The Language of Human Rights in West Germany

The Language of Human Rights in West Germany

The Language of Human Rights in West Germany

The Language of Human Rights in West Germany


Human rights language is abstract and ahistorical because advocates intend human rights to be valid at all times and places. Yet the abstract universality of human rights discourse is a problem for historians, who seek to understand language in a particular time and place. Lora Wildenthal explores the tension between the universal and the historically specific by examining the language of human rights in West Germany between World War II and unification. In the aftermath of Nazism, genocide, and Allied occupation, and amid Cold War and national division, West Germans were especially obliged to confront issues of rights and international law.

The Language of Human Rights in West Germany traces the four most important purposes for which West Germans invoked human rights after World War II. Some human rights organizations and advocates sought to critically examine the Nazi past as a form of basic rights education. Others developed arguments for the rights of Germans--especially expellees--who were victims of the Allies. At the same time, human rights were construed in opposition to communism, especially with regard to East Germany. In the 1970s, several movements emerged to mobilize human rights on behalf of foreigners, both far away and inside West Germany. Wildenthal demonstrates that the language of human rights advocates, no matter how international its focus, can be understood more fully when situated in its domestic political context.


Since the Second World War and especially since the 1970s, enthusiasm for the language of human rights has swept around the world. It has answered people’s desire for a moral, legal, and political response to the unprecedented destruction of the Second World War, and to imperialism, fascism, and communism. Human rights have come to comprise the language through which many people “frame their idealism,” as the historian Samuel Moyn has put it. This book examines that language of human rights in the particular setting of West Germany (1949–90). Through a set of stories, it shows why various people chose human rights as the language of their idealism, and what specific kinds of content they attached to that abstract language.

Why should we talk about a language of human rights? Why not talk about the rights themselves, or more especially violations of those rights? I use the phrase “language of human rights” because it points to what all selfdescribed human rights advocates have in common. Even as controversies regarding the sources and content of human rights divide them, they all find the language of human rights itself compelling. While experts and activists in human rights are generally engaged in what the legal scholar Paul Kahn calls the “project of reform”—how to do things better—this book sets aside problems of reform and advocacy in favor of increasing our historical literacy regarding how the language of human rights has been put into practice. In this book, I seek to clarify why West Germans of different generations and political persuasions have called themselves human rights advocates, and what they have understood by that rubric.

The language of human rights offers fascinating challenges to the historian.

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