Reich (/ˈrk/;[1] German: [ˈʁaɪç] (listen), English: Riche) is a German word analogous in meaning to the English word "realm". The terms Kaiserreich (literally "realm of an emperor") and Königreich (literally "realm of a king") are used in German to refer to empires and kingdoms respectively. The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary indicates that in English usage, the term "the Reich" refers to "Germany during the period of Nazi control from 1933 to 1945".[2]

The term Deutsches Reich (sometimes translated to "German Empire") continued to be used even after the collapse of the German Empire and abolition of the monarchy in 1918. There was no emperor, but many Germans had imperialistic ambitions. According to Richard J. Evans:

The continued use of the term 'German Empire', Deutsches Reich, by the Weimar Republic... conjured up an image among educated Germans that resonated far beyond the institutional structures Bismarck created: the successor to the Roman Empire; the vision of God's Empire here on earth; the universality of its claim to suzerainty; and in a more prosaic but no less powerful sense, the concept of a German state that would include all German speakers in central Europe--'one People, one Reich, one Leader', as the Nazi slogan was to put it.[3]

The term derives from the Germanic word meaning "realm" in general, but is typically used in German to designate a kingdom or an empire, especially the Roman Empire.[4] The terms Kaisertum (roughly "Emperordom") and Kaiserreich (“Emperor’s realm”, lit.: "Emperorrealm”) are used in German to more specifically define an empire ruled by an emperor.[4]

Reich is comparable in meaning and development (as well as descending from the same Proto-Indo-European root) to the English word realm (via French reaume "kingdom" from Latin regalis "royal"). It is used for historical empires in general, such as the Roman Empire (Römisches Reich), Persian Empire (Perserreich), and both the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire (Zarenreich, literally "Tsars’ realm"). Österreich, the name used for Austria today is composed of "Öster" and "Reich" which literally translated means "Eastern Realm". The name once referred to the Eastern parts of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the history of Germany specifically, it is used to refer to:

The term "Third Reich" was adopted by the Nazis as propaganda to legitimize their government as a successor to the retroactively renamed "First" and "Second" Reichs. The terms "First Reich" and "Second Reich" are not used by historians, and the term "Fourth Reich" is used mainly in fiction and for political humour although it is also used by those who subscribe to the belief of Neo-Nazism.


The German noun Reich is derived from Old High German: rīhhi, which together with its cognates in Old English: rīce, Old Norse: ríki, and Gothic: reiki is from a Common Germanic *rīkijan. The English noun is obsolete, but persists in composition, for example in bishopric.

The German adjective reich, on the other hand, has an exact cognate in English rich. Both the noun (*rīkijan) and the adjective (*rīkijaz) are derivations based on a Common Germanic *rīks "ruler, king", reflected in Gothic as reiks, glossing ἄρχων "leader, ruler, chieftain".

It is probable that the Germanic word was not inherited from pre-Proto-Germanic, but rather loaned from Celtic (i.e. Gaulish rīx, Welsh rhi, both meaning 'king') at an early time.[5]

The word has many cognates outside of Germanic and Celtic, notably Latin: rex and Sanskrit: राज, romanized: raj, lit.'rule'. It is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *reg-, lit. 'to straighten out or rule'.

Usage throughout German history

Frankish Empire

Frankenreich or Fränkisches Reich is the German name given to the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne. Frankenreich came to be used of Western Francia and medieval France after the development of Eastern Francia into the Holy Roman Empire. The German name of France, Frankreich, is a contraction of Frankenreich used in reference to the kingdom of France from the late medieval period.[6]

Holy Roman Empire

The term Reich was part of the German names for Germany for much of its history. Reich was used by itself in the common German variant of the Holy Roman Empire, (Heiliges Römisches Reich (HRR)). Der rîche was a title for the Emperor. However, Latin, not German, was the formal legal language of the medieval Empire (Imperium Romanum Sacrum), so English-speaking historians are more likely to use Latin imperium than German Reich as a term for this period of German history. The common contemporary Latin legal term used in documents of the Holy Roman Empire was for a long time regnum ("rule, domain, empire", such as in Regnum Francorum for the Frankish Kingdom) before imperium was in fact adopted, the latter first attested in 1157, whereas the parallel use of regnum never fell out of use during the Middle Ages.

Modern age

At the beginning of the modern age, some circles redubbed the HRE into the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation), a symptom of the formation of a German nation state as opposed to the multinational state the Empire was throughout its history.

Resistance against the French revolution with its concept of the state brought a new movement to create a German "ethnical state", especially after the Napoleonic wars. Ideal for this state was the Holy Roman Empire; the legend arose that Germany were "un-defeated when unified", especially after the Franco-Prussian War (Deutsch-Französischer Krieg, lit. "German-French war"). Before that, the German question ruptured this "German unity" after the 1848 Revolution before it was achieved, however; Austria-Hungary as a multinational state could not become part of the new "German empire", and nationality conflicts in Prussia with the Prussian Poles arose ("We can never be Germans – Prussians, every time!").

The advent of national feeling and the movement to create an ethnically German Empire did lead directly to nationalism in 1871. Ethnic minorities declined since the beginning of the modern age; the Polabs, Sorbs and even the once important Low Germans had to assimilate themselves. This marked the transition between Antijudaism, where converted Jews were accepted as full citizens (in theory), to Antisemitism, where Jews were thought to be from a different ethnicity that could never become German. Apart from all those ethnic minorities being de facto extinct, even today the era of national feeling is taught in history in German schools as an important stepping-stone on the road to a German nation.

German Reich

In the case of the Hohenzollern Empire (1871–1918), the official name of the country was Deutsches Reich ("German Realm"), because under the Constitution of the German Empire, it was legally a confederation of German states under the permanent presidency of the King of Prussia. The constitution granted the King of Prussia the title of "German Emperor" (Deutscher Kaiser), but this referred to the German nation rather than directly to the state of Germany.[4]

The exact translation of the term "German Empire" would be Deutsches Kaiserreich. This name was sometimes used informally for Germany between 1871 and 1918, but it was disliked by the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I, and never became official.

The unified Germany which arose under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871 was the first entity that was officially called in German Deutsches Reich. Deutsches Reich remained the official name of Germany until 1945, although these years saw three very different political systems more commonly referred to in English as: "the German Empire" (18711918), the Weimar Republic (19191933; this term is a post-World War II coinage not used at the time), and Nazi Germany (19331945).

During the Weimar Republic

After 1918 "Reich" was usually not translated as "Empire" in English-speaking countries, and the title was instead simply used in its original German. During the Weimar Republic the term Reich and the prefix Reichs- referred not to the idea of empire but rather to the institutions, officials, affairs etc. of the whole country as opposed to those of one of its constituent federal states (Länder), in the same way that the terms Bund (federation) and Bundes- (federal) are used in Germany today, and comparable to The Crown in Commonwealth countries and The Union in the United States.

During the Nazi period

The Nazis sought to legitimize their power historiographically by portraying their ascendancy to rule as the direct continuation of an ancient German past. They adopted the term Drittes Reich ("Third Empire" usually rendered in English in the partial translation "the Third Reich"), first used in a 1923 book entitled Das Dritte Reich by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck,[7] that counted the medieval Holy Roman Empire (which nominally survived until the 19th century) as the first and the 1871–1918 monarchy as the second, which was then to be followed by a "reinvigorated" third one. This ignored the previous 1918–1933 Weimar period, which the Nazis denounced as a historical aberration, contemptuously referring to it as "the System". In the summer of 1939 the Nazis themselves actually banned the continued use of the term in the press, ordering it to use expressions such as nationalsozialistisches Deutschland ("National Socialist Germany"), Großdeutsches Reich ("Greater German Reich"), or simply Deutsches Reich (German Reich) to refer to the German state instead.[8] It was Adolf Hitler's personal desire that Großdeutsches Reich and nationalsozialistischer Staat ("[the] National Socialist State") would be used in place of Drittes Reich.[8] Reichskanzlei Berchtesgaden ("Reich Chancellery Berchtesgaden"), another nickname of the regime (named after the eponymous town located in the vicinity of Hitler's mountain residence where he spent much of his time in office) was also banned at the same time, despite the fact that a sub-section of the Chancellery was in fact installed there to serve Hitler's needs.[8]

Although the term "Third Reich" is still commonly used to refer to the Nazi dictatorship, historians avoid the terms "First Reich" and "Second Reich", which are seldom found outside Nazi propaganda. During and following the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in 1938, Nazi propaganda also used the political slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer ("One people, one Reich, one leader"), in order to enforce pan-German sentiment. The term Altes Reich ("old Reich"; cf. French ancien regime for monarchical France) is sometimes used to refer to the Holy Roman Empire. The term Altreich was also used after the Anschluss to denote Germany with its pre-1938 post-World War I borders. Another name that was popular during this period was the term Tausendjähriges Reich ("Thousand-Year Reich"), the millennial connotations of which suggested that Nazi Germany would last for a thousand years.

The Nazis also spoke of enlarging the then-established Greater German Reich into a "Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation" (Großgermanisches Reich Deutscher Nation) by gradually annexing all the historically Germanic countries and regions of Europe (Flanders, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden etc.) directly into the Nazi state.[9]

Possible negative connotations in modern use

A number of previously neutral words used by the Nazis have later taken on negative connotations in German (e.g. Führer or Heil); while in many contexts Reich is not one of them (Frankreich, France; Römisches Reich, Roman Empire), it can imply German imperialism or strong nationalism if it is used to describe a political or governmental entity. Reich has thus not been used in official terminology since 1945, though it is still found in the name of the Reichstag building, which since 1999 has housed the German federal parliament, the Bundestag. The decision not to rename the Reichstag building was taken only after long debate in the Bundestag; even then, it is described officially as Reichstag – Sitz des Bundestages (Reichstag, seat of the Bundestag). As seen in this example, the term "Bund" (federation) has replaced "Reich" in the names of various state institutions such as the army ("Bundeswehr"). The term "Reichstag" also remains in use in the German language as the term for the parliaments of some foreign monarchies, such as Sweden's Riksdag and Japan's pre-war Imperial Diet.

Limited usage in the railway system of the German Democratic Republic

The exception is that during the Cold War, the East German railway incongruously continued to use the name Deutsche Reichsbahn (German Reich Railways), which had been the name of the national railway during the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. Even after German reunification in October 1990, the Reichsbahn continued to exist for over three years as the operator of the railroad in eastern Germany, ending finally on 1 January 1994 when the Reichsbahn and the western Deutsche Bundesbahn were merged to form the privatized Deutsche Bahn AG.

Personal names

The early medieval form of the word, used in the sense "strong", "powerful" or "ruler", appears as an element in many male personal names from the Germanic heroic tradition, such as Richard (strong heart),[10] Dietrich (ruler of the people), Heinrich (ruler of the home),[11] or Friedrich (guardian of the peace).[12]

In Scandinavian languages

The cognate of the word Reich is used in all the Scandinavian languages with the identical meaning, i.e. "realm". It is spelled rike in Swedish and modern Norwegian and rige in Danish and older Norwegian (before the 1907 spelling reform). The word is traditionally used for sovereign entities, generally simply means "country" or "nation" (in the sense of a sovereign state) and does not have any special or political connotations. It does not imply any particular form of government, but it does imply that the entity is both of a certain size and of a certain standing, like the Scandinavian kingdoms themselves; hence the word might be considered exaggerated for very small states, like a city-state. Its use as a stand-alone word is more widespread than in contemporary German, but most often it refers to the three Scandinavian states themselves and certain historical empires, like the Roman Empire; the standard word for a "country" is usually land and there are many other words used to refer to countries.

The word is part of the official names of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the form of kongerike (Norwegian), kongerige (Danish) and konungarike (Swedish), all meaning kingdom, or literally the "realm of a king" (a kingdom can also be called kongedømme in Danish and Norwegian and kungadöme or konungadöme in Swedish, direct cognates of the English word). Two regions in Norway that were petty kingdoms before the unification of Norway around 900 AD have retained the word in the names (see Ringerike and Romerike). The word is also used in "Svea rike", with the current spelling Sverige, the name of Sweden in Swedish. Thus in the official name of Sweden, Konungariket Sverige, the word rike appears twice.

The derived prefix "riks-" (Swedish and Norwegian) and "rigs-" (Danish and pre-1907 Norwegian) implies nationwide or under central jurisdiction. Examples include riksväg and riksvei, names for a national road in Swedish and Norwegian. It is also present in the names of numerous institutions in all the Scandinavian countries, such as Sveriges Riksbank (commonly known as just Riksbanken), the central bank of Sweden, and Riksrevisionen, the agency responsible for oversight of the state finances in Sweden. It is also used in words such as utrikes (Swedish), utenriks (Norwegian) and udenrigs (Danish), relating to foreign countries and other things from abroad. The opposite word is inrikes/innenriks/indenrigs, meaning domestic.

The Lord's Prayer uses the word in the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish versions: Tillkomme ditt rike, Komme ditt rike, Komme dit rige ('Thy kingdom come' – old versions). Låt ditt rike komma!, La ditt rike komme, Komme dit rige ('Let your kingdom come' – new versions).

The adjective form of the word, rik in Swedish and rig in Danish/Norwegian, means "rich", like in other Germanic languages.


Rijk is the Dutch and ryk the Afrikaans and Frisian equivalent of the German word Reich.

In a political sense in the Netherlands and Belgium the word rijk often connotes a connection with the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Belgium as opposed to the European part of the country or as opposed to provincial or municipal governments; the ministerraad is the executive body of the Netherlands' government and the rijksministerraad that of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a similar distinction is found in wetten (laws) versus rijkswetten (kingdom laws), or the now-abolished rijkswacht for gendarmerie in Belgium. The word rijk can also be found in institutions like Rijkswaterstaat, Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

In colloquial speech Rijk usually means working for the central government rather than the provincial or municipal, much like e.g. Americans refer to the "federal" government.

In Afrikaans, ryk refers to rulership and area of governance (mostly a kingdom), but in a modern sense the term is used in a much more figurative sense (e.g. Die Hemelse Ryk (the heavenly kingdom, China)), as the sphere under one's control or influence, such as:

  • die drie ryke van die natuur: die plante-, diere- en delfstowweryk (the three kingdoms of nature: the plant, animal and mineral kingdom)
  • die duisendjarige ryk (the thousand year realm, the Biblical millennium)
  • die ryk van die verbeelding, van drome (the realm of the imagination, of dreams)
  • 'n bestuurder wat sy ryk goed beheer (a manager that controls his domain well)

As in German, the adjective rijk/ryk also means "rich".

See also

  • Germany
  • German Reich
  • Imperium
  • Reich (disambiguation)


  1. "Reich". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  2. See "the Reich" in Cambridge Dictionary (2013) Archived 2018-04-06 at the Wayback Machine
  3. Evans, Richard J. (2005). The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin. p. 33. ISBN 9781101042670. Archived from the original on 2018-05-04.
  4. Harper's Magazine, Volume 63. Pp. 593.
  5. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, original suggestion from Karl Brugmann grundrisz der vergl. gramm. 1, 65. Also mentioned in e.g. Calvert Watkins, American Heritage dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 70.
  6. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch cites Conrad of Megenberg (fastn. 140.14): ich pin ein konig aus Frankreich.
  7. The man who invented the Third Reich: the life and times of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. Npi Media Ltd. May 1, 1999. ISBN 978-0-75-091866-4.
  8. Schmitz-Berning, Cornelia (2000). Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 10875 Berlin, pp. 159–160. (in German)
  9. Elvert, Jürgen (1999) (in German). Mitteleuropa!: deutsche Pläne zur europäischen Neuordnung (1918–1945), p. 325. Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH. ISBN 3-515-07641-7.
  10. Hanks, Patrick; Hardcastle, Kate; Hodges, Flavia (2006). "Richard - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/acref/9780198610601.001.0001. ISBN 9780198610601. Archived from the original on 2018-01-29. Retrieved 2018-01-28.
  11. Hanks, Patrick; Hardcastle, Kate; Hodges, Flavia (2006). "Henry - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/acref/9780198610601.001.0001. ISBN 9780198610601. Archived from the original on 2018-01-29. Retrieved 2018-01-28.
  12. Hanks, Patrick; Hardcastle, Kate; Hodges, Flavia (2006-01-01), "Friedrich", A Dictionary of First Names, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780198610601.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-861060-1, retrieved 2021-02-01
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