The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture – Tilman Allert

16 Jul

I’ve been putting this post off for a bit, honestly.  Why?  It has to do with something that happened in college.  No, I didn’t get beat up by a skin head or anything.  What happened was that I bought an itty bitty journal, the kind that seem a great idea at the time but that are beyond pointless in execution.  Anyway, in this tiny little thing I was going to write quotes that I thought were interesting, inspiring or whatever kind of quotes you’d write in a journal the size of a pack of gum.

Anyway, when I got around to putting quotes in it the process wasn’t as much fun as I’d planned.  Or any at all.  So I made myself write one down and then I called it a day.  Unfortunately, the one quote I wrote in there had to do with religion controlling people’s minds and it was said by Adolf Hitler.  So… my college roommate saw it and my copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and she kind of put two and two together and made a giant negative assumption.  Yeah, she thought I was a Nazi.  Or at least someone who wanted to hang with them.

When I went digging for this image I was reminded again that there is still a lot of scary websites attached to this topic.

Ever since then I’ve been a little worried that others would think the same thing.  Now in the course of learning about European history I’ve been renting documentaries on him, writing about him and reading about him.  I wanted to do as little of that as possible but this is really a good book.  And it’s written by a German, which adds a special perspective to the phenomenon.  And basically I just need to get over myself anyway.

The Hitler Salute is that of saying “heil Hitler!” and raising the right arm out straight at should height.  In July of 1933, an interministerial decree made using this salute mandatory.  Then a few months later it became necessary in public life as well.  It was referred to as the German greeting and it was required to use it every time the new German anthem was played or sung.  They also were required to make the German greeting when they saw police officers, swastika flags or consecrated sights of the Nazi movement.  The amount to which it was done quickly became ludicrous and would have been laughable had it not been so deadly serious.  Germans were saluting sand sculptures of Hitler at the beach, teens were saying “swing heil!” at the dance halls.  “Heil Hitler” was included on bank statements, business letters, order forms and delivery receipts.  Children were given dolls with posable right arms.  And should you forget your duty as a German there were small metal signs posted in public places reminding you.  You could see them on telephone poles, public squares and street lanterns. 

What really stuck with me after reading this book was a point that Allert makes early on.  He explains that the German greeting, as Germans still call it today, did away with the choice of greeting.  We have that choice when we see people every day.  We can smile, say “hi”, make a joke or ignore each other.  It’s a moment between you and that other person.  You decide to open up or not.  You choose to respond or pull your shirt over your head.  It’s optional.

With the German greeting even this basic right was taken away.  The simplest of human expressions was politicized.  You could be sanctioned or punished for failing to partake in it.  That’s scary.  I hope it helps us all to remember the value of being able to be unique.  It’s important to make informed decisions and not coerced ones.  Inspire and don’t require.  And definitely don’t threaten.



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