by Richard Peters
Spain and Germany are two proud European nations, each with rich, complex histories and literary traditions that reach well beyond their modern borders. Over the centuries, the languages spoken in these two countries have also undergone their fair share of change.
When I opted to study both languages at university, I was consciously choosing subjects with minimal overlap. (For what it’s worth, at the time if you weren’t studying German and French, you were probably doing French and Spanish; there were only four of us in my whole year with the audacity to combine Spanish and German.)
Of course, both German and Spanish are members of the Indo-European language family. Spanish is a modern descendant of Latin; German is, well, a Germanic language! While Germanic tribes slowly spread southward from Scandinavia starting 3,000 years ago, the Romans brought Latin to Iberia relatively suddenly around 2,000 years ago through a 200-year conquest from east to west across the peninsula.
These two language areas soon came into contact when the Romans pressed north from Italy, crossed the Alps and began to conquer the plains to the north. Indeed it was a Germanic leader, Arminius, also known as Herman the German, who, at the famous battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 CE, ambushed and routed three Roman legions – some 20,000 men – putting a decisive halt to the Roman advance into what is now Germany east of the Rhine. Arminius had spent much of his youth in Rome, receiving a military education and Roman citizenship, and he will have spoken fluent Latin as well as his native Germanic dialect.
I spent much of my youth in what at the time was part of the recently Roman province – and previously Celtic kingdom – of Noricum, in modern Austria: each year my family would decamp to my grandmother’s house for the summer. In Arminius’ day, the German language had yet to reach this part of the world, but by the time I was spending time there engaged in (some) swimming and cycling through delightful countryside and (much) eating and drinking of delicious local fare, the Germanic language’s southward push from Scandinavia had long come to embrace the lands just to the north of the Alps, thanks to Germanic invaders who displaced the Romanised Celts from around the 3rd century CE.
Two thousand years ago, the two languages borrowed words from each other to a limited extent, but their paths continued to diverge into today’s Germanic languages (German, Dutch, English and the Scandinavian languages) and Romance languages (chief among them Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian). Not even Visigothic rule over Iberia, which lasted for roughly 300 years from the early 5th to the early 8th century, left much of a Germanic mark on the Vulgar Latin speakers of the peninsula – probably because the Visigoths had by then largely stopped using their own language. After all, they had been driven from their ancestral lands north of the Danube Delta by the advance of the Huns from the late 4th century and will have adopted the local customs and language when they resettled within the Roman Empire.
Later, of course, the lands that now make up Germany and Spain came back under unified rule of sorts, when the Habsburg family came to hold the posts of both Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. Indeed, the last emperor of Mexico was also a Habsburg: Ferdinand Maximilian, who took the title Maximilian I of Mexico in 1863 and was executed by a republican firing squad in 1867.
While this period has left little in the way of linguistic links, the cultural legacy was stronger. For instance, the Spanish royal residence in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid, served as the model for the monastery at Klosterneuburg, near Vienna.
Work on the complex at El Escorial commenced in 1563 at the behest of King Philip II of Spain, who wanted to create a monument to Spain’s role as a centre of the Christian world – and to deliver a Catholic riposte to the Protestant reformation sweeping Europe.
Over 150 years later, impressed by the works of his relatives in Madrid, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in Vienna drew up plans for his own monumental architecture. Construction started at Klosterneuburg in 1730 but came to a halt upon the death of Charles VI in 1740 and while work did resume in later years the complex was never completed – indeed only around one eighth of the original design was actually built.
As a teenager I spent a month working in a youth hostel just outside Klosterneuburg. Had I not been busy laying the tables for breakfast, putting all the breakfast crockery through the dishwasher, having a quick bite to eat, getting the tables ready for dinner and then collapsing exhausted into bed, I might have had time to marvel at the Baroque splendour of what was achieved there under master architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach. (But it wasn’t all drudgery for me there: I did manage to slip away for a memorably long, sunny afternoon and evening of drinking FAR too much wine with my uncle Fredi in a local Heuriger…)
In the twentieth century, too, there have been important links between Germany and Spain – both positive and negative in nature. In the run-up to the second world war, for instance, the Nazi government in Germany found it convenient to support the Fascist side in the Spanish civil war, sending unmarked Luftwaffe units to bomb Republican positions – as famously depicted in Picasso’s giant painting “Guernica”.
More recently and more benevolently, the German car industry has found it convenient to invest and grow in Mexico as a foothold in the NAFTA trade bloc, which also includes the United States and Canada. In Europe, Volkswagen acquired the Spanish automaker Seat in 1986.
Meanwhile, Spanish couture has recently taken Germany – and the rest of the world – by storm, with Desigual and Zara stores popping up all over the country.
So why did I choose to study these two languages at university? Well, there were a number of factors at work: I grew up speaking German and English (my mother was Austrian and my father was English), so I had a natural inclination toward things Germanic; I really enjoyed Spanish at school, and soon became a fan of the cuisine; I liked French, too, but I was cold and calculating about it and decided that Spanish was the more important – not least because it has many more native speakers around the world than French.
In my current position, I work on more German copy than texts in other languages, but Spanish and French are important languages for our customers, too, so I get to use them on a regular basis. And in my free time I catch up with French- and Spanish-speaking friends, both here in Munich and abroad, which keeps my language skills sharp.
Of course, if I wanted to look for 21st-century connections between the languages and cultures of Germany and Spain, I should perhaps travel to Mallorca and visit the stretch of beach in the town of S’Arenal known as Ballermann. A favourite haunt of German tourists, I’m sure I would see some interactions between cultures – albeit of a rather rowdy, beer-scented nature!