As if German weren't hard enough. Three genders, endlessly long words, verbs coming at the end of impossibly rambling sentences.
But there is another, more subtle, linguistic trap which both Germans and non-Germans can easily fall into -- and which is far worse a faux pas than a mere slip of the article. Mention that you've found the "Endlösung" ("final solution") to a problem you've been grappling with, or that you've made a "Selektion" ("selection") from a number of possible alternatives, and you will quickly find yourself the target of disapproving stares.
The reason is simple -- the aforementioned words are so tainted by their use by the Nazis that they are now completely taboo. To modern German ears, "Endlösung" will forever be associated with Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," while "Selektion" is now verbum non grata due to its use to refer to the death camp practice of "selecting" inmates to be executed.
Now a new dictionary examines just what roles such terms play in the collective German psyche. The "Wörterbuch der 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'" ("Dictionary of 'Coming to Terms with the Past'") examines around 1,000 words and phrases -- everything from "Anschluss," used to refer to the 1938 "annexation" of Austria, to "Wehrmacht," the name of the Nazi-era armed forces -- looking at how the meaning and usage of the terms have developed since the end of World War II.
Taboo Nazi Terms
German studies professor Georg Stötzel, who co-authored the dictionary together with Thorsten Eitz, explains how the words disappeared from the language after the end of the war. "There are very few terms associated with the Nazis which continued to be used with the same meaning after 1945," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. In fact, as early as the late 1940s, German intellectuals like Dolf Sternberger and Wilhelm Süskind -- father of Patrick Süskind, author of the bestseller "Perfume" -- were writing essays examining the newly taboo Nazi terms.
For many, the simple power of the words and their associations made them literally unspeakable. That applied especially to victims of the Nazis. "Survivors simply couldn't bear to hear the word 'Lager,'" says Stötzel, referring to the German term for concentration or death camp.
Another reason for avoiding Nazi terms in public discourse is the fact that the speaker runs the risk of being accused of harboring Nazi sympathies. Often such a usage is enough to land the speaker on the front pages of Germany's newspapers. The late head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, courted controversy in 2005 when he criticized German policy on which Jews were allowed to immigrate from the former Soviet Union by saying that Russian Jews were being "selected." Similarly, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, was heavily criticized last year when he used the word "entartete" ("degenerate") in a speech about art. The word is taboo -- particularly in that context -- because of its use by the Nazis to condemn modern art.
As it happens, the Catholic Church is one of the institutions which is quickest to make comparisons with the Third Reich, another linguistic phenomenon which Eitz and Stötzel's dictionary examines. Other groups which have few qualms about comparing their opponents with Hitler, or undesirable phenomena with Auschwitz, include environmental and peace groups, Stötzel explains. "These groups feel they have the moral right to make explicit comparisons with the Nazis," he says.
'Holocaust on Your Plate'
Such comparisons also get instant media attention -- and frequently condemnation. The controversial Archbishop Meisner was also the target of criticism in this regard when he made an implicit comparison between an abortion pill and the Zyklon B poison gas used by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, while other Catholic campaigners have coined the term "Babycaust" by analogy with "Holocaust" to condemn abortion. Meanwhile German animal rights activists attracted attention with an anti-factory farming campaign entitled "Holocaust on Your Plate."
But you don't even need to use Nazi-tainted terms to get into trouble. Just using the same rhetorical techniques as Joseph Goebbels, king of Third Reich propaganda, and other leading Nazis can land you in hot water. Former Vice Chancellor Franz Müntefering found this out the hard way in 2005 when he described hostile foreign investors as "locusts." Müntefering, who belongs to the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, was criticized for comparing people with animals, a trope considered deeply problematic due to the Nazi practise of portraying Jews as parasites and vermin.
"Sixty years later, people are still being compared to animals and plagues which have to be destroyed," wrote historian Michael Wolffsohn in a damning essay.
Where Is Eastern Germany?
Interestingly, it's precisely those groups who presumably most admire the Nazis who take the most care to avoid using specifically Third Reich terms. Far-right parties such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) flirt with Nazi ideology while avoiding taboo terms. "You can recognize the implication but you can't accuse them of using Nazi terminology," says Stötzel.
For example, senior NPD politician Holger Apfel has talked of his party's ambition to win seats in the "Reichstag," using the pre-1945 term for the German government instead of the modern "Bundestag" -- today, "Reichstag" can only be used in politically correct German to refer to the historical parliament building, not the institution. Similarly, far-right German politicians like to refer to the states of the former East Germany as "Mitteldeutschland" ("Central Germany") -- the implication being that present-day Poland actually comprises the eastern part of the country.
But perhaps the taint of at least some Nazi terms may fade with time. Take the word "Mädel," for example, a dialect word for "girl" which was favored by the Nazis. Its Third Reich connotations appear to be lost on young Germans today, many of whom use the word -- often ironically -- without a second thought. "Young people don't know it was used by the Nazis," says Stötzel.
The "Wörterbuch der 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'" by Thorsten Eitz and Georg Stötzel is published by Georg Olms Verlag, priced €29.80.