Reading the wonderful book about sparrows "Mehr Platz für den Spatz!" Uwe Westphal.

I read this sentence "Angesichts der früheren Häuftigkeit der Vögel, die in teils riesigen Schwärmen über die Getreidefelder und Kornspeicher herfielen, konnten sie arme Kleinbauern durchaus in Existenznot bringen" Seite 96.

I had to look up the verb "herfallen über" in dict.cc. which means attack.

Could the verbs "attackieren" or "angreifen" had been used in this context?

Can the verb "herfallen über" meaning attack be used for people, armies etc ? Or used with larger animals such as lions, dogs ?

Is the verb "herfallen über" only used with smaller creatures like sparrows or mosquitoes attacking somebody or something?

What are synonyms of "herfallen über"?

  • 1
    For similar cases I recommend to have a look at DWDS which seems to cover all meanings listed in Henning's answer and has a group of synonyms in the section Thesaurus.
    – guidot
    Jan 27 at 13:29

1 Answer 1


"Über etwas herfallen" is similar to "angreifen" or "attackieren", but has different connotations. If you "herfallen über" something, you attack something with great force, and the victim doesn't stand a chance. You may think of "Überfall" ("assault", "invasion", "raid") as a comparable idea. That word also has "falling" in it, the inexorable force of gravity ;)

The phrase is used for actual attacks on other beings, like

Der Angeklagte ist über die junge Frau hergefallen.
Die Haie fielen über den Fischschwarm her.

It also is often used in a feeding context, you may even say feeding frenzy:

Die Touristen fielen über das kalte Buffet her.

or, as in your example,

Die Vögel fielen über die Kornspeicher her.

Probably the prototypical image would be a swarm of locusts, stripping a field bare.

It sometimes is also used in cases of "non-physical attacks", like

Nach seiner ungeschickten Äußerung fielen die Medien über den Schauspieler her.

  • 2
    Note what Henning points out: The word "fallen" (to fall) contained in "herfallen". The metaphor includes a loss of control, like you can't help yourself. It's also used in a sexual context ("die beiden fielen übereinander her" - which roughly means two people ripping each others' clothes off to have sex). The similarity with "attackieren" or "angreifen" only works one way. "herfallen" has a different metaphor at its core.
    – Tom
    Jan 28 at 5:12
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    @HenningKockerbeck Yes, it is uncomfortably close to that (as far as my feeling of my mother tongue goes). "Über etwas herfallen" does imply a (partial) loss of self-control on the attackers side (whether they cannot control themselves or willingly let go of their self-control, doesn't matter) -- and this is why I condemn the usage of "über jemanden herfallen" in the context of e.g. a rape case, as I feel it is an attempt to trivialize the attackers guilt. (In the example of "übereinander herfallen", I feel that the loss of self-control is implied as mutual and consensual, so it'd be fine.)
    – orithena
    Jan 28 at 11:51
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    @user11130854 As a native german speaker, I feel that the connotation of a singular or multiple attacker(s) stems entirely from the context. If context is missing completely, I agree that the first connotation would be "multiple".
    – orithena
    Jan 28 at 11:58
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    @HenningKockerbeck without any political correctness issues, I still think that "fallen" conotates a loss of control. It works for the buffet example as well, where we wouldn't think that the buffet/"victim" lost control. Keep in mind that these words are older than the idea of political correctness.
    – Tom
    Jan 28 at 17:56
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    Kontrollverlust bedeutet nicht zwingend, dass Selbstkontrolle unmöglich wäre, sondern nur, dass eine solche nicht stattfindet. Bei einem Alkoholiker, der im Kontrollverlust mehr trinkt, als er ursprünglich vorhatte, wäre es durchaus möglich mit einem sehr großen Anreiz die Selbstkontrolle zu wecken, beispielsweise einer großen monetären Belohnung. Der Verlust der Selbstkontrolle kann darin bestehen, dass der Betroffene selbst sich grünes Licht gibt, für den Verlust der Selbstkontrolle - ob es sich um ein Buffet, einen Sexualpartner oder einen Gegner im Kampf handelt.. Jan 28 at 18:33

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