When I Hear the Word “Revolver”…

I came across this interview with Slavoj Zizek last week on Obscene Desserts:

Zizek makes interesting points about the displacement of political conflict over economic interests into anodyne debates about multiculturalism and "tolerance" (Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here). Otherwise, Slavoj is in full-on vieillard terrible mode: advocating the death penalty for rapists, promising to send Peter Sloterdijk to the "gulag," even accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism. At one point, Zizek proudly announces that he has "Joseph Goebbels' reaction" when he hears multicultural platitudes: "I draw my guns." 

Zizek gets it wrong, but we won't hold him to that, because it's a live interview. The interesting thing is that everyone else gets it wrong, too. The famous quotation that everyone attributes to Goebbels or Goering is "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." It's even been used as the refrain of a pop song by Mission of Burma, later covered by Moby.

But there's no record of those two officials ever saying anything about revolvers. The quote everyone is actually thinking of comes from the first scene of a 1933 play, Schlageter, by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Schlageter tells the story of one of the first National Socialist "martyrs," Albert Leo Schlageter (g), a NSDAP member who was executed by a French military tribunal for acts of sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the early 1920s. Schlageter later became the focus of a Nazi martyr cult. Streets all over Germany were named after him during the Third Reich, and his biography (see photo above) was mandatory reading for students.

In Johst's play, Schlageter talkes with a fellow student, Thiemann, about politics. Thiemann utters a long rant which ends with the phrase: "Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning," which translates as: "Whenever I hear [the word] 'culture'… I release the safety on my Browning!" In the original, Schlageter reacts with shock to his friend's militance. But not the National Socialists: Baldur von Schirach apparently used the quotation in a speech.

But "release the safety on my Browning" isn't half so catchy as "reach for my revolver," which is how the phrase has been received into English. There are two problems here for the translator.  First, German actually has one catchy word for release the safety (entsichere="de-safety-ize"), but English doesn't. Second, Browning used to be a generic word for all sorts of pistols, but that's no longer the case.* Whoever first translated the phrase as "reach for my revolver" did a brilliant job, I would say. The translation preserves the original meaning, and makes the references more resistant to the passage of time. And it struck a chord, appearling both to American post-punk bands and Slovenian philosophers.

* These days, people are more likely to associated the word Browning with the English poet, which perhaps led to the ludicrous suggestion on the Wikiquote page that the reference to "my Browning" might actually be a literary pun. I like the idea of "releasing the safety" on a book of poetry, but that level of playful irony seems almost Wildean, and if there was one thing Nazi playwrights weren't, it was Wildean.


8 thoughts on “When I Hear the Word “Revolver”…

  1. I admit to never having heard this quote in any variation – be it Browning or revolver – whatsoever. And having endured the German school system, there was ample exposure to all things Nazi related; it was basically the prime focus of history classes. So of course I had hear of Schlageter, but never of this quote.

    So two questions spring to mind:

    1) How come a sentence from an obscure German play that I contend is virtually unknown to even educated Germans gets to be a staple in the English language? So much so that Zizek plainly presupposes all listeners must have heard of it?

    2) Why on earth would somebody relate this quote to Goebbels or Goering? Goebbels was keen to produce a whole branch of “Aryan” culture and to prove its superiority over what he considered Jewish/Negro tainted “Western culture”. He surely never would have said something to that effect.
    And Goering generally was forbidden to make any great and quotable public speech for most of the time of the Nazi rule because you never knew what embarassing blunder he might make when he was drunk or on coke, which he was most of the time.


  2. > Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here
    Yet another literary theorist telling us how society should be run. At least, he’s one good old egalitarian, and not a corny pomo leftist reactionary, who, say, won’t mock religion or other worthy marks of identitarian distinction. To a staunch Marxist, diversity must be fiddlesticks indeed.

    > I admit to never having heard this quote in any variation … How come a sentence from an obscure
    > German play that I contend is virtually unknown to even educated Germans gets to be a staple in
    > the English language?
    For what it’s worth, I claim to have heard of it. However, I’m not into the multicultural platitudes Mr Zizek rightly deplores, so I might not qualify as “educated German” to some. To answer the question: As the wikiquote entry linked to above states, the quote seems to have been mentioned in “Frank Capra documentaries (Why We Fight) shown to American troops before shipping out.” btw: Does Mr Zizek suffer from a particularly persistent and aggravating variant of rhinitis? Hopefully. Anyway, I’d prefer lead fueled clear thinking to sober mumbo-jumbo anytime. Except for the gulag/death penalty issue, of course, but that’s how staunch Marxists are — they abhor fancy shmancy Gefühlsduseleien.


  3. @Alex: Oh well, but it’s also quoted in an anglo-saxon context.

    BTW, I was the original Alex but changed my nick because of you 😉



  4. [3rd f*cking attempt at posting this]> … accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism … Huh? As in, that’s not actually true? Is this how you argue your cases in court, Mr. Lawyer: name-calling (‘vieillard terrible’)? Why don’t we take a look at the evidence instead? To test Zizek’s hypothesis, I went and watched those episodes of Palin’s “Pole to Pole” series of travelogues on Youtube that take place in Africa. What I found was a modern day Hemingway-esque adventure in which Africans are notably absent from the narrative; instead they serve in the background in their colonial roles of servants(1), porters(2), rowers(3), guards(4) or serve one ill-tempered Englishman(5) who had to relocate from England to Zambia to realize his sick ambition of being a lord over some country-side laborers.What I didn’t see was him facing one single black person in the eye and exchanging a few words with them. What I did see though was that near the end of the second clip, they were passing through a poverty-stricken Ethiopian village where they stopped to ask the locals for their opinions on the current state of things honked to chase the riff-raff off the streets. And in the fourth one his white buddy tops it all by calling the warriors who accomplished the feat of toppling the dictator and his army to secure peace for their families and who at age 16-18 would be considered ‘adults’ by most of the world’s standards “kids from the hills”.
    (1) “Pole to Pole: Hot Air Ballooning” (on YouTube)
    (2) “Pole to Pole: Rise of the Blue Nile” (on YouTube)
    (3) “Pole to Pole:Victoria Falls White Water Raft” (on YouTube)
    (4) “Pole to Pole: Ethiopian Truck Cruising” (on YouTube)
    (5) “Pole to Pole: Zambian Bush Estate” (on YouTube)


  5. @martin: You’re completely right. I travelled South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe 20 years ago and at that time it was very hard in South Africa to meet blacks in any other context than the ones you mentioned … because practically everything belonged to white people! I found it a very refreshing difference when we went to Zimbabwe and all of a sudden you could chat black people up in bars and generally meet them in other contexts than these subordinate ones. When I returned two years later I stayed almost exclusively in Zimbabwe which I found also stunningly beautiful. Things have changed nowadays, I regularly meet people from South Africa, and in general blacks and whites are on much more equal terms now.

    But when you watch the Palin clips, it’s all like 20 years ago in South Africa. It’s creepy!

    I think Zizek makes a lot of interesting points in the interview.


  6. >Yet another literary theorist telling us how society should be run.

    Suspicious sentiment, this. It’s a human being, saying what he thinks about the society he lives in. Which is what we should all do, unless we’re all willing to name ourselves the original idiots and be done with it.


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