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The Hitler Salute

On the Meaning of a Gesture

Tilman Allert


The Hitler Salute Download image

ISBN10: 0312428308
ISBN13: 9780312428303

Trade Paperback

128 Pages



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In The Hitler Salute, sociologist Tilman Allert uses the Nazi transformation of one of the most mundane human interactions—the greeting—to show how National Socialism brought about the submission and conformity of a whole society.

Made compulsory in Germany in 1933, the Hitler salute developed into a daily reflex in a matter of mere months, and quickly became the norm in schools, at work, among friends, and even at home. Adults denounced neighbors who refused to raise their arms, and children were given tiny Hitler dolls with movable right arms so they could practice the pernicious salute. The constantly reiterated declaration of loyalty at once controlled public transactions and fractured personal relationships. And always, the greeting sacralized Hitler, investing him and his regime with a divine aura.

The Hitler Salute is the first examination of a phenomenon whose significance has long been underestimated. Allert offers new insight into how the Third Reich's rituals of consent paved the way for the wholesale erosion of social morality.


Praise for The Hitler Salute

"Allert's The Hitler Salute, a joyously sharp account of a massively evil slice of human history, doesn't treat the Nazis' obligatory two-word, one-arm greeting as a product of evil, but as its enabler. He argues, movingly, that the salute wounded Germans' sociability, connectedness, and personal sovereignty, warping the holy human order."—The New York Observer

"Fans of Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove will remember vividly the deranged Nazi scientist, played by Peter Sellers, struggling in vain to restrain his right arm at moments of excitement, as it involuntarily shoots upward in the Hitler salute. As the arm straightens out and reaches an angle of 45 degrees, it reminds us in a single image not just that some military scientists in postwar America had started their careers in Nazi Germany, but also that giving the Hitler salute had become second nature to the people who supported Hitler and his regime. That gesture is the topic of The Hitler Salute, by the German sociologist Tilman Allert, expertly translated into thoroughly readable English by Jefferson Chase. Mr. Allert reminds us that rendering the gesture—accompanied by the words 'Heil Hitler!' and, if you were a storm trooper wearing a serviceable pair of jackboots, a sharp clicking together of the heels—quickly became compulsory under the Nazis. By the summer of 1933, the Nazis' first year in power, all civil servants were required to use it in person, when encountering each other, or on paper, where the words 'Heil Hitler!' replaced the conventional 'sincerely' and similar signing-off formulae . . . Mr. Allert brings out these multiple meanings of the Hitler salute with a good deal of persuasiveness . . . [A] fascinating little book."—Richard J. Evans, The New York Sun

"It's hard not to wonder whether anyone back in the mid-1980s—when Don DeLillo was busy crafting White Noise's Jack Gladney, the wily chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill—could have anticipated that an entire book on the subject of the Hitler salute would someday be published. The Hitler Salute is, thankfully, not another sprawling biography, not another testimonial by führer's secretary or mistress, and not yet another attempt to put the man with the little mustache on the couch and offer up evidence of his latent bestiality or latent humanity. Allert's book is instead a sober examination limited to one of the most basic—if also most frequently parodied—forms of communication during the Third Reich, the so-called Hitlergruß, or Hitler salute . . . Allert has chosen, with illuminating result, to zero in on a single gesture . . . Allert, who teaches sociology and social psychology at the University of Frankfurt, takes great pains to demonstrate the impact the Hitler salute had on the German people. He draws on an unusually rich base of material, from novels, newspapers, and diaries to children's illustrations (a rewriting of Sleeping Beauty with the prince raising his right arm) and documentary photographs (a face-off between Hitler and Mussolini revealing the subtle distinctions between the saluto romano and its German counterpart) . . . This little book, with its analytic punch and range of fresh insights, offers a novel contribution to what frequently appears to be an old, tired—and, alas, tiresome—discussion of the Third Reich. Allert's overall approach has the merits of a far-reaching academic investigation packed into a relatively concise, elegant essay that, luckily, owes nothing to Jack Gladney."—Noah Isenberg, Bookforum

"A slim, fascinating book . . . In this sociological study, Allert examines the three components that comprise the greeting—two words and an arm gesture—made compulsory by the Nazis in 1933. Use of the greeting by millions of Germans for 12 years (and forbidden to Jews in 1937) ‘politicized all communication within German society,' he writes, changing social relations during that period. What would normally be a civil greeting became instead ‘a loyalty oath and membership badge,' turning ‘the very idea of human communication on its head' by its implicit threat of punishment. Such a gesture, according to Allert, ‘helped to silence a nation's moral scruples.'"—Gila Wertheimer, Chicago Jewish Star

"Tilman Allert encourages us to look at the microcosmic world of greetings to see how social mores decay . . . The Hitler salute was not only a stark indication of the extent to which ideology intruded into the most pedestrian routines of everyday life but, according to Allert, also served to ‘silence a nation's moral scruples.'"—The Chronicle of Higher Education

"In The Hitler Salute, German sociologist Tilman Allert has given us an analysis of the famous greeting that is both thorough and modest, accessible and profound. In the scope of 100 pages, he provides a history and interpretation of a most remarkable and telling feature of the totalitarian regime that was National Socialism . . . This work constitutes a brilliant example of what Erving Goffman referred to as the micro-analysis of the interaction order. The theoretical structure of the book is drawn from classical sociology—in particular the thought of Max Weber."—Karl E. Scheibe, Wilson Quarterly

"A brief but revealing semiotics of the swastika set. In his first book published in English, Allert has found a grand subject in a gesture at once ubiquitous and overlooked, the straight-arm salute that for a dozen years replaced traditional greetings in Germany and beyond. He observes that in all human societies a greeting is 'an initial and symbolic gift to the person to whom it is addressed,' something that, with luck, signals that the person issuing it means no harm. As they subverted and perverted the German language, a subject the linguist George Steiner has brilliantly addressed, so the Nazis twisted the Heil greeting of old—something meaning, at root, to heal, to cure, to be healthy—to praise their dictator. As early as 1933, when they took power, the Nazi leadership was promulgating laws and codes related to how and when the salute was to be used while simultaneously attempting to purge German of old greetings such as auf Wiedersehen and Guten Tag. Training the populace thus was an important step in the militarization of German society, though, obligingly, non-Germans joined in: As Allert points out, the English and French delegations at the 1936 Olympics, 'in a show of deference to their German hosts, entered the stadium with arms outstretched.' For their part, the Germans took to the change quickly, by Allert's account in a matter of a few weeks. One German university student recounts a 1946 lecture in which the professor stretched out his arm, claiming that it was 'an ancient gesture of blessing' and not an invention of totalitarian propagandists. The salute persists, Allert notes, but only among the 'socially disaffected and economically vulnerable, who can count on the sheer scandal value of this publicly reviled gesture to garner media attention.' Allert concludes with a warning about the dangers inherent in obligatory rituals, presumably including salutes of other kinds. A penetrating work of paralinguistic analysis."—Kirkus Reviews

"A compact, lucid study of the Third Reich's preferred greeting . . . Straightforward in its analysis yet profound in its conclusions, this uncommon selection sheds elusive light on the question of how Nazi ideology managed to penetrate even the most ordinary social interactions."—Booklist

"In this brief, insightful book, German sociologist Allert writes penetratingly about the gesture familiar around the world. Working like a preservationist on a minute canvas, he shows readers the cascade of meanings that rush through everyday greetings in general. But Allert's keen eye is trained on Germany, and he provides a wonderful depiction of regional, class and gender-specific greetings, from the kissed hand to the low, scraping bow. All of these were supplanted by the Hitler salute. Hitler was the suprahuman being in whom Germans invested their hopes, which they reaffirmed every time they raised their arms and shouted the Führer's name. As the salute penetrated every sphere of social life, it made Nazism omnipresent and Germans a unified community. It also affirmed authority for the ruler as well as over the ruled. Allert draws fruitfully on memoirs and letters. Readers encounter Germans who joyfully raised their arms to the Führer and also those who went to any length to avoid the gesture and sometimes paid dearly for their opposition to the Nazis. Allert's book shows how much can be gained from a close study of the daily rituals we barely think about yet are packed with meaning."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Tilman Allert

Tilman Allert is a professor of sociology and social psychology at the University of Frankfurt. The Hitler Salute is his first book to appear in English.