Nazi salute

This article is about the fascist salute used in Nazi Germany. For salutes in other countries, see Roman salute.
Hitler Youth in Berlin performing the Nazi salute at a rally in 1933

The Nazi salute or Hitler salute (German: Hitlergruß – literally Hitler Greeting) is a gesture that was used as a greeting in Nazi Germany. The salute is performed by extending the right arm in the air with a straightened hand. Usually, the person offering the salute would say "Heil Hitler!" (Hail Hitler!), "Heil, mein Führer!" (Hail, my leader!), or "Sieg Heil!" (Hail victory!). It was adopted in the 1930s by the Nazi Party to signal obedience to the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, and to glorify the German nation (and later the German war effort). The salute was mandatory for civilians,[1] but was mostly optional for military personnel who retained the traditional military salute until shortly after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944.[2]

Use of this salute is currently a criminal offense in Germany, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, and Austria. In Canada, the Czech Republic,[3] France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, the salute is illegal hate speech if used for propagating Nazi ideology.[4][5][6]


The salute was performed by extending the right arm to at least eye level, and straightening the hand so that it is parallel to the arm.[7] Usually, an utterance of "Heil Hitler!", or "Heil!" accompanied the gesture. If one saw an acquaintance at a distance, it sufficed to simply raise the right hand.[7] If one encountered a superior, one would also say "Heil Hitler".[7] If physical disability prevented raising the right arm, it was acceptable to raise the left.[8] The form "Heil, mein Führer!" was for direct address to Hitler.[9] "Sieg Heil" was repeated as a chant on public occasions.[9] Written communications would be concluded with either mit deutschem Gruß ("with German regards"), or with "Heil Hitler".[10] In correspondence with high-ranking Nazi officials, letters were usually signed with "Heil Hitler".[11]

Hitler gave the salute in two ways. When reviewing his troops or crowds, he generally used the traditional stiff armed salute. When greeting individuals, he used a modified version of the salute, bending his right arm while holding an open hand towards those greeted at shoulder height.[12]

Origins and adoption

See also: Roman salute
Hitler and Hermann Göring saluting at a 1928 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg
Nazi salute at the Harzburg Front rally in Bad Harzburg, October 1931

The oral greeting "Heil" became popular in the pan-German movement around 1900.[13] As a manner of address, Führer was introduced by Georg Ritter von Schönerer who considered himself leader of the Austrian Germans.[13]

The salute gesture is widely believed to be based on an ancient Roman custom.[14] However, no surviving Roman work of art depicts it, nor does any extant Roman text describe it.[14] Jacques-Louis David's painting Oath of the Horatii (1784) seems to be the starting point for the gesture that became known as the Roman salute.[15][16] The gesture and its identification with ancient Rome was advanced in other French neoclassic art.[17][18][19] This was further elaborated upon in popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in plays and films that portrayed the salute as an ancient Roman custom.[20] This included the silent film Cabiria (1914), whose screenplay was written by the Italian ultra-nationalist Gabriele d'Annunzio, arguably the forerunner of Benito Mussolini.[21] In 1919, when he led the occupation of Fiume, d'Annunzio adopted the style of salute depicted in the film as a neo-Imperialist ritual;[22] and it was quickly adopted by the Italian Fascist Party.[22]

By autumn 1923, some members of the Nazi Party were using the rigid, outstretched right arm salute to greet Hitler, who responded by raising his own right hand crooked back at the elbow, palm opened upwards, in a gesture of acceptance.[23] In 1926, the Heil Hitler salute was made compulsory.[24] It functioned as a display of commitment to the Party and a declaration of principle to the outside world.[25] Yet the drive to gain acceptance did not go unchallenged.[25]

Some party members challenged the legitimacy of the so-called Roman salute, employed by Fascist Italy, as un-Germanic.[25] In response, efforts were made to establish its pedigree by inventing a tradition after the fact.[25] In June 1928, Rudolf Hess published an article titled "The Fascist Greeting", which claimed that the gesture was used in Germany as early as 1921, before the Nazis had heard about the Italian Fascists.[26] He admits in the article: "The NSDAP's introduction of the raised-arm greeting approximately two years ago still gets some people's blood boiling. Its opponents suspect the greeting of being un-Germanic. They accuse it of merely aping the (Italian) Fascists",[27] but goes on to ask, "and even if the decree from two years ago (Hess' order that all party members use it) is seen as an adaption of the Fascist gesture, is that really so terrible"?[27] Ian Kershaw points out that Hess did not deny the likely influence from Fascist Italy, even if indeed the salute had been used sporadically in 1921 as Hess claimed.[28]

On the night of 3 January 1942, Hitler said of the origins of the salute:[29]

I made it the salute of the Party long after the Duce had adopted it. I'd read the description of the sitting of the Diet of Worms, in the course of which Luther was greeted with the German salute. It was to show him that he was not being confronted with arms, but with peaceful intentions. In the days of Frederick the Great, people still saluted with their hats, with pompous gestures. In the Middle Ages the serfs humbly doffed their bonnets, whilst the noblemen gave the German salute. It was in the Ratskeller at Bremen, about the year 1921, that I first saw this style of salute. It must be regarded as a survival of an ancient custom, which originally signified: "See, I have no weapon in my hand!" I introduced the salute into the Party at our first meeting in Weimar. The SS at once gave it a soldierly style. It's from that moment that our opponents honored us with the epithet "dogs of Fascists".
Adolf Hitler, Hitler's Table Talk

The Bellamy salute, adopted in 1892 to accompany the American Pledge of Allegiance, bore a resemblance to the Nazi Salute. For this reason, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States, instead of the Bellamy salute.[30] This was done when Congress officially adopted the Flag Code on 22 June 1942.[31]

From 1933 to 1945

Ten and eleven-year-old Berlin schoolchildren, 1934. The salute was a regular gesture in German schools.

Under a decree issued by Reich Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick on 13 July 1933 (one day before the ban on all non-Nazi parties), all German public employees were required to use the salute.[1] The decree also required the salute during the singing of the national anthem and the "Horst-Wessel-Lied".[1] It stipulated that "anyone not wishing to come under suspicion of behaving in a consciously negative fashion will therefore render the Hitler Greeting".[1] A rider to the decree, added two weeks later, stipulated that if physical disability prevented raising of the right arm, "then it is correct to carry out the Greeting with the left arm."[8] On 27 September, prison inmates were forbidden to use the salute,[32] as were Jews by 1937.[33]

By the end of 1934, special courts were established to punish those who refused to salute.[34] Offenders, such as Protestant preacher Paul Schneider, faced the possibility of being sent to a concentration camp.[34] Foreigners were not exempt from intimidation if they refused to salute. For example, the Portuguese Consul General was beaten by members of the Sturmabteilung for remaining seated in a car and not saluting a procession in Hamburg.[35] Reactions to inappropriate use were not merely violent but sometimes bizarre.[36] For example, a memo dated 23 July 1934 sent to local police stations stated: "There have been reports of traveling vaudeville performers training their monkeys to give the German Greeting. ... see to it that said animals are destroyed".[36]

A lone man with his arms folded as hundreds around him perform salute at the launch of the Horst Wessel, 1936.

The salute became an ordinary way of life.[37] Postmen used the greeting when they knocked on people's doors to deliver packages or letters.[37] Small metal signs that reminded people to use the Hitler salute were displayed in public squares and on telephone poles and street lights throughout Germany.[38] Department store clerks greeted customers with "Heil Hitler, how may I help you?"[37] Dinner guests brought glasses etched with the words "Heil Hitler" as house gifts.[37] The salute was required of all persons passing the Feldherrnhalle in Munich, site of the climax of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which the government had made into a shrine to the Nazi dead; so many pedestrians avoided this mandate by detouring through the small Viscardigasse behind that the passage acquired the nickname "Dodgers' Alley" (Drückebergergasse).[39]

Spectators giving the salute during German occupation of Czechoslovakia, 1938

Children were indoctrinated at an early age.[40] Kindergarten children were taught to raise their hand to the proper height by hanging their lunch bags across the raised arm of their teacher.[40] At the beginning of first grade primers was a lesson on how to use the greeting.[40] The greeting found its way into fairy tales, including classics like Sleeping Beauty.[40] Students and teachers would salute each other at the beginning and end of the school day, between classes, or whenever an adult entered the classroom.[41]

Some athletes used the Nazi salute in the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as they passed by Hitler in the reviewing stand.[42] This was done by delegates from Afghanistan, Bermuda, Bulgaria, Bolivia, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy and Turkey.[42] The Bulgarian athletes performed the Nazi salute and broke into a goose-step;[42] Turkish athletes maintained the salute all around the track.[43] There is some confusion over the use of the salute, since the stiff-arm Nazi salute could have been mistaken for an Olympic salute, with the right arm held out at a slight angle to the right from the shoulder.[42] According to the American sports writer Jeremy Schaap, only half of the athletes from Austria performed a Nazi salute, while the other half gave an Olympic salute. According to the historian Richard Mandell, there are conflicting reports on whether athletes from France performed a Nazi salute or an Olympic Salute.[43] In football, the England football team bowed to pressure from the British foreign office and performed the salute during a friendly match on 14 May 1938.[44]

Jehovah's Witnesses came into conflict with the Nazi regime because they refused to salute Adolf Hitler with the traditional "Heil Hitler" salute, believing that it conflicted with their worship of Jehovah. Because refusing to salute Hitler was considered a crime, Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested, and their children attending school were expelled, detained and separated from their families.[45]

Military use

A General saluting in customary Wehrmacht style, January 1941

A General saluting in customary Wehrmacht style, January 1941

Dönitz and Navy officers performing Nazi salute, 1941

The Wehrmacht refused to adopt the Hitler salute officially and was able for a time to maintain its own customs.[46] A compromise edict from the Reich Defense Ministry, released on 19 September 1933, required the Hitler salute of soldiers and uniformed civil servants while singing the "Horst Wessel Lied" and national anthem, and in non-military encounters both within and outside the Wehrmacht (for example, when greeting members of the civilian government). At all other times they were permitted to use their traditional salutes.[46] Use of the Hitler salute was also permitted when in uniform. However, it is of importance to note that according to (pre-Nazi) Reichswehr and Wehrmacht protocol, the traditional military salute was not permitted when the saluting soldier was not wearing a uniform headgear (helmet or cap). Because of this, all salutes performed bareheaded, even when in full uniform and on duty, made the Nazi salute de facto mandatory in most situations.[47]

Only after the 20 July Plot in 1944 were the military forces of the Third Reich ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute, as a show of loyalty in deference to the fact that it was Army officers that had been responsible for the assassination attempt.[48] The order went into effect on 24 July 1944.[48] The use of the Hitler salute by the military had been discussed as early as January 1944 in a conference regarding traditions in the military at Hitler's headquarters. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Armed Forces, had expressed a desire to standardize the salute across all organizations in Germany.[49]

On the night of 3 January 1942, Hitler stated the following about the compromise edict of 1933:[29]

I imposed the German salute for the following reason. I'd given orders, at the beginning, that in the Army I should not be greeted with the German salute. But many people forgot. Fritsch drew his conclusions, and punished all who forgot to give me the military salute, with fourteen days' confinement to barracks. I, in turn, drew my conclusions and introduced the German salute likewise into the Army.
Adolf Hitler, Hitler's Table Talk

Satiric responses

"Millions stand behind me" (John Heartfield photomontage)

Despite indoctrination and punishment, the salute was ridiculed by some people. Since "heil" is also the imperative of the German verb "heilen" ("to heal"), a common joke in Nazi Germany was to reply with "Is he sick?", "Am I a doctor?", or "You heal him!"[50] Jokes were also made by distorting the phrase. For example, Heil Hitler might become Ein Liter ("One liter").[50] Cabaret performer Karl Valentin would quip, "It's lucky that Hitler's name wasn't 'Kräuter'. Otherwise, we'd have to go around yelling Heilkräuter ('medicinal herbs')".[50] Similar puns were made involving Bronn (rendering Heilbronn, a German city), and Butt (rendering Heilbutt, the German word for halibut).

Satirical use of the salute dates back to anti-Nazi propaganda in Germany before 1933. In 1932, photomontage artist John Heartfield used Hitler's modified version, with the hand bent over the shoulder, in a poster that linked Hitler to Big Business. A giant figure representing right-wing capitalists stands behind Hitler, placing money in his hand, suggesting "backhand" donations. The caption is, "the meaning of the Hitler salute" and "Millions stand behind me".[51] Heartfield was forced to flee in 1933 after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany.

Another example is a cartoon by New Zealand political cartoonist David Low, mocking the Night of the Long Knives. Run in the Evening Standard on July 3, 1934, it shows Hitler with a smoking gun grimacing at terrified SA men with their hands up. The caption reads: "They salute with both hands now".[52]

Sieg Heil

A mass Sieg Heil during a rally in the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district of Berlin in 1935

Sieg Heil was a chant used at the Nazis' mass rallies, where enthusiastic crowds answered Heil to the call of Sieg ("victory").[53] For example, at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, Rudolf Hess ended his climactic speech with, "The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Hitler! Sieg Heil!"[54] At his total war speech delivered in 1943, audiences shouted Sieg Heil as Joseph Goebbels solicited from them "a kind of plebiscitary 'Ja'" to total war.[55]

On 11 March 1945, less than two months before the capitulation of Nazi Germany, a memorial for the dead of the war was held in Marktschellenberg, a small town near Hitler's Berghof residence.[56] The British historian Ian Kershaw remarks that the power of the Führer-cult and the "Hitler Myth" had vanished which is evident from a report given in the little Bavarian town of Markt Schellenberg on March 11, 1945:

When the leader of the Wehrmacht unit at the end of his speech called for a Sieg Heil for the Führer, it was returned neither by the Wehrmacht present, nor by the Volkssturm, nor by the spectators of the civilian population who had turned up. This silence of the masses ... probably reflects better than anything else, the attitudes of the population.[56]

The Swing Kids (German: Swing Jugend) were a group of middle-class teenagers who consciously separated themselves from Nazism and its culture, greeting each other with "Swing-Heil!" and addressing one another as "old-hot-boy".[57] This playful behaviour was dangerous for participants in the subculture; on 2 January 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered that the leaders be put in concentration camps to be drilled and beaten.[57]


Today in Germany, Nazi salutes in written form, vocally, and even straight-extending the right arm as a saluting gesture (with or without the phrase), are illegal.[58][59] It is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years of prison (Strafgesetzbuch section 86a).[59][60] Usage for art, teaching and science is allowed unless "the existence of an insult results from the form of the utterance or the circumstances under which it occurred".[60] Use of the salute has also been illegal in Austria since the end of World War II.

Usage that is "ironic and clearly critical of the Hitler Greeting" is exempt, which has led to legal debates as to what constitutes ironic use.[61] One recent case involved Prince Albrecht of Hanover who was brought to court after using the gesture as a commentary on the behavior of an unduly zealous airport baggage inspector.[61] On 23 November 2007, the Amtsgericht Cottbus sentenced Horst Mahler to six months of imprisonment without parole for having, according to his own claims, ironically performed the Hitler salute when reporting to prison for a nine-month term a year earlier.[62] The following month, a pensioner named Roland T was given a prison term of five months for, amongst other things, training his dog Adolf to raise his right paw in a Nazi salute every time the command "Heil Hitler!" was uttered.[63]

Modified versions of the salute are sometimes used by neo-Nazis. One such version is the so-called "Kühnen salute" with extended thumb, index and middle finger, which is also a criminal offence in Germany.[64] In written correspondence, the number 88 is sometimes used by some neo-Nazis as a substitute for "Heil Hitler" ("H" as the eighth letter of the alphabet).[65] Swiss neo-Nazis were reported to use a variant of the Kühnengruss, though extending one's right arm over their head and extending said three fingers has a different historical source for Switzerland, as the first three Eidgenossen or confederates are often depicted with this motion. Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon often raise their arms in a Nazi-style salute.[66][67]

On 28 May 2012, BBC current affairs programme Panorama examined the issues of racism, antisemitism and football hooliganism, which it claimed were prevalent among Polish and Ukrainian football supporters. The programme, titled Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, included recent footage of Ukrainian supporters giving the Nazi salute and shouting "Sieg Heil". The two countries hosted the international football competition UEFA Euro 2012.[68]

On 16 March 2013, Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis of AEK Athens F.C. was handed a life ban from the Greek national team for performing the salute after scoring a goal against Veria F.C. in Athens' Olympic Stadium.[69]

In April 2014, the Supreme Court of Switzerland ruled that Nazi salutes do not breach hate crime laws if expressed as one's personal opinion, but only if they are used in attempt to spread its ideology.[4][5]

On 18 July 2015, The Sun published an image of the British Royal Family from private film shot in 1933 or 1934, showing Elizabeth II (then a young girl) and the Queen Mother both performing a Nazi salute, accompanied by Edward VIII, taken from 17 seconds of home footage (also released by The Sun).[70] The footage ignited controversy in the UK,[71] and there have been questions as to whether the release of this footage was appropriate.[72] Buckingham Palace described the release of this footage as "disappointing",[73] and has considered pursuing legal action against The Sun,[74] whereas Stig Abell (managing director of The Sun) said that the footage was "a matter of national historical significance to explore what was going on in the [1930s] ahead of the second world war."[75]

See also


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  15. Boime, Albert (1987). Art in an age of revolution, 1750–1800. Social history of modern art. Volume 1. University of Chicago Press. pp. 400–401. ISBN 9780226063348. Boime states: "The brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The 'Hail Caesar' of antiquity (although at the time of the Horatti a Caesar had yet to be born) was transformed into the 'Heil Hitler' of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii's dedication to absolute principles of victory or death ... is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order ... In the total commitment or blind obedience of a single, exclusive group lies the potentiality of the authoritarian state."
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  55. 1 2 Kershaw (2000), p. 766.
  56. 1 2 Willett, Ralph (May 1989). "Hot Swing and the Dissolute Life: Youth, Style and Popular Music in Europe 1939–49". Popular Music. Cambridge University Press. 8 (2): 161. doi:10.1017/s0261143000003342. JSTOR 853465.
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  64. Tilman (2009), p. 94.
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