Im Namen der Würde. Eine deutsche Geschichte

Knoch, Habbo
München 2023: Carl Hanser Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
478 S.
€ 29,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Frank Trentmann, Birkbeck, University of London / University of Helsinki

It is the first proper word in the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, and has rung loud and clear since 1949: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.“ (“Human dignity is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority.”) In this fascinating, sharp and often compelling book, Habbo Knoch shows how dignity reached that constitutional apex and the role it has played since.

The book broadly comes in two halves. In the first 180 pages, Knoch reminds us of the competing meanings of dignity that circulated into the early twentieth century, when it signalled Christian character and the high authority of an office (an ideal with ancient roots) as well as humanist ideals. Such older associations with authority and honour gave dignity a traditional touch and meant that debates about rights initially proceeded without recourse to the term. At the same time, Knoch notes the development of three ideals that would eventually form the building blocks for Article 1 in the Basic Law: a bürgerlich embrace of dignity as liberty; a socialist vision of social justice; and what he terms a “personalistic model” of community. This part of the account, then, is a genealogy of the idea and comes in the form of conceptual history, examining key texts by eminent philosophers, writers and intellectuals. Here and elsewhere Knoch notes how dignity was partly about defending the “spiritual freedom of the individual against the materialism of modernity” (p. 91).

If there is one overarching theme in these first sections it is how these various versions of dignity – and their champions, such as the Catholic and Protestant bishops raising their voice against the Nazis’ murder of disabled people in 1941 – kept falling short of a universal conception of human dignity. Taking that step was left to the fathers of the Basic Law in the wake of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity. While it would go too far to summarize this part of the narrative as Whiggish – Knoch is attentive to twists and turns – the story certainly looks to 1949 as a telos where earlier strands are merged and raised to a universal and constitutionally binding level.

The second half of the book changes tack and looks at what happened once dignity had been enshrined in the Basic Law. Having climbed the last few steps with the drafters of the constitution – the pages about the conflict between Carlo Schmid and Hans Nawiasky are especially fine – the view from the top turns out to be somewhat disappointing. For Knoch shows how new found universal dignity operated as an “anti-totalitarian protective wall (Schutzwall)” (p. 186), confirming the historiographical emphasis on anti-communism as a central strand of West Germany’s DNA. The primary use of Article 1 was negative, not positive – to keep out communism, not to provide a dignified life to all. What initially appeared as a success story, then, turns out to be muted. The author notes that by the late 1950s neither the “Brockhaus” nor the “Herder” lexica carried entries on dignity, and the “Lexikon für Staatsbürger” did not either. In other contexts, such as the commemoration of the officers executed after the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944, older ideals of character remained prominent. In addition to speech acts, it could have been interesting to look at the practice of courts, state officials and social groups. Jews who had survived the Nazi persecution as children hiding in miserable conditions and without their parents, for example, had their claims for compensation rejected on the grounds that “primitive or poor living conditions are not beneath the dignity of man”.1

It needed sustained effort to release dignity’s more positive, universal potential. The figure leading that fight who receives particular attention is Gustav Heinemann, the first minister to resign from Konrad Adenauer’s government in 1950 over rearmament. First as defence attorney in the 1950s, and then (after crossing the floor to the SPD) as minister of justice in Kurt Georg Kiesinger’s (CDU) coalition with Willy Brandt’s SPD, he campaigned for a reform of criminal law, the rehabilitation of criminals, the rights of illegitimate children and many other causes in order to guarantee rights and dignity for all citizens. Heinemann’s career, Knoch writes, was “symptomatic of the history of human dignity between 1960 and 1990” (p. 340): a tug of war between emancipatory forces and resistance, not least from state actors.

By the 1980s the atmosphere had been transformed. Dignity was not only unmuted but became the clarion call for an ever-expanding group of causes and actors. The account here bears out Samuel Moyn’s emphasis on the 1970s as the decade when human rights took off globally, with a dramatic growth of NGOs.2

After the Nazis, the discussion narrows to a West German story. The GDR finds itself squeezed into four pages between the West German campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and constitutional debates over terrorism and abortion. Of course, Knoch is right when he says that dignity and rights were always conditional in the GDR and subject to the power of the socialist regime. Still, that does not mean that the new constitution of 1968 did not give its citizens opportunities to invoke dignity and rights, as did the Helsinki Accords of 1975. How people in the GDR – and not just dissidents – understood dignity could have been interesting to explore, not least because Knoch begins the book by presenting its socialist tradition as one of three historic pillars.

Since the 1990s we have been in a new discursive and social time zone. “Dignity” has been amplified by numerous campaigns over the rights of vulnerable groups. For a book like this one, this poses challenges as well as opportunities. If everyone is suddenly talking about dignity, who to listen to? As Knoch acknowledges in a short epilogue, he began this book as a response to racist attacks. Migration and asylum, therefore, receive particular attention. What is more surprising is the absence of other topics that might have revealed the contested value of dignity within Germany. The Gerhard Schröder, for example, who makes an appearance is Adenauer’s minister of the interior with his proposed emergency laws, not the Social Democratic Chancellor with his Hartz reforms to the welfare system, which have divided citizens and courts since 2003. What has been at stake in the debates over Hartz is not the principle of universal dignity but what it translates into lived dignity in euros and cents.

Like a good book should do, “Im Namen der Würde” raises as many questions as it answers. For this reviewer, they are two especially, and these are concerned with thorny and interconnected matters of historical inquiry, politics and law.

The first is about the status of “dignity”. Of course, it makes a critical difference that dignity is enshrined in the Basic Law in 1949. If there had been no Article 1, the unemployed worker and the social court in Gotha could not have invoked it to protest against a 60 percent sanctioned cut to his Hartz benefits. Yet, in other contexts, references to dignity are more a platform for societal pressures and changing norms that have their origin elsewhere. One suggestion Knoch offers in the conclusion is that the growing turn to dignity reflects the rising need for an increasingly diverse society to handle conflicts and find individual spaces for respect and tolerance. This is a somewhat functionalist thesis and sits at odds with the fact that the majority of countries in the world today enshrine dignity in their constitutions, in the Global South as well as the Global North; the first to do so was Mexico in 1917.3 Like many other key words, dignity comes rarely pure and instead appears, as Knoch shows, in various combinations, notably with honour, character, justice and freedom. Conceptual history has favoured a focus on individual concepts, for many good reasons. But such biographies also run the risk of occluding the rich ecology between concepts and norms and their symbiotic and rival relationships in real life.

The second issue concerns the relationship between dignity and rights. Towards the end of the book, the author confesses to a certain ambivalence about the increasingly inflated use of dignity. Here we should note that the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has no truck with universal dignity, campaigns for a life in dignity for German pensioners. In the last few pages, the title of the book is turned from an object of analysis into a mission statement, with Knoch providing various arguments in defence of universal human dignity. As a way of taking up a position against populist detractors this makes good sense, but it side-steps the fundamental question of why we should look to dignity to defend human rights in the first place. As Knoch notes, neither the constitution of the United States nor French revolutionaries invoked dignity, nor does the European Convention on Human Rights. In these places, advances in civil, social and human rights have simply harnessed other language. When Switzerland adopted a new constitution in 1999 it included dignity – does that mean the Swiss did not care about rights before that date? On the other hand, there are non-democratic countries like Laos and Lebanon that invoke dignity in their constitutions to limit individual rights. Philosophers and legal scholars are sharply divided on the issue whether dignity is or can be the normative basis of rights. From that perspective, the history of dignity before 1949 unfolded in this engaging book is perhaps as important as its constitutional triumph thereafter.

1 Susanna Schrafstetter, Flucht und Versteck. Untergetauchte Juden in München – Verfolgungserfahrung und Nachkriegsalltag, Göttingen 2015, quoted at p. 263.
2 Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
3 Doron Shulztiner / Guy E. Carmi, Human Dignity in National Constitutions: Functions, Promises and Dangers, in: American Journal of Comparative Law 62 (2014), pp. 461–490.