We are the people

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick Cox here. And this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them, produced by Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America.

In this episode, we’re headed to Germany, to confront a word that means — well, we’ll get on to that. Suffice to say it’s a short word with a confounding history. You could almost say it’s an alternative history of Germany. It’s also a word that gets thrown around a lot during election campaigns. And wouldn’t you know? There’s a general election in Germany coming up, most likely in September. Which, as it happens, is similar to when I first reported this episode in 2017. Back then it was before Germany’s last general election.

OK, here goes. It’s Nina Porzucki and me.

Patrick Cox: I want to throw a word at you. “Folk.” F-O-L-K.

Nina Porzucki: Like folk music?

Patrick Cox: Sure?

Nina Porzucki: Are we going to listen to some music today? Is that what the podcast is about? It’s a good word, “folk.” I like it.

Patrick Cox: I like it too.

Nina Porzucki: People running through grass, overalls, flowers. I don’t know — banjos.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, for me it’s like a kinder, gentler version of the word, “people.” “Old folks’ home.” It’s nicer than “old people’s home.” Like, folksy.

Nina Porzucki: Folksy! It’s a folksier word for “people.”

Patrick Cox: It’s warm.

Nina Porzucki: Sure. Way warmer than “people.” And far more inclusive.

Patrick Cox: Right, you feel like you’re part of larger body of people. Today’s pod is about all the word folk — but the German version — which is “Volk.” V-O-L-K.

Three different people repeat: “Volk” “Volk” “Volk”

Patrick Cox: Just as simple sounding but far, far more complicated in what it implies.

Clip of politician speaking to a crowd:“Ich liebe mein Volk”

Patrick Cox: And the thing with “Volk” is that because German is this language builds on compound words, it has literally hundreds of variations where you can add suffixes or prefixes.

Nina Porzucki: Volkswagen!

Movie trailer clip: “The Love Bug”

Nina Porzucki: What else? Give me some of the combinations.

Patrick Cox: Here’s one. The word for population. “Bevölkerung.”

Nina Porzucki: That is very complicated. Wait, say that three times fast please!

Patrick Cox: No way! And these words and their many meanings have evolved from before the days of the Brothers Grimm, through the Nazi era, the communist era in East Germany — all the way to today. And at every juncture, the words have been recycled and, to a certain extend, redefined.

Nina Porzucki: Does the word “Volk” have same warm, fuzzy inclusive feeling in German as “folk” does in English?

Patrick Cox: Well, this is the whole nub of this podcast because for the people who use this word a lot, yes, it does. It feels about as warm and inclusive as you could possible get. But for people who avoid using “Volk,” it’s anything but inclusive.

Nina Porzucki: Wow, so people actually avoid using this word.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, people avoid it — and they are arguing over it to this day. You could say that this is an argument that really gets to the heart of what it is to be German. How people see themselves as Germans. It’s an argument over the soul of Germany.

Nina Porzucki: So the German election is pretty soon, right?

Patrick Cox: Yes, it’s coming up in six days as we speak.

Nina Porzucki: Is this idea an election issue at all?

Patrick Cox: It’s certainly coming up a lot. People are using in rhetoric, or avoiding using it. Not just “Volk” but its variations. And how and whether you use these words is a predictor of how you think about all kinds of things: Immigration — big issue ever since Germany took in more than a million refugees from Syria and elsewhere just a couple years ago. Also, how you may about national guilt over the Holocaust. In fact, it’s a predictor of how you may vote.

Nina Porzucki: The word, “Volk” a predictor of how you may vote. Wow. And just to be clear, this is a big deal election. The German election isn’t just a run- of-the-mill one. After Brexit, after Trump, and all those rightwing governments in Eastern Europe.

Patrick Cox: Right, it feels like Angela Merkel is this one beacon of stability right in the center of Europe, right in the center of the Free World. A lot of people are seeing this in those terms. So how Germany votes and how Germany feels about these issues like inclusiveness are really key to our future.

Nina Porzucki: So what exactly does “Volk” and its variations have to do with all this?

Patrick Cox: Well, Let me take you first to the streets of Dresden.

Sound of a street rally

Patrick Cox: This is a PEGIDA rally. You may have heard of PEGIDA, they made a lot of international headlines about three years ago. PEGIDA is an acronym in German. It stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West.” They took to the streets of German cities, especially in the former East Germany, they were protesting the massive influx of refugees from middles East. And back then they would regularly attract 30 thousand demonstrators. That’s no longer the case — but there are rallies most Monday evenings in Dresden. And on the evening I went there were about 2,000 people, listening to speakers, singing, marching. Many of them are in their in their fifties and sixties, they’re brandishing right-wing themed flags and T-shirts with all manner of slogans. One guy, he was local car dealer, he was wearing a Stetson hat and a Donald Trump T-shirt. And among just a handful of them is some Nazi paraphernalia, just a handful. Like on one woman there, Charlotte Rauchfuss is her name. She’s in her twenties, she’s wearing all-black, Neo-Nazi tattoos and a Wehrmacht T-shirt with the words, “Heroes for Germany.” Charlotte tells me she’s wearing this in honor of her grandfather who fought in the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era army, but has since felt shamed by it. I ask her to define the word “Volk.”

Charlotte Rauchfuss speaking in German

Patrick Cox: “‘Volk’ means a community of the same ethnicity with the same values,” she says. So not immigrants. “If two Muslims live in Germany and have a child,” she says, “that doesn’t make the child German. It’s like saying that a dog born in a horse stable is a horse, it doesn’t make sense.” Germany, she tells me, “needs to re-establish its purity.”

Most others aren’t that extreme when I ask them about the word, “Volk.” But they all seem to restrict who belongs and who doesn’t. Here’s Renate Schneider, a sweet-looking old lady wearing a white-lace cardigan.

Renate Schneider speaking German

Patrick Cox “The German Volk,” she says, “are by definition people with same culture, who speak the same language who live here within a defined territory of course. This is the Volk.”

Renate has experience with the word. She’s from the city of Lepizig which in 1989 is where protests began in East Germany that months later led to the downfall of communism.

Chants of “Wir sind das Volk” from 1989

Patrick Cox: “Wir sind das Volk,” the protesters chanted “We are the people.”

Renate Schneider speaking German

Patrick Cox: “We went on the streets in 1989,” Renate says, “for freedom and unity, for German sovereignty. But now more than 25 years later we see that Germany isn’t sovereign at all. And our leader — Frau Merkel — she represents European and global interests, not German.”

These protestors — every last one I spoke said they’d definitely be voting in the upcoming election, voting for the AFD, the Alternative für Deutschland, the Alternative for Germany. It’s a new party that has won seats in state parliaments but as yet not in the national parliament, the Bundestag. If the opinion polls hold , the AFD has a shot at becoming the third largest political party in Germany. It’s been a meteoric rise for the rightwing here. After all, the PEGIDA demonstrations started only in the Fall of 2014.

Werner Patzelt: At this time, I did not know PEGIDA, I did not even know how to correctly pronounce its name: “Pagooda,” “Peccota” or something like that. I had no idea what this is about.

Patrick Cox: So this is Werner Patzelt. I spoke to him in Dresden. He’s a political science professor at the Technical University of Dresden, and he’s considered to be the go-to guy on the PEGIDA movement. But like he said, he’d never even heard of them two of three years ago. He started by sending his students to PEGIDA demonstrations where they would interview the protesters. He figured out pretty quickly that the people marching had a mix of views. Some of them were extremists, no question of doubt. But many of them had kind of vaguer notions about what they wanted. They felt like they didn’t know how they belonged in the new Germany and they wanted to have more of a sense of belonging. Which is why they ended up talking about “Volk” a lot.

Werner Patzelt: The term “Volk” is really interesting because in a democracy society “Volk” is the source of legitimate political power. And for good reasons we have the inscription, Dem Deutschen Volke in front of the Berlin Reichstag.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, it’s true it’s there in big letter on the Reichstag, Dem Deutschen Volke, “For the German People.”

Nina Porzucki: OK, OK. But the women you interviewed at the demonstration,— the young woman and the old one — they’re not defining “Volk” in the way that the Reichstag is using the word.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I mean they think of it very much as white German people as opposed to —

Nina Porzucki: The people living in Germany.

Patrick Cox: And this is where another key “Volk”-related term comes. Patzfelt, he says “Volk” is what he calls “innocent” word. But a derivation of “Volk” is the opposite, he calls it “poisonous.” That word is “völkisch.” It’s an adjective and on the face of it, it means “national” but most Germans understand as “ethnic German.” In other words, it is code for white nationalism — and not used in polite company. It became popular back in the 19th century before Germany was a nation and the German-speaking lands were dominated by Napoleon and the French.

Werner Patzelt: This term, “völkisch” has developed already back in Imperial Germany to a self-description of people who said, “Well, we are different from these romantic civilizations. We are true Nordic , true tradition of sound Germanic origins.

Patrick Cox: And this “völkisch” idea of the German “Volk,” it was related to language and culture and race. So there were German-speaking people spread across many parts of Europe, they didn’t yet have a nation. But there was this sense of cohesion.

Nina Porzucki: Why, what was the nature of the cohesion, what bound all these German people together? Was it language?

Patrick Cox: It was largely because of the language. They all spoke this language, different variations of it. There was also religion, they were all Christian. There were all kinds of different denominations but everybody was Christian. Some people took this a step a further and made it an ethnic thing So Jews and the Roma were excluded. They weren’t described as “völkisch.” There were a lot of kooky, genetic theories kicking around Europe in the 19th century. There was also Darwin’s theories, including survival of the fittest species, which gave bolstered this idea — to people who were predisposed to it — of a superior race of people.

Nina Porzucki: And then comes the 20th century and all that comes with it. I think I know where you are going with this.

Patrick Cox: Yep, we’re headed for the Nazis. This is a story after all about Germany and German history. And this is where the words “Volk” and “völkisch” really get blown up.

Nina Pozucki: So the Nazis picked up on these words?

Patrick Cox: Yes, the Nazis, as we’ll hear, went to town with these words. But it’s the ultimate put down in Germany, to call someone else a Nazi.

Nina Porzucki: It’s the ultimate putdown anywhere!

Patrick Cox: It’s bad enough anywhere but it’s a million times worse in Germany itself. And there’s an awful lot of it — there has been, ever since these PEGIDA marches started. You know, “Those PEGIDA supporters they’re just a bunch of Neo-Nazis, just look at how they use these racist concepts around the word ‘Volk.” That’s the argument. But Werner Patzelt says that’s wrong.

Werner Patzelt: Most of the PEGIDA demonstrators, they simply do not have the necessary education or knowledge to use words like “völkisch,” to understand what “völkisch” means. It’s out of their scope. It’s as if I talk about sophisticated instruments of the international financial markets. I know some of the words but I do not really know what they means. And this is how you have to think about the PEGIDA: simple-minded, narrow-minded upset persons who are reluctant to reflect about things. They have their feelings, they know they are right, that everybody who disagrees with them is wrong. So they have to — not to enter in to arguments with opponents — but have to confess. They are so to speak, religious believers in their private religion, whatever this may be and how illiterate they may be in religious terms.

Patrick Cox: Excuse me, sorry. If I played that piece of tape before you said PEGIDA, I think a lot of listeners in the United States would think you were talking about Trump supporters.

Werner Patzelt: Indeed PEGIDIANS, AFD, Trump supporters: It’s very much the same thing. You wouldn’t not claim that all supporters of Donald Trump racists, fascists and so on. They are narrow-minded nationalists.

Nina Porzucki: Narrow-minded nationalists, huh? Just because they don’t know the etymology of the word, “völkisch,” doesn’t mean they don’t know the full meaning of what they’re saying, of the nuance — that it’s a hot-button word that has certain feelings and connotations that are associated with it.

Patrick Cox: You’ve done a lot of reporting on the alt-right here in the US, which of course has used Neo-Nazi words.

Nina Porzucki: Nazi slang like “Lügenpresse,” and those sorts of words have out of Richard Spencer’s mouth.

Patrick Cox: So are there similar arguments here, that protestors — when they are using certain phrases that they don’t necessarily know what they are saying, because they are not sophisticated enough to know the etymology of some these words.

Nina Porzucki: Well, I certainly think that many people might not know the etymology. But you can’t let people off the hook for using specific terms because they do know that they elicit strong feelings and strong emotions.

Patrick Cox: Hold your judgment. There’ll be a little bit more on words that some of the people in the street protests are using in the second half. And we’ll join some other dots — we’ll hear about the Nazis too and what they did to these “Volk” words after the break.

Patrick Cox: OK, recommendation time! We have a couple of book recs coming up at the end of the show. Right now, I want to recommend a podcast. It’s called Soonish. It’s a show from journalist Wade Roush — you may have heard him in a Subtitle episode called: “How to communicate with aliens.”

Soonish, brings you stories and conversations about technology with an eye on the future, and how to improve it. And in the latest episode, Wade takes us on a tour of The Engine…which is a new venture capital firm started by MIT that’s funding some of these future-minded tech projects. Like, for example, a company that wants to build a nuclear fusion energy plant within 10 years. Super-fast and potentially game-changing.

Listen to Soonish wherever you get your podcasts.

Patrick Cox: OK. Back to “Volk.” And back to April 20, 1933. It was Adolf Hitler’s 44th birthday. Hitler and the Nazis had just taken total control of Germany’s government, and they were now making moves to control how people thought, and how they spoke.

Victor Klemperer was German academic — a linguist — and he was documenting all this. He kept a diary throughout the Nazi years, and he was especially focused on the way the Nazis were using words. This is part of his entry for that day April 20th 1933.

“The term ‘Volk,’ he writes, “is now as customary in spoken and written language as salt at table. Everything is spiced with a soupçon of Volk: Volksfest (festival of the people), Volksgenosse (comrade of the people) Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people), volksnah (one of the people), volksfremd (alien to the people), volksentstammt (descended from the people).”

That was just the beginning of the Nazis obsession with “Volk.”

Georg Schuppener: They invented more than 50 words in the period of the Third Reich. More than 50 comopounds of “Volk.”

Patrick Cox: This is linguist Georg Schuppener. Georg…

Georg Schuppener: But you can also say George, it’s the same for me.

Patrick Cox: OK. George is writing a book on the language of the German rightwing. “Volk”-related words are a big part of it. There were tons of them before the Nazis came along. In the dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, there are 63 rows of “Volk” compounds recorded. But the Nazis really upped the ante with their inventions.

Georg Schuppener: For example, “Volksboden” — earth of the people. So they invented some words but also they already gave some new meaning, for example the word ‘völkisch’.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, that word “völkisch”, the one that was supposed to mean national but even before the Nazis had an ethnocentric sense to it. Under Hitler, its meaning got turbocharged into something like “pure-bred Aryan.”

Audio of Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally

Patrick Cox: After Hitler’s defeat, and Germany’s humiliation, what happens to all of these words — words that as Werner Patzelt said earlier — had been poisoned?

Well what happened depended on which post-war Germany you lived in. In West Germany the words were shamefully discarded — forever it seemed at the time — discarded for having been associated with Nazism and the Holocaust. In communist East Germany, some “Volk”-related words were laundered of their Nazi associations, and became battlecries of the working class. The people’s this. The people’s that.

Now that Germany is re-unified and taking in millions of refugees there’s another reckoning about…

Josefin Graef: …who are we as Germans?

Patrick Cox: Josefin Graef is a German researcher at the University of Birmingham in the UK. She thinks words like “völkisch” are making a comeback because people are confused about what it is to be German, and so those on the New Right are…

Josefin Graef: …trying to conceive of German as a more homogenous identity than it actually is.

Patrick Cox: And “völkisch” does just that. It conjures up a German identity that is utterly homogenous. No wonder one of the best known rightwing politicians, a woman called Frauke Petry, suggested in a newspaper interview that Germans start using “völkisch” again. Normalizing it. And another Nazi-era word has started trending now.

Audio of protesters shouting “Volksverräter.”

Patrick Cox: “Volksverräter,” traitor of the people, used by the Nazis to denounce anyone who questioned them. Here it’s used by rightwing protesters to denounce a mainstream politician. Angela Merkel has been branded a “Volksverräter” many times for her open refugee policy.

Josefin Graef: “Volksverräter” suggests that the elite is working against the interest the German people, so the German people are being betrayed.

Nina: Patrick, my question for you — this is all rather disturbing to hear, by the way, thanks for bringing it up in the podcast — but who is reintroducing the language? Is it politicians like Frauke Petry who are reinserting “völkisch” and these sort of words in a quasi top-down Nazi era sort of way? Or is this coming from the populists, from the internet or the mainstream and trickling out to the public?

Patrick Cox: I think it’s a bit of both. There’s certainly evidence that — just like with the alt-right in the United States — the internet and the possibilities that the internet gives for networking are certainly being used a lot. But then there are also a series of influential people like Petry who are throwing out these words. And I went to meet one of these people.

This a guy who’s a kind of philosophical high priest of the New Right in Germany. He’s called Götz Kubischek. He lives in a little village in former east Germany — we showed up there unannounced, and he invited us to stay for lunch. Here he is with his family saying a prayer before eating.

Audio of Kubischek saying grace.

Patrick Cox: And it was quite a scene. Three or four of Kubischek’s kids were there at the table, his wife who’s a well known lifestyle blogger. All the rooms in this grand old farmhouse are full of bookcases, books everywhere. It’s an intellectual’s home. Kubischek runs a right-wing publishing company out of the house.

Nina Porzucki: It’s sort of like a sort of German Steven Bannon?

Patrick Cox: There’s a bit of that about him, but he’s not slovenly like Bannon.

Nina Porzucki: Yeah, because he’s German!

Patrick Cox: He’s tall, well-dressed, has some hipster facial hair. And if you look him up he has a finger in just about every rightwing pie in Germany. He takes a lot of these fringe movements under his wing and tries to nurture them. And when he’s speaking to you, there’s such a contrast between how he sounds — very soft spoken — and the harshness of what he says.

Götz Kubischek speaks in German

Patrick Cox: Here he is talking about the word “Volk.” He defines“Volk’ as a community that has a common identity. And the political advantage is that creates a sense of belonging. With “Volk,” there’s an “us,” and there are other people who are not “us.” So using this word means that you can create political power — and tension that may or may not lead to what he calls“non-peaceful situations.”

I got the sense that Kubischek is incredibly frustrated by the taint of Nazism. So I wondered what he took from that, whether it meant he should temper his own language.

Götz Kubischek speaks in German

Patrick Cox: He said no no no, you cannot compromise — not with Germany’s establishment politicians, you can’t become a part of that. These are people who let in the migrants and refuges, who told us, not to be proud of our history, who told us, not to use the word “Volk” and so they are who is destroying this sense of “us” that “Volk”gives us. “We need to keep on fighting,” he told me, “putting our finger in the wound.” That kind of stuck with me.

Nina Porzucki: Creating an “us” and a “them.” He sounds really rather calculating. I mean, he sounds like a politician.

Patrick Cox: I think the way he views it is, if Nazism hadn’t taken place then it would be legitimate to think of the German people as “das Volk” — to have the really strong sense of German identity and it wouldn’t be tainted by Nazism.

Nina Porzucki: So it gets in the way.

Patrick Cox: It it gets in the way of his political ambitions.

Nina Porzucki: Wow. So speaking of political ambitions, the election is this coming weekend. And the AFD party — Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany is looking pretty promising for a newly created party. They might become the third largest party?

Patrick Cox, Yeah, that’s what the opinion polls are suggesting. But number three equals 11 percent right now in the polls, and Angela Merkel’s party is way out in front of that.

Nina Porzucki: OK, so we’ve heard Angela Merkel being criticized throughout — that she’s too Europe-facing, all these other things. But what exactly when you spoke with all these folks do they dislike about her.

Patrick Cox: I’ve got a couple of guesses. One is that she is the establishment, she’s run Germany as Chancellor for the past 12 years. But maybe more importantly, she’s one of them, she is one of the “Volk.” She was raised in East Germany. And her party, the Christian Democrats, that is the party of the right.

Nina Porzucki: And when we say “right” here, we have to clarify that right in the German sense is sort of like the far left in the US sense.

Patrick Cox: But nonetheless, it’s the party of the right, and there she is having betrayed her people, her “Volk,” by bringing in the refugees.

Nina Porzucki: And presumably Merkel has had some thoughts. Has she spoken about this word, “Volk,” and the rise of this Nazi-era language?

Patrick Cox: Well, it’s interesting. She has largely avoided the term and uses that other “Volk”-related word that I mentioned at the top of the pod: “Bevölkerung,” — population — which is a completely neutral term. But there was one time when she — by her standards — completely lost it with PEGIDA and the AFD people over the word, “Volk.”

This was earlier this year in a speech after she’d been repeatedly criticized for not using the word, “Volk.” She started with a bit of recent history, said how wonderful it was in 1989 when the iron curtain fell and Europe grew together. And then…

Angela Merkel speaking in German

And because of this wonderful moment and people coming together, she said, there is absolutely no justification for these small groups — she means the rightwing groups — to assume they can define who the German “Volk” are. She ends with this: The “Volk” is everyone who lives in this country. No restrictions. Anyone and everyone.

Nina Porzucki: Wow: That’s a pretty big statement.

Sound design for this episode of Subtitle was by Tina Tobey. Big thanks to Frank Hessenland, Bianca Baader, Helmut Kellershohn and Udo Stiehl. Also The World public radio program,

In addition to Victor Klemperer’s diaries and his research on Nazis rhetoric, here’s another book recommendation, happily unrelated to Nazism: Rebecca Schuman’s memoir about learning German, Schadenfreude, A love story. As it says on the front cover, “Me, the Germans, and 20 years of attempted transformations, unfortunate miscommunications and humiliating situations that only they have words for.”

Subtitle is a member of Hub and Spoke audio collective. This episode was originally reported with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Want to get in touch? Our email address is subtitlepod@gmail.com. You can also find us on Twitter. And please don’t forget to rate and review us.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod