Wilhelm II’s ‘Hun Speech’ and its alleged resemiotization during World War I

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Kaiser Wilhelm II’s speech to a German contingent of the Western expedition corps to quell the so-called ‘Boxer Rebellion’ in 1900 and develop the imperialist drive for colonies further, is today remembered chiefly as an example of his penchant for sabre-rattling rhetoric. The Kaiser's appeal to his soldiers to behave towards Chinese like the ‘Huns under Attila’ was, according to some accounts, 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 to this day. However, there are hardly any reliable data for such a link and evidence of the use of ‘Hun’ as a term of insult in European Orientalist discourse. On this basis, we argue that a ‘model’ function of Wilhelm’s speech for the post-1914 uses highly improbable and that, instead, the Hun-stigma was re-contextualised and re-semiotized in WW1. For the duration of the war it became a multi-modal symbol of allegedly ‘typical’ German war brutality. It was only later, reflective comments on this post-1914 usage that picked up on the apparent link of the anti-German Hun-stigma to Wilhelm’s anti-Chinese Hun speech and gradually became a folk-etymological 'explanation' for the dysphemistic lexeme. The paper thus exposes how the re-semiotized term Hun was retrospectively interpreted in a popular etymological narrative that reflects changing connotations of political semantics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-59
Number of pages18
JournalLanguage and Semiotic Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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