, ending in three exclamation points, differs from the others with their neutral, phlegmatic tone. The three exclamation points mark the alienating and confounding nature of what caught the traveler’s eye that day in Regensburg—the replacement of the word “God” with the name of the Führer. Ending in this way, Beckett’s observation reads like a note to himself, a reminder to reflect on what he had seen.

But Beckett never returned to the topic. In April 1937, a month after his visit to Regensburg, he left Germany to take up permanent residence in France, and the astonishment he expressed at the incomprehensible subversion of language that was the Hitler greeting disappeared into the confused memories of a young man in search of an aesthetic identity and literary voice of his own. Interestingly, a few years later, Beckett would make his name through works that express the breakdown of human relations—their central theme—as a breakdown of language. The present book returns to those three exclamation points with which Beckett registered his intuitive horror at the rupture of meaning he sensed in the Nazi greeting. That, then, is the subject of this inquiry: how Germans greeted one another and what happened when their traditional ways of greetings were replaced by the Hitler salute.

Copyright © 2005 by Eichborn Verlag, Frankfurt am Main
Translation copyright © 2008 by Metropolitan Books
All rights reserved.