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Axis Prose

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

The new style of official prose began just about the end of World War I. In embryo, it can be traced much further back. If one had time and patience and what the Greeks called brazen bowels, one could find its ancestry in the Futurist manifestoes of Marinetti, the orations of Germany’s last All-Highest, and several pronouncements of the pre-war Communist Internationals. I leave all that for future Ph.D. candidates, with the prayer that I be not asked to read their works.

Here is an early, but pure, example. It is an extract from the Constitution of Fiume, which was written (and for some time administered) by that symbolic personage Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The translation is by Osbert Sitwell.)

Clause lxiv

In the Italian Regency of the Carnaro, music is a religious and social institution.

Every one thousand years, every two thousand years, there is born of the depths of the soul of the people a hymn, which is perpetuated.

A great people is not only a people that creates its God after its own image, but one which also creates its hymn for its God.

If every new birth of a noble race is a lyrical effort, if every unanimous and creative sentiment is a lyrical power, if every new order is a lyrical order in the fullest acceptation of the word, then music considered as a ritual language is the exalter of the act of life and of the work of life.

Does it not seem that great music announces each time to the attentive and anxious multitude the kingdom of the spirit?

The kingdom of the human spirit has not yet commenced.

“When matter operating on matter can take the place of men’s hands, then will the spirit commence to perceive the dawn of its liberty,” said a native of the Adriatic, a Dalmatian: the blind prophet of Sebenico.

Just as the cock’s crowing hastens the dawn, so music hastens the aurora, that Aurora: Excitat Auroram.

In the meantime, in the instruments of labor and gain and play, in the noisy machinery, for this likewise follows the precise rhythm of poetry, music finds its movements and its abundance.

Of its pauses is formed the silence of the tenth corporation.

The style reached perfection with the outbreak of the present war. It is not simply bad prose—a tank is not a badly constructed automobile. Axis prose is a weapon, like a mine-thrower; or a drug, like chloroform. It is to be appraised not by its beauty, but by its efficiency. If it does its job, it is good of its kind. And we must admit that, so far, it usually has done its job. Kipling has a poem in “Barrack-Room Ballads” about the woes of the artist, who must always hear the Devil’s question: “It’s clever, but is it Art?” The makers of Axis prose are troubled by no such doubts. When they hear the word “culture,” they reach for their revolvers, as one of their own number has well said. The Party does not want criticism; the Party wants obedience.

Of course, the aim of all rhetoric is persuasion, and Axis prose is rhetoric, designed to persuade. But most modern and all classical rhetoric intends to inform as well, and Axis prose certainly does not. Its aims are to persuade through the production of three feelings.

The first of these is solidarity with the group. The bigger the group, the solider it is, and the safer you feel; but you must be induced to feel that you belong to it wholly and absolutely and that your own individuality is nothing.

For instance, this feeling can be produced by the free use of the mystical number. One of Hitler’s favorite utterances used to be: “A nation of 80,000,000 people cannot tolerate such conditions forever!” This sounds far more impressive and objective than “The present German government is preparing to declare war unless it gets what it wants.” In fact, it sounds 80,000,000 times more impressive; for to the modern mind any large number is good, and any small number is bad. If a movie cost $100,000,000, we must see it. If a nation contains 80,000,000 people, it is automatically better than a nation that contains 45,000,000 people.

The chief Nazi orators have lately introduced the numerical element into strategy, with a hypnotic insistence on multiplication. Only two years ago, Hitler was crying that every bomb dropped on German soil would be repaid “a hundredfold! two hundredfold! five hundredfold!” and so on, until the increasing figures were drowned in the solidarity-shout of sieg heil! sieG heil! sieg heil! and so on a thousandfold. The very name of the new empire involves mystical numeration: for it is the Third Reich (which implies “third time lucky”), it is carried on by a succession of Four-year Plans, and it is designed (you remember?) to last for a thousand years. Perhaps the earliest use of this device appears in the Book of Revelation, where—to the delight of cryptographers—the red dragon is described as having 7 heads and 10 horns; and the second beast has a number which is the number of a man, 600, three score, and 6. Hitler occasionally inverts the device, as he did in his 1941 New Year speech: “Last year I made not 7 mistakes, but 724; and my enemies made 4,385,000!” He has dropped that lately, now that the score is evening up.

Aspiration through the revolutionary present to the glorious future is the second aim of Axis prose. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” is Wordsworth’s description of that feeling which was produced in him by French revolutionary oratory. The French revolutionaries renamed both the months and the years to evoke this effect: the new era had begun. It sounded wonderfully new and hopeful to learn that such-and-such a decree had been passed on the fifth of Floreal in the Year Two. Similarly, every Italian book published last year was dated 1941 XIX. The first era, you see, began with Jesus Christ; the second—newer, and therefore better—began with Benito Amilcare Mussolini.

For this end, even the most ordinary objects are renamed. Instead of calling a regiment the 101st Infantry, you call it The Wolves of Tuscany, or The Terribles. The German expeditionary squadron which was sent to Spain, and there added Guernica to its laurels, was named The Condor Legion—after the largest and greediest of the vultures. Sometimes this produces quite a valuable stylistic innovation, especially in the world of diplomacy, where any change is usually better than none. The word “axis” is far superior to the old cliches like “concert” and “entente cordiale”: notice that it is a metaphor drawn not from the world of music or of understanding, but from that of machinery, or perhaps astronomy. And there is much to be said for Lebensraum though it is now discarded. It was a subtle blend of the idea of a minimum (“just enough room for the poor Germans to exist in”) with that of a Faustian infinite (“free space for the Germanic soul to expand in”).

If a new name cannot be found, an impressive adjective is tacked on to the noun which needs ennobling. Ignazio Silone remarks that if you say “During the next half-hour I shall be drinking this coffee,” you are talking ordinary prose; but if you say “During the next critical half-hour, I intend to drink this historic coffee,” you are talking Axis prose. In Germany, “historic” would not be sufficient. It would have to be weltgeschichtlich, as in “I have unalterably and with ice-cold detachment determined to drink this world-historical coffee-substitute.” In default of anything else, the astronomical superlative is used. Thus: “The sharpest attacks were delivered by our combat-squadrons, which dropped effectively the heaviest caliber bombs on enemy objectives.” In this utterance, “heaviest” does not mean the heaviest bombs that the Axis happens to possess, or the heaviest bombs that a combat-squadron is able to carry—it means the heaviest bombs that can possibly be imagined.

Mystification is the third intention of the Axis orator. He intends to produce a state of mind which is alert but uncomprehending. I have heard Stanley (“My lips are sealed”) Baldwin speak for an hour and ten minutes in one uninterrupted stream of cliches, which had the same effect on his hearers as being tucked into three layers of blankets in a nice dark room with the window open at the top. But the Axis prosateur talks in loud, novel, startling phrases, any one of which contains enough emotional stimulus to jolt the ordinary man right out of his chair, but which, taken all together, are so obscure that they merely fill up a vast reservoir of emotion ready to be canalized by the government.

The most obvious method of doing this is mixing metaphors. As many as four can be poured together, on the principle of the zombie. After British and American correspondents had reported the Italian rout at Guadalajara, Virginio Gayda reproached them in a strong and typical sentence. “These journalistic hyenas,” he cried, “flung themselves on the blood of our Italian youth as though it had been whisky I” Hitler’s book (which the German schoolboys used to call “My Battle with the German Language”) is a mine of such jewels. Page 16: “Above all, the remarkable thing about the battle of language is that its waves wash hardest around the school, the seed-bed of the coming generation.” Page 29: “In a few years I built a foundation of knowledge from which I still draw nourishment today.” Page 33: “Whoever has not himself been in the tentacles of the murderous viper of poverty will never know its poisonous fangs.”

Indeed, there is a ghastly kind of authority about these monstrous creations. The tentacled vipers and nourishing foundations and whisky-drinking hyenas belong to a surrealist universe which has almost as much reality as the world of daily life. The Irish novelist, Mrs. Amanda McKittrick Ros, was creating this kind of imagistic prose as early as 1897. Here, for instance, is her famous description in “Delina Delaney” of the first glance of love between Delina Delaney and Lord Gifford:

Could a king, a prince, a duke—nay, even one of those ubiquitous invisibles who, we are led to believe, accompanies us when thinking, speaking, or acting—could even this sinless atom refrain from tainting its spotless gear with the wish of a human heart, as those grey eyes looked in bashful tenderness into the glittering jet revolvers that reflected their sparkling lustre from nave to circumference, casting a deepened brightness over the whole features of an innocent girl, and expressing, in visible silence, the thoughts, nay, even the wish, of a fleshy triangle whose base had been bitten by order of the Bodiless Thinker.

Connoisseurs of Irish prose will not fail to notice the resemblance between both the rhythms and the sentiments of this and much of “Finnegans Wake.” But it is rather to the metaphors that we should look: the jet revolvers and the fleshy triangle—are these not after the school of Braunau-am-Inn ? Father Divine has developed an interesting variant of this device by making up entirely new words to convey exciting but incomprehensible ideas. “God,” he cries, “is personalized and repersonalized I He is repersonalized and prerepersonalized! He is prerepersonalized and extrareper-sonalizedl” This convinces his hearers that he knows something about God which they do not understand, but somehow ought to. Therefore they are prepared to trust him, and bless Father. He continues until the desired effect is produced, reproduced, and extrareproduced.

But mixed metaphors alone are not enough to mystify. Mystical logic is needed. The audience addressed by Axis orators has one characteristic that makes it admirable material for Axis leadership. It has no memory. It lives wholly and intensely in the present and the ideal future. Therefore, it does not think: for thought is the faculty of bringing the real past, present, and future together into one general scheme. Every now and then it tries to think, indeed; but another dose of Axis logic is swiftly administered, and mystical anaesthesia supervenes once more. “The great masses’ understanding is small, but their forgetfulness is great,” says Hitler. Mystical logic is like an argument which starts from an admitted fact and reaches a desirable conclusion, but passes through an intervening fog of double-talk. The Axis path of conquest is strewn not only with broken promises and murdered men, but with undistributed middles.

Almost anything goes, after one has read a certain amount of Axis prose. Sometimes I think that the American correspondents are mistranslating their handouts, and sometimes I realize that they are doing no such thing. A. E. Housman said of one of Sudhaus’s arguments: “When Mr. Sudhaus writes like this, I do not consider his words a piece of impudence. I regard them simply as speech divorced from thought.” Now consider the following passage reported in The New York Times from La Tribuna: “The British are a people who, through a strange fusion of Britannic pride and supine resignation, have lost every notion of reality: a people for whom reality has become an end in itself. In contrast to this decidedly abnormal and pathological position, the position of Italy is healthy, upright, and sure.” Now, is that mistranslated? Or is it simply a thicker, fuller, richer, more nebulous piece of mystical logic? It is not a piece of impudence. It is simply speech divorced (deliberately divorced) from thought.

The average man speaks and thinks in short sentences. He is whom-shy. Therefore most of the effective mystifications in Axis prose are produced by the excellent device of constructing sentences too long and indigestible for him to follow and assimilate. “Followership demands only a passive appreciation of an idea,” cries the Leader, and if propaganda “is to include an entire people in its field of action; the caution in avoiding high intellectual assumptions cannot be too great.” Therefore, at any difficult point, the Axis orator begins to talk in sentences which are long and loud. After the first thirty words, the audience follows him with approval, but without understanding.

Sometimes the trance is induced by historical and geographical inconsistencies. When Hitler said, “The British have 40,000,000 square kilometers to 46,000,000 people,” he simply omitted 450,000,000 citizens of the Commonwealth and the Empire living outside Great Britain; and none of his audience noticed it. When the Popolo d’ltalia wrote, “With the most absolute calm and serenity Italy has carried out her maneuver in Epirus and concentrated her forces in Albania, which are destined by the will of Italy to settle her business with Athens without help until the Greek back is broken,” it was really rather difficult for the unsophisticated to understand what was being said. The facts concealed in this sentence were: (1) Italy had been chased out of Greece; and (2) Italy did not want German help—a statement which was straightway falsified by the facts. The Emperor of Japan emitted the following model New Year’s poem after his army had spent years desperately trying to conquer China:

Peaceful is morning in the shrine-garden. Would that world conditions also were peaceful!

Virtually none of his subjects saw anything odd or untimely about it. In Hitler’s eloquent words, no bright flash of lightning illuminated the dissonance. If you do not attempt to explain an inconsistency, few will question it, or even notice it.

Another and more beautiful type of mystical logic is to describe black very loudly and emphatically as the purest and most unmistakable white; or else, even more boldly, to explain that it is not green, absolutely and finally ungreen, with no trace of verdure about it, but simply the noblest and most world-historical white. When the governor of Korea arrested some American missionaries, he accused them of being under “the dogmatic delusion that the holy war Japan is waging in China is a war of imperialistic aggression.” Or consider this, the fourth of Rosenberg’s thirty points for the new German National Church:

The National Church does not force any German to seek membership therein. The National Church will do everything within its power to secure the adherence of every German soul. Other churches . . . shall not be tolerated in Germany.

Historically, this is quite characteristic: it is the method by which the barbarian Germans were baptized by the Teutonic Knights. “I do not force you,” they would say, prodding the hapless Prussians with their swords, “I only urge you as a brother.” The bearers of the swastika are now urging in the opposite direction, but the type of argument is the same.

A special case of this is Hitler’s brilliant trick of merging reason with emotion. He knows that most people (like himself, indeed) hate logical argument, and welcome an emotional release from any conflict of ideas. Therefore he scarcely ever makes a point by reasoned argument. Instead, he states his case loudly; then states it again; and then resolves it through one of the emotional outlets which he knows so well how to command—abuse or pathos, threat or derision. Take an early example from “Mein Kampf,” in which he is explaining why he came to hate representative government:

“At that time I did not approve of the fight that was being waged [in the Reichstag] against Wilhelm II.” You naturally ask why Hitler disapproved of the German legislative body. What were his objections to constitutional government? He does not explain, but states the fact again, much more loudly. “The restriction of speech which the Reichstag imposed on the Kaiser annoyed me very much” [Once again you ask why.] “for the simple reason that it was issued by an institution which in my opinion had really no authority to do so.” But once again this means that Hitler did not believe in the Reichstag; and still, if you believe in logic, you ask why. He does not answer. He shifts his ground to emotion. The jaw protrudes, the mouth opens wider, the brow knits, the fists tremble, the voice mounts to a higher, harsher note: “. . . especially as during one single session these parliamentary ganders produced more honking nonsense than a whole dynasty of emperors, its sorriest weaklings included, could have produced in centuries 1” Even if this were true of the pre-war German Reichstag in comparison with that arrogant nincompoop Wilhelm, it would still be irrelevant to the problem of constitutional government. The question has not been answered. It has been emotionally resolved by the violent discharge of hate and derision on the honking parliamentary ganders. No one can sympathize with them, They are crushed.

These, then, are the three feelings which Axis prose is designed to produce: solidarity, aspiration, and mystification. They correspond neatly enough to the fascist motto which one sees stenciled on every blank wall in Italy: believe! obey! fight! Believing without understanding is mystification. Subordination of oneself to the group (and its leader) is obedience. The revolutionary future is to be won by fighting. Believe. Obey. Fight.

Of course it is over-simplification to distinguish the three aims so sharply as I have done here for the purpose of analysis. In fact, one of Hitler’s greatest qualities as an orator is that he makes it impossible for his audience to reflect, “Now he is trying to make me think this . . .. Now he is pushing me towards that . . . .” All his themes are interwoven with such supreme skill that only cool and painstaking analysis can disentangle true from false, sense from nonsense, fact from feeling. That is what makes him so dangerous: he is not simply a crook, like Goebbels. He has persuaded himself. He is the deceiver self-deceived. He is the madman hammering facts to fit his own madness. That is why his style is the perfection of Axis prose; it has the energy of mania, and the authority of a nightmare.


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