Is it okay to be civil

Citizens - bourgeoisie - bourgeoisie

Jürgen Kocka

To person

Dr. phil, Dr. H. c. mult .; Historian, professor at the Free University of Berlin and at the Berlin Science Center for Social Research.
Email: [email protected]

The terms "Bürger" and "bürgerlich" oscillate between bourgeois and citizen in German. The contribution traces the connection between the two terms, works out German characteristics and discusses the present from a historical perspective.


Christian Garve, the Breslau philosopher and translator, wrote in 1792: The word "citizen" "has more dignity in German than the French bourgeois ... and that is why it has more, because with us it describes two things at the same time, that in French (have) two different names. On the one hand it means every member of a civil society - that is the French citoyen -, on the other hand it means the non-noble city dweller who lives from a certain trade - and that is bourgeois "[1]. Basically, this still applies today: In German, "citizen" and "bourgeois" denote on the one hand the members of a narrow stratum or class and their characteristics (bourgeoisie, middle class), on the other hand the citizens, i.e. all persons, insofar and insofar as they belong to a community with rights and obligations (citoyens / citoyennes, citizens).

This is related to the fact that citizens and bourgeoisie were assessed very differently - between rejection and esteem, contempt and respect, hate and praise. The aristocratic criticism of the early 19th century considered the citizens to be narrow-minded and mediocre. The socialist labor movement polemicized against bourgeois class egoism, bourgeois exploitation and bourgeois class arrogance. The youth movement at the beginning of the 20th century turned against bourgeois conventions and bourgeois hypocrisy. The fascists despised bourgeois individualism and the bourgeois constitutional state. The communist dictatorships of the 20th century also fought against the bourgeoisie and its culture. The Marxist students and intellectuals who protested in Berkeley, Paris and Berlin in 1968 clearly expressed their disdain for everything bourgeois - including mockery of "bourgeois love", "bourgeois science" and "bourgeois art".

Conversely, the liberal historian Theodor Mommsen wrote in 1899, looking back on his life: "(...) with the best that is in me, I have always been an animal politicum and wished to be a citizen. That is not possible in ours Nation (...). "[2] Even today, the terms" bourgeois "and" citizen "often have positive connotations, for example in" civil rights "and" civil society ". The idea of ​​bourgeoisie, wrote the philosopher Stephan Strasser, is based on the goal of the rational shaping of human history through mature, discussing, peacefully competing individuals and groups, believing in the possibility of progress. [3]

Similar to the terms citizen and bourgeoisie, the term bourgeoisie has fluctuated through history. It is a collective term for the various bourgeois characteristics. One associates it with bourgeois culture, and this oscillates, depending on the perspective of the beholder, between particularistic exclusivity on the one hand and radiant universalism on the other. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, in Germany and many other countries the criticism of bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie has largely receded in favor of positive evaluations of bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. Some speak of a renaissance of bourgeoisie.