I came across the sentence "Dem Tod die Toten" in a book I'm reading ("Der Schwarm" by Frank Schätzing) and I can not understand it. It seems like this use of the dative implies a meaning which in many other languages would be expressed by a preposition or a verb, like in "the death of the dead" or "death is for the dead" or similiar.

What does this sentence mean? How could it be rewritten into a regular sentence with subject verb and object?

So sind wir Menschen. Auch um der Toten zu gedenken, brauchen wir Ankerpunkte der Trauer, damit wir den Schmerz hinterher in eine Kiste stecken und ein weiteres Jahr zwischenlagern können, und wenn wir ihn das nächste Mal auspacken, stellen wir fest: Wir hatten ihn größer in Erinnerung. Dem Tod die Toten.

3 Answers 3


It means "the dead to Death", or slightly longer "The dead should belong to Death", i.e., the narrator argues that grief for the dead should be treated wisely so it does not take the grieving as hostages forever. It is natural to grief for the dead, but one must step away from the grief for prolonged stretches of time too, so that one can actually notice that the grief has become smaller, so it can eventually be cast off and no longer negatively influence the living.

  • Thanks for explaining it in context. I think this answer makes the meaning perfectly clear!
    – Stovner
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 9:24

I would understand this sentence in this way:

Lass die Toten dem Tod.

Try to get back to life, leave your sorrow to the (anthropomorphic) death.

The line is taken from a poem written by Anton Noder (1864-1936) about the All Souls' Day.


Einmal im Jahr
Entzünd' auch ich die Allerseelenkerzen
Vor dem Altar
Der Toten, die ich lieb gehabt im Herzen!

Einmal im Jahre müssen sie herauf
Aus ihren Tiefen;
Da weck' ich all die Schläferinnen auf,
Die drunten schliefen.

Sie ziehn heran
In langem Zuge. Dunkle Augen klagen
Mich schweigend an
Und stumme, einst geküßte Lippen fragen:

Liebst du mich noch?
- - Ach, alle habt ihr einst mein Herz besessen
Und doch! Und doch!
Vergebt mir - Alle hab' ich euch vergessen! -

Da lächeln sie; ich fühl's, Verzeihung ist
Auch mir entboten!
- Und nun zurück zum Leben, das vergißt!
Dem Tod die Toten!!

  • Remarkable how the poem paraphrases the passage from the book! Is this a well known poem and phrase? In the English speaking world "to be or not to be" contains connotations not inherent in the phrase itself because it stems from such a famous play; can the same be said about "Dem Tod die Toten"?
    – Stovner
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 9:22
  • @Stovner no, it's not a well known poem or poet. I found it while researching for the answer. :)
    – splattne
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 9:49

Also take a look at Matthew, 22:21:

They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

The German version of Martin Luther:

Sie sprachen zu ihm: Des Kaisers. Da sprach er zu ihnen: So gebet dem Kaiser, was des Kaisers ist, und Gott, was Gottes ist!

  • Could you please clarify how this relates to the question? I don't quite see the connection. :-)
    – Stovner
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 9:09
  • 2
    @Stovner I think he's referring to the similarity between "Dem Tod die Toten" and "Dem Kaiser was des Kaisers ist" / "Gott was Gottes ist".
    – takrl
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 10:02
  • 3
    Ah, I see. I guess you natives can feel the implied dative before "Gott" even without an article or anything!
    – Stovner
    Commented Aug 25, 2011 at 12:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.