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I read the following headline in a satirical newspaper:

ÖVP nur bei 39%: Droht Niederösterreich bald Demokratie?

Initially, I read it as "ÖVP at only 39%: Is Lower Austria threatening democracy soon?". Reading the article, I realized the actual meaning was probably something more like "ÖVP at only 39%: Is Lower Austria soon threatened by democracy?".

Which sort of grammar makes that legal? I thought German sentences needed to be more complex before you could move away from SVO.

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    Regarding the word order: This is completely ok, since the sentence formulates a (rhetorical) question. In this case, the verb occupies the first position, followed by subject and object: "Schreibt Klaus den Brief?"
    – tohuwawohu
    Jan 25 at 17:08
  • It may be worth noting that headlines are often not completely grammatical in English: sentences are sometimes incomplete, and articles and pronouns are often dropped. The idea is to convey the subject of the article with the fewest number of letters, not to follow every rule of grammar. I assume German speaking journalists follow similar customs.
    – RDBury
    Jan 26 at 1:37
  • Besides grammar: The phrase "Droht ... Demokratie" is polemic. Usually dangers are threatening somebody, so is democracy a danger? Only for the ÖVP if you believe Die Tagespresse. "Es ist ein Horrorszenario: Letzte Umfragen sehen die ÖVP am Sonntag bei 39 Prozent. Die schlimmsten Befürchtungen könnten sich bewahrheiten. Drohen Niederösterreich nach der Landtagswahl demokratische Zustände, mit unabhängigen Medien, Demonstrationsfreiheit und fairen Wahlkämpfen?"
    – Paul Frost
    Jan 26 at 13:56
  • Just as a note, SVO isn't a thing in German. Declarative main clauses start with the topic, not the subject. The subject is often used as the topic but that's completely up to your choice. Anything may be the topic. Yes-no questions as the one you have there don't have a topic. So they start with the conjugated verb.
    – Janka
    2 days ago

2 Answers 2

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This really hard to understand because the meaning is based on grammatical cases that are not obviously visible because all nouns look like nominative (which makes it not immediately obvious even to native speakers - Satirical....)

"Droht jemandem [dative] etwas [nominative]" - someone is threatened by something. (English lacking a real dative must use a preposition and passive voice here). This is taken over from old Latin what is called a dativus incommodi and denotes to whose disadvantage something is happening.

"Droht jemand [nominative] mit etwas [dative]" - someone is threatening with something.

Your example is the first usage, unfortunately the dative of "Niederöstereich" is identical to the nominative and thus not clearly obvious.

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  • Ah, so it's actually being used for humour here! Thank you!
    – kbmz
    Jan 25 at 18:01
  • 1
    @kbmz, there is humour in the threat being something that is usually considered a good thing. The grammar is rather ordinary. If I type “droht Deutschland” into Google search all of the suggestions to complete the search follow this pattern.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 25 at 21:26
  • I do not think that this sentence is generally difficult to understand. For me as a native speaker and Lower Austrian, its meaning and humorous undertone are immediately apparent.
    – Sonyfreak
    2 days ago
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Droht Niederösterreich bald Demokratie?
Is Lower Austria soon threatened by democracy?

is a Question. To convert it into a statement you just have to move the verb from position 1 to position 2:

Niederösterreich droht bald Demokratie.
Lower Austria is soon threatened by democracy.

The adverb bald (soon) is just some salt in the soup, so in its simplest form we have this sentence:

Niederösterreich droht Demokratie.
Lower Austria is threatened by democracy.

The pattern is this:

Jemandem droht etwas.
Someone is threatened by something.

The part behind the verb (etwas) is the subject in nominative case. It is the thing that actively performs the action.

The part before the verb (jemandem) is an object in dative case. It is the thing that passively suffers from the action. It is hard to tell that Niederösterreich is in dative case because except for genitive case it always has the same ending.

Note that in german sentences the subject can stand at position 1, but also very often at position 3, and when you use the verb drohen, this is even the preferred word order.


About the political background:

I live in Niederösterreich (English name: Lower Austria) which is one of the nine federal states of the Republic of Austria. Lower Austria has 1.7 million inhabitants, Austria has 9.0, so almost 20% of all Austrians live in Lower Austria. The parliament of this federal state is called Landtag, and this Landtag is elected every 5 years, and the next election is in 4 days, on 29 January 2023. All parties elected to the state parliament are also members of the Lower Austrian state government according to their share of the vote if their share exceeds a certain limit. (This system is called Proporz.)

At the moment, Lower Austria is the only one of Austria's nine states where there is still one party that has an absolute majority in the government and can do anything the members of that party want. The government consists of 9 members, 6 of whom currently belong to the ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei = Austrian People's Party). This is a situation that has arisen democratically, but is considered a dictatorship by many opponents of the ÖVP. The ÖVP has had an absolute majority in Lower Austria since Austria was founded in its present form in 1955.1

But the ÖVP is also the party of Sebastian Kurz, who a few years ago was the youngest chancellor in the world and is now suspected of being at the center of a large corruption network involving many other ÖVP members, many of them from Lower Austria. This is very damaging to the reputation of the ÖVP, and the now upcoming state election in Lower Austria is the first election in Austria after many new allegations against the ÖVP have come to light. Therefore, the ÖVP must expect heavy losses in this election in 4 days.

And that will very likely lead to the loss of the absolute majority. And then, for the very first time in the lives of all people in Lower Austria, the ÖVP will no longer be able to do what it wants to do in this state without asking members of other parties. Many people hope for this, but also many people (ÖVP members) feel threatened by the idea that they will have to compromise.


1 Of course Austria existed many centuries before, but from 1939 to 1945 it was part of the Third Reich, and from 1945 to 1955 it was occupied by the Allied Powers (USA, UK, France and Russia). Before 1922, Lower Austria and Vienna (which is completely surrounded by Lower Austria) were one state, so Lower Austria and Vienna have existed as separate states only since then, and also since then Lower Austria has been dominated by the ÖVP and Vienna by the SPÖ, but the SPÖ in Vienna lost its absolute majority in 1996, but is still by far the largest party in Vienna.

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