"Better Dead Than Red"

Victor aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 15 05:23:30 UTC 2008

Some general notes on the German version.

Just for general interest--German Wiki suggests that the phrase has been
more recently flipped "Lieber rot als tot".

[Note--the first reference link for this ([2]) is dead.]

But LTAR has an entry while LRAT does not. (More on this below.)


A Croatian blogger also explains the origin--citation begging--as a
Goebbels invention during the war.


    "Better dead than Red" was an anti-Communist phrase first used
during World War II in its original German form "Lieber tot als rot" and
later during the Cold War by the United States. It was coined by Nazi
Germany's Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels in the end phase of the
Second World War to motivate the German military and population to fight
the Russians to the end.

[I am highly skeptical of this origin. See, for example,
knowledgerush.com as a potential source for this.
Also, see below for more data]
The slogan was clearly interpreted literally in some instances.

Jean Baechler, Suicides, 1979, p. 329 I am assuming that the reference
is to WWII data--full text not available from Google Books]


... described the unprecedented horrors that Russian occupation would
bring with
it, and launched the slogan: Lieber tot als rot (better dead than red). ...
... Certain reported cases have no need for commentary. In the area
around Elbing a woman doctor poisoned herself and her two children; a
father decided to die with the rest of the family and proposed one
bullet for everyone in the house: a total of sixty-two deaths. ...

Another interesting reference for the German version is from a recent
book that pops up on Google Books. [Wolfgang Mieder,The Politics of
Proverbs, 1997, p. 119--Mieder had a similar title published in German
in 1975, but it's clearly an updated version.] Although it mentions both
the the straight and the inverted versions, it places the inverted
version as "well-known".


    A slogan from the disarmament movement during the early 1960s
reappeared in the 1980s in a German cartoon strip. In the first frame of
the strip, someone has just finished writing the well-known slogan
"Lieber rot als tot!" (Better red than dead) on an empty wall. The
second frame shows another person crossing out this message and
replacing it with the inversion "Lieber tot als rot!!" ... In the third
frame yet another person crosses out both versions and begins to write a
new slogan with the word "Lieber" (Better) which then is concluded in
the fourth frame as "Lieber weder noch!!!" (Better neither nor). [The
reference identifies Der Spiegel, No. 20 (11 May 1981), p. 21, as the

The fact that the inverse phrase was the rallying cry of the German
disarmament movement suggests that indeed "Lieber tot als rot" could not
have been a Goebbels invention. This is further enhanced by Mieder's
explanation that the slogan was "well-known"

Stephen Goranson's reference is the 1960 World Marxist Review, but the
hit I got on Google Books gives p. 87 instead of p. 57.

    "Lieber tot als rot" ("Better be dead than red")--is the infamous
watchword of the hirelings of the reaction alarmed by the growing
socialist sympathies of the people in the capitalist countries.

This is the only excerpt that Google Books has and it also lacks the
full chapter list.

A German friend offered some help.

the German wikipedia mentions the book Sirach
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirach>, but there it says "today king,
tomorrow dead" and I'm not sure how that can possibly be understood as
an origin. Then it goes on by suggesting late medieval furneral sermons
as an origin. According to that, if the death was sudden, people said
"today red, tommorow dead", meaning the "redness of life" on red cheeks.
Then, when red became the color of the socialistic worker movement, this
old saying might have been changed to a fighting parole.

All other Wikipedias suggest Joseph Goebbels as a user of the phrase.
But in the German one this part has been deleted, because obviously no
user could prove that he said the line. I found some websites that say
that he used it in a late-war radio speech on the so-called "Sender
Werwolf", a radio station to create groups of partisans who would keep
fighting against the allies ("Werwölfe", werewolves). Unfortunately, I
only found excerpts from speeches via that sender, nothing complete. So
I really can't tell if he used it. However, it might be possible since
the excerpts I found all try to convince the listener to rather die than
to give up.

Another origin that's not listed in the wikis might be the street fights
going on in the "Weimarer Republik" after WW1, in which all kinds of
radicals fought bloody battles. According to a blog post a youth
organisation of Germany's Social-Democrats once mentioned this origin,
but the site on whcih they said it is down by now.


One interesting thing is that Phrasen.com has an entry for LRAT but not
for LTAR.

And I got a bit more from my friend. He took a look at the "discussion"
section for the German wiki entry and found that people wanted to delete
the Goebbels reference because they could not find a proper reference.
But in one version of the entry, there were two links that provided such
a reference.



On April 1, 1945, the German station 'Radio Werwolf' began broadcasting
for the first time from a special transmitter in the town of
Königswusterhausen, not far from Berlin. It was created by Propaganda
Minister Geobbels to rally the population to suicidal resistance. Its
theme, repeated over and over again was "Besser tot als rot" (Better
dead than red)."




"Radio Werewolf was only on the air for a few weeks before the surrender
of Nazi Germany.   Josef Geobbles prepared a number of slogans on Radio
Werewolf which were designed to boast the spirts of Germans, and called
upon the Germans to mount resistance against the Allied armies.   These
slogans included: /*"People to Arms!"  "Better dead than Red!"   "The
stronger the storm, the mightier the resistance!"*/   There was some
disagreement in the Nazi leadership regarding the Werewolf resistance
movement and Radio Werewolf.   Reichminister Heinrich Himmler opposed
Radio Werewolf, and many generals on the German Staff disapproved of the
Werewolves.   Himmler wanted Werewolf activities to remain secret, while
Goebbels wanted to broadcast and play up news about the Werewolves.
Nevertheless, Josef Goebbels said and did what he wanted during the
final weeks of the crumbling Third Reich.   There was no disagreement
with SS Gen. Pruetzmann, who regarded all burgomasters in Allied
occuplied zones as traitor who deserved assassination or liquidation."


The second site suggests Werewolf: The Story of the Nazi Resistance
Movement 1944-1945 by Charles Whiting as the reference. The first site
is a compilation of "lesser known facts" with no references and some
"facts" of questionable provenance. Neither site offers any evidence of
coinage--only utilization of the phrase.


Stephen Goranson wrote:
> Google Books claims (accurately or not) That v.3 pt. 2 [which would
> beJuly-Dec] 1960 p.57 snippet has:
> "Lieber tot als rot" ("Better be dead than red") ? is the infamous watchword
> of the hirelings of reaction alarmed by the growing socialist sympathies
> of the ...

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