The Hitler Salute

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

German sociologist Tilman Allert's little gem of a book dissects the impact a simple gesture like the Nazi salute can have on a complex, sophisticated society. Allert, who teaches at Frankfurt University, looks back at 1933, when the Hitler greeting became law in Germany, superceding all other forms of greeting. "Heil Hitler," he writes, "was a historically unique phenomenon that, for the span of twelve years, politicized all communication within German society...

"The story of Nazi Germany begins with indifference," he adds, "not with the frenzies of anti-Semitism, mass deportations, organized genocide. My thesis is that the collapse of morals that can permit such deprivations comes about neither suddenly nor by accident. Instead, it results from a loss of personal sovereignty and the ability to shape one's own existence. A fractured relationship to oneself precedes the underestimation of changes in social relations."

By devaluing self, the Nazi regime could then demand conformity and obedience from its citizens. "They fell under the spell of a mystical force that they themselves called into being and that brought them together in a devotional space of mutual estrangement, one that, paradoxically, created between them a kind of cohesion in their very isolation from each other."

Some individuals, as well as such institutions as the church, military and aristocracy, tried to resist using the Nazi greeting. But in the end most Germans succumbed to the pressure put on them by the National Socialist regime. We all know what followed from that. We are still living with the consequences of the "fatal gesture" known as the Hitler salute. (Translated by Jefferson Chase, Picador ppbk., 113 pages. $13).