The most famous men want to leave traces, legacies. What’s left of it? Often few things.
History is full of ex-post celebrities, whose memory is judged with harshness, irony or indifference by subsequent generations.
Tacitus reports: “Calvus appeared to Cicero exsanguinated and overly exhausted, and Brutus idle and struck; conversely Cicero was criticized by Calvus, who found him relaxed and without muscles, and by Brutus, on the other hand, who said he was ‘soft and with no balls’. If you ask me, everyone seems to have been right.”i
More recently, Victor Klemperer was not afraid to depict Adolf Hitler and Theodor Herzl in similar, offbeat ways. « Both Hitler and Herzl live largely on the same heritage. I have already named the German root of Nazism, it is narrow-minded and perverted romanticism. If I add kitsch romanticism, then the intellectual and stylistic community of the two Führer (sic) is designated as accurately as possible. »ii
Comparing Theodor Herzl to a « Führer » may be daring. But Klemperer’s method of analysis favours the understanding of shifts in the meaning of words. The German language changed in many ways after the advent of the Third Reich.
The word Führer could, it seems, be applied without problem to Herzl in 1896 or 1904, but also, though with a different nuance, to Hitler between 1933 and 1945. It is a testimony to the fragility and transience of the meaning of words through time, a sign of the volatility of their resonances.
Klemperer reports another example of these shifts of meaning, through the words « to believe » and « belief », during the rise of Nazism. He sees it as a symptom of a quasi-religious phenomenon caused by Hitler’s ascension into German consciousness: « The Führer has always stressed his particularly close relationship with the divinity, his « election », the particular bond of filiation that links him to God, his religious mission. »iii
If Klemperer’s hypothesis proves true, one would have to question the meaning of the words « divinity », « election », « filiation », « religion » and the extent of their derivations.
While we are at it, we could propose a generalization of Klemperer’s corrosive analysis.
It could be especially rewarding to make a comparative “spectrography” of all the words relating to the « divine », the « sacred », the « mystery », the”spirit”, the “soul”, etc., in all the languages of the world.
Such a linguistic “spectrography” would lay a fruitful foundation for a global anthropology of religious sentiment.
And who knows, we may find new interpretations of the meaning of the word “god”.
iTacitus. Dialogus de Oratoribus, XVIII,5-6
iiVictor Klemperer, LTI, La langue du IIIème Reich, Ch. 29, Sion, p.274
iiiIbid., ch. 18, « I believe in him ».