Typically in basic German grammar lessons, they explain the word sollten as something like should as in:

Ich sollte nach Hause gehen. → I should go home.

However, when I look at some newspaper headlines, I see stuff like:

Hacker im Auftrag Russlands sollten Trump zum Sieg verhelfen.

A translation like the following doesn’t make sense:

Russian hackers should help Trump to victory.

How should I interpret sollten here?

  • 4
    sollen can also mean being supposed to. In this case a phrase like "Hackers were meant to help Trump" makes perfect sense.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 7:55
  • Is this like a past tense of sollen? So sollten has two meanings where one is the past tense of sollten and the other is "should"?
    – henry
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 7:58
  • In the case of Hacker ... sollten ... yes. They were told to help Trump win. It is not the Konjunktiv here in the sense of a recommendation like Menschen sollten lieber.... Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 8:00
  • @Ingmar, please turn your comment into an answer, as quite obviosuly there is noone else addressing the OP's question and answer it correctly. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 13:33
  • I think Thorsten's answer pretty much nails it.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 14:32

5 Answers 5


Sollen also has the meaning to be supposed to, to be meant to or to be told to. It can also be used in combination with angeblich. Then (but also without the angeblich) it means something like to be said to or to supposedly have done something.


Mama sagt, ich soll einkaufen gehen.
Mum told me to go grocery shopping.

Die drei Männer sollen zunächst die Bank ausgeraubt haben.
The three men are said to have robbed the bank first.

Im Winter soll es oft kalt sein.
It is said that it is often cold in winter.

Please note that the real meaning is often hard to find out without further context:

Ich sollte einkaufen gehen.

This can either mean

I was supposed to go grocery shopping (but didn't, because ...)


I really should go grocery shopping (because there's no food in the house).

In your example, the sollten states the fact that it is proven that hackers were instructed to help Trump win. This is not to be confused with the Konjunktiv sollten etwas tun, which would express a recommendation.

  • 2
    "proven" ... well... in the context of a newspaper headline this is a bit of a strong word...
    – AnoE
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 14:07
  • Depends on how much you trust the paper... If a paper titles that way, it states a fact, a fact must be verifyable (unless you are from the post-factual community) and thus provable. So yes, making a matter-of-fact statement you better have proof. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 17:04

Other answeres have pointed out the different possible meanings of sollen. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the past tense sollten, not sollen is used.

Should, be supposed to

Hacker im Auftrag Russlands sollten Trump zum Sieg verhelfen.

Probably really means that the Hackers were supposed to help Trump/ were instructed to help Trump. So here, I guess, "sollten" really has the meaning should. This connects with "im Auftrag Russlands", so it means that they were supposed to help Trump, because Russia ordered it.


Hacker im Auftrag Russlands sollen Trump zum Sieg verholfen haben.

If you change the time of the sentence, now the meaning of "sollen" is "allegedly". "Hacker ordered by Russia allegedly helped Trump to victory"

If "sollen" means "allegedly", it is mostly used as "sollen", not "sollten", because it is still not proven in the present.


You can't go far wrong, by translating this as "supposedly" (do NOT use "were supposed to", which can be interpreted as "ought to have" ("Russian hackers ought to have helped Trump"??)).

More natural to native English ears is "allegedly".

"Sollen" is used by the media for the same reason as "allegedly", "reportedly", "soucres say" and the like ... to avoid libel suits.

  • 1
    +1 for the fitting explanation in this context, while leaving the other meanings of "sollen" (which the OP obviously already knows about) out.
    – AnoE
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 14:08
  • 3
    No, in this context sollten actually means were instructed to. Otherwise it would have been phrased sollen ... verholfen haben. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 17:05
  • A very good point (=1). However, generally, I would say that sollen can be replaced by allegedly in headlines. Would you agree?
    – Mawg
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 17:48
  • An example for allegedly would read like Die Männer sollen zunächst ... haben. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 7:43

The German verb sollen correpsonds to the English verb shall, but their uses are different. By itself it has the meaning of expressing an instruction, command, or obligation. Examples given in answers to this question may be helpful.

The sollte that you have encountered so far was Konjunktiv II and indeed matches should well. The sollte in the headline is just past tense.


Here is a mothertongue German Guy.

"sollten" is a word which can be used in many cases:

  • "Russian hackers should help Trump to victory"
  • "Russian hackers are supposed to help Trump to victory"

are both "Hacker im Auftrag Russlands sollten Trump zum Sieg verhelfen".

You can also say "Sollten Sie Probleme haben, kontaktieren sie den Support", also "If you have problems, contact our support".

German is a difficult language. I know!

  • 1
    "German is a difficult language. I know!" - no, you don't - coz you ar a German Guy ;-)
    – Mawg
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 14:13
  • 1
    Oh, believe me as a German: sometimes if you read what other German people write (and how they write it) you can tell that German is hard even for Germans... Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 10:21
  • 1
    Although the same thing can be said for writers of just about any language …
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 0:24

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.