(n.) the unnecessarily aggressive or overzealous use of military power
Here’s a story from the HH book of global etymologies, Around the World in 80 Words. Coined in the early 1900s, zabernism is the overzealous use or abuse of military power; to zabernize, likewise, is to bully or antagonize with military force.
At the root of this is the Alsatian town of Saverne, 30 miles outside Strasbourg. In 1913, it became the unlikely setting for a scandal of military heavy-handedness that would eventually throw all of Germany into a constitutional crisis.
At the time, Alsace was part of the German empire, as it had been ever since France relinquished it after the Franco-Prussian War; officially, it was the German Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine, a province under the direct rule of the Kaiser, some five hundred miles away in Berlin. As for Saverne, it was a major Prussian garrison town known by its German name, Zabern.
Alsace has always had close cultural ties to its German neighbours, but back then many people resented this forced return to German imperial rule, especially with France’s ever strengthening appetite for republicanism and parliamentary democracy only a stone’s throw away. The German response to all this resentment was heavy-handed: regional identity in Alsace was suppressed, with the use of both the French and native Alsatian languages all but prohibited. The response in Alsace meanwhile was defiant: with Germany wanting their ties to France inhibited, the Alsatians responded by circulating several new French- and Alsatian-language journals and periodicals.
By the 1910s, the people of Alsace had endured four decades of this uncomfortable German rule, and although Germany finally granted Alsace some autonomy in 1911 (allowing it to adopt its own constitution, flag and national anthem), these gestures did little to quell the growing discontent. Before long, Alsace had become an uneasy powder keg, with only the slightest provocation needed to provide the spark. And on 28 October 1913, that spark came in the form of a young Prussian soldier named Günter von Forstner.
Forstner was a hot-headed 20-year-old lieutenant in the Prussian Army, who despite his age had already acquired a reputation as a bully and braggart among his fellow soldiers. On the morning in question, he was overseeing a troop induction exercise at the Zabern garrison when a scuffle broke out among some of the new recruits. As he ran to break up the fight, Forstner angrily exclaimed that if the recruits were looking for a fight, they should go out into the town and pick a fight with a “Wackes”—a hugely derogatory German slur for a citizen of Alsace. Indeed, Wackes was such a highly charged word that its use among members of the German Army had been banned in 1903—but not content with using it just once, Forstner continued his tirade. Should a fight break out in the town, he went on, then the recruits should not think twice about using their weapons, and he would personally pay 10 Marks for every “Wackes” they killed.
His remarks, understandably, were incendiary, and when news reached the local press, a 1000-strong crowd of protestors—many shouting, “Vive la France!”—gathered outside the garrison. The German reaction could scarcely have been worse: the authorities at first tried to play down the episode (even going so far as to question precisely how insulting a term Wackes really was), while Forstner’s superiors held back from reprimanding him for his insensitivity, and instead turned their attention to the handful of Alsatian recruits they suspected had leaked his words to the press. The recruits were arrested, the offices of a local newspaper were raided, and unrest in the town reached a fever pitch.
Amid mounting pressure, Forstner was finally disciplined and placed under six days’ house arrest. But news of this reprimand failed to be reported to the people of Zabern, who wrongly presumed his actions had still gone unpunished. So when his detention was over and he returned to active duty, Forstner was still met with jeers and harassment on the streets of Zabern (as well as being the subject of a decidedly unpleasant rumour that after a particularly wild night on the drink, he had returned to his bed at the garrison, passed out in a drunken stupor, and promptly soiled himself).
The relationship between the people of Zabern and the ruling German Army had never been worse, but Forstner—now the despised laughing-stock of the town—was not done yet. Two weeks after his initial comments, his inability to hold his tongue soon threw him back into the fray.
Now back on duty, he casually explained to another group of recruits that should they have any thoughts of deserting and joining the French Foreign Legion, they could go and “shit on the French flag” for all he cared. Once more, his comments proved explosive.
News of the Forster’s crude jibe quickly spread far outside the garrison, and eventually outside the borders of Alsace itself. Before long, the eyes of France—and soon those of the entire Western world—were turned to Zabern, as world leaders nervously awaited Germany’s response to mounting disquiet in the town. A recommendation was made to the Kaiser back in Berlin for Forstner to be transferred, to avoid risking any further gaffes and to defuse the situation as painlessly as possible. But the Kaiser, not wanting to see his military back down, flatly refused. Forstner remained at his post, while the protestors remained outside the garrison gates. For a time, the scandal rumbled on.
Finally, enough was enough. With Zabern now under intense international scrutiny, on 30 November 1913 Forstner’s commanding officer, Colonel von Reuter, took it on himself to suppress the unrest once and for all. Von Reuter ordered 60 German soldiers (Forstner among them) to take up their rifles, fix bayonets, and march with him out into the town square. This show of strength, he wagered, would quickly prove enough to put the people of the town back in their place. So, with drums beating—and with two machine guns hauled out alongside them—von Reuter and his men entered the square and confronted the crowd.
The response among the townspeople was one of stunned disbelief. Those merely going about their everyday business stopped in their tracks, while those who had been protesting outside the garrison jeered, whistled, and even laughed at von Reuter’s ludicrously overblown and unnecessary show of force. He was furious. With the “prestige and honour of the whole army” now at stake, he later explained, anyone “who stood still even for a second” in the town square was now ordered to be arrested. The soldiers advanced. Utter chaos ensued.
Anyone and everyone who happened to be in the square now found themselves a suspect accused of dishonouring the German Army. A banker returning home from work was arrested for smiling. A young man was arrested for singing. A company of judges exiting a nearby courthouse found themselves caught up in the commotion and thrown in jail for nothing more than standing still too long. In all, 27 arrests were made, most for the very slightest of transgressions. When challenged on this heavy-headed and largely unnecessary show of strength, von Reuter merely replied, “I am in command here now.”
The global response to the events in Zabern that day was one of profound shock. Editorials the world over called into question not only Forstner’s (and now Reuter’s) actions, but those of the entire German military, who according to the New York Tribune had ominously started to “regard themselves not so much the servants of the state, but as the overloads of all mere civilians.” Back in Berlin, questions were raised in the Reichstag over the ability of the military to act as a police force; over who had the authority to challenge and police the military themselves; and over the rights of local people and local courts to stand against the military and enforce their own jurisdiction. A long-forgotten law from the days of the Napoleonic Wars—which permitted the military, under siege conditions, to quell riots when the local authorities failed to act—was hauled out of the history books and put under the constitutional microscope. Had the military in Zabern violated their constitutional limits? Had von Reuter acted appropriately under strained circumstances? Question after question was raised and debated, but with little useful resolution.
Eventually, facing a growing constitutional crisis and a vote of no confidence, the German Chancellor withdrew the entire garrison from Zabern. But to appease those in his parliament who had supported the military’s response, only the lightest of punishments were meted out to those involved.
Although questions still remained unanswered and anger still raged, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 abruptly ended the debate. The snowballing Zabern Affair had at long last come to a close, if merely by default. By then however, news of the crisis had spread far and wide, and zabernism—the overzealous use of military power or authority, or “military jackbootery” as one 1921 dictionary defined it—had found its way into the language.
The word has remained in occasional use (and, alas, has remained occasionally useful) ever since.