The Legend of the “Krauts”

The legend of the Germans as sauerkraut eaters persists  Photo: Rolf Weschke © iStockphotoThe legend of the Germans as sauerkraut eaters persists  Photo: Rolf Weschke © iStockphoto“Krauts” was used by English and American soldiers to refer to their German war-time enemies. And when contemporary caricaturists across the channel attack the Germans, sauerkraut is sure to feature once again.

“On of the many attributes of Germans, making them figures of fun in foreign eyes, is that they are sauerkraut eaters, which those people regard as the most striking evidence of a very primitive cuisine,” complained Professor Fritz Eichholtz, a medical practitioner, back in 1941 in his work Sauerkraut und ähnliche Gärerzeugnisse (i.e. Sauerkraut and similar fermented products). Eichholtz’s interest was less in the image of Germans than that the healthy panacea of sauerkraut could become discredited by using “Krauts” in derogatory fashion. However, he descended to claim that sauerkraut is a purely German achievement – and that every sauerkraut eater is therefore automatically a member of the German race. O dear!

Not a German invention

Bratwurst with sauerkraut  Foto: Robyn Mackenzie © iStockphotoWhat would he be likely to say today of the fact that the French and Americans have the highest per-capita consumption of fermented white cabbage? We can be grateful to Dr Hans Hermann von Wimpffen, the Bavarian television journalist, for shedding light on the origin of the use of “Kraut” as a derogatory term. In spite of a dearth of source material, he demonstrated in the late eighties that sauerkraut traditionally originates not from Germany but from Alsace. “It is the Alsatians, who descended from the Alemanni tribe, who are to blame. They were the first to produce sauerkraut. The Allemanni tribe gave its name to a whole people – in France, the Germans are called 'les allemands'”, writes von Wimpffen in his book Sauerkraut, which has become a standard work on the subject. “It was the Alsatians who made sauerkraut with sausage and bacon their national dish and whom the Germans have to thank for sauerkraut supposedly being their favourite dish.”

That may be historic come-uppance for the Germans taking over Alsace from 1871 to 1918 and again from 1940 until the end of the World War II. After the war, as we all know, the region was returned to France. And another thing von Wimpffen discovered is that the Germans were derided as Krauts, especially by the British, even long before World War II. In World War I, unlike in World War II, the Reichswehr’s rations included sauerkraut, cooked and sealed in tins.

Origin in soldiers’ jargon

In World War I the rations of the German soldiers included sauerkraut  Photo: Sergey Kamshylin © iStockphoto“The term certainly arose in the middle of World War I in England or among British soldiers at the front. The word was also taken over by US soldiers after America entered the war,” explains Wimpffen upon enquiry. “In contrast to the prevailing view, I believe that the word was not used to refer to the Germans as a nation, but only to the enemy soldiers. Thus, it is not an ethnophaulism, which belittles an entire people, but British-American soldiers’ jargon.”

Anyone going to eat in a restaurant in Alsace can see for himself that sauerkraut is indeed an Alsatian national dish. There are hardly any dishes not featuring sauerkraut. While in Germany, it may be a favourite food in the Länder of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North-Rhine/Westphalia, preferably accompanied by substantial meat dishes such as sausages, bacon and smoked pork, “it never became a German national dish,” says von Wimpffen.

Sauerkraut – a panacea

Cabbage in the field  Photo: Tomas Bercic © iStockphotoIt’s a shame, really, because sauerkraut has remarkable health effects. One reason is because sauerkraut made from white cabbage contains large amounts of vitamin C. The English sailor James Cook (1728 to 1779) is supposed to have been the first to have taken barrels of sauerkraut with him on his ships to protect his crews on their month-long Pacific voyages from scurvy, a feared disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C. If correctly stored, sauerkraut keeps for a long time. Incidentally, the idea of preserving cabbage by fermenting is said to have been that of a German merchant.

As well as containing vitamin C and various minerals, sauerkraut also contains a substance to which experts attribute quite miraculous health effects – lactic acid, which gives the cabbage its sour taste. It is also the substance that preserves the cabbage, because when lactic acid is present in sufficient concentration, other bacteria, such as decomposition bacteria, have no chance to work. While there are no scientific studies demonstrating that lactic acid helps to prevent cancer, as claimed by some nutritionists, it is known that peoples such as the Caucasians, who eat large quantities of food containing lactic acid, reach a ripe old age. Regardless of the connotations of “Krauts”, that would be a good reason for making sauerkraut a national dish.

Olaf Peters
is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Wortwexxel agency. He lives and works in Oldenburg and in the Ruhr district.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2010

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