Tilman Allert: Sociologist treats larger significance of the Hitler salute

Historians in the News

In July 1933, six months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, his government established the Hitler salute — right arm extended with palm open, together with the declaration "Heil Hitler!" — as the "properly German form of greeting." As Tilman Allert shows in his slim book, The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Moral Gesture (Metropolitan Books), the greeting swiftly entrenched itself as a social convention and a gauge of loyalty to the regime. According to one Nazi newspaper, it reminded Germans of "the grand goal and challenges Adolf Hitler has given to us all." The salute, it said, "is a bit of practical National Socialism that everyone can perform." And so they did. Customary salutations gave way to the Hitler salute, which had no precedent in German history.

Allert, a professor of sociology and social psychology at the University of Frankfurt, quotes from the diary of a university student: "We knew where all our teachers stood toward the [Nazi] party, and we didn't have to check whether they were wearing an insignia. We got a clearer indication from the way in which they performed the mandatory Hitler greeting." By the 1936 Olympic Games, in Berlin, the salute was so ubiquitous that the English and French delegations demonstrated their respect to the host country by entering the stadium with right arms outstretched.

Allert dismisses the work of those historians who trace the rise of Nazism to anti-Semitism and an authoritarian German national character. Instead he encourages us to look at the microcosmic world of greetings to see how social mores decay, "making it easier for people to blind themselves to what was happening around them." In other words, the Hitler salute was not only a stark indication of the extent to which ideology intruded into the most pedestrian routines of everyday life in Germany, but, according to Allert, also served to "silence a nation's moral scruples."...

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