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Here are two consecutive sentences from Chapter 8 of Donna Leon's novel, Acqua Alta:

Brunetti rechnete sich bereits aus, daß es ihn nur auf dem Weg von und zur Arbeit berühren würde, wenn er am Fuß der Rialtobrücke über den Campo San Bartolomeo mußte. Glücklicherweise lag die Gegend um die Questura so hoch, daß sie nur bei allerschlimmster Flut überschwemmt wurde.

I do not see any reason for preferring the subjunctive II usage in the first and not in the second.

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As far as I see, Brunetti has just noticed the changing weather. So the sentence could be simplified to:

Eine Aqua Alta würde ihn kaum berühren.

With "rechnete sich aus, dass ..." this is reinforced.

The "..., wenn er...über...musste" is a bit risky, but here it is no problem at all. There is only the auxiliary "musste"; it refers directly to his "Weg zur Arbeit".

It does not matter if he has to wet his socks at the Rialto Bridge, or if he can take a detour. The disturbance is there.

The "würde" stays even when you change it to:

Eine Aqua Alta würde ihn kaum berühren, ausser bei der Rialto Brücke, auf dem Weg zur Arbeit und zurück.


Glücklicherweise lag die Gegend um die Questura so hoch, daß sie nur bei allerschlimmster Flut überschwemmt wurde.

Despite the emotional first word, this is a fact: it happens 2 or 3 times per century, as experience shows.

This "allerschlimmste" is a bit baroque; it is not specific, unless in a statistical sense. Rekordflut?

If you choose a hypothetical kind of flood, it changes to konjunktiv:

Glücklicherweise lag die Gegend um die Questura so hoch, daß sie nur bei einem Tsunami überschwemmt würde.

The added article also helps make it unique/hypothetical. Here it might even be "spelled out" to clearly show the irreal aspect: "...bei einem Tsunami überschwemmt werden würde".

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These sentences differ along two dimensions: Firstly, with regard to what kind of auxiliary werden they have, and second, with regard to the context.

German has different kinds of werden. Looking only at the auxiliaries, we have:

  • future auxiliary wird (+ infinitive)

  • subjunctive auxiliary würde (+ infinitive)

  • passive auxiliary wird, wurde, würde (+ past participle)

Of these, only the passive auxiliary occurs in all tenses and moods.

In the second sentence, we have the passive auxiliary in the past indicative.

Die Gegend lag so hoch, daß die Brücke selten überschwemmt wurde.

There is nothing that would license a subjunctive here.*

This is different for the first sentence.

Er rechnete sich aus, daß das Wasser ihn auf dem Weg berühren würde.

As sich ausrechnen indicates, the sentence is about reported thought. Here, würde is the subjunctive auxiliary. Its function is to represent the future auxiliary in the context of reported thought (erlebte Rede; see this excellent answer). The matching direct sentence would be:

Brunetti rechnete sich aus: "Das Wasser wird mich auf dem Weg berühren."


* Würde as a combined subjunctive and passive auxiliary or werden würde with the functions split among the two words is possible if we change the context.

Der Ingenieur überlegte. Die Gegend lag so hoch, daß die Brücke wohl kaum überschwemmt würde / werden würde.

This reports the engineer's expectations in a similar fashion to the first sentence above.

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  • I thougt about this as well. However, if the direct speech was in future tense, why subjunctive II (würde) instead of I (werde), and why would the verb in the other part of the wenn-sentence be in indicative (musste) instead of subjunctive (müsse) mood? – amadeusamadeus Jun 8 at 12:02
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    @amadeusamadeus 1. I removed the subordinate wenn clause because würde would occur without it as well. 2. It can't be indirect speech, because that would not be limited to würde: Er sagte, er wird/werde/würde sich darum kümmern. 3. My use of the term reported thought may be misleading (in that people will think I meant indirect speech); my point is that würde represents the future auxiliary in this context, as it does in erlebte Rede: Hans rieb sich die Hände. Er würde sich das Geld zurückholen. – David Vogt Jun 8 at 13:47
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No, it isn't.

Subjunctive II is used when something is not real, at least not currently.

The first sentence talks about a possibility which, by using subjunctive II, is described as not real. The second sentence is about a real, although rare, event.

Compare the following sentences:

Wenn es regnet, brauche ich einen Regenschirm.

Here the rain is presented as a possibility that can be real.

Wenn es regnen würde, bräuchte ich einen Regenschirm.

Here the rain is only a theoretical possibility, but not real.

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