In the academy-award winning film Amadeus, Mozart, Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and a handful of Italian composers and aristocrats, including Salieri, are debating the details of the next opera for the court. Mozart has already been hired as the composer, but he still is not sure in which language to write the opera—German or Italian. When the emperor asks Mozart which language he would prefer, he answers: “German, your Majesty. Please, let it be German.” Joseph II is hesitant. He asks Mozart why the opera should be in German but not in Italian. Mozart answers that the German language captures so many German virtues. Joseph II asks: Which German virtues? Mozart answers: Love, sire. To this, Salieri, seeking to embarrass Mozart retorts: “Oh, love! Of course, in Italy, we know nothing about love.” But Mozart has the final word: “No, I don’t think you do know anything about love in Italy. Watching Italian opera, all those male sopranos screeching … stupid, fat couples rolling their eyes about. That’s not love. It’s rubbish!” Salieri, believing he has won, defers to the emperor. “Majesty, you choose the language,” he says. Joseph II, himself a native German speaker, is not to be swayed. He answers decisively: “Well, there it is. Let it be German.”
Now, I ask you, was Mozart a stupid man? Did Mozart have no understanding of what beauty sounded like? This was the man, after all, who willingly wrote several operas in German, including The Magic Flute, when he could have just as easily written all of his operas in Italian.
Was Mozart stupid?
And yet, if it were anyone other than Mozart writing these operas, today he would be puzzled over, even ridiculed, for writing music in such an ugly language—German.
As someone who has spent years learning to speak German, I often get people’s unadulterated views on the Teutonic tongue who don’t need to worry about offending me since, after all, it’s not my native language and never will be. Here are top three responses I get, time and time again:
It’s such an ugly language.
Everyone always sounds like they’re yelling.
Eins, zwei, drei, vier!
Never, not once in the eight years or so that I’ve been learning German, has anyone responded as Mozart did. German—what a perfect language for an opera. German—the language of love. Indeed, the modern-day reaction to German learning is not so dissimilar from the haughty laughter of the envious Salieri and his thick-skulled Italian cabal.
Why—why this prejudice against German? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that for at least twelve years of the twentieth century, Germany was not only the most sinister, bloodthirsty, and unfeeling nation on the planet, but also that it took that psyche and unleashed therethrough a genocide on millions of innocent people in the name of the superiority of the Aryan race. Indeed, it’s admittedly not exactly straightforward to judge the language spoken by the Nazis as beautiful. Nevertheless, German was around long before the Nazis, thousands of years to be exact. And if we find every language ugly which a slobbering and murderous demagogue once shrieked on stage before the masses, few languages, if any, will remain for writing love poetry.
If a person finds German to be “ugly” or “violent,” that’s fine. I have no issue with that. But what irritates me is that the people I encounter who find German uncouth for speaking, let alone for singing opera, usually possess the three following traits:
- They have never learned to speak German.
- They have no German-speaking friends.
- They have never been to Germany.
In this sense, they are even worse than Salieri, to whom none of these three qualities would apply.
And so, when I tell folks that I am doing my PhD in German and they answer “such an ugly language,” I don’t try to dissuade them. Sure, it would be nice if they had something a little more encouraging to say about a project I’ve devoted almost a decade of my life to. But I know it is too late to change their minds. My apology for German is just one tiny ripple in the ocean of their lifelong “exposure” to the language. For years, they have lived in a self-perpetuating echo chamber which continually reinforces these judgments on German: it is ugly, it is barbaric, it always sounds like yelling. They heard their friend say it once at a party and thought it sounded cool, so they repeated it to their friend at the next party, who gleefully agreed. They saw a stand-up comic do an impression of a German accent and watched the audience erupt in laughter and clap their hands. Germany was mentioned on the news and the automatized thought “such an ugly language” popped into their brains to luxuriate for a few moments. By the time they get to me, their minds are made up, and some quirky Jewish academic dude going rogue isn’t going to rehabilitate their opinion.
That is the problem with echo chambers. They echo.
To be sure, historically, the Germans themselves have hardly been strangers to the echo chamber, have hardly escaped the temptation to have their own prejudices endlessly parroted back to them until hearsay becomes undisputed fact. In fact, it is the longtime puppet masters of the Germans who have been the most trapped inside their own minds. And here we need to speak about the Prussians. Prussia was (is) roughly the northeast region of Germany. The capital was always in Berlin, but the territory itself stretched far more eastward than we can scarcely imagine today. As far east as today’s Lithuania and Russia, the Prussians were in charge. This land running along the Baltic Sea was viciously fought over by Poles, Russians, and Prussians over centuries. West Germany, it goes without saying, had little interest in or even awareness of this land. This was Prussia’s obsession. And it was an obsession which, though beginning in the Middle Ages if not earlier, continued all the way up to and through the Second World War—if not later. On December 10, 1887, here is roughly what the Prussian military officer Bernard von Bülow wrote to his military comrade Friedrich von Holstein: “We must finally drain the Russians of so much blood that the Russians are incapable of standing on their own two feet for twenty-five years. We need to cut Russia off from both seas—the Baltic and the Black—which allow it to continue as a world power … We must use the opportunity which war will bring in order to pursue our interests in Poland … The Poles in our Polish territories should all be deported en masse.”
What you get from this quote is a Prussian hatred of Russian and Poland which is so fixated and so possessed that it obviously could not have been formed overnight or even in a generation. This kind of thinking takes hundreds of years to develop in which Prussians are only talking to Prussians and Poles are only talking to Poles. We often think that the First World War ended in 1918. But, in fact, even after Prussia had lost the war and its empire had collapsed, the Prussians fought on in the East against Poland. Here, I quote from historian James Hawes in his 2017 book, The Shortest History of Germany: “The war was not over east of the Elbe river. Here ticked the clock as it always had. The fighting continued after the armistice of November 11, 1918, and even kept on going in some places after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Volunteer units continued to fight against Poland in Silesia and Posen. They even tried to conquer part of the Baltic.” By this point, Germany had already proclaimed itself a democracy, the Weimar Republic, in which the Prussian Empire ceased to exist. But as Germany moved toward free elections, free press, universal suffrage, and the abolishment of all aristocratic rank, many Prussians carried on as though the world had not irreversibly changed. And what kept them going, above all else, was this determination to finally bring Poland to its knees. This, after Poland itself had moved beyond the ancient feud and was trying, like Germany, to triumph democracy within its borders. Thus, in 1922, the Prussian general Hans von Seeckt wrote in a memorandum: “Poland’s existence is unbearable, unfathomable when Germany’s living conditions are considered. It must disappear and it will disappear.”
The insularity of this type of thinking is difficult for many of us to appreciate. It occurs when the prejudices echoed down through the generations ricochet in one’s own mind with the same ferocious intensity. But even this unopposed rumination is itself not enough. The mind must also, I think, actively believe that its viewpoints, utterly distorted, are objective and well-reasoned. That is the second problem with echo chambers. They tend to appear to their inhabitants not like the confined chambers of a dictator’s military bunker but instead like the wide-open fields of Elysium.
The haftarah for the parsha of Chukat comes from the Book of Judges, chapter eleven. Here, we read of a storied Hebrew military leader named Yiftach. The name Yiftach contains the same letters as the Hebrew shoresh for “open”—pay, taf, and chet. This name is ironic for, as will soon become apparent, Yiftach is anything but “open.” The haftarah is essentially about a dispute over land. The story takes place in Gilead. Gilead is east of the Jordan River, in the northern mountainous region of today’s country of Jordan. Like the Poles and the Prussians, the Israelites and the Ammonites both claimed this borderland territory. Eventually, the Ammonites began to attack the Israelites living on this land.
One of these inhabitants was Yiftach. We learn that he was born to a prostitute, a Zona, in Gilead. A bastard son, Yiftach was driven away by his brothers when he was still a boy. Yiftach grew up on his own with gangs of hoodlums. He learned to be a soldier. In fact, he learned this skill so well that, when the Ammonites began to rattle their sabers at the Israelites, the same elders of Gilead who had watched on as the young Yiftach was outcast now pleaded with him to come home. Come home, they said. Yiftach agreed but only under one condition: that he be made the general of the Israelite army. The elders, many of whom were surely Yiftach’s half-brothers, reluctantly agreed.
Yiftach, unable to speak the Ammonite language, relays his arguments to the king of the Ammonites through a messenger. What follows is an utterly one-sided “conversation” in which Yiftach recounts the entire history of the land in question. For about fifteen verses or so, Yiftach mansplains to the Ammonite King exactly why the land is not and never was Ammonite territory. He cites from history, noting the exact path Moshe took on his way to Kadesh. He notes that when Moshe did take land, it was not ruled by the Ammonites but rather by the Amorites. Finally, he sardonically asks why the Ammonites did not take back this land at some other point during the past three-hundred years, when the Hebrews were dwelling in Heshbon. Oh, so now you want it? Yiftach asks. In the end, of course, the matter is to be decided the same way it always is decided—by blood and iron. In verse thirty-two, we read that Yiftach fought against the sons of Ammon and God delivered them into his hand. In the subsequent verse, we read that Yiftach crushed the sons of Ammon all across Gilead in which twenty cities were attacked and pillaged. The story, however, ends with a twist. Before going to war, Yiftach promised that, if he were to win, he would offer up a sacrifice to God. He promises that, when he returns home from battle, the first person to run out the front doors of his house to greet him would be sacrificed. This unfortunate soul, we learn later, was to be Yiftach’s daughter. And unlike in the story of the binding of Isaac, no angel intervenes to save Yiftach’s daughter from the long knife.
The Torah, then, casts Yiftach as a man living in an echo chamber. He is privy only to his own opinions. What counters his beliefs, he simply ignores. What confirms his convictions, he latches onto. So accustomed to hearing only himself speak, he rashly promises to sacrifice the first person to greet him on his return home, perhaps trusting that it will be some meaningless maid or some irritating butler. Instead, his insistence on his own rightness catches up with him and he commits himself to sacrificing his daughter. Unable to consider the possibility of admitting error, he obdurately follows through on his vow, even though it means exchanging heroism for infamy. That Yiftach was born to a prostitute and grew up as an outcast is not an insignificant detail. Here, the Torah suggests that, ironically, sometimes the least privileged and least spoiled children become adults who feel the most entitled. In their improbable rise to power, they feel themselves more “chosen” and more deserving than those who were pampered all their lives.
This may be the reason why so many in the world feel no qualms about bashing the German language as ugly and terrifying. After all, approximately eighty years ago, Germany did murder millions of innocents in cold blood and it did unleash a war of total annihilation upon the world. Unconsciously, we might feel that we’ve earned the right to call the German language ugly—that we are authorized to that right. These thoughts may or may not be legitimate, but we are not exactly transcending the close-minded, echo-chambered Weltanschauung of Yiftach, Hans von Seeckt, and Bernard von Bülow when we proceed in this way.
Indeed, trashing the language of your enemies is perhaps as old as language itself. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek word “barbaros.” The Ancient Greeks applied this word to any persons who either did not speak Greek at all or who spoke Greek poorly. A barbarian language was simply a non-Greek language. The Romans adopted this terminology and wielded it against all folks who could not speak Latin. The Germans mocked the Yiddish language and many Jews even joined in with them in the contempt; in The Jewish State, Theodore Herzl referred to it as a “ghetto language” which Jews must throw off, this sneaky language of prisoners. The Russian and Polish words for German, Nemetzski and Niemiecki respectively, literally can mean mute, mumbling people. Because the Russians and Poles couldn’t understand German, they labeled them as people whose language was so barbaric and absurd that they were not even worth understanding. Finally, the English—and German—word for slave originates from Slav—the Slavic language was the language of slaves.
Sadly, all of these cases share the same traits which I have observed in people who insist on telling me how ugly of a language German is when I tell them I’ve spent almost a decade learning it. They don’t speak German, they don’t know anyone who speaks it, they’ve never spent significant time in the country in which it is spoken. And yet, somehow their opinions are as bedrock as if they had just released a hip-hop freestyle album entitled Kaputte Liederhosen. Do we doubt that it was any different with the Greeks or the Romans? How many Greeks spoke the languages they claimed to be “barbaric”? How many Germans understood the Yiddish that they loved to scorn? Which Russians and Poles would still call Germans “mumbling folk” after themselves learning to comprehend this mumbling? Indeed, Yiftach could speak the language of the Ammonites about as well as Hans von Seekt could flirt with a girl in Polish.
If we take the time to learn the language of our alleged enemies, the stereotypes and misconceptions we have about them will fall away. But this point, though critical, is nevertheless rather obvious and even cliché. The real reason we should try to learn the language of our enemies—even just a few short phrases—is to humble ourselves and become mindful of the echo chamber in which we might be stuck. When we attempt to express ourselves in a new language, we make ourselves vulnerable to our native-speaking interlocutors. Ideally, at some point we have the thought: to even order a cup of coffee in this language is insanely difficult. These people are not mumblers or barbarians or Mauscheler or slaves or Nazi impersonators; in fact, these folks must be extremely sophisticated. We ought then to turn this hard-won humility back on ourselves and realize that fluency in our native tongue may lead to an overestimation of our own intellect. We might realize that part of the reason we enjoy opining is because of how easy and automatic our tongue makes it for us. Imagine if Yiftach had to explain his claim to Gilead in the Ammonite language instead of in Hebrew via messenger. Imagine if von Seekt could only vow to destroy Poland in Polish. Both would have simply given up in exasperation. Indeed, ironically, the most vicious arguments tend to occur when the two sides are native speakers of the same language. Each one is so silver-tongued, so at home in the language of his mother, that he scarcely has the awareness to realize that what feels to be silver is actually the stainless steel of a machine. And when everyone is speaking the same language—well, we already knew as early as Bereishit how ugly that can get for humanity.
Discover more by listening to my weekly podcast, The Schrift, on German literature, meditation, Torah, and cultural critique, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and on my website, steventobyweinberg.com