Zacharias not Zeppelin: Germany to scrap Nazi-era phonetic table

Kate Connolly in Berlin
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Germany is to scrap its phonetic spelling table introduced by the Nazis 86 years ago and temporarily replace it with the version the regime abolished because it was “too Jewish”.

The table, in which codewords are assigned to each letter of the alphabet to aid communication and avoid confusion, particularly in radio transmissions and telephone calls, originated in the late 19th century. In 1934 it was adapted by the Nazis who cleansed it of all its Jewish names as part of the regime’s drive to reject all Jews from German life, which culminated in the Holocaust.

“Samuel” was replaced by “Siegfried” to represent the letter S, “Zacharias” became “Zeppelin” for Z, and “David” was switched to “Dora”. The preference was for Nordic names to replace Jewish ones, and where no suitable ones could be found, such as N (originally “Nathan”), an object or placename, such as “Nordpol” (north pole), was chosen instead.

The international equivalent is the Nato phonetic alphabet. While that uses the words Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc to help make spelling out words easier, the German equivalent uses Anton, Berta, Cäsar. The list is officially registered with the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN), which regulates everything from the size of chairs to paperclips, under the DIN or norm number 5009.

Michael Blume, the ombudsman for antisemitism in the state of Baden-Württemberg – a post recently introduced in 13 states across the country to tackle growing attacks against Jews in Germany – has been leading a quiet campaign to get rid of the Nazi version of the system. The fact it had stayed in place for so long, he said, was proof in itself of a “deep-seated antisemitic and racist mindset” in Germany.

“Just in that one name change, Nathan to Nordpol, which we still use today, you can see how deeply into our language and our thinking this Nazi idea has seeped, with no one really questioning it,” he told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. In the Nazi’s pseudoscientific ideology, the north pole was seen as the original home of the Aryans.

While some words were officially changed back in the late 1940s – Siegfried was switched back to Samuel, for example – the Nazi version has remained the dominant one that most people have continued to use.

Historians have said the Nazi move to edit the spelling table, initially a seemingly minimal bureaucratic change in German life, holds an important lesson. The eradication of Jewish names was a warning to anyone paying attention of the intent to eradicate millions of Jewish lives just a few years on.

Blume has advocated switching back to the pre-1934 version, the so-called Weimar table. It will probably only be in use until autumn 2022, by which time an updated version is expected to be registered with DIN that will probably rely on city names. But Blume insisted the switch in itself was “an important symbolic gesture”.

“My intention is that we don’t just simply continue to automatically use the version introduced by the National Socialists which erased the Jewish names,” he said.

The president of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, said he welcomed Blume’s initiative and it was “high time we freed ourselves from the language of the Nazis and its relics.”

Clemens Schwender, a professor of media who has studied decades of spelling tables that were typically listed in telephone books from 1881 onwards, told Die Welt that the fact that people still habitually used words such as Siegfried “shows that the 12 years of the Nazi era, which they had intended to be 1,000, still have their impact … even secretaries who are supposed to have learned S is for Samuel hardly ever use it,” he said.

As news of the imminent change spread on social media, many commentators said they had not been aware of the Nazi authorship of the codewords, which are known and commonly used unquestioningly in daily life by most people in Germany, and seen as a practical method for spelling out names over the telephone. Their use in military and aviation communication is limited, as those fields tend to use the international phonetic table.