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A woman talks about a family of Jews during World War II in the movie "Blood & Gold":

Sie waren so liebenswerte Leute. Und auf einmal wurde gegen sie gehetzt.

Translation to English: They were such lovely people. And suddenly they were being hounded.

What is the subject in the 2nd sentence? Does it have the same meaning of "und auf einmal sie wurden gehezt" ?

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  • Think of an implicit "es" as subject, similar to "Heute ist kalt" = "Heute ist es kalt". Jan 8 at 14:21
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    @user1934428, this is different, “heute ist kalt” is incomplete, it would have to be “heute ist es kalt”.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 8 at 15:29
  • @CarstenS : The "es" for sure is possible, though it is more often left out. An explicit "es" in the OP's sentence is also possible: "Un es wurde auf einmal gegen sie gehetzt", but here it is left out, because we have in position 1 an "auf einmal". The two cases are not exactly equivalent (you are right in this), but both share that they have an implicit "es", which acts as subject. Jan 8 at 15:47
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    @user1934428, I never fully appreciated the difference between those uses of “es” before reading discussions on this site. See for example this detailed answer: german.stackexchange.com/a/38585/3237 In “es ist kalt”, the “es” is a subject, in “es ist ein Ros entsprungen” nicht und auch nicht in “es wird gehetzt”.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 8 at 16:06
  • @CarstenS: You can rearrange the blocks (objects,adverbs etc) in a sentence to change the emphasis. "Ein Ros' ist entsprungen" emphasizes the subject; this is the default. "Entsprungen ist ein Ros'" emphasizes the PPP of the verb. If you want - for whatever reason - put the conjugated verb ("ist") in front of everything else in the sentence, you need a dummy "es", because otherwise the "ist" would end up in position 1, which is not allowed in a main sentence. Jan 9 at 7:21

1 Answer 1

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Passives of intransitive verbs need not have subjects. And the usage in your example -- with the "victim" expressed through the prepositional phrase with gegen -- hetzen is used intransitively:

Auf einmal hetzten die Nachbarn gegen sie.

Auf einmal wurde [von den Nachbarn] gegen sie gehetzt.

You can always insert an es filler (expletive or "dummy pronoun"), though:

Es wurde auf einmal [von den Nachbarn] gegen sie gehetzt.

The same subject-less construction is also applied to form passives of indeterminate subjects like

Auf einmal hetzte man gegen sie.

In contrast, if hetzen was used transitively (to be clear, this changes the meaning!):

Auf einmal hetzten die Nachbarn sie.

the object becomes the syntactic subject of the passive sentence:

Auf einmal wurden sie [von den Nachbarn] gehetzt.

Note that here, the number of the object of the active sentence forces the number of the verb in the passive sentence, unlike in the intransitive examples!


For clarification: gegen jemanden hetzen is more like "agitate, stir up hate against someone" -- a purely verbal/ideological action. Jemanden hetzen can include the same thing, but originally describes the physical action of hunting or setting dogs on an animal (the opposite tactics of hunting by stalking).

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    Please correct a couple of errors: 1) the "es" in "Es wurde gegen sie gehetzt" is not a dummy subject, it is a filler for the first position. 2) "Man hetzte" is not a passsive construction, 3) "Sie wurden gehetzt" is a completely different meaning of the verb "hetzen" ("hunting", roughly).
    – Alazon
    Jan 8 at 19:53
  • Could you please explain the difference in meaning between "wurde gegen sie gehetzt" and "wurden sie gehetzt" ? Your answer does not make it clear. Jan 8 at 21:08
  • @Alazon 1) What is a dummy subject, if not "a filler for the first position"? 2) Sure, that is the example of a sentence with indeterminate subject of which the passive is the same as above 3) Yes, and and I made a comment in parentheses to highlight that. Jan 9 at 8:09
  • A dummy subject is something that has the grammatical properties of a subject but is semantically void: wenn es keine weiteren Fragen gibt has a dummy subject es, but da es auf einmal gegen sie gehetzt wurde is ungrammatical (in the intended reading).
    – David Vogt
    Jan 9 at 12:35
  • OK. The terminology in this regard seems to be inconsistent, though. Jan 9 at 13:43

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