Berlin in the Passive Voice (and Madonna)

14 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I was considering not writing anything at all this week and just letting you contemplate this picture of the diva herself at her latest red carpet premiere, shot by none other than me myself.


I have never worked harder for anything in my life–standing out in the cold for three and a half hours, standing my ground when people tried to elbow me away from my prime spot near the red carpet (below), making fun of the Madonna fan from Italy who couldn’t speak German standing to my left–but it was totally worth it.


Especially when I was interviewed by a German TV station on my way out.

Interviewer: Wie fühlst du dann über Madonna?
Lauren: Ich habe diese wahnsinnig cool Photo genommen! [pulls out camera, shows to camerawoman] Guck mal hier!
Interviewer: Oh, super toll! Kommst du dann aus Amerika?
Lauren: Ja, aber nicht nur Madonna zu sehen–ich bin eigentlich keine Verruckter-Fan! Ich bin nut Austauschstudentin hier, und ich habe nur gedacht, dass es cool wäre, die grosseste Celebrity der Welt zu sehen. Und so war es!
Interviewer: Und wie lange hast du dann gewartet? Hat es gegolten?
Lauren: Oh, bis sechs Uhr, so drei und halb Stunde, aber ja, es war total wertvoll! Es ist auch tut mir leid, dass ich kein gut Deutsch spreche!
Interviewer: Oh, es ist eigentlich sehr gut! Vielen dank!

(I should apologize, now and forever, for putting terrible German into the mouths of Germans. The woman made many fewer grammatical mistakes than I have recorded. I should also explain, to the rest of you, that I said the following: “Look at my awesome photo! Yes, I come from America, but I’m actually here as a student and not just to see Madonna. I waited three and a half hours but it was totally worth it. I’m sorry that my German is terrible.” Then she tells me that my German is good and I do a happy dance.)

Let’s be honest here–that was the exciting Berlin highlight of the last week and a half. The rest of it has been occupied with worrying about my health and dealing with German bureaucracy.

Lots of dealing with German bureaucracy. So far as I can tell, it is no worse than American bureaucracy, but what do I know? I can’t read the forms because the ridiculously over-compounded words aren’t in my dictionary.

But I know better than to spend an entire column playing misery poker. (das Elendkartenspiel?)

Instead I’m going to teach you a little bit about the passive voice. Over the past week, I have often thought, “I am very glad that I learned passive voice before coming to Germany, because otherwise I would have no idea what was going on.”

In English, I accidentally lapse into the passive voice all the time despite the fact that it’s considered bad form. In German, I can never remember how to put it together, and I attribute this to the fact that people use it all the time.

Bureaucracies like to use the passive voice because it allows them to avoid taking direct responsibility. So do students who haven’t done their homework and reporters who haven’t written their columns. If we were being nasty, we could say that Germans like it for the same reason, but the passive voice has been around since way before they started doing anything bad.

In German One, we started out with examples like this:
“Der Tür wird geschlossen.” [The door is being shut.]
“Der Tür ist geschlossen worden.” [The door was (being) shut.]
“Ich werde gefragt.” [I am being asked.]
“Ich bin gefragt worden.” [I was (being) asked.]

In German Two, when they start to bring in history, you move to examples like this:
“Der Mauer wird gebaut.” [The Wall is being built.]
“Der Mauer ist gebaut worden.” [The Wall was (being) built.]
“Ich werde geschossen.” [I am being shot.]
“Ich bin geschossen worden.” [I was (being) shot.]

Do you see the pattern? The verb Germans use to indicate the passive is “werden,” which is conjugated “Ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie werden” in the present tense. In the past tense, the verb “to be” is used, which is conjugated “Ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist, wir sind, ihr seid, sie sind,” and the marker for the passive voice, “worden,” doesn’t come until the end of the sentence.

In Deutsch für Fortgeschrittene, I have to use these simple patterns in unexpectedly complicated and important-for-my-survival ways. Hypothetically:
“Ich bin letzten Abend in Neukölln mit einem Messer durchgelaufen worden.”
[I was last night in Neukölln with a knife run-through [passive voice].]

As you’ll notice in my nearly literal translation, not only do you not know that I’ve been run through with a knife until the end of the sentence, you don’t know that I’m using the passive voice, and therefore that I’m not the one doing the running through, until even after that.

This seems to me like a pretty important distinction. Sure, OK, you’d think that when you walk into the police and start talking about “knives” and bleeding everywhere they’ll assume you’re the victim, but what if you get emotional in the middle and forget to put in your “worden”?

Then they might think you were making a tortured confession. And then you might find yourself chained up in a cell somewhere, and what are you going to do then? Spend your time reading the German textbook?

Are you convinced yet that German is a very dangerous language to speak poorly? Yes? Good, then, let’s practice some more.

“Die Stelle sind verloren worden.”

[Jobs were (being) lost.]

I learned this week that Berlin has the stunning distinction of a 17% unemployment rate, which made me rethink my “glory be to capitalism” column for about five seconds.

I have no idea what all these unemployed people do: some of the homeless ones sell the homeless magazine on the subways, and some of them probably kidnap for a living, but 17 percent, honestly? How do you even manage that?

Then a friend majoring in Economics pointed out that this could be blamed on German policies about health care and pensions and so on that make it expensive for companies to employ people. So then I wasn’t sure who to blame again, and was grateful for the passive because it doesn’t require me to point any fingers.

“Diese Zitadelle ist gebombt worden.”

[This citadel was (being) bombed.]

This week I went to Spandau, which so far as I can tell is mostly notable for having a lot of old brick buildings, including a fortress from something like the 16th century. Also, even though it’s been part of Berlin since 1920 the people there still say “I’m going to Berlin!” whenever they leave their district.


Halfway through the fortress museum, a panel briefly mentioned that the fortress had been used as a chemical weapon laboratory by Hitler during die Nazizeit. My concentration was shot for the rest of the museum–I would be looking at some really interesting diorama of a catapult and all I would care about was the sort of evil things Hitler had said in the very spot I was standing.

Let’s be honest: I’m a history major, sure, but I’m a history major who loves disaster tourism. I would like to say that this is because I’m a modernist and like to look at things that confirm my belief in progress, but considering that the more recent the event was, the worse it usually was, that doesn’t make any sense.

I’m just another one of those people who gawks at car accidents. And I fully expect that in another thousand years punk history majors will come to Berlin and think “I don’t want to hear about Hitler… he only killed six million people! I want to hear about the dudes who nearly wiped out the entire human race!”

“Berlin ist befreit worden.”

[Berlin was (being) liberated.]

This is a sentence nobody would ever say, because of course you want to take credit for the fact that you liberated Berlin! Just look at this enormous monument the Soviets built to pat themselves on the back. The marble sarcophagi on the side all have quotes from Stalin on them, and five thousand Soviet soldiers are buried in the middle.


This statue is of a Russian soldier carrying a small German girl in one arm and driving his sword to smash the swastika of National Socialism with the other.


This is the crying woman who greets you at the entrance to the monument. Why do you think she is crying? Is she grateful to the Russian soldiers who liberated her?


I don’t think so. Here’s a passive sentence you are likely to see in the history books:

“Die Frauen sind vergewaltigen worden.”

[The women were (being) raped.]

Who raped them? You don’t hear about this anywhere in the monument, but it was the Russian soldiers. The Russians raped anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 of the women they were supposedly in the process of liberating, making the female statue how super ironic and inappropriate? Ganz.

That’s why you can’t trust monuments to teach you history, or the passive voice as far as you can throw it.

“Die Antibabypille ist genommen worden.”

[Birth control was (being) taken.]

I really just wanted to share the fact that the word for “birth control” is die Antibabypille. I sort of wish it was the word for the morning after pill instead, but that gets the relatively literal die Pille danach.

After the maniacal laughter about that non-euphemism subsides, the question is always “So, what’s the word for abortion? Fetusaussaugen?” But no such luck–it’s die Abtreibung.

So there you go. Sorry your dose of Deutschland ist several days late eingekommen worden… I don’t know who to blame, but it’s sure as hell not me.

Spass wird bis nächstes mal gehabt werden,

Lauren Stokes

The Phoenix