What is a Führer-figure in the Early 21st Century?

I am helping re-translate Max Weber’s classic essay „Politics as Vocation“ from the original German into English.  One problem that emerged regards how to translate the German word Führer, which is key to the essay, into English.  Führer is of course a word that most English-speakers are aware of because of how Adolf Hitler used it between 1933-1945.  But Max Weber though wrote in 1919, and had (presumably) never heard of Hitler who at the time was simply a washed-up Austrian corporal beginning to take an interest in politics.

 By Weber’s definition, the German word Führer refers to a leader who has a spiritual gift (charisma) that reflect revelation, heroism, or other traits that permit them to use charisma to rule a political dominion.  Often the Führer is a chosen warlord, prophet, ruler, great demagogue, or leader of a political party.  In fact a Führer can be all these things wrapped into one.

Weber used this word instead of a range of others (e.g. boss, chief, leader, executive, administrator, etc.) to highlight the charisma associated with a Führer-figure and not the other terms.  In other words, a Führer does not work for The Boy Scouts, Department Store, and is certainly not the „ of the Pack“ which the rock group Shangri-Las sang about in 1964.  Weber also used Führer because it was part oft he discussion at the time he was writing—in 1919 war-weary Europe was indeed dreaming of a charismatic leader who would emerge to serve the people, and deliver them from the chaos and privation in places like Germany, Russia, and even the victorious Allied countries.

But Weber was not by himself in this discussion about the nature of leadership and charsima; he was instead participating in a broader conversation occuring not only in academia, but in the broader German society too.  The former Austrian corporal, Adolf Hitler, was probably part of the conversational Zeitgeist too; and by the end of the 1920s recast himself as the Führer of a small rightwing political party in Germany, and of course by the end of the 1930s was officially The Führer of Germany, appropriating for himself a term that Weber used in an analytical fashion.

Now, my original question is, how to translate this for a 21st century audience?  Here are some options:

Option 1.  Use the German term Führer with a long-footnote.  This assumes the corruption of the term is a 20th century thing, and likely to be less important to an audience which will read our translation in Classical Social Theory classes between 2015 and maybe 2045.  After all these people will have been born between about 1995 and 2025.  They do not will not have the same cultural memories of World War II, that earlier generations have had—so keep the original German term.

Option 2.  Translate it is as „leader“ and let it go at that.  This is what past translators have done, even though it does not highlight the differences between the terms Weber uses in the German original.

Option 3.  Write it as LEADER using variations in font to highlight the distinctions with more traditional useage of the word.  This will highlight for English speakers that this is the special meaning of “leader,” and not that of a boy scout leader.

I tend to wobble between 1 and 3, generally depending on who I’ve just talked to.  I’ve discussed it with Germans born before about 1980, and they all believe that Führer is far too loaded to use in German.  Americans and others born before that date tend to agree, though not as vehemently.  In other words, the word is almost 70 years after his death associated too closely with that Führer, and the crimes of World War II.  After these conversations I lean toward LEADER.  But then I talk to younger people, in both Germany and the United States, who claim that it really doesn’t matter—World War II is firmly in the past, and should no longer be a sole determinant of our intellectual agenda.

Any other suggestions would be most welcome!

3 thoughts on “What is a Führer-figure in the Early 21st Century?

  1. Responding as a semi-intelligent reader, with no professional expertise. I like your idea of an extensive footnote, but I would use it in conjunction with an English translation. Use “Leader” capitalized (no quotes), footnote it, and use lower case for other senses. That seems the least disruptive while still maintaining a special sense. LEADER would just irritate the crap out of the READER after about two pages.

  2. Will,
    Thanks for the comment. I take it you think that using “Fuehrer” in German still has too much baggage? I’ve thought about “Leader” with lower case might work. I’ll offer it as a suggestion to my undergrad class in October, and see what they think.


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