Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origin of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
As senior government officials including President Biden predict a Russian incursion into Ukraine, foreign policy experts increasingly describe Moscow’s belligerence as ‘revengeful,’ a term for a stance aimed at reclaiming lost territory. . Evelyn Farkas, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration, wrote recently in the magazine Defense One: “Russia is a revisionist and revanchist power which already acts as if there were no international order or UN.
The related word “revanchism” is also training. Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan from the Center for European Policy Analysis observed last week that Russian liberals “are very vocal in their condemnation of Kremlin revanchism, but the situation in Ukraine itself is not the focus of their conversation”.
Since revanchist policies aim to avenge past territorial losses, it’s only fitting that “revanchiste” is based on “revanche”, the French word for “vengeance”. “Revenge” and “vengeance” go back to the same Latin root: the prefix “re-” and the verb “vindicare”, which means “to assert a claim” or “to avenge an injury”. The same root is the source of vengeful words such as “vindictive” and “vendetta.”
““Revanchist” was often used to describe the German resentment that fueled the rise of the Nazi Party.”
“Revenge” became a key word in French politics in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. In this conflict, France lost the province of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire. Reviewing the work of French writer Théophile Gautier in 1874, Henry James observed that after the war Gautier would occasionally indulge in “a little conversation … on the prospects of France, the duties of the French, and the question of ‘revenge’.”
Those in France who sought reprisals after the war were called “revanchistes”, anglicized as “revanchistes”. An 1887 article in the London Times reported that “the Alsatians-Lorrainers seem more irreconcilable than ever with their Teutonic yoke, a circumstance which must tend to exert a dangerous influence in France by encouraging the Revanchists to maintain their hopes”. The revanchists were ultimately successful when the province was returned to France after Germany’s defeat in World War I.
Germany ceded significant territory with the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, and “revenge” was often used thereafter to describe the German resentment that fueled the rise of the Nazi Party. During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda built on this story by using “revanchiste”, now joined by “revanchisme” (based on French “revanchisme”), to denigrate Germany’s leadership of the Where is. A 1953 Associated Press article Explain that the Kremlin publicly pleaded for German reunification “provided that Germany respects the security of its neighbors and prevents the revival of militarism and revanchism”.
In post-Soviet Russia, “revanchism” aptly described Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reclaim territory that was once under Soviet control. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a major flashpoint, but other former Soviet states like Kazakhstan have also become targets. Earlier this month in Foreign Policy, Casey Michel warned of the “potential for a vengeful Russia to use Kazakhstan’s internal unrest as a pretext to seize part of northern Kazakhstan”.
“Revanchism” has also made its way into American politics, in a more general sense of retaliation for past grievances. The term has sometimes been applied to former President Donald Trump and his supporters, such as in 2017 when Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek characterized Mr. Trump as “a revanchist whose sole purpose is to undo all of President Obama’s accomplishments.”
As long as revenge guides warmongering ideologies, “revanchism” and “revanchism” will remain useful terms in the political lexicon.
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