Hitler and Stalin had people killed for speaking Esperanto, but spoke it themselves

Hitler and Stalin had people killed for speaking Esperanto, but spoke it themselves

Esperanto: The Language That Survived Dictators’ Wrath

In the annals of linguistic history, few stories are as compelling as that of Esperanto, a language born from the idealistic vision of peace and unity, only to face the brutal opposition of 20th-century dictators. Despite its tumultuous past, Esperanto has not only survived but continues to thrive, with a global community of speakers and a rich cultural heritage.

Created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof (pictured right, by the Esperanto flag), a Jewish ophthalmologist from Białystok, Esperanto was designed as a universal second language to foster international understanding and harmony. Zamenhof, who grew up in a linguistically diverse city then part of the Russian Empire, believed that a common language could bridge divides and promote peace among different ethnic groups.

However, Esperanto’s ideals of internationalism and unity soon clashed with the nationalist and totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, two of history’s most notorious dictators, viewed Esperanto with suspicion and hostility, leading to severe persecution of its speakers.

Hitler’s Crusade Against Esperanto

In Nazi Germany, Esperanto became a target of Hitler’s paranoid worldview. The Nazi leader saw the language as part of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, a belief he articulated in his manifesto, “Mein Kampf”. This perception was likely fuelled by Zamenhof’s Jewish heritage and the language’s internationalist ideals, which ran counter to Nazi Germany’s extreme nationalism.

The Gestapo received specific orders to hunt down Zamenhof’s descendants, resulting in the tragic deaths of all three of his children in the Holocaust. Many Esperanto speakers met a similar fate, with the language’s use being effectively banned in Germany.

As long as the Jew has not succeeded in mastering other peoples he is forced to speak their language whether he likes it or not. But the moment that the world would become the slave of the Jew it would have to learn some other language (Esperanto, for example) so that by this means the Jew could dominate all the more easily….

Mein Kampf
Adolf Hitler (1925-1926)

Stalin’s Reversal and Purge

In the Soviet Union, Esperanto’s journey was more complex. Initially, the language enjoyed a measure of support in the early years of the Soviet state. However, this tolerance was short-lived. In 1937, at the height of the Great Purge, Stalin reversed the previous policy of acceptance[2].

A meeting of the Soviet Republics’ Esperanto Union, held in Moscow in 1931 ublic domain via Wikimedia Commons

Esperanto speakers were labeled as “spies, Zionists, and cosmopolitans,” categories that made them targets for imprisonment or execution. The Soviet government’s crackdown was particularly insidious as it never officially condemned or outlawed Esperanto, allowing the persecution to occur without formal acknowledgment[3].

The Irony of Dictators’ Interest

Paradoxically, despite their brutal suppression of Esperanto and its speakers, both Hitler and Stalin reportedly showed personal interest in the language. While concrete evidence is scarce, some historical accounts suggest that both dictators had some knowledge of Esperanto.

Hitler’s interest in Esperanto is believed to have stemmed from his time in Vienna before World War I, where he encountered various political and cultural movements, including Esperanto groups. Some historians speculate that his later vehement opposition to the language may have been influenced by this early exposure, viewing it as a threat to his nationalist ideology.

Stalin, on the other hand, is said to have learned Esperanto during his early revolutionary days. As a young man in Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, Stalin was exposed to various internationalist ideas, including Esperanto. Some accounts suggest he saw it as a potential tool for spreading communist ideology before later rejecting it as a threat to Soviet nationalism.

The Resilience of Esperanto

Despite the efforts of Hitler and Stalin to eradicate Esperanto, the language has shown remarkable resilience. After World War II and Stalin’s death in 1953, Esperanto experienced a revival. In 1954, UNESCO passed a resolution recognizing the Universal Esperanto Association, opening doors for the Esperanto movement’s representation at UNESCO events[1].

Today, Esperanto is spoken by an estimated two million people worldwide. It has its own Wikipedia edition, which contains more entries than the Danish, Greek, and Welsh editions[1]. The language continues to attract enthusiasts, with online platforms like Duolingo offering free courses and communities of speakers organizing regular meetings and congresses.

Esperanto in the Modern World

In the 21st century, Esperanto has found new relevance in a globalized world. Its simplicity and logical structure make it an ideal introductory language for learning other languages. It is very easy to learn and has no irregular verbs (compared to English which has 200 and French which has 2,238 irregular verbs). Some studies suggest that learning Esperanto before tackling other foreign languages can significantly improve overall language acquisition skills.

The language has also adapted to the digital age. Esperanto has a presence on major social media platforms, and there are numerous podcasts, YouTube channels, and online forums dedicated to the language. This digital presence has helped create a vibrant global community of Esperanto speakers, transcending geographical boundaries.

Challenges and Criticisms

Despite its survival and growth, Esperanto still faces challenges. Critics argue that its European-centric vocabulary and structure make it less “universal” than intended. Others question the need for an artificial language in a world where English has become the de facto global lingua franca.

However, proponents of Esperanto argue that its neutrality gives it an advantage over national languages in international communication. They also point to its value as a tool for promoting linguistic diversity and equality in a world where language barriers can still lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

The Legacy of Zamenhof’s Vision

More than a century after its creation, Esperanto stands as a testament to the enduring power of Zamenhof’s hope of a world united by a common language. In fact, the name “Esperanto” means “one who hopes” in the language itself. While it may not have achieved the global adoption its creator hoped for, Esperanto has survived attempts at eradication by some of history’s most brutal regimes.

[Illustration: A world map showing the spread of Esperanto speakers, with notable concentrations in Europe, East Asia, and the Americas.]


  1. Wikipedia – History of Esperanto
  2. Smithsonian Magazine – Why Hitler and Stalin Hated Esperanto
  3. Wikipedia – Esperanto in the Soviet Union
  4. The British Library – The Dangerous Language
  5. The Guardian – A Beginner’s Guide to Esperanto

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-hitler-and-stalin-hated-esperanto-the-135-year-old-language-of-peace-180980472/
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Esperanto
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto_in_the_Soviet_Union
[4] https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2016/12/the-dangerous-language.html
[5] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2003/jul/12/weekend.davidnewnham

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