Today I’m summarizing and excerpting the second half of Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay on the language of dictatorships and the Orbán government’s conscious imitation of their well-tried methods to change people’s political views and create devoted servants of the regime.
* * *
The colonization of language
Besides the seizure of the media, the most important tool in Goebbels’ propaganda campaign was the expropriation of language. Gradually the Third Reich created a language of its own and everyday linguistic usage adjusted to it. As Klemperer noted, “the absolute rule that was created by a handful of people was the linguistic command of one man that eventually spread across the whole German-speaking world … Oration must be understood literally: to say nothing in a raised voice, or more precisely to yell nothing. This boorish style became compulsory for the whole world…. The language of the Third Reich attempted to kill the person in his individuality and make him a person without will.”
Soon enough it became customary that every Friday night someone on the radio would read the Goebbels article that would appear in the Saturday paper. In this way the government designated the topics that would define political discourse for the next week. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning radio interviews serve the same purpose. In these conversations Viktor Orbán not only sends the pro-government media a message about what topics should be discussed but also makes sure they understand how these topics should be interpreted.
One key distinguishing feature of the language of the Third Reich was its linguistic poverty. After 1933 the language of Mein Kampf became the language of the people. It occupied public as well as private life. This primitive language served several purposes: to reach as many people as possible, to simplify the understanding and functioning of a complicated world, and to express the essence of the centralized power of one man. The same linguistic poverty can be found in the political language of Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz leaders. They make sure that their messages get to even the least educated segment of the population. They translate complicated relationships into simple sentences.
Given the poverty of the language of dictatorships, it is interesting to note that sentimentality, pathos, and kitsch are also part and parcel of their style and their way of speaking. These mask the emptiness of their phrases. Kitschy phrases are integral to Viktor Orbán’s speeches. For example: “I readily accept the advice of boys attending tea parties when sailing on Lake Balaton, but we are on open sea. A captain of a ship in the middle of rolling billows and among reefs who is being told that he should be a little more careful with the rudder can only laugh.” Or, “Under the uniform there is also a heart, not only muscle.”
The cult of strength is an important feature of the language of dictatorships. As Klemperer pointed out, it was the cultivation of the body that held first place and intellectual endeavors last place in education. In the Third Reich an incredible amount of public money went to the support of sports. Surely, the same can be said about Viktor Orbán’s infatuation with sports as the most important ingredient of the education of youth.
The emphasis on the “Volk” served two purposes. It was supposed to strengthen the feeling of community and, even more critically, it was designed to destroy the person as a distinct individual. One of the posters of the Third Reich declared that “You alone are nothing, your people are everything.” According to Klemperer, “the word ‘people’ appeared as often in speeches and in writing as salt in our meals.” In Hungary, instead of “people” the favorite turn of phrase is “the nation” or “the Hungarian people.” The constant use of these words has rendered them meaningless. Their overuse leads to such ridiculous combinations as “National Tobacco Shop” or “National Parking Company,” but unfortunately by now we don’t even have an inclination to laugh at them.
The instruments of linguistic occupation
An important stylistic element of the word usage of dictatorships is repetition, which is supposed to ensure that people learn the meanings of newly created words or words with new meanings. This tendency is also recognizable in Orbán’s Hungary. Once a word has been chosen to hammer into the heads of the population, all Fidesz politicians will repeat it ad nauseam. This is what Gábor Kuncze, former chairman of SZDSZ, dubbed the “parrot commando.”
In the Third Reich folksy turns of phrases played an important role. Viktor Orbán’s speeches are crawling with such phrases as well, which otherwise don’t serve any political or stylistic purpose. And that’s also why one can see Viktor Orbán stuffing sausages on Facebook or singing a folksy (not folk) tune on a video circulating on the Internet.
Another element is the militarization of the language, the use of military metaphors, pointing out the enemy and constantly fighting against him. All this is designed to strengthen the feeling of community. If there is no enemy, there is no reason to be afraid and to hold onto each other. In the Third Rich, according to Klemperer, the most used words were: struggle, warlike, fight, storm, black marketers, domestic enemy, imperialist agents, saboteurs, and clerical reactionaries. Orbán is always fighting against someone: communists, beneficiaries of the former regime, those on public aid, liberal traitors, the European Union, the multinationals, or lately, the illegal immigrants. Such words as war of independence, war, struggle, defense of the country are the fodder of everyday political discourse. Just the other day the Hungarian prime minister while in Bavaria talked about himself as “a knight at the battlefront against a threat of brutal strength” in connection with asylum seekers traveling across Hungary. The refugee crisis provided an excellent opportunity to use such language and to incorporate more military terms into the political vocabulary: units of border hunters, line of defense, etc.
The creation of new words was a feature of the language usage of the Third Reich. In Hungary examples of such words are “rezsibiztos” (commissioner of utilities), “rezsiharc” (struggle for lowering utility prices), and “elszámoltatási biztos” (commissioner who is supposed drag politicians of the former government to court).
“History” and “historical” were favorite words of the Third Reich. As Klemperer put it, “the regime finds itself so important that every small thing is considered of historic importance.” The same is true about the present Hungarian government. Viktor Orbán is walking along the “high street of history.” In fact, he gave that title to a volume of his collected essays (2003) which is—to use Klemperer’s phrase ,“a dramatic and shocking time travel in history.” Klemperer’s phrase is apposite because, as Orbán claimed in this book, “until now it was history that formed our character [but from here on] our characters will form our history and thus we will again have our own past.”
The constant exaggeration and the use of superlatives serves a similar purpose: the bravest soldiers, the most dangerous enemies, the greatest battles of history. And Goebbels used words for Jews like “parasite,” “worm,” “pest,” which soon enough spread to everyday usage. Fidesz politicians have played this kind of verbal game for years, but now with the appearance of the asylum seekers they had new targets: the “migrant hordes [that] stampede across our country.” Orbán now talks about “the attack of the extremist Islamic horde,” and a pro-government journalist called Angela Merkel “an aberrant magnet of migrants.”
Klemperer noticed the Nazis’ preference for foreign words, which in his opinion not only sounded elegant but, more importantly, served to confuse and confound: “the fewer people who understood them the better.” Foreign words serve the same purpose in Fidesz’s propaganda. Instead of the usual Hungarian words, they use foreign words not understood by everybody: illiberalizmus/illiberalism, hipokrita szellem/hypocritical spirit (instead of képmutató, álszent), szub-szaharai-térség/Sub-Saharan area (instead of dél-szaharai), migráns/migrant (instead of bevándorló). For most of the less educated Hungarians “migráns” means nothing; it creates a fear of the unknown.
Klemperer says the following about the language of the Third Reich. “They achieved the greatest impact not so much through speeches, articles, broadsides, posters, or flags. Nazism penetrated the body and soul of people through words, through turns of phrases which were repeated countless times and thus were pressed upon the people who mechanically and unconsciously took them over … Words can be the infinitesimal amounts of arsenic we swallow unnoticed, but the effect of the poison will be felt after a while.” All totalitarian dictatorships try to poison the consciousness of the people. Fidesz included.