The Strange Origin of the Word ‘Nazi’

It is commonly assumed that the word “Nazi” is the contraction of Adolf Hitler’s political party, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. But if that were true, then why did the Nazis hate being called “Nazi?” When the Nazis came to power, William Shirer notes in his Berlin Diary, they banned the use of this term. If it were simply a catchy nickname, derived from their actual party moniker, why this animosity? 

To arrive at the answer, we must examine the normal assumptions about the etymology of “Nazi,” and then move beyond those to the alternative theory of an insult first coined by German country folk, which then became the derogatory slur it is today.

The first normal assumption about the word’s origins is that “Nazi” is a contraction of the word “national.” Switzerland had a newspaper that went by this name, the National-Zeitung, published between 1842 and 1977. It was popularly known in Basler dialect as the Nazi-Zyttig, or National Newspaper. This paper also published a weekly magazine for children called Der kleine Nazi, meaning “the little reader of the National,” which was published until 1977 when the paper merged with another. Thus, to those from the Basel, Switzerland region, this use of the word “Nazi” had nothing to do with Hitler, but was simply a shorter name for a daily newspaper.

A second, but little-known assumption is that “Nazi” was the result of an earlier linguistic series, where the first two letters of a political party were combined with the particle –zi to create a substantive noun. Thus the Sozi were the socialists and the Kozi were the communists. But this explanation runs into problems linguistically because both the o sounds in Sozi and Kozi are long, while the o sounds in their respective source words (socialist, kommunist) are short, thus making the source words ineligible. To make a long story short, Sozi derives not from “socialist” but from the Latin socius, meaning “associate” or “comrade,” while Kozi comes from kotzen meaning “to vomit.” To German ears of the time this made the Communists “the Barfs.”

Additionally, there was an actual National Socialist Party in Weimar Germany which had nothing to do with Hitler, and which could, by the laws of this linguistic series, also be rightly called “Nazi.” This obviously never happened, and “Nazi” was a term solely reserved for Hitler and Hitlerism.

Thus, it’s likely that “Nazi” is not the contraction of Nationalsozialistische; nor can “Nazi” belong to a pre-existing linguistic series for Weimar-era political party names. Of course, folk etymology did eventually justify “Na-Zi,” or “national-socialist,” given the course of history.

This brings us to the logical question of whether the word “Nazi” existed before Hitler. If it did, what did it mean?

German has long lent itself to shortening words to create pejoratives, as the Allies imitated in their name for German WWII soliders, “Fritz.” In pre-Hitler Germany, “Nazi” was a shortened form of Ignaz (Ignatius), a pejorative name for a Catholic from Southern Germany (Bavaria) and Austria. Another version of the name was Naze. The closest English equivalent of “Nazi,” in this context, would be “Iggy.” And in the Protestant North, long before Hitler, “Nazi” or “Iggy” meant a Southern, Catholic German “hillbilly,” “rube,” “moron,” or “dimwit.”


above: St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century, French School, anonymous artist (Palace of Versailles)

In Bavaria, the expression “Haes Nazi!” or “Hot Iggy” was used whenever one burned oneself. This expression comes from volume two of Johann Schmeller’s 1827 dictionary, the Bayerisches Wörterbuch, and is the first documentary evidence for the name “Nazi.”

In 1835, the name acquired its usual meaning of hillbilly, rube, etc., with Johann Nestroy’s farce Eulenspiegel, in which the character Natzi hams it up in all his doltish stupidity. But it was Joseph Misson’s comic verse epic, Da Naz (1850), which firmly established the imbecilic and roguish fame of the name “Nazi” in German culture, after the character, Naz (or Nazi), who gets up to all kinds of silly but endearing adventures.

Between 1843 and 1853, Berthold Auerbach published the Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten (Black Forest Village Tales), with the famous story, Ivo, der Hajrle (Ivo, the Little Prelate). In the story, Ivo is protected and served by a simpleminded stable hand named—you guessed it—Nazi.

The next decade, Nobel laureate Paul Heyse published the Meraner Novellen (Novellas of Merano), one of which is entitled, Unheilbar: Ein Mädchentagebuch (Incurable: A Maiden’s Diary). A guileless peasant named Nazi lurks about in the background in the story.

Then, in 1872, the painter and satirist, Wilhelm Busch published his polemic, Pater Filucius, in which a thug named Inter-Nazi—a pet name, obviously, for “International-Iggy,” a globalist Catholic, as opposed to the hero, Gottlieb Michael, the noble German nationalist—is hired by a conniving Jesuit to beat up Michael. Here the name “Nazi” is imbued with anti-Jesuitical conspiracy theories that were typical of the time, and which led to Bismarck’s ban of Jesuit institutions in 1872. This is the only early instance where the name “Nazi” was associated with a thoroughly sinister character. However, the Protestant North’s old biased view of globalist Catholics promoting superstition was never too far away from being applied to the name “Nazi.”

In 1890, Karl May, the very popular novelist published Die Sklavenkarawane (The Slave Caravan), in which an ornithologist prefers to be called Vogel Nazi (Bird-Iggy), which contracts both his actual name (Igantius/Ignaz) and his profession, to highlight his comical Southern German character.

By the turn of the century, the prevailing understanding of “Nazi” became that of the mindless hillbilly, as evidenced by dictionaries of the period. For example, volume four of Hermann Fischer’s Schwäbisches Handwörterbuch (1914) defined “Nazi” as a dumb, clumsy man.

In popular culture, the word engendered all kinds of comical expressions and jokes and was the go-to name for a bumbling crook in comical literature. Thus, around 1900, it was usual to hear the expression, dummer als Nazi (“dumb as Iggy”), or der tappet Nazi (“bumbling Iggy”), or Du bist tauber Nazi (“you deaf Iggy, you”). A comical, sarcastic response to someone being bossy was es ist recht, Nazi (“sure thing, Iggy”). Someone mentally handicapped, or acting like one, was called a Zapfe-Nazi (“retard-Iggy”). Various popular satirical magazines, such as Simplicissimus, used the name in comical contexts.

As luck would have it, Hitler and his gang really did come from the deep, Catholic South, from Bavaria and Adolf  (shortened to Adi) from Austria, the very homeland of all Iggys. Their overly exuberant name, The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was a gift to their opponents. All the old associations of the name “Nazi” were readily transferred to Hitler and Co., who were thus rubes, morons, and hillbillies, bumbling about trying to be astute politicians. The cabaret culture of the Weimar Republic had a field day.

An example of this is a well-known song from that era, widely heard in Berlin in the 1920s. Here, “Nazi” still carries the old connotation of “Iggy” the hillbilly whom the lady in question prefers over sophisticated city gentlemen—and, of course, Adi and his lads as well:

Einen grossen Nazi hat sie

Einen kleinen Nazi hat sie

Hat den grossen und den kleinen Nazi gern

Sagt zum grossen Nazi, Schatzi

Sagt zum kleinen Nazi, Schatzi

Und verachtet in der Stadt die feinen Herren.

Which translates to the following, rather unflattering words:

A big fat Nazi has she,

A short little Nazi has she.

She’s so happy with her big and little Nazis.

Says to the big fat Nazi, my honey-pie.

Says to the short little Nazi, my honey pie.

And how she looks down

At all the fine gents of the city.

Thus, before 1934, the nickname “Nazi” (Iggy) always carried a pejorative register in the wider German culture, and the opponents of Hitler easily drew upon this register to make a very effective insult. That the shortened form of Hitler’s NSDAP was the same as the old aspersion only rubbed salt into the wound. Because of this, Hitler made sure to ban the word when he came to power, and it was never used by real Hitlerians. Thereafter, “Nazi” could never again be “Iggy.” It could only be the NSDAP and all that it came to mean and represent.

above: Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, et al. at the Nazi Party Congress in August 1929 in Nuremberg, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

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