(noun) Turning point in history, watershed, epochal shift in global geopolitics
Just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, German chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed the moment to be a Zeitenwende. The post-cold war era was over. Germany and its allies must stand together in resolute defence of freedom and democracy. Germany would have to rethink its foreign, energy and economic policies, spend more on defence and not be shy of providing leadership for Europe. No chancellor since the Federal Republic’s birth in 1949 had made a speech quite like it.
Like other German concepts such as Ostpolitik (policy towards communist eastern Europe during the cold war), or Spitzenkandidat (leading candidate to be European Commission president), Zeitenwende quickly entered English usage, despite being tricky for native English-speakers to spell, pronounce or define.
Zeitenwende is one of those compound nouns that adorn the German language like baubles on a Christmas tree — also known as Weihnachtsbaum, which is itself a three-part compound noun. Other examples include Schadenfreude (malicious pleasure in others’ misfortune) and Zahnfleischbluten (bleeding gums).
A compound noun fuses two or more separate words to make a new, longer one: Weihe means consecration, Nacht means night, Weihnachten means Christmas and Baum means tree. Sometimes a compound noun can become a bit indigestible, as with Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit (food intolerance).
Zeitenwende combines Zeit, the word for time, era or period, with Wende, a word meaning change. Wende has a special resonance for Germans, as it is the word used to describe the peaceful, democratic revolution of 1989 in the former communist East Germany that led the next year to German reunification.
How far will the Zeitenwende change German policies over the next few years? Perhaps only Scholz, the Bundeskanzler (federal chancellor), knows the answer.