"Good morning." "How do you do?" "Hello." We issue this sort of greeting dozens of times every day, and probably don't even think about how greetings work, what function they perform, or what things would be like without them. We certainly don't consider them something we have to do, or something compulsory, but we all do them anyway, so they must be important. What if a specific greeting became compulsory, though? This experiment has been tried, and the results are examined in _The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture_ (Metropolitan Books) by Tilman Allert, with translation from the German by Jefferson Chase. Allert, a professor of sociology and social psychology at the University of Frankfort, shows that there has been a great deal of research on greetings in general. His scholarly, reserved approach to his specific subject has produced a small volume that considers a small gesture that had big consequences, not as a product of the evils of Nazism, but as one of the promoters of those evils. It is remarkable that this subject has not been evaluated before, but here is a clear and scary examination of how the salute came to be and what influence it had.
"Salute" not only means the physical, often military movement of a hand in greeting, but also the words that accompanied the greeting, and both are examined here, as are the meanings of greetings as they are more naturally used. A greeting provides an initial structure for human interaction, an initial gift to another person to get things going. "Heil Hitler" injected a third party into greetings, and did so under the force of law. It was on 13 July 1933 that the edict was issued to make the greeting mandatory. Every greeting would thereupon not just be a greeting, but would be a statement of the relationship of the greeters to the Fuhrer. Students, by order, would say it to their teachers, and to each other. Department store attendants would greet shoppers with, "Heil Hitler, how may I help you?" Samuel Beckett wrote in his travel diary in 1937, "Even bathroom attendants greet you with `Heil Hitler.'" The words were accompanied by the right hand salute. The Reich invented legends about the gesture to differentiate it from the similar Italian fascist salute, or from that of the Socialist International. The gesture was everywhere, and within the book is a reproduction of an illustration of the Sleeping Beauty story; the heroine has been kissed by her Prince, and is just awakening, so he gives the Hitler salute to her. Shaking hands brings people closer together, but Allert says that giving the hand salute "makes it necessary for the greeter to stand back from the other person and thus intensifies the estrangement and sense of uncertainty that is usually overcome or bridged during an act of greeting."
This is the sort of insight that makes this a more thoughtful book than would be just a history of the gesture. Allert reminds us that greeting words or gestures are supposed to help decrease physical and relational distances between two individuals, to build trust. "But when the greeting is externally imposed and mechanically performed, when it hides rather than reveals, uncertainty in the face of the unknown gives way to mistrust in the face of the unknowable." It is hard to blame the salute for the evils of the Third Reich, but it was a tool. It solidified group membership at the same time that it reverenced the Fuhrer, thus hijacking the individual and personal functions a greeting is supposed to perform. It was a little loyalty oath, with the implicit message that the user was ready to sacrifice self-interest for the benefit of the regime, and Allert argues that the compulsory salute furthered the abnegation of the self and the disregard for the regime's lack of morality. It was a lot for a simple gesture to bear, but Allert has pulled from an amazing range of written documents and photographs, and reasons in a convincing and understated way. It is a keen explanation of a tiny slice of the Nazi evil.