Resume Reading — Hitler and the Naming of the Shrew


Hitler and the Naming of the Shrew

When zoologists tried to change the words for bat and shrew, the Führer was not amused.

On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. “Fledermaus…By Michael Ohl

On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. “Fledermaus No Longer!” the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names “Spitzmaus” [shrew] and “Fledermaus” [bat] to “Spitzer” and “Fleder.” Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum [...].

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany’s leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital’s daily papers, Fledermaus and Spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for Fleder or Spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of Spitzer, which is a “small implement used for the sharpening of pencils”).

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

In yesterday’s newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion.

There’s no question that the “responsible parties” understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the “organ of the German Zoological Society”—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal’s publishers:

Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names “Fledermaus” and “Spitzmaus,” the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer’s directive.

It’s conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler’s instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the “parties responsible” for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name Spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with Spitzmaus and Fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?

The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, Maus, or “mouse.” This part of a compound word—or a word formed by joining substantives—is known in German grammar as the base or determinatum. The base, which is always located at the end of the word, determines both the denotation and grammatical gender of the compound. The word to the left of the base, the determinative or determinant (which can also be multiple words), defines the base more precisely. Thus, an armchair is first and foremost a chair with the more specific attribute of possessing arms. As far as our mice are concerned, the Gelbhalsmaus (yellow-necked mouse) is first and foremost a mouse. Many species of mice exist, therefore the name specific to each requires an element that limits or modifies the base. Because this species has yellowish neck coloring, the general term “mouse” is narrowed by means of the preceding word element, thus generating a clear term—the yellow-necked mouse—for a specific species of rodent.

A Shrew by any Other Name: North American Insectivora. Four shrew species and the shrew mole (bottom) in an engraving from 1859.Baird, S. F., Mammals of North America, Plate XXVIII (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1859). Library of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

The process is much the same for the Fledermaus and Spitzmaus, which are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (Fleder comes from flattern, “to flap”; Spitz, or “point,” refers to the shrew’s pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species. Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that’s the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, “muroids” or the “mouse-like.” The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence. The underlying idea of systematic biology is fairly simple and obvious. Over the course of evolution, plants and animals have developed new characteristics and passed them on to their descendants. Thus, parallels between species living today might indicate ties back to a common ancestor, from which each adopted these traits. The similarity between such species is therefore the result of an evolutionary event that occurred so far in the past that it remains accessible only by means of scientific hypothesis. Groups of species are described as “natural” when evidence exists of an ancestor common only to them; systems of organisms comprised solely of such groups are designated in the same way. These stand in contrast to artificial groups and artificial systems, in which the species’ linkage is based on congruities that can be shown not to have emerged from a unique evolutionary change in the most recent common ancestor. A natural system of organisms thus represents the most plausible course of evolution, whereas an artificial classification illustrates humans’ arbitrary notions of what makes sense in grouping. Systematic biology today tends to prefer the reconstruction of natural systems of organisms.

We can only guess at what Hitler’s actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations.

Reconstructing these systems is complicated by the fact that not infrequently evolution will unexpectedly quit the beaten path. There have been instances in which a trait gained by one species will disappear in later species or reappear in new form. This means that the identifying characteristics of a species today will not necessarily be there tomorrow. The high art of systematic biology consists of using all of these traits to formulate well- founded hypotheses of lineage and bring clarity to the “tree of life.”

But back to mice and the specific anatomical features of their skulls. Because these characteristics are present in nearly all muroids but absent in their relatives, phylogenetic researchers have concluded that they have originated as an evolutionary trait in the common ancestor of the muroids, the “ur-mouse.” Therefore, these features of the skull allow systematic biologists to identify a natural grouping among the muroids. The ancestor of all muroids that inherited these features represents the starting point, the root of the mouse’s rather complicated phylogenetic tree, which ultimately encompasses about 1,500 species—which happens to be a quarter of all mammals on earth. To say that a certain rodent belongs to this group amounts to little more than saying it is one of the many descendants of the last common ancestor of the whole mouse superfamily. Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don’t often encounter them. These animals with the “mouse” base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

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The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the Fledermaus and Spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they? In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong. Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means “hand-flier,” which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes. Both have wings formed by the typical membrane spanned between elongated digits. They are the only mammals to have developed the faculty for active flight. Other mammals that seem capable of flight, such as flying squirrels, are passive gliders. With more than 1,000 species known to date, Chiroptera is the second largest group of mammals after rodents. However, bats are missing the features particular to muroid skulls, and they also possess the traits unique to Chiroptera, such as the “hand wings.” Bats undoubtedly belong to Chiroptera.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or Spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning “slotted tooth”), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained, however, and an overwhelming glut of designations is assigned to various combinations of these animal groups. Dating back to Carl Linnaeus’s 1758 coinage, the most widely used term for shrews, hedgehogs, moles, and all manner of more or less exotic animals is Insectivora, or insect eater. The idea that they can be traced to a common ancestor—that is to say, the idea that Insectivora comprises a natural, evolutionarily justifiable unit—is viewed today as improbable. Unquestionably, however (and this is what’s of greatest interest to us here), shrews are not connected to either rodents (even muroids) or bats.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The Fledermaus and Spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon. The superficial similarities in appearance are astonishing, however unspecific, which happens to apply to other animals that also have the word “mouse” in their name but aren’t mice. The sea mouse, an unusual marine bristleworm the size of a mouse, with a shimmering mantle of bristles, just barely resembles a mouse and doesn’t have a tail. The titmouse, a small woodland bird whose name can be traced back to the Middle English “mose,” cognates with the German Meise.1 Although the original etymology of “mose” is unclear, the bird’s small size and quick, mouse-like movements either gave rise to the word or aided in its corruption. The tendency to call something a mouse can thus be triggered by rough structural likenesses or linguistic derivations, whereas the reasons behind the Fledermaus and Spitzmaus are perfectly obvious.

if it looks like a bat: The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus, LeConte, 1856) and the California leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus californicus, Baird, 1858) in an engraving from 1859. Baird, S. F., Mammals of North America, Plate LXI. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1859). Library of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

Scientists are assuredly willing to acknowledge that shrews resemble mice superficially, but their life’s work as systematic biologists is aimed at being scientifically exact and unequivocal. Not only in their scientific work—that goes without saying—but especially in the scientific designations they employ for organisms. Comprehensive guidelines such as the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, often known simply as “the Code”—a complex system of conventions that the zoological community has agreed on—serve the single purpose of determining clear names that everyone can understand.2 The rules are edited by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, a board of about 30 members from different countries who represent a range of disciplines within zoological taxonomy. The Code is about as riveting to read as a piece of legislation, but for zoologists it serves as the framework within which all of zoological taxonomy is housed. Keeping this background in mind, it’s understandable that some systematic biologists would like to broaden the reach of these strict standards to apply to nonscientific, common names. This certainly plays a special role with regard to well-known animal groups, such as Central European mammals and birds, which all have German names.

One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum’s famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research. In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades “with keen interest,” as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle’s interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

Unquestionably, shrews are not connected to either rodents (even muroids) or bats.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, “How many species of mammals live in Germany?” He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct “technical name,” as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of Spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is “the” one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word “Fledermaus” in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became Waldspitzer, Zwergspitzer, Alpenspitzer, Wasserspitzer, Mittelspitzer, Feldspitzer, Gartenspitzer, and Hausspitzer.3 For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to Fleder: Teichfleder, Langfußfleder, Wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, Wimperfleder.4

Pohle’s article, which predates the society’s 15th General Assembly and Hitler’s emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see “the term ‘Maus’ disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons’ wont to lump the animals together with actual mice.” In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something “ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated.” Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a “shift in perspective” to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice. What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term Spitz for Spitzmaus, but it’s already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves Spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available. Pohle wants a name for bats without “Maus” but happily with a nod to the animals’ flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and “Flatterer” or “flutterer” could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. “Flieger” or “flyer,” another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups. But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say “Fledermaus,” when “Fleder” actually makes perfect sense?

Pohle’s dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the Spitzer- and Fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.

At this juncture, it should not go unmentioned that a few years after the described events, in 1956, Pohle—together with a number of notable German mammal researchers—published a fundamental and summary proposal for “The German Names of Mammals.” Any talk of “Spitzer” or “Fleder” had long since vanished. As from time immemorial, all shrew species were named Spitzmaus, all bat species, Fledermaus.

We can only guess at what Hitler’s actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler’s hostility toward intellectuals. It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates “working towards the Führer,” as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists’ plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as “the Führer’s will” and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can’t have mattered much whether the “invitation” to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle’s suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler’s intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize. In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are “mice.” This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It “tags” specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with “mouse-like” animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.

Perhaps Pohle was well aware of the problem with everyday speech and anticipated the creeping process of scientific language bleeding slowly into the vernacular. Had this been the case, Pohle could have ventured a first step toward standardization among his science colleagues, allowing Spitzer and Fleder to find application in scientific works—maybe sparingly at the outset but with growing frequency. Had these names first made their way into science, it’s entirely possible that they would soon be found in popular publications such as field guides or other animal books. Then maybe there would be talk today of Spitzer and Fleder.

Michael Ohl is a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin and an associate professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Excerpted from The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl, published by The MIT Press. © 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.


1. “titmouse, n.” OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press. May 26, 2017).

2. International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th edition. London: The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, 1999. The website of the Natural History Museum in London hosts the digital edition of the Code online: code. Henceforth abbreviated as ICZN.

3. English names: Common shrew, Pygmy Shrew, Alpine shrew, Water shrew, Miller’s Water shrew, Bicolored shrew, Lesser White-toothed shrew, Greater White-toothed shrew.

4. English names: Pond bat, Long-fingered bat, Daubenton’s bat, Notch-eared bat. Literal translations of their German names: pond bat, long-foot bat, water bat, eyelash bat.

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