pensée 0004: Tun, Täter, Tatort

Duden Dictionary - Täter

Duden Dictionary – Täter

In German, the monosyllabic verb tun could be translated into English simply as ‘to do’. When this doing is carried over to a person, this individual becomes a Täter (from the third person conjugated form tat) not just a ‘doer’ but a criminal, without needing to be qualified by the prefix ‘mis’ to make him a missetäter, or wrong-doer. To do is simply to wrong, perhaps appropriate for a language from which modern Philosophy emanated – to do is to commit a crime, and to not do (to think) is to be just.

The Germans were famously accused for being a Tätervolk, which lacks the more innocent connation of the tun from which it originates and means ‘a criminal people’ rather than ‘an industrious people’. The term implies an inherent criminal nature in the German historical and social makeup, or rather imposes a morality where there is also space for its lack. Simultaneously, tat’s double meaning reveals the link between industry and crime – it is never the idle who are the murderers and dictators, only the doers, those who preach action and progress.

In fact the actual affront in the term Tätervolk arises not from the appellation Täter as from its attachment to Volk, the single word which was the foundational stone of the National Socialist logic who had set their industrious aim upon the goal of Volk-ness (even more than race). The Germanic idea of Volk (as opposed to the American idea of ‘folk’) takes roots in racial mythmaking using the scientific logic of eugenics; it begins in blood, expands to nation before spreading to language and culture too (not unlike an epidemic), in order to try and create not only an idea of the Deutsche (which in a Republic is but a civil designation), but Volksdeutsche.  The designation Tätervolk, even if it is an accusation, is dangerous if taken without its requisite grain of salt, as it a stamp of validity for the postulate of Volk which was the core of National Socialist propaganda.

Tat, meaning both act and crime, can be defined not only negatively or neutrally, but positively too, as in ‘exploits’ or ‘achievement’. To move the action into the criminal realm one must add Strafe or punishment, to make Straftat. Interestingly enough, this addition which transforms a tat onto a crime does so entirely outside the moral order. A crime (as the Nazis only too well understood) is only a legal matter or perhaps one of social convention – it is a crime not because it is wrong, but simply because it is punishable.

The only morality from the verb tun comes from the positive value attached to doing – for if to murder (the ultimate crime, and one can say the ultimate act) is simply to do, it is morally preferable to do best, and the horrifying efficiency of the Nazi extermination machine is powered by this latent drive for efficiency and progress.

Tatort, (in English ‘crime scene’ or more precisely, ‘the place of crime’) Germany’s popular TV show running since 1970, might refer not only to the actual crime scene which the officers investigate, but the investigation of the place of the crime itself. In Tatort, just like in Germany of the war, there is no city that is not the place of crime, and this fascination with crime itself seems a subconscious acknowledgement of culpability, which reveals a desire to understand – not only who and what, but also why.

That the show runs in both Germany and Austria is only natural, and the uncoincidental inclusion of Switzerland amongst the ‘places of crime’ is perhaps more than just a happy accident, and may be an unwitting acknowledgement of the Swiss responsibility for their infamous show of neutrality.  Yet, neutrality too is a tat (act, achievement or crime?), and as Switzerland’s most famous resident, Jean-Luc Godard once quipped, the Swiss flag is “the blood of other nations that one had made an ‘X’ through”, the position of neutrality being that of disregard.

Hitler’s ideal of Volksgemeinschaft takes the Germanic idea of togetherness Gemeinschaft, and contaminates it (or purifies it, as you will) with the addition of Volk. Schaft,  derived from schaffen (to make, to create) is a way of mixing together diverse elements into a single homogenous whole, as in Landschaft (landscape – the image that homogenizes the land, ironically enough only by cutting it off from its organic whole, placing it into the rectangular frame of the window, the photograph, the painting) or Freundschaft. Add this creation, schaft, at the end of the criminal Täter, and you get Täterschaft, or “made into criminal”, which strangely enough is a legal term leading to the idea of judicial responsibility.

Ultimately the term Volksgemeinschaft  by using the word create reveals the artifice behind its making, although of course the National Socialist propaganda machine needed to root its logic by creating also the illusion of its basis in natural law. Ultimately it is the schaffen, the creation of the Volk which transformed a society of linked individuals into a single homogenous Täterschaft – a community of not only ‘those who did’, but into ‘those responsible for doing’ (the crime is implied) – even for those who as individuals never did anything.


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