War of Words – ‘Hun’

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Attila the Hun riding a pale horse, by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Attila the Hun riding a pale horse, by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Huns were Central Asian nomads who, under their notorious leader Attila, invaded the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. There they earned themselves a terrifying place in European memory.

‘Hun’ subsequently became an unflattering synonym for Germans during World War I, used by Britons to emphasise their enemy’s brutality. Ironically, however, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who provided the origin for this usage.

On 27 July 1900, Wilhelm gave a speech to his troops going to China to grapple with the Boxer Rebellion. ‘No quarter will be given, no prisoners will be taken,’ Wilhelm declared. ‘Just as the Huns a thousand years ago, under the leadership of Etzel [Attila] gained a reputation in virtue of which they still live in historical tradition,’ he continued, ‘so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China that no Chinaman will ever again dare to look askance at a German.’

His harsh words had already found their way into The Times by 30 July, and a Times report of 21 November referred to ‘the so-called “Letters from the Huns” (Hunnenbriefe) – epistles from German soldiers in China to their relatives at home giving an account of the cruelties which have been perpetrated by the army of occupation’. Before the year was out, ‘Hun’ was being applied to German soldiers throughout the British press.

This usage stuck and was in play from the beginning of the Great War, with Rudyard Kipling, in his 1914 poem ‘For All We Have and Are’, urging Britons to ‘Stand up and take the war./The Hun is at the gate!’.

Consummate horsemen armed with powerful composite bows, the Huns were highly mobile and deadly warriors. Their invasion of Rome did not end until Attila’s demise in AD 453, which also initiated the dissolution of the vast Hunnic Empire.

Marc DeSantis

This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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