A report from Deutsche Welle is headed “Wagner Opera Festival wrestles with the word ‘Führer.’” That festival would be Bayreuth. Here are the first couple of paragraphs of the DW report:
In Germany, the word “Führer,” which translates as “leader,” is directly associated with Adolf Hitler.
No matter the context, when that word crops up, many Germans think of the Nazi leader facing huge cheering crowds. The term “Führer,” as Hitler wanted to be called, has a bad connotation.
True. Have a bit more, from the report:
A passage in Richard Wagner’s romantic opera “Lohengrin” goes, “Behold the Duke of Brabant, for leader (Führer) be he appointed unto you.”
After the dress rehearsal, Katharina Wagner, artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival and Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, asked tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, who sang the role of Lohengrin, to replace the word “Führer” with “Schützer” (protector).
Ms. Wagner said, “We in Bayreuth should be particularly sensitive, because we have a special political background and therefore a special responsibility.” Hard to argue with her.
But . . . it is nonetheless a shame to cede the word “Führer,” which existed long before Hitler, to Hitler. Must the word be stigmatized forever?
I think of “leader” in the Bible. “. . . denn aus dir wird ein Führer hervorkommen, der mein Volk Israel weiden wird” (“. . . for out of you will come a leader, who will shepherd my people Israel”). Then there are words related to “leader,” such as “lead”: “und führet mich zum frischen Wasser” (“and leads me beside still waters”); “und führe uns nicht in Versuchung” (“and lead us not into temptation”).
As a rule, I regret the loss of words. I regret being deprived of words. In recent years, I have wanted to use the word “deplorable,” when it is the mot juste. But everyone thinks of what Hillary Clinton said, in the 2016 presidential-election campaign. That will fade, of course.
For more than twenty years, we have used the expression “9/11.” Early on, my sister thought of a friend of hers—whose birthday is September 11. The date has been stigmatized, or marked, right? Right. But then, fewer and fewer people know about December 7 (a.k.a., “Pearl Harbor Day,” the day “that will live in infamy”).
Reading about the word “Führer”—the furor over “Führer”?—I thought about the name “Adolf.” A long time ago, I was in Carnegie Hall, and the lights were dimming after intermission. A man was still in the aisle, apparently unable to find his seat. I heard a woman call out, “Adolf?”
Here was my thought process: How unfortunate to go through life with the name “Adolf.” You have to have been born before 1940 or so. I’m in New York. I bet that this man is Adolph Green, and that he is being called by his wife, Phyllis Newman.
Do you know that this turned out to be so?
(I had better state—especially for the young—that Adolph Green was a well-known lyricist. He was born in 1914. His wife, Ms. Newman, was a well-known Broadway performer.)
The story about Adolph Green, I once related in an article. A reader wrote me to say that he had known an elderly man in his synagogue whose name was “Adolf.” Said my reader,
I had always known that he survived the Holocaust, but not much more than that. In conversation one day, he shared that his wife and family were in fact his “second family”—his parents, siblings, first wife, and all of his pre-war children having been murdered by the Nazis.
I asked him whether he ever thought about changing his name to something other than “Adolf.” His reply: “My mother gave me that name and it’s all I have left from her. It was my name before that monster seized it. He took everything else from me and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him take my name too!”
Back to “Führer.” Must the word be stigmatized forever? There are good leaders and bad leaders. Still, the designation “Führer” is as associated with Hitler as the name “Adolf.”
A shame, though.