Hannemann, Geh Du Voran! That (in)famous German Saying

Hannemann, geh Du voran! Type that German phrase into any search engine and it will return a mass of entries that make reference to this old saying. One of the more recognizable sayings among German-speaking Europeans uses the Hannemann surname. Pretty exciting, huh?

Not so fast.

As it turns out, the phrase isn’t exactly a compliment. This particular Hannemann, and the other men in the folklore story, are looked at with derision, although perhaps with a bit of envy.

To understand this infamous Hannemann reference, you have to look back a few centuries at an old folk tale about seven Swabian soldiers (die sieben Schwaben). Versions of this tale are said to date to the early 16th century. The Brothers Grimm published their own version in the 1800s.

The lightly armed sieben Schwaben set out into the world and encountered dangers along the way. At one point, they came across what they feared was a hideous beast (but in reality was just a common rabbit). Not wanting to face the menacing animal, one Swabian after the other insisted that the soldier Hannemann step forth to the head of the line.

Hannemann, geh Du voran! Du hast die gröβten Stiefel an, Daβ Dich das Tier nicht beiβen kann. “Hannemann, go forward! You have the biggest boots on, so the animal won’t bite you!” Here the Swabians are showing their inherent cowardice in the face of imagined danger.

In the folk-tale version penned by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the sieben Schwaben venture into the world armed with a single spear to protect them. The bravest man was said to be in front. Hearing a beetle or hornet fly by his head, the now-frightened leader jumps a nearby fence. He lands on the teeth of a rake, and the handle smacks him in the head. “I surrender! I surrender!” he shouts.

The bumbling Swabians eventually drowned in the Mosel River, thinking it was shallow enough to wade across. The leader called to a man on the other side of the river, asking how to get across the mossy river. Not understanding their dialect, the man answered back, “Wat? Wat?” The first Swabian thought he heard the man say, “wade!” So in he went, and drowned.

The others heard the same instructions: “Wat, wat, wat.” So in they went, to the same fate. What they actually heard was a frog across the river, croaking: “wat, wat!” Poor Swabians. It is reminiscent of the antics of Fatty Arbuckle and the Keystone Kops from those famous silent films.

Even today, the old Swabian saying is used routinely in Germany: “Hannemann, you go ahead!” The implication is, “I don’t want to rush into something dangerous. Hannemann, you do it!” “Don’t stick your neck out! Let Hannemann take the brunt of the trouble!”

Why have Germans poked fun at the Swabians for so long? It could be envy. Swabia is a region in southwest Germany near Switzerland and France. The Swabians have been described as strong and warlike, with a history of fighting with their neighbors. For generations they have been panned by other Germans as simpletons, cowards, stingy or prudish. These depictions may actually be the begrudging acknowledgment by neighbors that the Swabians are actually resourceful, clever and hard-working.

We need to point out that this region of Germany is not near the Baltic Duchy of Pomerania, where our Hannemann ancestors came from in the mid-1800s. So the soldier Hannemann of the sieben Schwaben was likely not related to our ancestor Matthias Hannemann, an infantry soldier in a Pomeranian regiment of the Prussian army.

But we should not be so quick to disown our Swabian cousin. For if you believe the explanations for the cheap shots aimed at Swabian Germans, this soldier Hannemann might have been a courageous and industrious fellow. Maybe some envious numskull decided to pen a derisive story about him. A bit of revenge, perhaps?

Let’s think about rewriting the old saying. Instead of “Hannemann, you get in front,” maybe it should read: “Everybody step back. Hannemann has it covered.”

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