Russian-German & German-Russian phrasebooks in the First World War

This week’s blog is from Iaroslav Golubinov, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Samara State Medical University. Dr Golubinov’s ORCID is  He is a contributor to the “International Encyclopedia of the First World War”:

Hello, dear readers!

My name is Iaroslav Golubinov, I’m a historian from Russia. The little text below was written because of the gentle request of Julian Walker and Christophe Declercq who asked me to share some observations on the German-Russian phrasebook.

Indeed, not long ago the authors of this blog shared a beautiful German-Russian phrasebook published for German soldiers. This book was written by Gustav Werkhaupt and printed in 1914 in Leipzig “Helios-Verlag”[1].


Front cover


Unfortunately, I don’t have the information about the author of the phrasebook. All I know is that he was a teacher of Russian language in “Handelshochschule Leipzig” in 1912[2] and, probably, he worked in Russia some decades before the Great War. The Journal of the Ministry of Education of Russia contained the review on a reader (chrestomathy) of Latin and Greek texts made by Густав Веркгаупт (lit. “Gustav Verkgaupt”, the spelling might be changed because of the rules of the Russian language)[3].

Nevertheless, I want to note that Werkhaupt’s phrasebook had very similar analogues in Russia. So, in 1913 Captain Plekhanov and Lieutenant German compiled and printed “Russian-German questionnaire: For the officers, NCO and scouts: With a brief military technician dictionary and a description of the battle dress of German and Austro-Hungarian armies”[4]; in 1914 warrant officer Wulfius made “A brief Russian-German military interpreter for scouts”[5]. Also, in 1915 and 1916 one Petrograd publisher printed several issues of “A new Russian-German military translation book for officers and warrant officers”[6]. It has to be mentioned that some books were written for people who didn’t speak German and even didn’t know the Latin alphabet (e.g., “Russian-German pocket military dictionary: Contains the necessary words and ready-made German phrases, written in Russian letters: Available for those who do not know the German language”[7]).

The Russian army widely used also pocket dictionaries and phrasebooks for three or even four languages at once (e.g., Russian-French-German[8] or Russian-Bulgarian-Rumanian-Turkish[9]) due to the territories where the battles they were involved in happened. So, a Russian-French-German version could be useful for the Russian Expeditionary Corps in France[10].

Looking through Russian Internet libraries, the closest available analogue of Werkhaupt’s book I found was “Military phrasebook in Russian, German and Polish” (1915, 2nd issue) by a colonel of the General Staff Andrianov[11]. This book was written for those ranks who didn’t know any language except Russian, thus, all parts but one were written in the Cyrillic alphabet[12].

IG Adtitle

Interesting, the chapters in the German phrasebook are small and their content is directly related to the place or situation of conversation (patrol, railway station, billets, transport with POW, hospital etc.) The Russian book has two big parts: the first is devoted to so-called “military talks” (военные разговоры) and the second — “civilian talks” (житейские разговоры); the big chapters are divided into small parts (“chasing the enemy”, “scouting” etc. or “hotel, restaurant”, “laundry” and so on). After a brief comparison of both books, I assume that the tone of talking is equal. Maybe, the German book is a little bit rougher and the Russian a little bit more polite (especially with civilians). But when the soldiers and officers need to speak with a spy or POWs or deserters all questions and manners are quite similar.

I need to mention that Werkhaupt sometimes made mistakes in Russian (e.g., he translated “Draisinen”, meaning rail vehicles, as “велосипеды”/bicycles/, but it’s incorrect) and used old or rare words. I believe that nobody could understand a German officer asking Russian POWs or civilians about “franc-tireurs”. Instead of this most rare word (it’s absent in many Russian dictionaries of the 1900s), Werkhaupt needed to write “partisan” (партизан), of course.

The Russian book is bigger than the German version and contains the templates of military orders for the civilian population of occupied territories, a small dictionary of military terms and (the most interesting!) the part with the answers expected of a German POW. Surprisingly, the German book lacks it. It’s unclear, did Werkhaupt expect that Russian could say something in answer?

This chapter in Russian book begins with such words:

“To get an exact answer or to allow a German [soldier] to ask Russians a question that is completely understandable to Russians, the reader submits a book to the German in order that the German finds, among the answers and questions written in his native language, a suitable answer or question and points it out. Then, due to a nearby Russian translation, the reader will understand what the German [soldier] wants to say. When you give a book to a German, you should add: “Nim das bookh, efne nekhste Zaite und tsaige mir daine Antvorten und Fragen”.

IG Ad054

The last phrase is in German but written in Russian Cyrillic. “Take the book, look onto the next page and show me your answers and question”.

What answers and questions of Germans did Russians expect to hear?

  • Ich ergebe mich
  • Ich werde mich setzen


  • Unser Stab ist geschlage
  • Unsere Generale sind getote etc.

This looks like the answers of completely defeated enemies.

IG Ad056 war answersIG Ad057 war answers

But the voices of German wounded men and POWs are also presented:

  • Ich habe grosse Schmerzen
  • Herr Doktor, mir ist besser
  • Ich sehne mich nach der Frau

…and so on.

Some places are also taken for the civilians (they were presented as very obedient people). Interesting, this book has no answers of Poles, they remained in silence. But the Germans are made very loquacious:

  • Wollen Sie nicht zu Mittag bei uns bleiben?
  • Haben Sie schon gefruhstuckt?
  • Wir essen immer warm zu
  • Abend
  • Wir haben Kalten Kalbsbraten, Schinken, Kase

And, finally,

  • Hier ist die Rechnung
  • Bitte zahlen Sie
  • Adieu!

IG Ad060 answers by woundedIG Ad063 simple statementsIG Ad067 3 langs sentencesIG Ad068 3 langs sentencesIG Ad074 3 langs sentences


Thus, these two phrasebooks are very interesting examples of the very complicated process of understanding and negotiating between two sides of the Eastern front.


[1] Full digital copy you may find here:

[2] Vorlesungs-verzeichnisse der universitäten, technischen und fach-hochschulen von Deutschland, Deutsch-Oesterreich und der Schweiz. Munchen: Academischer Verlag, 1912. P. 114.

[3] Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniya. Chast’ CCII. Mart 1879. S. 95 and passim.

[4] Plekhanov, S. N. Russko-nemetskiy voprosnik : Dlya g. g. ofitserov, unter-ofitserov i razvedchikov : S krat. voyen.-tekhn. slovarem i s opisaniyem form pokhod. obmundirovaniya germ. i avstro-veng. armiy / Sost. kap. Plekhanov i poruchik German. Varshava : tip. Okr. shtaba, 1913. 67 s.

[5] Vul’fius. Kratkiy russko-nemetskiy voyennyy perevodchik dlya razvedchikov / Sost. 14 Grenader. Gruz. polka praporshchik Vul’fius. Petrograd : tip. Trenke i Fyusno, 1914. 40 s.

[6] Novyy russko-nemetskiy voyennyy tolmach dlya g. g. ofitserov i praporshchikov. 4-ye izd. Petrograd : Berezovskiy, tsenz. 1916. XI, 112 s.

[7] Russko-nemetskiy karmannyy voyennyy slovar’ : Soderzhit neobkhodimyye sl. i gotovyye nem. frazy, napis. rus. bukvami : Dostupen dlya neznayushchikh nem. yaz. Moskva : K.L. Kovzan, 1916. 32 s.

[8] Krit M.N. Kratkiy russko-frantsuzsko-nemetskiy perevodchik dlya ofitserov i nizhnikh chinov, sovershenno ne vladeyushchikh frantsuzskim i nemetskim yazykami. Petrograd: Glavnoye upravleniye general’nogo shtaba, 1916. 108 s.

[9] Musiyenko I.V. Voyennyy perevodchik na russko-bolgarsko-rumyno-turetskom yazykakh. Odessa: tip. Akts. yuzh.-rus. obshch. pech. dela, 1917. 32 s.


[11] Andrianov P.M. Voyennyy perevodchik na russko-pol’sko-nemetskom yazyke. 2nd ed. Odessa: Ye.I. Fesenko, 1915.

[12] Unfortunately, I can’t esteem the level of translation skill in Russian book because I don’t speak German and Polish.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: