How to Use the Subjunctive Past in German

Waiter taking order from female customers
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Most of the time, teachers and textbooks manage to make the subjunctive mood (der Konjunktiv) more complicated than it needs to be. The subjunctive can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be.

Early on, every beginning student of German learns this common Subjunctive II verb form: möchte (would like), as in "Ich möchte einen Kaffee." ("I'd like a [cup of] coffee.") This is an illustration of a subjunctive verb form learned as vocabulary. No complicated rules to learn, just an easily memorized vocabulary phrase. Much of the subjunctive can be handled this way, without worrying about complex rules or formulas.

Past Subjunctive

Why is it, if you ask a native speaker of German to explain the use of the subjunctive, he or she will most likely (a) not know what the subjunctive is, and/or (b) not be able to explain it to you? This, despite the fact that this same German (or Austrian or Swiss) can and does use the subjunctive all the time — and if you had grown up speaking German, you could, too.

What Is the Subjunctive II?

The past subjunctive is a verb "mood" used to express uncertainty, doubt, or a contrary-to-reality condition. It is also frequently utilized to reflect politeness and good manners — an excellent reason to know the subjunctive. The subjunctive is not a verb tense; it is a "mood" that can be used in various tenses. The "past subjunctive" (another name for the Subjunctive II) gets its name from the fact that its forms are based on the past tense. The Subjunctive I is called the "present subjunctive" because it is based on the present tense. But don't let those terms confuse you: the subjunctive is not a verb tense.

The "opposite" of the subjunctive is the indicative. Most sentences that we utter — in English or German — "indicate" a statement of fact, something that is real, as in "Ich habe kein Geld." The subjunctive does the opposite. It tells the listener that something is contrary to reality or conditional, as in "Hätte ich das Geld, würde ich nach Europa fahren." ("Had I the money, I would travel to Europe.") The implication is clearly, "I don't have the money and I'm not going to Europe." (indicative).

One problem for English-speakers trying to learn the Konjunktiv is that in English the subjunctive has practically died out — only a few vestiges remain. We still say, "If I were you, I wouldn't do that." (But I'm not you.) It sounds incorrect to say, "If I was you..." A statement such as "If I had the money" (I don't expect to have it) is different from "When I have the money" (it's likely I will have it). Both "were" and "had" (past tense) are English subjunctive forms in the two examples above.

But in German, despite some setbacks, the subjunctive is very much alive and well. Its use is important for conveying the idea of conditional or uncertain situations. This is usually expressed in German by what is known as the Subjunctive II (Konjunktiv II), sometimes called the past or imperfect subjunctive — because it is based on the imperfect tense forms of verbs.

Now, let's get down to business. What follows is not an attempt to cover all aspects of the Konjunktiv II but rather a review of the more important aspects. Here are some examples of how the Subjunctive II can be used in German.

The Konjunktiv II is used in the following situations:

  1. As if, contrary to reality (als ob, als wenn, als, wenn)
    Er gibt Geld aus, als ob er Millionär wäre.

    He spends money as if he were a millionaire.​
  2. Request, obligation (being polite!) — usually with modals (i.e., können, sollen, etc.)
    Könntest du mir dein Buch borgen?

    Could you lend me your book?​
  3. Doubt or uncertainty (often preceded by ob or dass)
    Wir glauben nicht, dass man diese Prozedur genehmigen würde.

    We don't believe that they would allow this procedure.​
  4. Wishes, wishful thinking (usually with intensifying words like nur or doch - and conditional sentences)
    Hätten Sie mich nur angerufen!
    (wishful)If you had only called me!
    Wenn ich Zeit hätte, würde ich ihn besuchen.
    If I had time, I'd visit him.​
  5. Replacement for Subjunctive I (when the Subjunctive I form and the indictative form are identical)
    Sie sagten sie hätten ihn gesehen.

    They said they had seen him.

The last two lines in the traditional German song, "Mein Hut," are subjunctive (conditional):

Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken,Drei Ecken hat mein Hut,
Und hätt' er nicht drei Ecken,
dann wär' er nicht mein Hut.

My hat, it has three corners,
Three corners has my hat,
And had it not three corners, (if it didn't have...)
then were it not my hat. (...wouldn't be my hat)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Flippo, Hyde. "How to Use the Subjunctive Past in German." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Flippo, Hyde. (2023, April 5). How to Use the Subjunctive Past in German. Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "How to Use the Subjunctive Past in German." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).