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The afterlife of an infamous gaffe

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Abstract

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s speech to a German contingent of the international expedition corps, sent to quell the so-called ‘Boxer Rebellion’ in 1900, is today remembered chiefly as an example of his penchant for boastful, sabre-rattling rhetoric that included a strange comparison of his soldiers with the ‘Huns under Attila’. According to some accounts, this comparison was the source for the stigmatizing label Hun(s) for Germans in British and US war propaganda in WW1 and WW2, which has survived in popular memory and continues to be used, though mainly in ironical senses, by British and German media to this day. This paper charts the history of the Germans-as-Huns analogy and argues first, that the usage data render highly improbable any ‘model’ function of Wilhelm’s speech for post-1914 uses. Furthermore, present-day uses presuppose an awareness of the WW1 and WW2 meaning on the part of readers, which serves as a platform for echoic allusions. In the British media these allusions often lead to the ironical (including self-ironical) subversion of preceding uses, while in German public discourse they focus more on historical commemoration and comparison.
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Keywords: Germanism; Hun; analogy; discourse history; dysphemism; echoic use; irony; war commemoration

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 26, 2018

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