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Why is Nazi-Germany commonly referred to as "The Third Reich" in English? Why is reich not translated when Dritten ("third") is?

And what is the English synonym of reich? Realm?

Austria (Republik Österreich), Norway (Kongeriket Norge) and Sweden (Konungariket Sverige) all have reich (or the Norwegian/Swedish corresponding etymology related word) in their name and they all have English translations of their name.

  • 11
    'Why' is a difficult question in general. It could be because that's just how one English journalist decided to do it. – Mitch Feb 16 at 16:24
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    You’ve kind of answered your own question, I suspect: Reich is not that easy to translate into English. It means a kingdom, a realm, an empire, a state, a nation… there isn’t really a good, existing word in English that captures its meaning fully, so at some point, people just borrowed the German word. ‘Third’, on the other hand, is trivial to translate, and there’s little reason not to. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 at 16:27
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    Why is Soviet not translated? – michael.hor257k Feb 16 at 18:33
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    I don't know the name for this phenomenon, but it's not uncommon for loanwoads to have a narrower meaning in English than they do in their source language. A similar example is salsa, which just means "sauce" in Spanish, but in English refers to specific kinds of sauces that originate from the Spanish-speaking world. – Justin Lardinois Feb 16 at 22:50
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    Why are other German words, like Kaiser and Fuhrer, not translated? – jamesqf Feb 17 at 4:14
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Although English historians have defined Reich as being a strictly German concept of sovereign rule, in the German language itself it means "Empire". In English, we speak of the Holy Roman Empire; in German, it is the HRR or "Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation".

Wiktionary quotes Busching, who in 1762 explained Reich as a German understanding of "Eminence", from the Latin Regnum, rather than an Empire or a Realm as other cultures would understand it.

One could see it as a word used in English, Russian, Portuguese and many other languages as a designation for any kind of German kingdom, empire or absolutism, similar to how one would address a foreigner according to their origin, e.g. Senor Martinez, Monsieur Aragon. Compare it to how many cultures, including the Germans, also use the word "Commonwealth" or "Soviet Union", despite the fact that Bavaria had formed its own Union of Soviets, the Räterepublik, during the Weimar Republic.

If you're interested in knowing when the word "Third Reich" came into usage, it is worth noting that during Fascist Germany, the country's official name was Das Deutsche Reich, and in the USA and UK it was usually referred to as Germany, Hitler's Germany, Berlin, Reich or, the most popular term, Nazi Germany.

(Sources: Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war against Germany, headlines about Germany in newspapers like the NY Times or the Times, the Daily Mail's Lord Rothermere)

In Germany itself, the idea of a third Reich stemmed from the 19th century, where it was a popular philosophical theme in literature and theology. Writers like Johannes Schlaf, who wrote "Das Dritte Reich" in 1899, or the German translator of Ibsen's "The Emperor and the Galilean", popularized the idea of the imminent arrival of a thousand years of Christianity (a kind of positive apocalypse), which would follow a third "Reich". And they would quote Paul the Apostle and various saints, to make it clear that the third Reich would follow the heretic lex naturalis and the lex mosaica.

Nazi propagandists exploited this in their articles, making it sound as if the saints had had some sort of epiphany about Hitler and the Nazis. In other words, the Third Reich began as an abstract idea of a Christian revolution, but was assumed by Nazi writers in order to bolster Hitler's popularity and justify the drastic and bloody decisions that the Fascist government was making. In one of the earliest examples of the Third Reich being mentioned outside of Germany, Major Strasser in the film Casablanca talks about the Third Reich as if it was just the beginning to a kind of paradisaical future or of a fourth Reich.

After 1945, the term was used exclusively to associate only to the unsuccessful reign of Fascism in Germany, and it ceased as a philosophical or theological idea in German literary circles.

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    Also worth mentioning that in German, the British Empire is referred to as the Britisches Reich, or Britisches Weltreich (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britisches_Weltreich). – Joe Stevens Feb 17 at 12:18
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    Also the German word for the nation of France is Frankreich. – Jim Wrubel Feb 17 at 15:51
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    When it comes to Frankreich, Britisches Reich, Österreich, Osmanisches Reich, etc., these still refer to the historically political make-up of these countries. Only until relatively recently in modern history has Austria and France stopped being empires. Then again, some countries are still called a "reich" in German if they are so much as a kingdom (Königreich). – Chris W. Feb 17 at 16:04
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    Wikipedia article Third Rome also states: "Nazi Germany used the term Drittes Reich (meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire"), as successor of the first realm (HRE) and the second realm (the German Empire)". It sounds especially hillarious for Russian-speaking because Russian imperialists used "Third Rome" several centuries before German nazies birthed term "Third Reich" – Alex Yu Feb 17 at 19:31
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    This answer seems to answer the question "What was the Third Reich?" (as in 'concepts' and such), not so much "Why was the term 'Reich' not translated." The German language used and uses the word "Reich" for plenty of other areas - i.e., Königreich, Kaiserreich, Tierreich, Pflanzenreich, Weltreich... and the usage as Deutsches Reich goes back to the dark ages (~960ish) with the HRRDN. To me, it seems completely plausible that the reason "Reich" is not translated in english is the same as any other word (Kindergarten, Rucksack, ...) which may have completely linguistic explanations... – AnoE Feb 19 at 11:44
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To complement R Mac's answer, Reich entered the English lexicon in this use in the 18th and 19th centuries, so by the time the Third Reich rose in the 1930s, the word would have needed no translation.

Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a history of Friedrich the II of Prussia in 1865, refers to Reich 27 times. The term is applied to both the Holy Roman Empire and to Fredrick the Great's kingdom of Prussia.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for Reich collects several more examples from 19th century periodicals, principally the Times, including this one from 1852:

Times 6 July 6/4 It was the old court of appeal of the Reich, remarkable in its time, even among other courts, for its majestic slowness of procedure.

So this word would have been readily identified with Germanic centers of power from the medieval period to the present.

Since this word serves principally as a reference, it'd be inaccurate to gloss it as a single word like realm. It's more of a linguistic borrowing, like Khanate, where the form of government and the culture of origin are both bound up within the word. Referring to a non-Mongol/Turkic entity as a Khanate would invite comparison to actual Khanates, just like referring to a non-Germanic entity as a Reich would invite comparison to the HRE/Prussia/Germany (before the 20th century) and to Nazi Germany today.

19

Interestingly, the "First Reich" is the Holy Roman Empire. So the concept of the "Reich" as understood by speakers of German transcended language and cultural shifts over a very long period of time, from 962 CE through 1945 CE.

You can therefore think of "Reich" as similar to the English "realm" but different. The "Reich" is what German speakers view to be the empire of the German state, with authority derived from a unified "German people" within the empire instead of from a religious deity or a monarchy. As such, a Reich is distinctly German. I assume that since the 1940s every English speaking person on the planet had learned that the word "Reich" essentially means "Realm of Germany", there was never any need to translate it. And translating it would have lost some meaning, since there's no clean way to articulate this concept in English.

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    This is fascinating, but now I'm dying to know what "The Second Reich" is. (???) – Oldbag Feb 16 at 19:46
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    @Oldbag The Nazis used the term to mean the 1871-1918 German Empire (Deutsches Reich), from unification until Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. – Anyon Feb 16 at 20:01
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    @RMac For german speakers, a "Reich" does not necessarily mean the "Empire of the german state", it is not that nation specific. For example the British Empire is also a "Reich", the "Britische (Welt)Reich". – Marcel Krüger Feb 16 at 23:39
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    @Anyon To finish the point you started, there was no "second" Reich. The Nazis just liked the number three more than two, so applied to retroactively to a period of time that never used "reich" so that they could be the "third" instead of the "second." They were very superstitious about numbers. – Michael W. Feb 18 at 18:32
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    The empire of Kaiser Wilhelm's was certainly called a "Reich" of its time, though not actually the "Second Reich". The "Third Reich" took its title from Hitler's ambitions to conquer all of Europe, drawing on conquests of the path to succinctly explain the intent of Germany's WW2 efforts. So the "First Reich" of course wasn't actually called that in its day, either. Also, fun fact, "Reich" does have a Middle English cognate in "riche" or "ryche", meaning kingdom or empire. – R Mac Feb 19 at 0:46
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The use of the German word "Reich" clearly conveys that one is referring to Germany (or at least to a German-speaking country). If one were to replace "Reich" by "Empire" (or a similar English-language alternative), one would have to refer to "The Third German Empire" (or similar), whereas using the German word "Reich" automatically conveys that it is Germany (or another German-speaking country) that is being referred to, thus removing the need for the extra word.

In other words, The Third Reich is more compact than The Third German Empire", while automatically conveying that it is Germany that is being referred to.

  • I would say this is the best answer, in that Reich could be translated into other terms, but this term is distinctively German and has become traditional usage, much as we refer to the chancellor and not the prime minister, even though chancellor is itself a translation and refers to very different posts in English-speaking countries. This is also why we speak of the Japanese Diet — itself a weird borrowing from First Reich terminology — and not its Parliament (or Kokkai), and of Egyptian governorates and Chinese prefectures instead of provinces. – choster Feb 20 at 17:48
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I think as to why "Reich" was retained is because of a simple matter of productivity and suitability of the word "Reich;" i.e., the economy of the German word itself warrants retention.

"Third Reich" has contexts:

a) It is related to Germany - because of "Reich"

b) It is related to XX century history - because of "Third"

c) It just sounds "cool"

It's just an economy of words: with "Third Reich" we have a lot of contextual information condensed into just two words.

Comparison with another languages

Russian: As a native Russian speaker, I can inform you that the same is in Russian language: "Das Dritte Reich" is translated as "Третий Рейх"( "Рейх" is transliteration of "Reich")

I don't know how native English speakers can understand "The Third Realm," but for Russian speaking, "Третий Мир," can be easily confused with concept of Third Rome.

Again, it's merely a question of economy.

Two words clearly defined in their historical and geographical context (and "Reich" sounds cool in Russian - and English - too).

Japanese(and Chinese?): Although if we look further on East we can find that in China and Japan translation 第三帝国 is used (but kanji themselves are embodiment of economy, so my "theory of economy of words" still works)

Swedish: Tredje_riket - looks like translation.

Edit: Clarification from @prof-falken:

Swedish is (and was so even more before and during WWII) so culturally close to Germany, and linguistically is still, that "rike" and "reich" are not only cognates, but dare I say understood in the same way between the languages.

Slovak: Tretia ríša Aha! And in Slovak we have an ambiguity! (Altghough I suppose that for most Slovaks it's not a problem to mix German words with ease).

(Please do not take too seriously my hypothesis. I would be glad to entertain contention if I seem to be incorrect).

  • 2
    On the same level of seriousness; wouldn't "Третий Мир" translate as "Third World"? – TimLymington Feb 17 at 21:31
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    I have frankly no idea what you are trying to say with the “Czech” example, which is really Slovak. There is nothing ambiguous about it. For the record, Slovak “ríša” and Czech “říše” are perfectly common native words. (I suppose they originated as Germanic loanwords, but that would have happened centuries ago, nothing to do with the Nazis.) It is used in historic names such as the Roman Empire or the Great Moravian Empire, but also in diverse contexts such as biological kingdom, or phrases such as “in the realm of fantasy”. – Emil Jeřábek Feb 18 at 9:45
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    @AlexYu But Third Rome is usually literally translated as "Третий Рим" (I'm also a Russian native speaker). And the connection between the "Third" and 20th century is also quite doubtful, especially for non-historians (since one has to know about the existence of 1st and 2nd Reichs, to understand the expression for 3rd) – trolley813 Feb 18 at 10:32
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    As a Swede I can confirm that "rike" is the same word as "Reich". However, with no qualifier (like "third") it's usually used about Sweden and not Germany. I believe that this relates to the monarchy as the Swedish word for "kingdom" is "kungarike". – Kapten-N Feb 18 at 12:25
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    OK, but the other ones are really obscure. Frege's third realm and something chiliastic that I can't even find anywhere. Normally there is only one widely used meaning. – Vladimir F Feb 19 at 20:07
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Could not some of the usage be based on the Shirer bestseller “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” ?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_the_Third_Reich

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    No. The term was massively used before the book was published (1960) and unchanged by the book's (re)releases. See this chart. – Brock Adams Feb 21 at 19:48
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Not a direct answer, but I'm surprised none of the other comments or answers mentioned that English indeed does have a direct cognate to the German "Reich," as can be seen in the word "Bishopric":

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bishopric

This word is still in use in place of "diocese" by various protestant denominations rejecting the latin-derived word in favor of a Germanic one.

So lack of suitable cognates alone can't be the answer. Although it would have been interesting if we had half-translated with the other remaining halves, leaving us with the "dritte ric," rather than "third Reich."

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I am going to suggest a rather simplistic reason for this that has little to do with language : space.

In journalism space is money. You (and your editor) will always try and cram as much as possible into the smallest space they can, generally because more free space means more advertising revenue (a little simplistic, but space=money is they idea here). A single letter can push a line of text onto a new printed line, eating into column inches available elsewhere.

An editor faced with "Dritten Reich" will happily accept "Third" as being shorter than Dritten, not to mention that Dritten conveys no information to the English speaking reader. Reich, on the other hand, has no simple translation (and it's clear from the more informed answers here that even agreeing one would be difficult). So those five letters can stay as they are (from the editor's point of view). Not only does "reich" convey the German connection clearly, but the combination (as noted by @Alex-Yu) does sound "cool".

So it may simply boil down to the constant desire to save space in printed news of the day and the soundbite being a good result.

  • This would be an interesting explanation (after all, news headlines take greater leaps to sound controversial and pithy), but curiously, Third Reich didn't appear in newspapers until after it had ceased to exist. Before that, a few American newspapers used "Reich" from the late 30's onward. Until then, editors used "Germany" or "Nazi Germany", which is about as controversial and pithy as "Third Reich". – Chris W. Feb 19 at 18:32
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    I'm dubious of your claim that it didn't appear in print until after 1945. It was in current use during the war and was referenced in movies during the war. For example, during Casablanca (1942) the main characters have a brief exchange using the term. – StephenG Feb 20 at 0:03
  • perhaps I was a bit quick in saying "after the Third Reich ended", but the example in Casablanca (which I mentioned in my original answer as well) is a relatively rare instance where, evidently, the authors had learned about the "Third Reich" demagogy in Germany. Unfortunately, I have not actually been able to find any mention of the term in The Times or The NY Times, which I sifted through from 1932 till 1945. I had spotted one mention of Reich in 1939 of NYT, but other than that, the country was virtually only referred to as "Germany". – Chris W. Feb 20 at 20:45
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IMHO is is wrong to call Nazi controlled Germany the Third Reich because the Nazis liked to call it the Third Reich, hoping to gain some of the glory associated with that phrase in Germany according to Chris W.'s answer. Of course they never officially changed the name to Third Reich, so Third Reich is also inappropriate because of not being official.

So I think instead that it should be called Germany when describing it as a country and a nation, and Nazi Germany, Nazi controlled Germany, Nazi infested Germany, Nazi contaminated Germany, etc., etc. when describing the Nazi rule of Germany.

Similarly the previous regime should not be called the Weimar Republic or Weimar Germany, because that was a Nazi habit.

The official name of the German state was Deutsches Reich (German Realm/Empire/State/Polity/Country, etc.) from 1871 to 1943, and Grossdeutsches Reich (Greater German Realm/Empire/State/Polity/Country, etc.) from 1943 to 1945. The republic in 1919 took over the bureaucracy and institutions of the previous German Empire of 1871-1918, and the Nazis in turn took over the bureaucracy and institutions of the previous republic in 1933.

There was direct continuity from 1871-1945. So another and third reason not to call Nazi ruled Germany the Third Reich is because Nazi run Germany was actually still the Second Reich. And I am not certain whether, or for how long, or to what degree, the present Federal Republic of Germany was or is considered to be a continuation of the Second Reich. And if the Federal Republic of Germany is not a continuation of the Second Reich that would make it the true Third Reich, and thus calling Nazi Germany the Third Reich would be legitimizing their stealing the term.

In any case the Nazis were jumping the gun by calling their rule the Third Reich.

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    The Federal Republic of Germany is officially a Bundesrepublik, not a Reich. I suspect (and hope) that Germany will never again officially call itself a Reich. And I am sure that most Germans today would not appreciate you using that name. – Peter Shor Feb 19 at 17:57

protected by Robusto Feb 20 at 21:10

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