Nautilus

Hitler and the Naming of the Shrew

On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. “Fledermaus No Longer!” the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names “Spitzmaus” [shrew] and “Fledermaus” [bat] to “Spitzer” and “Fleder.” Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum [...].

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany’s leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital’s daily papers, Fledermaus and Spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for Fleder or Spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of Spitzer, which is a “small implement used for the sharpening of pencils”).

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

In yesterday’s newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion.

There’s no question that the “responsible parties” understood and responded to the injunction, which could—at that time, the “organ of the German Zoological Society”—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal’s publishers:

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