Nazi-tainted terms cause trouble for Germans

BERLIN Thu Nov 13, 2008 9:10pm IST

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German language is difficult enough as it is, but a list of ordinary terms contaminated by the Nazis is causing problems for politicians, TV hosts and even church leaders six decades after the Third Reich collapsed.

Phrases like "family policy", "foreign workers", "pure-bred", "degenerate" and "locusts" are as dangerous for Germans to use as more obviously Nazi-linked words such as "Fuehrer" and "Lebensraum" (living space).

This week industrialist Klaus-Michael Kuehne was condemned by Jewish groups for saying he wanted a "pure-bred" German solution for a shipping company that had attracted interest from Danish investors.

Last week conservative state premier Christian Wulff had to apologise for using the term "pogrom atmosphere" to describe the public outcry over executive wages, causing an uproar that gave an obscure TV interview a mass audience in replays for days.

"These are all basically neutral German words but have been seen as defamatory since the end of World War Two," said Georg Stoetzel, a German language professor at Duesseldorf University who has published a 786-page dictionary of such terms.

"It's schizophrenic, but I can guarantee at least once a week someone in Germany will say something, consciously or unconsciously, that gets them into hot water. Even a mathematician who uses 'Endloesung' (final solution) for a math equation is seen as tactless."

TAINTED TERMS

In Germany, where feelings of shame about World War Two and the Holocaust run deep, the issue of tainted terms is a more powerful one than the question of "political correctness" in other countries.

Franz Muentefering, chairman of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), was condemned in 2005 for comparing hedge fund operators to locusts ("Heuschrecken"), although members of his party called the criticism ridiculous.

Left party leader Oskar Lafontaine got into trouble for his use of the word "Fremdarbeiter" (foreign workers). Cologne's Roman Catholic archbishop, Joachim Meisner, was criticised for complaints about "degenerate" culture in Germany.

Television comedian Harald Schmidt lampooned the problem by devising a "Nazometer", an device that flashed every time a questionable word was uttered -- such as "Dusche" (shower), "Autobahn" or "Gasherd" (gas oven).

Schmidt was criticised and dropped the "Nazometer". He complained to Der Spiegel magazine: "American standup comedians, even Jewish comedians, can do it. But Germans can't."

A top economist, Hans-Werner Sinn, faced calls for his resignation last month when he compared current hostility to bankers to the scapegoating of Jews in the 1930s.

Television host Eva Herman was sacked earlier this year for praising Nazi-era family policies.

"It was a time of cruelty," she said. "There were things that were good too -- the values, the children, the mothers, the families, the sense of solidarity."

After the ARD channel fired her, she appeared in a talk show on the rival network ZDF to defend herself -- but promptly made another faux pas, praising the building of motorways as a Hitler-era achievement.

"I mean, autobahns were built then, weren't they?" she said.

Herman was then asked to leave the show by its host Johannes B. Kerner, who said: "'Autobahn' is a step too far!"

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