Apr/May 2008

The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture

Noah Isenberg


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. And yet even a casual visit to the book exhibition at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association, where a small army of swastikas can be found goose-stepping across dust jackets as if choreographed for Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler,” would have suggested that it was far from unimaginable. Indeed, the natural counterpart to the oft-used, darkly ironic quip “there’s no business like Shoah business” is that nothing sells quite like the Nazis.

Tilman Allert’s slim, understated book, however, has no part in that cottage industry. The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture is, thankfully, not another sprawling biography, not another testimonial by the 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. Not unlike what Victor Klemperer attempted to do in Lingua Tertii Imperii (The Language of the Third Reich, 1947), in which he probed the depths of the Nazi corruption of language, Allert has chosen, with illuminating results, to zero in on a single gesture.

Almost from the instant Hitler seized power, all established salutations (Guten Tag, Grüß Gott, Auf Wiedersehen) were replaced with a new form of greeting that was, Allert explains, “pronounced with the right arm extended and raised to eye level with the palm opened” and paired with the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” The gesture was summarily adopted by all Nazi and government officials and, with a few exceptions, by the population at large. It was used by friends and strangers passing in the street, by postmen delivering packages, and by sales clerks, who were known to employ the catchy line “Heil Hitler, how may I help you?” As Samuel Beckett noted in his travel diary in 1937, “Even bathroom attendants greet you with ‘Heil Hitler.’”

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).

If Hitler co-opted the act of greeting in the same way that, as Adorno once put it, he “confiscated laughter,” then the salute did not escape ridicule. Allert relates a joke that Bavarian cabaret artist Karl Valentin was fond of telling: It was Hitler’s good fortune that his name was not Kräuter, he observed tartly, “otherwise we’d have to go around yelling Heilkräuter [medicinal herbs].” (Valentin would no doubt have appreciated Jerry Seinfeld’s “Heil Five” riff, not to mention Chaplin’s and Lubitsch’s great parodies or, of course, the habitual gesture of Dr. Strangelove.)

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.

Advertisement