The German Word ‘Volk’ Posted by Constanze on Jun 9, 2021 in Culture, Language
Guten Tag! We have talked before on the blog about words with loaded meanings/stigma attached to them – such as this post, German words associated with Nazism. Today we’re going to look at another such word in more detail. It’s a very small, simple word, but sometimes even these words have a surprising amount of history and meaning attached to them. The word we’re going to look at today is das Volk.
Das Volk – The people
The word Volk translates to people; folk; nation; crowd; population. This seems pretty straight-forward from the outset, and in some contexts, it is:
- Der Volkswagen is ‘the people’s car’
- Die Volkshochschule is an adult education centre, similar to a college
- Die Volksmusik is folk music
But in other contexts, it is not so straight-forward. Pre-1800, das Volk was used exclusively to mean ‘crowd’ or ‘population’. It was only with the emergence of German nationalism that the word started to take on a more sinister meaning.
The word in use during the Nazi era
This can be seen very clearly in the way the word Volk was used during World War II. A very well-known example is the oft-used political slogan, ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ (‘One people, one empire, one leader’). Under Hitler’s use, the word Volk started to be divisive rather than inclusive, referring only to who Hitler believed to be ‘real Germans’. Here are a few, other terms that were in use during this era:
Volksdeutsche – A term used by Nazis to describe ‘ethnic Germans’ who were living outside of Germany. The Volksdeutsche were encouraged to register themselves onto what was known as the German Folk List (Deutsche Volksliste), which gave them access to better food, housing and supplies.
Volk ohne Raum – Literally ‘people without space’, this was a slogan used by the Nazis to justify the German invasion of other countries and territories. They believed the Germans were ‘without space’ and needed to expand ‘their people’ into other countries.
Herrenvolk – ‘The master race’. A Nazi concept that dictated that the German race was superior to all others.
Volkssturm – A national militia that existed during the final months of World War 2 to support the regular army. It is called so because it was made up of ‘general population’ people, rather than trained soldiers.
Völkische Beobachter – The official newspaper of the Nazi Party. The title of the newspaper translates to ‘People’s Observer’.
Völkische Bewegung – Literally ‘People’s Movement’, the Völkische Bewegung was a nationalist movement that began in the late 19th Century and continued into the Nazi era.
Volk vs. völkisch, and present day use
Today, the word Volk has lost some of its negative connotations and is used more freely. When Germans were campaigning for the Berlin Wall to come down in 1989, for example, one of the slogans they used was, ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ – ‘We are one people’ or ‘We are unified’.
However, the adjective völkisch still carries a lot of stigma. In fact, if you look up its translation, it will say, ‘nationalist; populist; racist’.
In 2016, the right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) came under fire for wanting to bring back the word völkisch, arguing that it’s not racist and is just the adjective for the word Volk. The word völkisch was used by the Nazis to separate those they saw as ‘real Germans’ from those they did not.
So there you have it! One, little word, with lots of history and meaning! I hope this post has been interesting. If there are any more words you’d like broken down, be it for their meaning or their history, let me know in the comment box below.
Bis bald (see you soon)!
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