I am watching the TV series "Das Boot", playing in La Rochelle in occupied France during the second world war.

Partially, the German occupying forces are speaking English when working together with the French police, especially when no translators are at hand. Is this historically proven?

Which languages were in use during the occupation?

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    I would imagine that this depended on the language proficiencies of those wanting to communicate in any given circumstance. English became the primary foreign language in schools under the Nazis so it's plausible in some instances for the Germans at least. Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 10:58
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    Don't underestimate the unwillingness of an international audience to read subtitles all movie long...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 12:08
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    Welcome to HistorySE, Lukas! What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and help center. You may improve your question to comply with site guidelines with an edit and the help of How to Ask. Thanks! (I read that the German version shows French speaking to French using German as well: that series is nowhere near historically spy-cam accurate…) Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 12:47
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    Growing up in Schiedam (near Rotterdam) in the war, my Dad became reasonably fluent in all of English, French, and German by the end of high school in addition to his native Dutch (and possibly a little Friese). Learning multiple languages is a given for any, and every, educated person in Europe, and French has been an international language since Louis XIV. I would expect most German officers and any soldiers from the Rhinelands at least to know enough French for casual conversation. However, conquerors have privileges and typically demand subservience. Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 17:04
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    Hard to imagine it would be English. Most likely, it was mostly German, combined with few French words/sentences. Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 18:13

2 Answers 2


La Rochelle is a port city. The people you describe seem to be either sailors themselves or working in professions were regular contact with sailors is required. German sailors usually spoke English when abroad in the relevant period. I would imagine the harbour police would also be able to communicate in English.

Never underestimate the ability of people to learn (a basic level of) a foreign language if they really have or want to.

Example of a German sailor being able to communicate in English with locals in Belize in the decade before WWI here. The author is a troubled kid from a middle class family and his English seems to be just so-so, but the other sailors seem to speak English just fine, without this being noteworthy in any way:

Wir drehten bei und warfen den Fischern, die in einer mir unverständlichen Sprache laut zu uns herüberschrien, eine Leine zu ... Einer von ihnen klomm die von uns über Bord gehängte Falltreppe empor und verhandelte an Deck sehr lebhaft mit dem Kapitän in englischer Sprache. Ich konnte nur einzelne Worte davon verstehen, aber Hermann verdolmetschte mir den Sinn seiner Rede. Der Mulatte erklärte, daß er Fischer wäre und uns für fünfzehn Dollar nach Belize bringen wollte. Allright! ...

[Ich lauschte] mit höchster Spannung auf das, was der Fischer von Belize erzählte. Freilich konnte ich bei seiner raschen Sprechweise nur wenig übersetzen, aber ich verstand zum Beispiel, daß Trinkwasser in Belize sehr teuer wäre und Früchte sehr billig, daß nur wenig große Schiffe dorthin kämen, dagegen aber viele kleinere.


We turned and threw a rope to the fishermen, who were shouting to us in a language incomprehensible to me ... One of them climbed the ladder we had hung overboard and negotiated quite intensively with the captain in English. I only was able to understand single words, but Hermann [another sailor] described to me the gist of his speech: the mulatto said that he was a fisherman and would bring us to Belize for fifteen dollars. Alright! ...

[I listened] intently to what the fisherman had to say about Belize. Of course I could only translate little because he spoke so fast, but I understood for example that drinking water was supposedly very expensive in Belize and fruits very cheap, that only few big ships came to Belize but many small ones.


Partially, the German occupying forces are speaking English when working together with the French police, especially when no translators are at hand. Is this historically proven?

No, of course not. It's a movie! Just about anyone speaks English in Hollywood movies. No matter what.

Use your common sense. Speaking multiple languages is not common for most people. Foreign languages are taught in high school and above. Not very often on primary schools. The main stream western pupil went to high school and higher after WW1 and more so after WW2. My mum went to primary school only, just before WW2. As she wasn't going to high school, she would do an extra year in primary school. That was at that time the legal requirement in The Netherlands.

The Dutch, for example, are now known to be very good second language English speakers. Before WW2, that was definitely not so. The English proficiency is fairly recent, from the 70's onwards to today. We see the same in Scandinavia, who are also very good in English as a second language.

Now, neither the French nor the Germans are known to be linguistic masters. Why would French dockworkers and German military speak to each other in a third language? It simply makes no sense.

Good communications were quite difficult. The Germans would use German, of course. Which the dockworkers would not understand. One of them perhaps a bit, who would do the translation. A German officer who would speak some French would talk with and by him to tell the others what he wanted them to do.

Which languages were in use during the occupation?

That's what they did. They used the language(s) of the occupied territory together with German. In case of doubt the German original was what legally mattered.

Here a German announcement of the execution of resistance fighters in Maastricht, The Netherlands in German and Dutch.

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    "Hollywood movies"? Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 1:23
  • @kimchilover Now you are nitpicking.
    – Jos
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 1:42
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    I don't think so. Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 2:51
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    re "Speaking multiple languages is not common for most people." - this is blatantly untrue in Europe, both now and during the Second World War. My father only completed High School (under the German occupation of the Netherlands) and arrived in Canada speaking not only Dutch but French, English and German well enough to converse casually. Speaking three languages upon graduating high school is the norm in Europe, notwithstanding how rare it is in Great Britain and North America. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 3:15
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    re "Why would French dockworkers and German military speak to each other in a third language?" - because English quite possibly is the common language for French dock workers on the Biscay Coast and German submariners. English was, the language of the two premier navies of the era after all. Sure, this might just be a Hollywood-ism - but the point of this site is to not post glib easy answers because everyone knows it has to be true because the whole world is unilingual like the U.S.A. - but instead to do ressearch and give a good, well supported answer. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 3:26

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