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The power of the word

The inhabitants of Ulm an der Donau, Ulm on the Danube, the charming German city that straddles the border of Bavaria and Baden-W¨urttemberg, have always been very proud of their minster, which was 500 years in the building: by 1890 they could boast that the minster’s spire was the highest in the world. It so happens that there are steps inside that spire, and I have climbed all 768 of them. Twice.

In 1980 I thought the whole business was simply a testing climb; nearly 25 years later I soon began to wonder what happens to people who collapse during the ascent. While panting up the wind-tossed tower, I realised that I did not know the German word for help, and wondered whether a cry of au secours might do. But a minute later, such considerations became purely academic, because by then I could not have got a phrase or word in any language out: speech was a secondary consideration. While gargoyles leered from various levels and the town unrolled below me, all I knew was the rhythmic thumping of my heart.

Somehow I made it to the top, and then not unnaturally wondered how I was going to get down again. While resting and gaping at the view, and doubtless suffering simultaneously from altitude sickness and oxygen deprivation, I found myself pondering the complicated matter of language, for it is not difficult to see the building itself in terms of the speech of symbolism and architecture. It seems reasonable enough to assume that when the foundations of the minster were laid in 1377, ordinary people translated, almost unconsciously, the words and symbols church and spire into the phrase desire for Heaven. With the eternal longing that humans have always had for understanding, these people of the 14th century tried to make sense of this world by concentrating on the concept of another, using the language of architecture to the greater glory of God.

My ignorance of German did not stop me from going on to think about this city’s more literal associations with languages of many sorts. Breathing deeply and peering out through intricate stonework, I told myself that I just might be viewing the distant scene of the Austrian Army’s 1805 defeat by Corsican/French Napoleon. The luckless Austrian general forced to surrender eventually found a place in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as ‘the unfortunate General Mack’, whose unexpected arrival with the disastrous news startled, depressed, but also ambiguously thrilled officer Prince Andrei.

At this point my thoughts were meandering, much like the Danube below me, and I remembered that at the age of 16 I had begun to develop a more than sneaking feeling that mathematics and physics were harder languages even than Russian. But still, decades later, I was impressed to learn that Ulm is the birthplace of the genius Einstein, who is commemorated in a cheeky gargoyle, stone tongue poking out, in the minster.

As a child, Einstein was thought by some to be mentally retarded. In fact he was dyslexic, did not start speaking until he was three, and struggled with language right through primary school. His original doctoral dissertation was initially rejected by the University of Zurich because it was too short, but was passed after he added a vague and apparently rather waffly sentence.

It is now a hundred years since Einstein had his ‘miracle year’, during which he published three astounding papers, and so radically changed the world’s view of post-Newtonian physics. And all this on his own time. Thus, 2005 has given rise to a spate of writing about the man, his work and his life. Even though I know I am not alone, I am ashamed to admit that the famous equation E=mc2 baffled me for years; now, however, I know that Einstein maintained it simply answered the question he had asked himself when he was 16: What would it be like to sit on a beam of light? And the theory of relativity can, I have also recently learned, be richly but not gaudily summarised in under ten words: Action at a distance happens in time.

In addition to all this, Granta author and editor Graham Farmelo has pointed out to mentally lopsided people like me that an equation can be easily compared to a sonnet. And here’s another beam of light: Shakespeare’s sonnets are beautiful in only one language, but Einstein’s equation is beautiful in all of them. (Ah, but it has to be added that there are different sorts of beauty, and that the consequences of the application of sonnet and equation are surely in stark contrast.)

Like most geniuses, Einstein could be difficult, but he famously had God always in mind; he was also a pacifist and an internationalist who worked constantly to help Jews escaping from the Nazis and from the Soviets. Some 50 years after Einstein’s non-observant Jewish parents produced him, Hans and Sophie Scholl were born, although not in Ulm. Their parents moved there not long after, however, so that Hans, Sophie, and their three siblings grew up in an apartment on the minster square. I might not have been sure about the scene of General Mack’s defeat, but there was no doubt about my view of the square.

The Scholl family was not Jewish, but devoutly Christian in the best sense of the word, in that the parents actively encouraged faith, intellectual freedom, a love of discussion, and a sense of responsibility towards others. The Scholls were also patriotic Germans, and for a brief period both Hans and Sophie were involved in Hitler youth movements. Once having learned about Hitler’s views on the subjects of eugenics, euthanasia, and what turned out to be the Final Solution, however, they became committed to drastic resistance action. The whole family read ‘forbidden’ books as a matter of policy, and Hans and Sophie, undergraduates at the University of Munich, were foundation members of a small non-violent resistance group known as the White Rose. The choice of the name, which still has great symbolic value, remains obscure, but the rose is generally thought to be a symbol of secrecy, and a white one can stand for innocence.

The members of the White Rose fought the Hitler regime with words. They typed their flyers, mimeographed and then distributed them; they painted slogans and graffiti on prominent walls. But on a fateful day in 1943, Hans and Sophie tipped a whole load of pamphlets from a tall building; later, commentators remarked on the similarity between the drift of paper and the petals of a white rose. Events then proceeded inexorably: the caretaker of the building informed the authorities, Hans and Sophie were speedily tried by the Nazi People’s Court, and summarily sentenced to death by guillotine.

Brother and sister met their deaths with outstanding courage. And with words. Sophie shouted defiantly at the judge as she and Hans were taken away.  Her mother had already said to her: You know, Sophie, Jesus. And Sophie had nodded in agreement. Claudio Magris, author of that mighty work Danube, writes that the siblings knew that life is not the supreme value …  They went serenely to their deaths, without a tremor…

Magris is not as kind to Field Marshal Rommel, despite believing him to have been a man of unassailable integrity. The Desert Fox had been badly wounded on July 17, 1944. Three days later, Hitler narrowly escaped a botched assassination attempt, and Rommel was alleged to have been involved in this plot, although such involvement has never been proved.

From the time Rommel began his convalescence in Germany, the Gestapo had the family home under constant surveillance. Then, on 14 October, two generals arrived and spoke to Rommel, accusing him of being a conspirator against Hitler. They gave him the choice, and the phial of poison: he could commit suicide or agree to stand trial for treason. He chose the former, having spoken to his wife, whom he loved greatly, and having shaken his 15-year-old son Manfred by the hand. With quite staggering verbal economy, he said, I will be dead in twenty minutes. And he was.

Four days later, a state funeral took place in Ulm, during which a huge crowd paid their respects to the late Field Marshal in the belief that he had died as a result of his wounds. The hero image was carefully fostered: the doctors knew that Rommel had taken poison, but put it about that he had died from a stroke, while Hitler, dishonest showman and evil hypocrite to the last, sent a wreath. Magris is unforgiving, asserting that the funeral was a sham, and that the tragedy of a man of honour had been stage-managed to become a lie.

Magris, great scholar and critic that he is, concentrates on ethics and semantics. It seems to me that Rommel concentrated on his family, and also understood that the power of the word would be used against him in a rigged trial. The ‘lie’ enabled Rommel’s adolescent son to keep on believing that his father was the hero and patriot that he surely was, entitled Rommel’s wife to a pension and her pride in her husband, and also saved three people and the German public from the degrading spectacle of court proceedings, which, like those of Hans and Sophie Scholl, could have had only one ending. Magris does concede that Rommel could never be accused of lacking physical courage and so did not fear execution.

Fast forward to George Orwell and Big Brother and double-speak. And still faster forward, factoring in spin along the way, to the invasion of Iraq, the whole dubious matter of reporting on WMD, and the atrocious treatment of British expert Dr Kelly. Another suicide as a result of unbearable pressure, 60 years later, and not a very great distance from Ulm minster. This death, however, was followed by a so-called inquiry: millions of words, and for what?

I retrieved my breath somehow and made a slow but safe descent to the interior of the minster. Perhaps some things are seen and understood more clearly from a great height.

Months later, quite by chance, I happen to read a snippet in  the English papers. Iraq again. It seems that the word suicide is not acceptable to people such as Donald Rumsfeld, particularly not when the actual rate of this kind of death is rising among ‘unlawful enemy combatants’. Such a trend causes questions to be asked by troublesome bodies like the misnamed United Nations. Words again. Just call suicide  ‘manipulative self-injurious behaviour’, and see how attitudes and statistics change.

The slipperiness of language; the ambiguous power of the word. Buildings are safer.       

Gillian Bouras is a freelance writer whose books are published by Penguin Australia.



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