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Totalitarian Speech


Michal Glowinski

Totalitarian Speech brings together a range of texts on totalitarian manipulations of language. The author analyzes various phenomena, from the hateful rhetoric of Nazi Germany to the obfuscating newspeak of communist Poland, finding certain common characteristics. Above all, totalitarian speech in its diverse manifestations imposes an all-embracing worldview and an associated set of dichotomous divisions from an omniscient and authoritative perspective. This volume collects the work of over three decades, including essays written during the communist era and more recent pieces assessing the legacy of totalitarian ways of thinking in contemporary Poland.
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7. On Totalitarian Discourse


The eminent journalist Konstanty Gebert (whose real name is Dawid Warszawski), author of numerous astute and fascinating articles on the war in Bosnia, has recently drawn attention to an important phenomenon. Specifically, he has claimed that the transition from communist language to nationalist language only requires a change in vocabulary, while the transition from communist expression to democratic expression also demands a change in syntax. The events taking place in the former Yugoslavia form the basis for Gebert’s generalization. However, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that it holds true only where post-communist nationalisms have clashed so dramatically. The phenomenon has much broader significance, though I would still make certain modifications to Gebert’s formulation. We are not dealing here only with a change in syntax, but rather with a shift in the entire discourse, and thus in the basic rules for constructing an utterance. In this domain, we find the most fundamental differences between the modes of language use developed by various totalitarianisms and the methods employed by democracy in its diverse manifestations. I would maintain that totalitarianism does not merely constitute a certain way of exercising power, a certain ideology or a certain attitude towards the human being, but also a mode of speech characterized by distinctive and easily distinguishable features. Furthermore, whatever happens in the sphere of language and communication has constitutive significance for totalitarianism. If I were to characterize totalitarian discourse in its most general and – in my view – fundamental mode, I would enumerate...

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