A Prussian Memo to Blue Dogs

¨Dogs, would you liv efor ever?¨

Frederick the Great, to retreating Prussian soldiers at the battle of Kolin in 1757:

Kerls, wollt ihr ewig leben?

(Dogs, would you live for ever?)
I fear the answer is ¨yes.¨ But then, why go into politics at all if you are frightened of dangerous achievements?
Note to language police: I know the dog metaphor is not in the original, but it is the traditional translation.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “A Prussian Memo to Blue Dogs”

  1. The usual rendering of "Kerls" (now a non-standard plural) would be something like "guys." Frederick was eschewing informality and giving it to the soldiers straight.

  2. The GOP had been giving Democrats clear warnings on the likely electoral consequences in the fall if they support health care reform. Since the Republicans no doubt want the Democrats to clobber them in November, I think that the Dems should pay heed and cave in on reform.

  3. I agree that as it stands Kerls is not insulting. It is not however egalitarian in spirit like ¨guys¨; Frederick used the second-person plural verb form reserved for family, children, and social inferiors. ¨Lads¨ would do it. I wonder however if the quotation has actually been cleaned up for posterity and what he really said was Scheisskerls (¨you b*ggers¨).

  4. He lost that battle you know, along with half is army, some 15,000 soldiers. He was lucky to make it out of Bohemia alive. If the Czarina Elizabeth hadn't died he would have lost the war too. Frederick was very lucky, but I wouldn't take advice from him ever.

  5. They don’t want to live forever—just long enough to retire from Congress and get a nice cushy job at a lobbying firm or think tank….

  6. I'm not altogether certain that old Fritz was in fact speaking as one would to family, children, and social inferiors. Today, one uses the 2nd person plural in speaking to more than one friend, family member or social equal with whom one is on familiar terms. True, one could use it in addressing a group when one should really use Sie and will come off as impertinent (though less so today than a few decades ago). In earlier modern German however (and no, I can't be arsed to go look up whether this would have been in the case in Frederick's day, though it was certainly still the usage in literary works written after his time), the 2PP was the polite form of address. One addressed social inferiors using the third person ("Er bügle mir die Zeitung!); 3PP as a polite form is a fairly modern invention. Frederick's use of 2PP might have been abusive, or it might have been simply the formally correct mode of address. Hard to say.

    Better evidence that his tone was abusive (and justification for the traditional translation to boot) would be to show that Kerl in Frederick's day was not the perfectly neutral German equivalent of "bloke" that it is today but rather something closer to the fairly archaic "churl" (and they do look cognate, don't they?). Meanings evolve with time (contrast "silly" a few hundred years ago and today, or "Republican" in the USA in 1856 and in 2010). Surely there is some teutonic OED that can tell us what the word meant in the mid-19th c.; I, however, do not possess it, so this is mere speculation on my part.

  7. When I was drafted into the US Army in 1971, I expected to go to Vietnam but ended up in Germany. I took the opportunity to cram some German and go out in the field with the German Bundeswehr. In preparing for this, I learned that democratic reforms had changed the rules of officers addressing enlisted men. The old familiar forms of address had been abolished, and formal forms of address had become required of officers.

    Makes me glad to speak English, and not have to worry about these things.

  8. John: ¨Frederick was very lucky, but I wouldn’t take advice from him ever.¨ Frederick is of course a disastrous model for keeping out of trouble, especially in his gratuitous first war for Silesia and his preemptive attack at the start of the Seven Years´ War. But he is a model for how to behave when you are in really deep trouble and your enemies are really, non-negotiably trying to destroy you. Viz., fight.

    I know the Nazis had fantasies in the spring of 1945 about a rerun of the ¨miracle of the House of Brandenburg¨ that saved Prussia in 1762, but in post-dynastic times even the simultaneous deaths of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill would not have staved off the inevitable.

    Idle thought: is the scorched-earth opposition of the Republicans to HCR motivated by the fear that if granted one victory, the hitherto veggie Democrats may discover a liking for the taste of blood?

  9. I always read the 'Kerls' in the quote to be equivalent to 'Schurken', i.e. rascals, a term not uncommonly used for people violating rules or, as here, shirking their obligations.

  10. It's motivated by the realization that every increment of increased control by the government over the economy makes the party of government, the Democratic party, stronger. Passing even an unpopular increase in government control over the economy benefits the Democratic party in the long run, even if it causes you electoral pain in the short run.

    Neither side is fighting over the next election, in this fight. They're fighting over the tilt of the playing field for the next ten elections.

  11. Thinking about this it dawned on me that there may be a fairly innocent explanation for the 'Kerls'. Friedrich Wilhelm I, the predecessor of Friedrich the Great, had a foible for tall soldiers and famously assembled a whole batallion of them. Colloquially, these soldiers were known as the 'Lange Kerls'. Maybe at the time the term 'Kerls' meant nothing other than soldiers.

  12. I preferred the same sentiments delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger's love interest in whichever one of the Conan movies I saw as a teenager. Same words, but more impressive when they're spoken by a warrior woman in technicolor.

    Besides, maybe it's just the way I read it in German (and my German is rather poor), or it's the enervating effect of blue italics text on an LCD screen, but in the post the phrase seems to have a tone of asperity rather than of challenge.

  13. The more a propos historical military quotation is this one, from Omaha Beach on D-Day:

    Colonel George Taylor: "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here" where "getting out of here" meant attacking up hill against the Germans entrenched in the surrounding cliffs. My understanding is that the successful attack off the beach, while costly, resulted in fewer deaths than were suffered by the troops while they were pinned down under fire at water's edge immediately after landing.

  14. "Dogs, would you represent your constituents?"

    I donno, I don't see the rhetorical strength of this remark. Even if you translate it back into German.

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