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I recently heard of Angela Merkel being referred to as a great "Anführerin".

So, maybe this is a silly question, but my current understanding is that "Anführer / Anführerin" and "Führer / Führerin" are both synonyms for the English word "Leader".

If that's the case, why have different words that are so similar?

If that's not the case, what is the difference between these two titles?

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    I don't remember ever reading of Angela Merkel being referred to as "Anführerin", great or not. Not only is she often criticized for not leading, I also don't remember that term used for one of her predecessors. – RalfFriedl Oct 21 at 18:05
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    @RalfFriedl I suppose the association of "Anführerin" with Mrs. Merkel is rooted in the English term "leader of the free world" which is pretty common in the USA as a synonym for the US president, but has become largely vacant given the current incumbent, and so some people try to identify another "leader of the free world", and end up with Merkel. One should however be aware that the entire concept (of "leader of the free world") is entirely US American, and in Germany (or Europe) nobody (unless under heavy US cultural influence) would think in categories like this. – Christian Geiselmann Oct 21 at 19:33
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This is not so much a question of semantics (meaning of words), rather of pragmatics (use of words).

In German the word Führer is compromised for obvious reasons (look out for it in the 1933-1945 era). So, usually today one would avoid using the word Führer except when indeed the Nazi dictator is meant.

Exception are a number of other uses of Führer, usually in composita. Depending on context, Führer can mean (or be used in)

  • a book (Reiseführer, Pflanzenführer)

  • a person leading a group of tourists, e.g. in a national park or so, or in a museum: Fremdenführer, Museumsführer, Stadtführer

  • when speaking of operating a vehicle or machine: Fahrzeugführer, Kranführer, Baggerführer, Lokomotivführer, Maschinenführer, and so on, and most famously of course Führerschein (driving licence).

  • Perhaps some other rarer cases which do not come to my mind at the moment

In such cases the proper word would be the full compositum (Kranführer) but when the context (construction site with a crane) is clear, one might say, for brevity, der Führer verließ den Kran und holte sich ein Bier, without risking being misunderstood.

Anführer though is a very broad term, used for all types of "leading positions" in a group of people when speaking about them informally. You would rather not use it in cases where a formal title for that position is commonly accepted. E.g. you would not speak of der Anführer des Rathauses when you mean the mayor (unless you want to be ironic or sarcastic). You would probably speak of der Anführer der Clique (youngsters sticking habitually together), also der Anführer der Räuberbande. However, Anführer is not necessarily bad. You may say die Anführerin der Klimaschutz-Bewegung und mean it positively. The word Anführer/in is then more about the informal character of the leadership position, not about your positive or negative attitude towards the topic.

Back to your Merkel example: Reasonable authors would not call Mrs Merkel Führerin of anything right because of the association of the term with the Nazi dictator (or generally with authoritarianism, fascism, totalitarianism).

Miscellaneum

Perhaps you like the popular joking verse

Der Führer ist ein armes Schwein,
denn er hat keinen Führerschein.

which of course refers to A. Hitler.

  • The Führer is a poor sucker because he does not have a driver licence. – infinitezero Oct 21 at 11:45
  • There are ~2.330 google search results for "anführerin der freien welt" vs ~3.280 for "führerin der freien welt". Most/all of them regarding to Merkel. – mtwde Oct 21 at 18:36
  • I always wonder where anyhow "Ahn" could be hidden. A *Ahn'führer would rather transparently be a patriarch. A jokes that were recently made on ELU (just saying, not my words, perhaps it's not even a joke): a sheep heard follows the flock, whereas a sheperd (a church father) is in front of the flock. – vectory Oct 21 at 18:40
  • @mtwde Nobody in his right sense and with some degree of political awareness would call Mrs Merkel in German "Anführerin der freien Welt", and less so "Führerin der freien Welt". To me that sounds like a 1:1 translation from US English (where "leader of the free world" is a common term, usually used for the US president). The expression is not in use in proper German, unless perhaps in some obscure "social media" channels, and that's where - I suspect - the Google word counting machine might have found it. – Christian Geiselmann Oct 21 at 19:23
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    This answer is wrong, "Führer" is not compromised. People compromise it because of the political overcorrectness. The only thing is you must pay attention to not use it in the same context as for political parties, although it is very OK for e.g. societies or movements like "Führer der Arbeiterbewegung". – äüö Oct 22 at 6:26
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To complement Christian Geiselmann's extensive answer - in most situations the following will apply:

Führer = guide, driver
Anführer = leader

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"Führen" as to take lead means to show unskilled people where the right way is, to get them together, to lead them to the aim, in a quite strict way with a portion of discipline to prevent fails. That is why it is usually inappropriate for liberal/democratic systems. It is proper for people, maps, signposts and drivers like e.g. "Lokführer", "Fahrzeugführer", "Bergführer", "Reiseführer", "Wanderführer", "Führer der Reisegruppe", "Führer der Protestbewegung", "Führer der komm. Partei", "Arbeiterführer".

"Anführer" is a subset of "Führer" which is only appropriate to persons who lead and go ahead of a way to go (an der Spitze gehen/führen, voran gehen), meant literally and also figuratively. In sports, "Der Anführer der Favoritengruppe" is the fastest sportsman e.g. in a group of cyclists. So an "Anführer" does not necessarily have responsibility for the rest of the group, he is just ahead of them all. Also "einer der Anführer des Aufruhrs" often is just one who is in the foreground but must not have an overview of the whole chaos, in spite of a "Führer" who always has control.

If you name persons as "Führer", be aware it also has that strong component of allegiance, and nowadays people automatically tend to project it on the proper name of the known German dictator and see it as direct comparison. "Anführer" is free of that risk.

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