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This article is about the German word Reich, and in particular its historical and political implications. For other uses, see Reich (disambiguation).

Reich (/ˈrk/;[1] German: [ˈʁaɪç]) is a German word that could be roughly translated as "nation" or "realm." It may sometimes refer to one of the three major German empires that have existed. These were, respectively:

The term reich derives from the German word meaning realm, kingdom, or empire. It is a word cognate with the English word rich, and still carries the same meaning when used as an adjective. More importantly, its homonym as a noun, Reich, is typically used in German to designate a kingdom or an empire, especially the Roman Empire.[2] The terms Kaisertum and Kaiserreich are used in German to more specifically define an empire led by an emperor.[2] To some extent Reich is comparable in meaning and development to the English word realm (via French reaume "kingdom" from Latin regalis "royal"). However, "Reich" has a more general meaning than these words, and can also be used for republics. It is part of the German name for neighboring countries such as France (Frankreich) and Austria (Österreich), which were once monarchies but are currently republics.

In the case of the Hohenzollern Empire (1871–1918), the official name of the country was Deutsches Reich, which is literally translated as "German Realm", because formally the official position of its head of state, in the Constitution of the German Empire, was a "presidency" of a confederation of German states led by the King of Prussia. The King of Prussia, who held this presidency, did assume the title of "German Emperor" (Deutscher Kaiser), but this referred to the German nation rather than directly to the "country" of Germany.[2] The exact translation of the term "German Empire" would be Deutsches Kaiserreich. This name was sometimes used informally for Germany between 1871 and 1918, but it was disliked by the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I, and never became official.

The official name of Germany remained Deutsches Reich during the Weimar Republic period (1918-1933), since the word "Reich" was not understood to refer to any specific form of government, and could therefore be used by a republic as well as a monarchy.

The Latin etymological counterpart of Reich is not imperium, but rather regnum. Both terms translate to "rule, sovereignty, government", usually of monarchs (kings or emperors), but also of gods, and of the Christian God.[3] The German version of the Lord's Prayer uses the words Dein Reich komme for "ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου" (usually translated as "thy kingdom come" in English).[4] Himmelreich is the German term for the concept of "kingdom of heaven".

In addition to its Latin cognate regnum (kingdom), Reich is also cognate with Scandinavian rike/rige, Dutch: rijk, Sanskrit: raj and English: -ric, as found in bishopric. Within these languages, as well as in German, the word does not necessarily refer to a monarchy, and can also be used for any state or nation in general.


The German noun Reich is derived from Old High German rīhhi, which together with its cognates in Old English rice Old Norse rîki and Gothic reiki is from a Common Germanic *rīkijan. The English noun is extinct, but persists in composition, in bishop-ric. The German adjective reich, on the other hand, has an exact cognate in English rich. Both the noun (*rīkijan) and the adjective (*rīkijaz) are derivations based on a Common Germanic *rīks "ruler, king", reflected in Gothic as reiks, glossing ἄρχων "leader, ruler, chieftain".

It is probable that the Germanic word was not inherited from pre-Proto-Germanic, but rather loaned from Celtic (i.e. Gaulish rīx) at an early time.[5]

The word has many cognates outside of Germanic and Celtic, notably Latin rex and Sanskrit raja "king". It is ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root *reg-, meaning "to straighten out or rule".

Usage throughout German history

Frankish Empire

Frankenreich or Fränkisches Reich is the German name given to the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne.

Holy Roman Empire

The term Reich was part of the German names for Germany for much of its history. Reich was used by itself in the common German variant of the Holy Roman Empire, (Heiliges Römisches Reich (HRR)). Der rîche was a title for the Emperor. However, Latin, not German, was the formal legal language of the medieval Empire (Imperium Romanum Sacrum), so English-speaking historians are more likely to use Latin imperium than German Reich as a term for this period of German history. The common contemporary Latin legal term used in documents of the Holy Roman Empire was for a long time regnum ("rule, domain, empire", such as in Regnum Francorum for the Frankish Kingdom) before imperium was in fact adopted, the latter first attested in 1157, whereas the parallel use of regnum never fell out of use during the Middle Ages.

Modern Age

At the beginning of the Modern age, some circles redubbed the HRR into the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation), a symptom of the formation of a German Nation state as opposed to the Multinational state the HRR was throughout its history. Austria-Hungary and Prussia opposed this movement.

Resistance against the French revolution with its concept of the state brought a new movement to create a German "ethnical state", especially after the Napoleonic wars. Ideal for this state was the HRR; the legend arose that Germany were "un-defeated when unified", especially after the Franco-Prussian War (Deutsch-Französischer Krieg, lit. "German-French war"). Before that, the German question ruptured this "German unity" after the '48 Revolution before it was achieved, however; Austria-Hungary as a multinational state could not become part of the new "German empire", and nationality conflicts in Prussia with the Prussian Poles arose ("We can never be Germans – Prussians, every time!").

The advent of national feeling and the movement to create an ethnically German Empire did lead directly to nationalism in 1871. Ethnic minorities declined since the beginning of the Modern Age, like the Polabs, Sorbs and even the once important Low Germans had to assimilate themselves. This marked the transition between Antijudaism, where converted Jews were accepted as full citizens (in theory), to Antisemitism, where Jews were thought to be from a different ethnicity that could never become German. Apart from all those ethnic minorities being de facto extinct, even today the era of national feeling is taught in history in German schools as an important stepping-stone on the road to a German nation.

The term royal reich, or reich royale, was coined to describe a monarchy or royalty-backed network that characterizes many of the same attributes that the Third Reich possessed, notably privilege of royal rank, repression and silencing of expression.

German Reich

The unified Germany which arose under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871 was the first entity that was officially called in German Deutsches Reich, also the Second Reich (Zweites Reich) succeeding the HRR. Deutsches Reich remained the official name of Germany until 1945, although these years saw three very different political systems more commonly referred to in English as: "the German Empire" (1871–1918), the Weimar Republic (1919–1933; this term is a pre-World War II coinage not used at the time), and Nazi Germany (the Third Reich) (1933–1945).

During the Weimar Republic

After 1918 "Reich" was usually not translated as "Empire" in English-speaking countries, and the title was instead simply used in its original German. During the Weimar Republic the term "Reich" and the prefix "Reichs-" referred not to the idea of empire but rather to the institutions, officials, affairs etc. of the whole country as opposed to those of one of its constituent federal states (Länder). Das Reich meant the legal persona of the (federal) State, similar to The Crown designating the State (and its treasury) in Commonwealth countries, and The Union in the United States of America.

During the Nazi period

The Nazis sought to legitimize their power historiographically by portraying their ascendancy to rule as the direct continuation of an ancient German past. They adopted the term das Dritte Reich ("the Third Empire" – usually rendered in English in the partial-translation "the Third Reich"), first used in a 1923 novel by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck,[6] that counted the mediaeval Holy Roman Empire as the first and the 1871–1918 monarchy as the second, which was then to be followed by a "reinvigorated" third one. This ignored the previous 1918–1933 Weimar period, which the Nazis denounced as a historical aberration, contemptuously referring to it as "the System". In the summer of 1939 the Nazis themselves actually banned the continued use of the term in the press, ordering it to use expressions such as nationalsozialistisches Deutschland ("National Socialist Germany"), Grossdeutsches Reich ("Greater German Reich"), or simply Deutsches Reich (German Reich) to refer to the German state instead.[7] It was Adolf Hitler's personal desire that grossdeutsches reich and nationalsozialistischer staat ("[the] National Socialist State") would be used in place of Drittes Reich.[7] Reichskanzlei Berchtesgaden ("Reich Chancellery Berchtesgaden"), another nickname of the regime (named after the eponymous town located in the vicinity of Hitler's mountain residence where he spent much of his time in office) was also banned at the same time, despite the fact that a sub-section of the Chancellery was in fact installed there to serve Hitler's needs.[7]

Although the term "Third Reich" is still in common use to refer to this historical period, the terms "First Reich" and "Second Reich" for the earlier periods are seldom found outside Nazi propaganda. To use the terms "First Reich" and "Second Reich", as some commentators did in the post-war years, is generally frowned upon as accepting Nazi historiography. During and following the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in 1938 Nazi propaganda also used the political slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer ("One people, one Reich, one leader"), in order to enforce pan-German sentiment. The term Altes Reich ("old Reich"; cf. French ancien regime for monarchical France) is sometimes used to refer to the Holy Roman Empire. The term Altreich was also used after the Anschluss to denote Germany with its pre-1938 post-WWI borders. Another name that was popular during this period was the term Tausendjähriges Reich ("Thousand-Year Reich"), the millennial connotations of which suggested that Nazi Germany would last for a thousand years to come; in reality it was ousted after a mere 12 years.

The Nazis also spoke of enlarging the then-established Greater German Reich into a "Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation" (Grossgermanisches Reich Deutscher Nation) by gradually annexing all the historically Germanic countries and regions of Europe (Flanders, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden etc.) directly into the Nazi state.[8]

Possible negative connotations in modern use

A number of previously neutral words used by the Nazis have later taken on negative connotations in German (e.g. Führer or Heil); while in many contexts Reich is not one of them (Frankreich, France; Römisches Reich, Roman Empire), it can imply German imperialism or strong nationalism if it is used to describe a political or governmental entity. Reich has thus not been used in official terminology since 1945, though it is still found in the name of the Reichstag building, which since 1999 has housed the German federal parliament, the Bundestag. The decision not to rename the Reichstag building was taken only after long debate in the Bundestag; even then, it is described officially as Reichstag – Sitz des Bundestages (Reichstag, seat of the Bundestag). As seen in this example, the term "Bund" (federation) has replaced "Reich" in the names of various state institutions such as the army ("Bundeswehr"). The term "Reichstag" also remains in use in the German language as the term for the parliaments of some foreign monarchies, such as Sweden's Riksdag and Japan's pre-war Imperial Diet.

Limited usage in the railway system of the German Democratic Republic

The exception is that during the Cold War, the East German railway incongruously continued to use the name Deutsche Reichsbahn (German National Railways), which had been the name of the national railway during the era of the Weimar Republic and Third Reich. This is because the Reichsbahn was specifically mentioned in several postwar treaties and directives regarding the right to operate the railroad in West Berlin; had the East German government changed the name of the railways to, for example, Staatsbahn der DDR (State Railways of the GDR), it would likely have lost this right. Even after German reunification in October 1990, the Reichsbahn continued to exist for over three years as the operator of the railroad in eastern Germany, ending finally on 1 January 1994 when the Reichsbahn and the western Deutsche Bundesbahn were merged to form the privatized Deutsche Bahn AG.

Usage in related languages

Rike, rige, riik

Rike is the Swedish and Norwegian word for "realm", in Danish spelled rige, of similar meaning as German Reich. The word is traditionally used for sovereign entities; a country with a King or Queen as head of state, such as the United Kingdom or Sweden itself, is a (kunga)rike, literally a "royal realm". Two regions in Norway that were petty kingdoms before the unification of Norway around 900 AD have retained the word in the names (see Ringerike and Romerike). Riik is an Estonian word for country and realm.

The word is used in "Svea rike", with the current spelling Sverige, the name of Sweden in Swedish. The derived prefix "riks-" implies nationwide or under central jurisdiction such as in riksväg, the Swedish name for a national road. It is also present in the names of institutions such as the Riksdag, Sveriges Riksbank, Riksåklagaren, Rikspolisstyrelsen, Riksteatern, riksdaler, etc. Riksförbund is used as a denomination by many national central organizations.

The Lord's Prayer uses the word in the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish versions: Tillkomme ditt rike, Komme ditt rike, Komme dit rige ('Thy kingdom come' – old versions). Låt ditt rike komma!, La ditt rike komme, Komme dit rige ('Let your kingdom come' – new versions).


Rijk is the Dutch and ryk the Afrikaans equivalent of German Reich.

In a political sense in the Netherlands the word rijk often connotes a connection with the Kingdom of the Netherlands as opposed to the European part of the country; the ministerraad is the executive body of the Netherlands' government and the rijksministerraad that of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a similar distinction is found in wetten (laws) versus rijkswetten (kingdom laws). The word rijk can also be found in institutions like Rijkswaterstaat, Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

In Afrikaans, ryk refers to rulership and area of governance (mostly a kingdom), but in a modern sense the term is used in a much more figurative sense (e.g. Die Hemelse Ryk (the heavenly Reich, China)), as the sphere under one's control or influence, such as:

  • die drie ryke van die natuur: die plante-, diere- en delfstowweryk (the three Reichs of nature: the plant, animal and mineral kingdom)
  • die duisendjarige ryk (the thousand year Reich, the Biblical millennium)
  • die ryk van die verbeelding, van drome (the Reich of the imagination, of dreams)
  • 'n bestuurder wat sy ryk goed beheer (a manager that controls his Reich well)

Like in German, the adjective rijk/ryk means "rich".

See also


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