The Curiosity of the German Word “Wehrmacht” Posted by Sten on Sep 17, 2020 in Language
You may have heard of the German word die Wehrmacht (armed forces), which was what the German armed forces were called during the Second World War. When trying to pronounce the word, you may have gotten close to something that sounds like “Warmacht”, which may have lead you to conclude that Wehr must mean “war” in German. Not true! Let’s explore what it DOES mean, and whether there might be a reason why Wehr and War sound and look so similar.
The word Wehr
The verb sich wehren means “to fight back”, and sich gegen etwas wehren means “to resist something” or “to defend oneself”. The noun die Wehr, then, means “resistance”, “defense”. For example, die Feuerwehr (the fire department) really means “the fire resistance”. Sounds quite a lot more adventurous, doesn’t it?
Back to Wehrmacht. When the Wehr is not at the end, but at the beginning of the word, it could become an adjective. Die Macht means both “power” and “force”, so Wehrmacht could be translated to “defensive force”. And in German, we pronounce it as follows:
Initially, Wehrmacht was simply another word for the word Streitmacht (army, armed forces). Not only the German, but also the forces of other nations were called Wehrmacht, such as the englische Wehrmacht. At least since the rise to power of the Nazis, that changed, of course.
The current German army is called Bundeswehr (“Federal Defense”). However, when its creation was discussed in the late 1950s, some referred to it as the neue Wehrmacht (new defensive force). What this shows is that even though the Wehrmacht is now predominantly and almost solely referring to the German forces under the Nazis, this is not necessarily what that word means.
Where does Wehr come from?
This still begs the question: Are Wehr and the English word “war” related in any way? The German word for war is der Krieg, which is quite different.
As it turns out, Wehr and “war” have some similarity! They both derive from Althochdeutsch (Old High German). The verb wehren derives from the word werian, which means the same thing: to protect, to resist, to fight back. The word “war” derives from the Old English wyrre and werre, which in turn come from Old French werre (think also of the contemporary French word for war, guerre). The French goes back to Frankish and Proto-Germanic werzō, which means “mixture, confusion”. That word is also related to the Old High German werran, which means “to confuse”. In German, that word morphed into verwirren, and the noun die Verwirrung (the confusion). So while these words look similar, they have a different root, which still, looks similar!
The German word Krieg also finds its roots in Althochdeutsch, from the word chreg, and the Middle German kriec, which means something like “struggle”, “tenacity”, “fight”.
Did this word confuse you? Are there other terms you find confusing? Let me know in the comments below!
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