This article refers to the German word Reich, and in particular to its historical and political implications. For other uses for Reich, see Reich (disambiguation)

Reich (properly pronounced , see List of words of disputed pronunciation), is the German word for "realm" or "empire", cognate with Scandinavian rike and Dutch rijk. It is the word traditionally used for a variety of sovereign entities, including Germany in many periods of its history. It is also found in the compound Königreich, "kingdom", and in the country names Frankreich (France, literally the "Realm of the Franks") and Österreich (Austria, the "Eastern Realm"). The German version of the Lord's Prayer uses the words Dein Reich komme for "thy kingdom come". Used adjectivally, reich is the German word for "rich".


Historical usage

The term Reich was part of the German names for Germany for much of its history. The German name for the "Holy Roman Empire (of the German Nation)" (9th century1806) is Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation. However, it should be noted that Latin, not German, was the language of the mediaeval Empire, so English-speaking historians are more likely to use Latin imperium than German Reich as term for this period of German history.

The unified Germany which arose under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871 was called in German the Deutsches Reich, and this remained the official name of Germany until 1945, although these years saw three very different political systems more commonly referred to as the German Empire (18711918), the Weimar Republic (19191933), and the Third Reich (the National Socialist period) (19331945).

The Nazis sought to legitimise their power historiographically by portraying their rule as a continuation of a Germanic past. They coined the term Das Dritte Reich ("The Third Empire" – usually rendered in English in the oddly hybrid half-translation "The Third Reich"), counting the Holy Roman Empire as the first and the 1871 Empire as the second. They also used the political slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer ("One people, one Reich, one leader"). (Note: although the term "Third Reich" is in common use, the terms "First Reich" and "Second Reich" for the earlier periods are not found outside Nazi propaganda. Adopting them as some modern commentators have done is to accept Nazi historiography and to apply anachronistic terms to the "Holy Roman Empire and Imperial Germany.)

A number of words used by the Nazis which earlier were neutral have later taken on a negative connotation in German (e.g. Führer or Heil); the word "Reich" is usually not one of them, although in certain contexts it does carry a connotation of German imperialism and/or strong nationalism. Since 1945, the the word Reich has not been used in contemporary references, though it is still found in the name of the Reichstag building, which since 1999 houses the German federal parliament (Bundestag).

Etymology and cognates

Reich has an interesting etymology: it comes from a Germanic word for "king", which was borrowed from Celtic. It has cognates in many other languages, all ultimately descended from the Proto-Indo-European root *reg-, meaning "to straighten out" or "rule". We can group the cognates linguistically as follows.

Celtic group

Proto-Celtic *rīg-, "king", from the lengthened e-grade (see: ablaut). Borrowed into Germanic as *rīks-. Hence:

Original Germanic group

Although the line of descent of Reich and its closest cognates came into Germanic sideways from Celtic, Germanic also inherited the same Indo-European root directly in a suffixed form of the e-grade, *reg-to-, hence:


The basic e-grade form of the root came into Latin as: regere (supine stem rectus), "to rule"; rex, regis, "king"; regalis, "kingly". A suffixed, lengthened e-grade form, *rēg-ola- gives us Latin regula, "rod". Hence:

  • French: roi
  • English (borrowed straight from Latin): regent; regal; regulate; rector; rectangle; erect and countless others .
  • English (borrowed via French): royal, reign; viceroy; realm; rule and countless others .


The Sanskrit word, from a lengthened-grade suffixed form *rēg-en-, is rājā, "king", hence the words for rulers in various Indian language. Of interest to English speakers: Raj, used of the British rule in India; and Maharaja, literally "the great king" (exactly parallel to Latin magnus rex).


de:Reich fr:Reich nl:Rijk (staat) pl:Reich


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