Sugar-coated English versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales usually end with a utopian promise: “And they lived happily ever after.”
In the original German: “Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, so leben sie noch heute.” Literally: “And if they haven’t died yet, they’re still alive today.” That’s a big difference and gets to the heart of each culture’s attitudes towards death. Words are powerful things. The term “Werther effect” for copycat suicides, was coined when so many young men were inspired to end their lives like the hero of Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Austria is known for its fascination with death, including a long list of suicides by leading intellectuals between 1860 and 1938 – from the forming of Imperial and Royal Austria-Hungary to the Anschluss – Austria’s suicide rate ranked high even into the 1980s.
In Vienna, the new subway system became such a convenient choice for ending one’s life that the Wiener Linien issued safety guidelines, and made an agreement with the press to avoid sensationalizing the incidents.The tactic seems to have worked. Suicide in Vienna, and Austria, has plummeted, dropping by 2010 to just over half of the 1985 rate, according to the World Health Organization. Words do matter. So next time the subway is delayed, reflect on the mighty pen. And be glad there is so little blood on the tracks.