Review: La Dangxera Lingvo (Don HARLOW)

La Dan─Łera Lingvo

by Ulrich Lins

Gerlingen: Bleicher Eldonejo, 1988. 546p.

reviewed by Don HARLOW

From The ELNA Newsletter, Nov.-Dec. 1988, p. 13

   A hypothetical researcher from Mars, tracking the spread of Esperanto from 1887 to the present through a device allowing him to locate all speakers of Esperanto from space, would very likely have been confounded by the change in the distribution of the language from 1933 to 1945. In the former year, he would have found a large concentration of Esperanto speakers throughout Central Europe and the western Soviet Union; by the latter year, those areas would seem to have undergone a major cleansing of this "green blight," though a number of new pockets would have appeared throughout Siberia during the interim. It is largely this phenomenon -- the purging of Esperanto from the areas occupied by the German Reich and the Sovgiet Union before, during, and immediately after World War II that Lins covers in this excellent addition to the canon of works about the history of Esperanto.

   The book is a revision and major expansion of an earlier, almost legendary volume of the same name, published in Japan more than fifteen years ago. Though I haven't read the earlier version, I would guess that most of the new material relates to the Soviet persecution of Esperanto, since this particular topic takes up some two thirds of the book. The situation in the Third Reich gets a mere 66 pages, less than the first section ("Suspicion of a new language," a discussion of difficulties faced by Esperanto in Tsarist Russia and, becuase of its relationship to the workers' movement, in Central Europe in the twenties) though almost twice as much as the third section ("Persecution in East Asia," which covers China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea in the thirties). The Soviet Union, on the other hand, gets a total of 337 pages -- all of this devoted to what the Soviet government still officially refers to as "a period of stagnation in the Esperanto movement."

   Why so much space to the Soviet Union and so little to the Third Reich? Probably for several reasons. For one thing, the purpose of studying history is to enable us to foresee future trends. But the situation of Esperanto under Hitler was not the result of describable historical forces; it was a historical aberration, growing out of the Nazi conviction that Esperanto, as the invention of a Jewish ophthalmologist, was part of an international Jewish conspiracy to enslave the Aryan people. Hitler warned against Esperanto as early as 1922, in a speech in Munich (p. 98), and again in his famous work Mein Kampf (p. 98); and the ideological opposition of the Nazis to Esperanto was detailed at length by the Reichsicherheitshauptamt in a 1940 internal report (pp. 124-125).

   What we can learn from this period is just how far we can and dare go in our attempts to reach accomodation with governments that deny basic human rights (pp. 111-120), and how far we should be prepared to go, in spite of neutrality, in our opposition to movements that would deny those rights (pp. 145-156).

   The Soviet situation was considerably different from that in the Third Reich. Here, Esperanto was largely the victim of blind historical forces against which it might have been able to defent itself could its proponents have foreseen the future. From my reading of Lins, I gather tha Esperanto proved itself "dangerous" in two ways:

   1) The USSR undertook, in the mid-twenties, a correspondence campaign, designed to convince Western workers of the superiority of life in the USSR, and ditto for Soviet workers. The campaign only incidentally used Esperanto; but because of the dearth of foreign languge capability among Russian workers, in the end Esperanto apparently became the major tool of communication in this campaign. It worked all too well; by 1930 Esperanto had developed into such a significant means of communication across the Soviet Union's borders that the government actually tried to end the campaign by channeling it into "collective" correspondence (letters would be written and received by -- and consored by -- committees). The attempt failed. By the mid-thirties, when international communication at the personal level had become an intolerable crime, the Esperantists were the chief culprits.

   2) While Lenin encouraged the development of local ethnic cultures and languages -- going to the trouble of sending out linguists to find peoples who did not yet have a written language, and developing one for them -- Stalin, a Russified Georgian, took the position that a strong and industrialized USSR could be developed only along the Western model of a nation-state. This meant that the country must have only one language of common use. Lenin, and traditional Marxists, assumed that such a language would evolve organically in a Socialist society (they did not favor Esperanto, since its inventor had been infected with too many bourgeois ideas [pp. 328-341]); Stalin intended the language of common use to be Russian. But there appears to have developed a feeling, codified many years later in a statement by the Estonian linguist Kammari (p. 508), that Esperanto was at least a potential competitor to Russian, not only internationally, but within the Soviet Union itself. Such competition, of course, could not be tolerated. Lins points out that the ups and downs of the Soviet Esperanto movement match remarkably well with periods of lesser and greater coercion of national minorities by the central government.

   (Interestingly enough, in this light, Estonia's declaration of "sovereignty" in November, 1988, was preceded by the establishment of an Estonian Esperanto Association in the autumn of that year, independent of the all-encompassing Association of Soviet Esperantists.)

   The book also includes a fascinating description of the situation in Eastern Europe during the period of the "Great Silence" (1950-1956).

   In conclusion, let me recommend this work to anyone with an interest in this very important phenomenon in the history of Esperanto.


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Don Harlow <donh@donh.best.vwh.net>