The Trouble With Codes


BERLIN—In 1942 a group of Nazi leaders convened at a mansion on the shores of lake Wannsee to work out the details of “the final solution” for the extermination of Europe’s Jews. But the Wannsee Conference Protocol never uses the word “murder.” The Nazis were masters of doublespeak; in early 1940s Germany “evacuation” was extermination, “showers” were gas chambers, and families received postcards from Auschwitz bearing the return address “Lake Forest.”

Many deportees found ways to hide messages on these formulaic greeting cards. The Museum Blindenworkstatt Otto Weidt, which honors a manufacturer who schemed to save physically disabled workers from the camps, displays a postcard sent to Weidt from Alice Licht. The postcard is signed “Alice Licht born Sorge” —German for “worry.” The fake maiden name was a message that Weidt, who knew Licht was not married, would have immediately recognized.

A postcard sent to Otto Weidt from Alice Licht, who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. Photo by Alison Sargent.

A postcard sent to Otto Weidt from Alice Licht, who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. Photo by Alison Sargent.

Hitler clearly understood the power of language. While in power, he called on the press to “hold blindly to the principle: the government is always right.” On February 28, 1933, the Nazi government passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, abolishing freedom of the press. In October of that same year the Editors Law banned all opposition and “non-Aryan” journalists.

One would like to imagine that the remaining journalists resisted, sending the public rallying cries through clever patterns of capitalization or mispunctuation. Some claim that they did. In 1964, Das Reich reporter Erich Peter Neumann attempted to justify his antisemitic description of the Warsaw Ghetto: Journalists, he said, had two choices, to “write or be silent.” Neumann suggests having faith that his “intelligent readership” would recognize in his writing the necessary use of “slave language.”

Presuming ourselves to be an intelligent readership, we gathered in one of Wannsee’s conference rooms to test Neumann’s claim and scan several of Nazi Germany’s newspapers for signs of subversion. When Hitler assumed power in 1933 and the Jewish newspaper CV-Zeitung urged its readers to “keep calm,” was it an overstatement meant to signify the opposite? Or when Elisabeth Noelle, in Das Reich, describes the American media as being “positively truculent in the face of outright propaganda,” is she using one country as an excuse to make a statement about her own?

If these were codes we couldn’t see a way to break them, and unbroken codes can’t break the government. Many journalists, like Neumann, chose to write rather than be silent. But reading through Neumann’s article, which includes a three-paragraph rant about the “depravity of the Semitic masses,” one can’t help but question his decision.

The problem reminds me of a moment from Conspiracy, HBO’s 2001 dramatization of the Wannsee Conference. Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger asks S.S. Major Rudolf Lange how his law education has affected his work as a military officer. “It has made me mistrustful of language,” Lange replies. “A gun means what it says.” So does a blank page.

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