Tuesday, August 14, 2007


The Leader

To German speakers, "Fuhrer" is a generic word meaning "leader." Of course "the Fuhrer" (actually, "der Fuhrer") is, to German speakers, Hitler. But the historical fact of Hitler hasn't removed the word "fuhrer" from normal German vocabulary in its generic sense. Thus, my amusement in a former post when I encountered this sign at a tourist locale, which I translate as "enter only with [tour] leader."


This has gotten me wondering why, if Hitler is known by Germans with a phrase that literally translates as "the Leader," we English-speakers know him as "the Fuhrer"?

To me this is the linguistic equivalent of those scenes in WWII movies, where Germans are speaking to one another in English with a German accent.

If we English speakers referred to Hitler as "the Leader," we'd be using the true English equivalent, conveying something of the sense of the phrase Germans get from "der Fuhrer." Moreover, we'd convey more meaning by capturing the creepiness, the sense of giving oneself (and one's language) over to a totalitarian dictator that is inescapably part of the designation "der Fuhrer" (his official title, if I'm not mistaken).

By calling him "the Fuhrer," however, we subtly distance ourself from that meaning. It's much easier for English speakers to laugh or scoff at "the Fuhrer" than "the Leader." What's more, "fuhrer" suggests the pun with the English "furor," slyly conveying the national hysteria that we English-speakers contend was the reason Hitler came to power. I can understand the need, during WWII itself, to belittle Hitler in that way to get a morale boost. But that trick has less justification for historians and those of us whose humanity obligates us to understand the phenomenon of Hitler.

At bottom, using the label "the Fuhrer" rather than "the Leader" signals a view that Hitler's rise to power was an essentially German problem. No worries -- it couldn't possibly happen here!

didn't the leader in Woody Allen's Sleeper go by the name "The Leader"? (or was it Our Leader?).

rowdc - (a) "RAU-dee see" - having a rollicking good time in the US capital. (b) "rau dee-see" - a fight or row among legislators in the US capital.
No worries -- it couldn't possibly happen here!

Hmm. In these United States, our current leader's actions have made us feel a bit of The Furor.
Yes, when we english speakers use the German word for leader it adds a certain menace. This may be a good thing. The original term was deceptive, Hitler should have been called a dictator not a leader. To this American's ear, furer adds-back the menace that the deceptive NAZI's took away by calling a dictator a leader.

And I always wondered why, when Fuhrer and Duce made it, Vozhd didn't. Is it because at the time, the Russians were our allies?
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