Yesterday, when I left work, there was a small demonstration (meaning a small number of demonstrators and lots of police) outside in the street. A co-worker told me, the demonstration was for a group of asylum-seekers who had camped in a park in front of a big church until police had driven them out.
And then, when I went back for the car, I saw this sign in an entrance:
Achtung! Einfahrt für Fremde verboten
Access for strangers forbidden. Maybe also for foreigners. You don’t know in German. The most frequently used word for foreigners is “Ausländer”, but colloquially you often hear “Fremde” used without distinction. Ausländer is more formal, but as everywhere so here, the trend towards nationalism in recent history has made both words odious. You wouldn’t want to be “fremd” in Austria, nor would you want to be an “Ausländer”, maybe with the exception of a few rich countries of origin.
I’m not going to accuse the owners of xenophobia or something like that. This sign certainly means only people not living in that house, in bureaucratic German the term would be “Hausfremde Personen”, but there was obviously not enough space for that.
Still, it struck me when I saw the sign and read the word “Fremde”. “The Others”. “Strangers”. “Intruders”. Language is always shaped by circumstances, meanings are not fixed, and the connotations of “Fremde” would make the word almost unusable today, at least for those who care about language and people.
I think there is also a lesson in here: It is not each of the small signs that are frightening, it is the sum of the signs, the sum of the small changes, that at one point make our society inhumane, and once we’ve crossed that border, we will have lost democracy and love and peace and art and beauty as well.
Sorry for being so grim lately 😄