The afterlife of an infamous gaffe: Wilhelm II’s ‘Hun speech’ of 1900 and the anti-German Hun stereotype during World War I in British and German popular memory

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-90
Number of pages16
JournalPragmatics and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2018


  • Germanism
  • Hun
  • Language History
  • Irony
  • Dysphemism
  • World War I

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