Wir schaffen das!

Today’s blog is more of a longer “Word of the Week” than a blog entry. But, I hope, nonetheless interesting.

The three words in today’s title came to mind as I was preparing my lessons this week. In the past, I have used different ideas/themes to practise German with our students at Friedenshaus. Lately, since we have had more consistent attendees, I have been looking for some thematic units that might connect more from lesson to lesson.

Anyway … in one of the exercises, the question was raised: “Wer hat was geschaffen?” (Who created what?) followed by a list of objects that were man-made, natural, or a combination. I had to pause after reading that question, because I always understood the past tense of the word “schaffen” to be “geschafft”. But, as I reflected on the sentence, it became clear that we were talking about two different words.

After a short Google search, one blogger reflects on this word. He suggests that the original meaning of the word (to create) might be connected to the English verb “to shape”. I am familiar with this use of the word from my early years in a German speaking church and the Genesis narrative talking about God “creating” (schaffen) the world. And in the past tense, one would say “Gott hat die Welt geschaffen.” (God created the world). But there is another, more common use of this word in German today.

When Germans use this word today, it is more commonly translated as “succeed” or “complete”, as in “I will finish/complete my homework.” (Ich schaffe meine Hausaufgaben). In the past tense of this word, schaffen changes to “geschafft” rather than “geschaffen”. So, “ich habe meine Arbeit geschafft” means that “I finished my work”. If I say “Ich habe meine Arbeit geschaffen” I am saying that I created my work, perhaps a short story or some visual work of art. Quite a different meaning.

If you know anything about German society, the former is a very satisfying, German phrase. I had a task and now it is completed. Similarly, among students, it would be common to complain about homework with the phrase “Das schaffe ich nie.” (I will never finish it). And a fellow student would empathize and agree. Which brings me back to my blog title.

The three words – “Wir schaffen das” – were used by German chancellor Angela Merkel after her government’s decision to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees in recent years. There was much criticism among rival politicians and many German citizens. How will we ever be able to re-settle all these refugees? Her response was simply, “We will get it done.” No excuses, no explanations of how, simply an affirmation of the German work ethic, encouraging everyone to pull up their sleeves, quit complaining and get to work. In hindsight, this seems to be rather simplistic, even naïve. But it reflects an optimism that is needed in our world today.

I’m writing this after the weekend where France decided to elect a young, relatively inexperienced politician (Emmanuel Macron) instead of the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen. Rather than give in to the fears reiterated by Le Pen, the majority of French voters opted to risk optimism and a pro-Europe candidate to solve their country’s woes. They hope he can get it done. As Germany prepares for their own national election later this year, the European Union and many others in the world hope Macron can “schaff” (create) a new optimism and hope in France that will carry over into the elections here in Germany.


Caption: “Wir haben es geschafft” (we finished it) and “Wir haben es (sie – die Decke) geschaffen (we created it).

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