Saturday, December 26, 2009

Polish Extermination Camp

Timothy Garton Ash on the Auschwitz sign-theft:
Watching a German television news report on the trial of John Demjanjuk a few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear the announcer describe him as a guard in "the Polish extermination camp Sobibor". What times are these, when one of the main German TV channels thinks it can describe Nazi camps as "Polish"?

Normal times, I would say. 'Polish', in this case, is ambiguous, as ethnonyms almost always are: does it imply a camp run by Poles, as Garton Ash seems to think, a camp in Poland, or a camp with Polish inmates? Put yourself in a German news outlet's shoes a second. You're German and cover German issues. Your viewers are German. Their German teachers taught them all about German extermination camps in German history classes in their German schools in Germany. Germans do not need to designate the origin of Nazi stuff in the same way we can call Gordon Brown 'Prime Minister', or even just the 'PM', but have to specify that Fran├žois Filon is the 'French Prime Minister'. However, the Nazis had concentration camps all over their territory, and so reference to the location is informative.

This is not entirely a translation issue - most people don't need telling that the death camps in World War Two were German, but might need some extra information about where they were. However, this is amplified in the case of Germany where different things are taken as read and where, when we have to say say 'German', they often say nothing at all.


  1. Interesting that you regard a 'Polish' camp as being on their (nazi) territory. It is easy to say the wrong thing. It is the reasons why we say things that mean the most.

  2. Good point, hadn't noticed that. I meant 'their' as in the territory they had at the time, as in were occupying. You take it as meaning the territory that "belonged" to them, implying some kind of right to it. Could go either way. I suppose this is why ethnonyms and territorial stuff is so tricky.