The First Grammar Nazis

20 minutes | Mein Kampf | Grammar | Nazis | Steve McQueen | Bonaparte

It’s the phrase we all use without thinking, isn’t it. Grammar Nazis. There has always been great value in structuring a piece of content well ~ a carefully-written text will encourage un-informed men to engage with the most complex ideals. Decent prose works wonders in furthering an audience’s understanding. And, if you combine tight vocabulary with some half-decent syntax and explicit punctuation, then a meaningful narrative can give readers the confidence to follow a leader’s thought processes beyond his words, out and onto the battlefield—or that’s the theory, anyway. 

Good men  and bad  know the power of well-written doctrine. Great language has inspired more than one battalion to march—to victory—on an empty stomach. However, there’s one tome that we all revile, often with no regard for its literary worth at all, due to its distinctly malevolent influence during the mid-twentieth century. Iterations of that work’s content have fallen over themselves to reflect the original book’s low editorial standards and poor grammar, ever since.

Published In 1925, ‘A Reckoning’ was the first instalment of a blueprint for the reformation of an entire political landscape. The second instalment, ‘The National Socialist Movement’, was also penned from a prison cell where its author was serving nine months of a 5-year sentence for treason. Autobiographical in parts but prophetic, philosophical — prosaic, even — in others, today we know the text in its entirety as Mein Kampf. The book was dictated erratically to fellow inmate Rudolph Hess, which, weirdly, gives the Obergruppenführer and his chum the dubious honour of being our eponymous, first grammar Nazis.

Quick pop question: What do Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler have in common? Answer: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and Mein Kampf were both published on 18th July.

That’s the only similarity. Dreams from My Father was written in English: a language in which punctuation and grammar have evolved naturally, so there’s always a bit of debate about the author’s intent if you take the text into a foreign language (30 translations to date). Mein Kampf was written in German:  a language known for being resistant to change, which should leave little doubt about the integrity of any translation—or so you might think.

Manheim, Soskin, Reynal and Hitchcock, Cranston, Murphy, and Ford. Sounds like Trumpton, doesn’t it. Dugdale completes the list but, of those names, Manheim and Murphy are usually the go-to translations for Mein Kampf.

We won’t get hung up on translators’ personal opinions that might have pitched functionalism versus intentionalism within the finished texts, or the use of abbreviations versus the plenitude of redacted text. Each man tries to get to grips with the Fuhrer’s own writing style—Hess’s interpretations—and each man delivers variations in quality as a result. Only one translation was approved by the Third Reich, and that’s James Murphy’s work.

Dr. James Murphy lived in Berlin, working as a journalist and translator. He’d been both vocal and critical of an abridged version of Mein Kampf, which, probably to his surprise, led to a commission from the Third Reich to create an unabridged, official translation for them in English. Who knows what the Propaganda Ministry’s master plan might have been. Murphy worked there from 1934 to 1938, but we won’t dwell on that too much—although to be fair, Goebbel’s focus was probably on integrity.

Remember, this book had been put out as two volumes in 1925 and 1926. It had garnered a great deal of interest overseas. But back-translations of the first English-language edition, published in Britain in 1933, showed that references to ‘effective’ British wartime propaganda were missing; the first French edition had toned down much of the source material’s violent language; and the first Arabic edition had taken out disparaging remarks about the Arabs. You can see why Goebbels was getting itchy. 

Fun fact—if that’s at all possible when you’re writing about Mein Kampf—Murphy’s work was serialised in the US in 18 weekly parts, at sixpence each, with all of the royalties going to the British Red Cross Society. That wasn’t the only charity to benefit from Mein Kampf, but then, ‘benefit’ is an uncomfortable premise, so we’ll move on. 

Murphy’s translation is still in circulation today. As are many other versions, including one by Michael Ford. I’ll try to get this in one hit: Michael Ford translated Mein Kampf and, at the same time, he self-published a book to handle any controversy about his translation, as well as emphasising *that* version’s superior qualities. There were loads of typos and grammatical errors in both works (just sayin’), and in Ford’s translation of Mein Kampf, you’ll also find a recommendation to go out and buy a copy of ‘Mein Kampf, A Translation Controversy‘—by Michael Ford. Keeping up with me? Good. Self-assured, I think they call it. There are other ways to describe a circuitous, self-publishing coup. Honestly, go and read the introduction to that version on Amazon—it’s a thing to behold, truly it is.

Where was I? Oh yes. Mein Kampf shaped the transformation of a nation. However, in translation, some of that formative intent does get lost. Fear not: I’m in no way a fan of the book’s intent. But the source material begat many final texts, all of which have varied significantly in length—600, 400 or 560 pages—and, even if you allow for differences in font size, you can see how different views on vocabulary and idiom might have an impact.

In short, there is significant room for error when you move words, punctuation, and the intent of a person’s grammar or syntax from one language to another. To make it worse, Hitler was an articulate orator—he was dictating thoughts off the cuff to Hess. The book is full of extraordinarily long passages that ask translators and readers to work pretty hard.

It’s a long stream of consciousness, which makes much of its intent seem convoluted and hard to understand. It’s full of metaphors too, which often happens when a person is orating ad hoc. In an attempt to improve the flow, Hess’s edits delivered also many complex ideals as focused texts with unhelpfully ambiguous ideas—malleable, mellifluous malfeasance was the result.

But let’s start with the title. ‘Mein Kampf’.

Things might have turned out very differently if Hitler’s publisher hadn’t pulled rank on Adolf’s original idea for a title: Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampfes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit—which, in the rough, means ‘Four and a Half Years (of struggle) against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice’.

Not exactly catchy, is it.

By the way, this is a photo of Adolf Hitler with Helene and Edwin Bechstein, of pianoforte infamy. Helene—daughter-in-law of the company’s founder—introduced Hitler to Germany’s cultural elite in the hope that he might marry her daughter. An unlikely event, when you think about it.

The de facto choice of translation for ‘Kampf’ is ‘struggle’, but the word may also be translated as ‘campaign’, ‘battle’, or ‘fight’. Whenever they dare to surface, cunning linguists will tell you context is usually the deciding factor. However, two words are rarely enough to establish an author’s intent if one of them is a homonym.

As a result, the tone set by the title is that of a catalyst for awareness and empathy among readers—an interesting choice, bearing in mind it could have been Mein Feldzug (my campaign), or Mein Schlacht (my battle) instead. Those options would have had more overt military inferences; more drastic consequences perhaps, from the outset. We should remember that, at the time, Hitler’s focus wasn’t on a military offensive. Mein Kampf was a personal commentary on what he believed to be possible, if a change in civilian culture could be achieved through a change in politics. The Kampf was his but he did not set out, explicitly, to write a military manifesto. 

In fact, there are passages in the first half of the book that question its own raison d’être entirely, illustrating Hitler’s self-doubt about his capabilities to be respected as a leader — “Ich wollte nicht Beamter werden” — the translation of which, by any measure, is: “I did not want to become an official.” Plans changed, obviously. But as an emerging dictator, it is surprising Hitler didn’t think about forthcoming forensic analysis of this formative piece of work. As it was, it looks as though he and his publishers gave little though to the ramifications of Hess’s writing style or ability to transcribe orated text, verbatim. It’s widely acknowledged that many passages have suffered greatly at the hands of first one translator then the next. Linguists and historians still debate the ramifications of multiplicity in modern-day versions. 

Whatever you think of the book itself, one thing is clear: as translators tried to convey the author’s original tone—often referring to recordings of oratory skill—they have all been constrained by the limitations of English language, idiom,  and our evolving views on grammar and punctuation. I use the term ‘skill’ advisedly.

A speech does not have to contain words of wisdom with which you agree, for it to — contextually — be deemed impressive. In fact, in the correct sense of the word, ‘impressive’ denotes neither positive nor negative connotations. Adolf Hitler was one of many men who had an impressive, and distinct, and influential way of speaking, and this is important: Mein Kampf was first published on the cusp of an era in which the spoken word and a speaker’s tone were to become weapons as powerful as any military armaments. In the mid to late 1930s, people had started tuning in to *hear* their leaders on the radio, in addition to reading about them (or not) in the newspapers.

Reports made great propaganda out of political statements. Personal appearances to troops rallied moral, and speeches by leaders worked hard to reinvigorate the spirit and stamina of troops—where there was none. Addresses were made on the radio, politicians made appearances on television … the voices we all recognise today were working very hard, then, to crystallise ideas that would shape a very different world. And if free speech is a birthright, then the transcription or translation of the tone in which speeches are  delivered is a very solemn duty. Here is a wonderful example:

“The British nation can be counted upon to carry through to victory any struggle that it once enters upon, no matter how long such a struggle may last or however great the sacrifice that may be necessary, or whatever the means that have to be employed; and all this, even though the military equipment at hand may be utterly inadequate when compared with that of other nations.”

We can be counted on. We’re reliablethat’s us. When it comes to using shoddy kit to get a job done, there’s no one better at it than a Brit (or a Frenchman, but I’ll come to that in a minute).

Go on, tell me. Who growled those words into a bakelite receiver, pausing for emphasis at every comma? Which leader, which politician, which military-man was speaking so eloquently about Britain’s superiority—using cadence and phrasing to enhance his point so magnificently?

Spoilers. It wasn’t Winston Churchill. That passage comes straight from Mein Kampf. 

 Ironic, isn’t it. There was a time when every German citizen was duty-bound to know key passages, if not that one, by heart. Newly-weds were given copies as good luck gestures too, which didn’t exactly hurt Hitler’s pocket when it came to the royalties.

In or out of context, those words are an admission of superiority, not inferiority—and, for the record, you don’t need much in the way of language skills to check that English version against the original. There’s very little there that might get lost in translation.

Hitler was acknowledging that we, the British, had stiffer upper lips than the mighty Hun. We were staunch in the face of adversity, impervious to the reality of insufficient resources or inadequate military equipment as we set out to face The Foe. The truth is —I’m going to digress here but stick with me —the truth is  Hitler knew  the British had made huge technological advancements in transport, and armaments. “Give me a squadron of Spitfires,” remember that?

Hitler knew that, if it came to military conflict, these might not be the days of great escapes at all.

Speaking of which (and proving my point), cast your mind back to the details of McQueen’s motorcycle chase, with Bud Edkin’s legendary leap over rubber-band, barbed-wire fencing in an attempt to outrun hordes of German despatch riders. Can you see him? McQueen is sitting on a motorcycle, next to a signpost pointing the only way out of his predicament, into neighbouring Switzerland and away from the murdering Hun.

He’s on a Triumph TR6 Trophy, which is strange. Isn’t it a little fortuitous that, of all the bikes in the German hinterland, McQueen finds the one and only British-made motorcycle with a full tank of rationed fuel, carbs primed, warmed-up and ready to go? Not at all. McQueen, like Adolf Hitler, knew German bikes were far less reliable than British machines.

The epic twist here, is that—apart from McQueen bending reality by doubling as the role of a German outrider, at the same time he’s biding his time undercover in a nearby ditch—the epic twist is that, if the Germans hadn’t invaded Poland, then the British motorcycle industry—our car factories and military vehicle facilities—would not have been duty-bound to make economical mass-production their goal and reliability their primary concern. 

It’s not even a stretch. There’s only one person who’s not leaping to a successful conclusion (that photo is a great shot of Mr McQueen in a Nazi uniform, in case you’ve missed it). Let me explain.

Thanks to the war-effort-induced focus on mass-production, we lost 300 or so small motorcycle companies and car manufacturers between 1938 to 1945. Small production runs and non-functional elegance simply had to be left by the wayside. 

Quintessential marques vanished overnight. Character-building engines and bomb-proof bodywork became the norm, as chassis-engineering was fuelled by the need to reduce every vehicle’s weight, optimise limited natural resources, and develop a superior mobile fighting force.

Manufacturers were conscripted for their immediate suitability to the military demands on their order books. Unfortunately, to maintain the fluidity of those production runs, every smaller marque ended up fighting against a tidal wave of contenders for the same, scarce parts. The conclusion for many businesses was that they quickly priced themselves out of manufacture. War had demanded the expansion of our automotive industry through need, but it also forced a decline through pressure. Little wonder, the word ‘reliable’ became associated with our dogmatic attitude—our determination to use not only what was at hand but to also develop an ingrained resilience, and a technologically superior automotive capability, at any cost. Hitler knew we were made of stern stuff. He knew there was much that we would sacrifice to deliver on the greater good.

It is a thought-provoking exercise to examine those words in detail. But then, many men have carved an audible niche in history with their rhetoric and reported speech (there’s a difference, sadly, as you can see in Hansard’s interpretations of Mr Johnson’s recent work at the despatch box, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day). So, even though it’s painful, we should surely carry on, studying Mein Kampf.

Examples of Hitler’s speech patterns are an advantage for translators—something that can’t be said for many other military leaders from whom we can also learn a lot—and Napoleon Bonaparte agrees with me on this point (okay, technically, I agree with him).

The great, little Frenchman used one of my favourite words when he said, ‘There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign,’. He suggested that the military machine has much to learn by getting to grips with the works of previous strategists. ‘Read over and over again,’ he said, ‘the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great general.’ Can’t argue with that.

This valuable insight—Bonaparte’s instruction—is made apparent to students of the Napoleonic Wars thanks to the work of Antoine Henri Jominie, a Swiss soldier and military theorist. Jominie was prophetic enough to see military history as a body of empirical data from which we derive principles to shape future conflict strategy. He’s celebrated largely for his portrayal and reportage on the Napoleonic wars, as Bonaparte himself wrote down very little about his military ideals. The trouble is, Jominie only wrote in French, which is why students at Westpoint today still have to learn the language — so that they can study the text in its original form. Seriously.

Try this. It’s a common translation, but a passage that’s well-worth reading. Listen to the crescendo of the speaker’s tone, as the voice in your head is guided by written form and punctuation:

“Soldiers, you have, in fifteen days, gained six victories, taken twenty-one standards, fifty-five pieces of cannon, several fortified places, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont.

—this is Bonaparte, by the way, speaking to depleted and demoralised troops. He goes on:

You have taken fifteen thousand prisoners, and slain or wounded more than ten thousand men. Without anything, you have achieved everything. You have won battles without cannons, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, bivouacked without brandy and often without bread. The greatest obstacles are surely crossed, but you still have battles to fight, cities to take, rivers to pass. Are there any among you whose courage is softening? We have a burning desire to deliver the glory of the French people; we will humiliate these proud kings who dared to think they could put us in irons; we will dictate a glorious peace that compensates our fatherland for the immense sacrifices it has made and we will return home, to say with pride, ‘I was in the conquering army of Italy!’”

You are reading Bonaparte through the ears (or eyes) of Jominie. I am hearing Mel Gibson and remembering the last time I watched Braveheart. From the incremental numbers to the ever-lengthening sentences, Napoleon is using the power of language to secure a much-needed change in attitude and culture among his troops. He’s using the elegance of rhetoric to move his men from an acceptance of inferiority (they were making progress but they knew they were about to get whomped), to the possibility—the possibility—of victory in the face of great adversity.

I’m willing to bet half a pound of good cheese and more than one pint of decent ale, Field Marshall Montgomery knew that speech backwards and referred to it more than once. Look at his desert speech—I’ll tackle that one in another post. 

My point is this: there is a purpose to writing well.

Towards the end of the second world war, the Allied forces dissolved all the newspapers in Germany. The first printing license for a new one was issued by the U.S. military’s Munich press office to Süddeutsche Zeitung, which is still going strong today, and, rather joyfully, the story goes that the same printing press used to print Mein Kampf was melted down, and recast in type to print the first edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 6, 1945. 

Adolf Hitler dictated Mein Kampf as a blueprint for lasting, new imperialism. It is still one of the most influential books ever printed. However, there aren’t many people today who care to read this book by choice. It’s cumbersome; poorly crafted; rambling and, in many places, bloody hard work.

What’s more, while many millions of copies were sold at the time, thankfully it seems that very few people actually read it from cover to cover, back in the day. Again, not because it was evil or dictated by a madmanbut simply because it was written by two very bad grammar Nazis.