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. Lora Wildenthal demonstrates that human rights comprise a political language, best understood in its own domestic and historical context.
2012 | 288 pages | Cloth $75.00
Political Science / Law
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Human Rights Activism in Occupied and Early West Germany: The Case of the German League for Human Rights
Chapter 2. Rudolf Laun and "German Human Rights" in Occupied and Early West Germany
Chapter 3. Human Rights Activism as Domestic Politics: The International League for Human Rights, West German Amnesty, and the Humanist Union Confront Adenauer's West Germany
Chapter 4. "German Human Rights" Enter the Mainstream: The Case of Otto Kimminich
Chapter 5. Human Rights for Women across Cultural Lines: Terre des Femmes
A Note on Sources
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 self-described 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. It is a sweepingly universal rhetoric. Rights are articulated in abstract, universal terms, that is, without reference to time or place. For example, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." That universal quality is difficult for historians to grapple with. As historians seek to bring such universal norms into one narrative together with lived experience, with its myriad inequalities and lack of freedoms, we are likely to seem either sarcastic about the unattainability of those norms, or else furious at the wrongs of lived experience. Our own responses may then drown out the voices of the historical actors we seek to depict. While lawyers depend on that tension between norm and reality to propel their arguments and persuade others to act, historians prefer to explain or persuade by way of contextualization, not exhortation. To write any kind of historical account of human rights is a challenge to us, because we must describe people whose very use of the language of human rights is purposefully ahistorical. To apply human rights as a criterion is a specific kind of rhetorical maneuver that depends on ignoring historical or other kinds of context. To call something a human right, or to name something a human rights violation, is to intervene in politics as usual in order to place that example of violence or inequality in a new context. In other words, the whole point of invoking human rights is to yank an instance of violence or inequality out of its usual context. The point is to stop seeing it as an expected, if regrettable, fact of life. The power and attractiveness of human rights language lie precisely in its resistance to being explained away by reference to historical, social, or economic context. Historians must choose among a number of possible approaches in order to analyze and contextualize this stubbornly ahistorical material.
This book takes the approach of treating human rights as a political language. Many books on human rights begin with human rights norms, and claim—or merely assume—that human rights advocates interpret those norms more or less the same way and want more or less the same thing (for example, are "progressive"). Rather than seeing human rights as a language that inherently expresses the good, or that unites people to pursue a common project, this book turns the relationship between norm and advocate upside down to emphasize how divergent the views of serious human rights advocates have been, even within one fairly compact geographical and chronological setting.
Two distinctions help us to see human rights as a political language, not a natural or universal one. First, the idea of the universal applicability of human rights norms needs to be distinguished clearly in our minds from how people actually apply the language of human rights, which is not and can never be universal. Rather, people apply the language of human rights strategically to force others to confront a specific claim of injustice. A project of applying the language of human rights universally would resemble Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel. Even before reaching that point, it would founder on the fact that some human rights contradict others, or at least are in tension with them, such that their simultaneous realization is impossible. Like all law, human rights norms offer a framework through which a debate may be held, but not the final truth or predetermined outcome of that debate. Even though events one refers to as "human rights violations" are intensely disturbing, at least to oneself, it is important to remember that human rights claims, like all legal claims, are the beginning of a discussion, not the last word. That is something that a human rights lawyer in action is unlikely to emphasize, even though she knows it to be true. A lawyer seeking to win a case or an activist seeking support for a cause hopes to use human rights as a debate-stopper. A historian is not compelled to move so swiftly to a closing argument, or even to make the same kind of argument at all.
A second necessary distinction is that between holding rights and using the language of rights. All people can be argued to hold human rights, but not all people can effectively use the language of human rights. I do not mean here such problems as poverty, social exclusion, or coercion, which hinder people's access to legal remedies that they might otherwise seek out. Rather, I want to highlight the importance of credibility, which is required for using the language of human rights. Even when powerful institutions are arrayed against advocates of human rights, and any victory seems very far off, these advocates must enjoy some minimal level of credibility to initiate the communicative situation that is characteristic of human rights activism. It is not enough for someone to speak out; some people, however few, must be listening. Credibility rests on many social, political, and historical factors. This book's setting of the post-Nazi Federal Republic of Germany shows the problem of credibility in dramatic fashion. West Germans often lacked credibility before the wider world, and even with each other. This book shows how West Germans wrestled with the problem of credibility in various ways over time. In the setting of West Germany, the use of the ahistorical language of human rights was fraught, controversial, and very interesting. Its users were highly conscious of history, but they turned to the ahistorical language of human rights norms to move beyond certain histories, for certain reasons. Reading empirical stories of human rights activism and legal theorizing in the context of West German and international political history allows us to appreciate the interplay of universalizing norms and particular expectations and credibilities.
These stories only become audible when we shift our attention from the content of human rights to the language of human rights. Such stories remain rare in the rapidly growing scholarly literature on human rights, however. My interest in this area was first piqued by studies highlighting the tensions between historical and legal approaches to the adjudication of crimes and the definition of rights. I later discovered the work of Kenneth Cmiel, a U.S. historian, and was encouraged by his model of careful analysis in multiple specific contexts. Cmiel and others working in his wake have sought to contextualize the human rights phenomenon without staking their projects on either praise or denigration. While historians have certainly become more interested in researching themes related to human rights, the discipline remains poorly represented in the human rights literature, and the landmark books in that literature that are written by historians proceed at a high level of generality. Much of the human rights literature belongs to the "project of reform" and concerns either the documentation of norms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or studies of their effectiveness. Since human rights thinkers and activists have rarely had power on their side, such documentation alone is an act of advocacy, all the more so when the goal is to point out successes. Another part of the human rights literature critiques norms or NGOs through close investigations of particular settings; here anthropologists and feminist scholars are prominent. However, in spite of polemics from time to time about human rights as imperialism, hardly anyone repudiates the very idea of human rights tout court, and so almost all such critiques, even harsh ones, can be categorized under the "project of reform." What I have striven for in the present book is neither to celebrate nor denigrate. The documentation accomplished here is done with the goal of bringing the theme of human rights closer to the disciplinary historical narratives of postwar Germany, not with underpinning a putatively unitary "human rights movement." Readers will have to reach their own conclusions about whether individuals and organizations they find here fit their own hopes or suspicions about human rights. In addition to foregrounding the speakers of the language of human rights, rather than allowing human rights norms to set the historical agenda, I also wish to show that domestic political context is fundamental to understanding the use of the language of human rights. Even when human rights activism is directed at distant international issues, the spurs to that activism are domestic ones. This fact has been obscured, I believe, by the ahistorical, prescriptive rhetoric of human rights, including its claim to universality.
The West German Setting
This book is a history of how West Germans made themselves agents of human rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a local history of the use of a transnational language. It joins the still small but growing literature that systematically or historically examines the components of human rights advocacy in Germany, or elsewhere, for that matter. It uses the empirical material gathered here to answer this question: why did West Germany have the kinds of human rights advocates that it did?
West Germany is an important and especially interesting setting for a history of human rights advocacy. As a state, its existence has been intertwined with the development of new human rights norms from the beginning. First, international human rights doctrines and institutions of the mid-twentieth century developed largely in response to the actions of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, movements against colonialism being the other main impetus. Second, these norms then shaped the West German state's legal system from its creation. For example, West Germany was the first state to quote phrases from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its new constitution (the Basic Law, Grundgesetz). The West German constitution integrated basic elements of international law into domestic law, including international cooperation and peace. The European Convention on Human Rights (1950), drawn up by the Council of Europe, enforced by the European Court of Human Rights, and considered the most successful human rights regime in the world, was embraced from the beginning by West Germany. It was a signatory to the convention's optional protocol providing for the right of individual petition, and it readily adapted its own laws to the convention, insofar as they did not already conform to it. In fact, West Germans eagerly participated in various United Nations organizations even before their country was permitted to join the United Nations in 1973; the German Society for the United Nations (Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen), for example, was founded in 1952. West Germany's growing de facto power was always cloaked in, and made possible by, the growing power of international institutions, especially at the European level. The embrace of international law at the domestic level in West Germany, as well as forty years of division of Germany, render the traditional distinction between the domestic and international arenas rather complex. For example, the extent to which East Germany was a foreign country was a delicate topic; the West German constitution held that the West German government represented East as well as West Germans. West Germany was receptive to alternatives to the traditional notion of state sovereignty, be they federalism, the European idea, or holding open the question of its border with East Germany. West Germany itself defied a straightforward notion of sovereignty or statehood.
Third, a notable feature of the Federal Republic of Germany's constitution, the Basic Law, is the direct applicability of basic rights. The Basic Law states: "Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all state authority. The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace, and of justice in the world. The following basic rights shall bind the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary as directly enforceable law." Individual citizens are permitted to make constitutional complaints about violations of their basic rights directly to the Federal Constitutional Court—and many have. The result has been a political culture characterized by a relatively high level of awareness of basic rights, an important backdrop for domestic human rights activism. The complex intertwining of the domestic and the international meant that discussions of (domestic) civil liberties in West Germany have never been far from those of (international) human rights. Invoking international human rights as a standard by which to measure domestic civil liberties was and is quite common there. West Germans have used the language of human rights to redefine the conditions of justice in their own state as well as abroad. Attending to that local usage of the language of human rights, this book will not make a strong distinction between civil liberties advocacy and human rights advocacy.
Fourth, West Germany is an especially interesting setting for a study of the language of human rights because, by however jagged a path, West Germany came to be seen as one of the most successful cases of democratization in the wake of dictatorship. West Germans self-consciously measured their progress away from dictatorship. (While West Germany took on the status of successor state to Nazi Germany, East Germany's official position was that it was a new, discontinuous state.) The political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany, in both its West German and post-1990 unified German forms, has highlighted two moral claims: to have accepted the specific historical responsibility for the horrors of Nazism, and to have enshrined timeless, universal human rights. The very pairing of those claims illustrates the intertwining of the historical and the universal as well as the domestic and international for West German human rights advocates. While the former depends on a specific context for its significance, the latter, in a different register, asks listeners to set aside context. The tensions in this very West German linkage of the historical and the universal shaped human rights advocacy there.
Four Usages of the Language of Human Rights
There was and is no single, typical "take" on human rights in the Federal Republic. As elsewhere, people in West Germany have disagreed sharply as they have argued over the sources, content, and proper policymaking role of human rights. However, one can discern four recurring usages of the language of human rights in advocacy there, and also recurring patterns of confrontation among these usages. Analogues to these four can surely be found in other countries. These four, I argue, have been the most influential for the overall shape of human rights advocacy in West Germany. To put it another way, virtually all human rights advocacy there can be categorized according to them. Each was tied directly to an important fact or condition of life in West Germany. Taken together, these usages provide a thematic summary of the examples of advocacy discussed in this book.
One usage, present already in 1945 and important today, has been the attempt to sharpen Germans' sensibility for civil liberties and human rights by promoting a critical examination of modern German history. Activists who appropriated the language of human rights in this way hoped that Germans of all generations would learn more about the crimes of the Nazi past and thereby become more vigilant about present-day human rights violations worldwide. In other words, critical discussion of the Nazi past came to be considered a form of human rights activism in West Germany. (Obviously, the reverse is not true: not everyone who studied the Nazi past did so to be a human rights activist.) The U.S. occupation authority was an early practitioner of this usage, with its policy of "political re-education," but this book focuses on Germans' own initiatives. I examine two organizations that carried out and promoted such historical work qua human rights activism: the German League for Human Rights (Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte), which is today named the International League for Human Rights (Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte), and the Humanist Union (Humanistische Union). These organizations are analyzed in Chapters 1 and 3. Activists in these and other organizations struggled for years to inculcate a critical approach to the German past among West Germans, and they saw some successes in the 1960s. This first usage has remained important for the self-definition of German society. It underpins the paired moral claims of historical responsibility for Nazism and the enshrining of universal human rights. The fact of living in a post-Nazi, post-genocidal society was the element of West German political culture that most strongly shaped this usage.
A second usage, which also emerged in 1945 and is also still present today, was the appeal to human rights on behalf of Germans who were not Jewish or otherwise targeted by the Nazis, but rather were victims of the Allies. They fled or were expelled from their homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in the wake of the Second World War. In the early postwar years, West German legal experts and expellee organizations hoped to lodge an international legal case that various postwar states' expulsions of ethnic Germans had violated human rights. They also decried Allied military and occupation policies, including aerial bombardment, unconditional surrender, and the retention of prisoners of war. These latter efforts were shortlived in their original form, for the facts of defeat, the emerging knowledge of the enormity of Nazi Germany's crimes, and the Cold War all sharply curtailed their political feasibility. But even though the expellee issue eventually took on a predictable and confining form in West German politics, as the historian Pertti Ahonen has shown so well, these jurists' influence was not so confined or predictable. Their intellectual roots were broader and their impact on legal discussions more lasting than the phrase "expellee lobby" would imply. As these jurists' field of international law developed from its rather marginal status in Germany's law departments prior to 1933 to ever greater prominence after 1949, their legal ideas spread into the scholarly apparatus that today underpins human rights advocacy in Germany. Moreover, while expellee spokespeople have often been politically conservative, such political designations become less useful when we examine a human rights strategy systematically. Human rights norms tend to escape political compartmentalization. Indeed, two of the concepts advocated by these jurists have been embraced (or opposed) across the political spectrum: the individual's status as a subject of international law, and the right to self-determination. As this book will show, this second usage of the language of human rights did not become obsolete—far from it. International lawyers concerned with the expellee cause, often expellees themselves, have helped to shape human rights law in West Germany. They developed new legal concepts such as the "right to the homeland" (Recht auf die Heimat) and collective rights for ethnic groups (Volksgruppenrecht). These concepts contributed to a wider European and worldwide legal elaboration of group rights, cultural rights, and internal self-determination (that is, self-determination that does not aim at secession, but rather at internal arrangements for greater autonomy). Such group rights were not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights, but in recent years they have gained a foothold in international law at the European level. There are resemblances between this legal literature and the work of jurists and activists in the Americas and elsewhere who have developed concepts of indigenous and minority rights of, for example, Amerindians. Both bodies of work grapple with the predicament of groups who lack meaningful representation via individualized citizenship in the states in which they live, sometimes because the state ignores the collective nature of their concerns, and sometimes because the state is actively hostile to the group. The German advocacy examined here, in Chapters 2 and 4, predated and then paralleled the emergence of indigenous rights in the 1970s. The group rights elaborated and so far applied in the European context were therefore not imported from those non-European debates; rather, those rights emerged in large part from the expellee experience and expellees' legal and political work. Conceptualizing the expellee issue as a human rights issue is a kind of limit case for West German human rights discourse because it highlights tensions between the two moral claims underpinning West Germany.
The element of West German political culture that most strongly shaped this second usage of the language of human rights was the presence of millions of German expellees and refugees in West Germany. Germans who fell into this large group at the end of the Second World War were not defined as refugees in international law because they automatically possessed West German citizenship under the Basic Law. The West German state pursued a contradictory policy: it sought to integrate the expellees socially (thereby erasing their distinctiveness), while it also officially held open the expellees' claims to restitution in their places of origin, which were now outside the borders of West and East Germany (thereby preserving their distinctiveness). This policy did promote eventual assimilation but also nourished a number of vocal lobby organizations that were strong supporters of this usage of human rights advocacy. Critical discussion of the Nazi past played very little role in this second usage. Such critical discussion would not have damaged the legal logic of the expellees' case, since collective retribution already then clearly violated international law. However, advocates apparently believed that drawing attention to Nazi crimes would blur the line they wanted to draw between Allied perpetrators and German victims. Moreover, numerous public figures active in this usage had their own biographical ties to Nazism, and critical discussion of the Nazi past probably would have split the expellee lobby. The lack of critical examination of the recent past in this usage led to intense conflict with those engaged in the first usage of human rights language. Indeed, the conflict between the two has been prominent in human rights advocacy in West and unified Germany. A recent iteration of this conflict has been the debate during the 2000s about the planned Center against Forced Migration (Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen) in Berlin, a museum that will present the experience of ethnic German expellees alongside that of other twentieth-century European victims of deportation, forced transfer, and ethnic cleansing, including Jews. This book examines the second usage through the work of two international lawyers active in expellee politics, Rudolf Laun and Otto Kimminich, in Chapters 2 and 4. Rudolf Laun drew upon his anti-Nazi reputation for credibility as he excoriated the Allies during the occupation years (1945-49). Otto Kimminich, whose career spanned the 1960s through the late 1990s, was just as impassioned but more diplomatic, and he melded his expellee-related work with refugee- and asylum-related work that was eagerly received across the West German human rights movement. Their careers show us that the expellee issue played a formative, though still little-known, role in West German human rights work.
The third important usage of human rights advocacy in West Germany was the publicizing of human rights violations in the socialist countries, especially East Germany—in short, an anticommunist usage. In the early years of West Germany, the most important organizations in this usage were the so-called militant anticommunist organizations, such as the Fighting Group against Inhumanity (Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit) and the Free Jurists' Investigative Committee (Untersuchungsausschuss freiheitlicher Juristen). The German League for Human Rights was also a militant anticommunist organization during the 1950s. The element of West German political culture most salient here was the fact of Cold War division. However, there was also considerable historical depth to this confrontation, extending back through Nazi anticommunism to the struggles of the polarized Weimar Republic and the antisocialist campaigns of the nineteenth century on the one hand, and back through the strong German socialist and communist traditions, which now East Germany claimed to represent, on the other. This third usage, the endowment of human rights with anticommunist meaning, was the most pervasive one during the 1950s and 1960s in West Germany, as in other Western capitalist countries. When it threatened to smother critical discussion of the Nazi past, advocates of the first usage founded (or, in the case of the German League for Human Rights, refounded) their organizations in a quest to take back the language of human rights from its dominant Cold Warrior speakers. These efforts produced in 1961 the West German section of Amnesty International and the Humanist Union. The anticommunist usage of human rights advocacy is discussed in Chapters 1 and 3.
The fourth important usage of human rights advocacy we see in West Germany is that which most people would probably think of first: activism on behalf of foreigners. In this usage, human rights activists apply norms of international human rights across state borders. Yet this usage of human rights advocacy only emerged after a number of years in the West German case. While the West German section of Amnesty International belongs here, Amnesty International was originally a British creation, and as we shall see the founders of the West German section were actually preoccupied with domestic West German politics. Only in the late 1960s did an organization take hold that was conceptualized by West Germans and was devoted to the human rights of non-Germans: the Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker). Founded in 1968 as the Biafra Aid Campaign (Aktion Biafra-Hilfe), in 1970 it broadened its scope to any "people" (Volk) facing threats to its "security, life, property and development rights, religion, or linguistic and cultural identity." It remains West Germany's most important NGO focused on minority and indigenous rights. The element of West German political culture that helped this fourth usage to emerge was the flourishing of protest movements outside the political parties. In particular, the wars in Algeria and Vietnam served to focus West German attention on the Third World and to bolster the moral credibility of West German critics of the war. It was finally possible for West Germans to lambast the Western Allies without being associated in domestic politics with resentful ex-Nazis. The new political space of the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition, APO) enabled critical West Germans—university students, the labor movement, progressive church members, pacifists, and those to the left of the political parties—to form solidarities with non-Germans, such as foreign students, foreign "guest" workers, and anticolonial national liberation movement activists. The emergence of this fourth usage marks an important turning point: the moment when West Germans felt themselves to be citizens of a distinct state who had a moral voice in world affairs and could be agents of human rights in a global context.
Second-wave feminism in West Germany also emerged in this new political space. This book analyzes the feminist organization Terre des Femmes as an example of this fourth usage, in Chapter 5. Founded in 1981 with a focus on "honor violence" against women and girls in the Middle East and female genital cutting in Africa, its premise has been feminist solidarity among women around the world. Terre des Femmes has worked to expose exploitation and coercion suffered by women and girls whose citizenship, ethnicity, or geographical location (in any combination) is not German. While it has carried out work at locations outside Germany—the Middle East, Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, and Africa—in recent years it has turned to aiding women inside Germany, and to focusing its efforts on physical violence. The women and girls it seeks to help have a legal status as foreigners or immigrants that renders them vulnerable, or else they, while not legally foreigners, live within a minority subculture that constrains their access to majority resources. Terre des Femmes's work for the human rights of non-German women and of black, brown, Muslim, or other minority German women has a deep historical context in the debate, over a hundred years old at this point, over migration and cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity in Germany. This is the element of political culture most salient here. Terre des Femmes has intervened in debates about how "multicultural" Germany is or ought to be by offering its own vision of unity in diversity: inalienable basic rights for all women.
There have been conflicts among the four usages described here, but also convergences. While advocates of political education about Nazi crimes clashed with advocates of ethnic German expellees' and refugees' rights, the latter usage was capable of combination with work for foreigners' human rights. The resemblance between the legal literatures of expellee group rights and indigenous people's rights has been noted above. Another, biographical example concerns the founder of the Society for Threatened Peoples, Tilman Zülch: he has linked his own experiences as a young expellee with the experiences of the "threatened peoples" that the organization seeks to help, from Biafrans and East Timorese to the Baltic peoples under Soviet rule. Zülch was a pioneer in drawing attention to the Nazis' genocidal treatment of Sinti and Roma. He has also long been interested in expellee affairs and is an advocate of the controversial Center against Forced Migration. The goals of the Society for Threatened Peoples were, in turn, in some tension with those of Terre des Femmes. As members of Terre des Femmes sought to yank instances of violence against women out of their usual context, refusing to see them as an expected, if regrettable, fact of life, they found little foothold in the Society for Threatened Peoples, which defended cultural group rights. Although the Society for Threatened Peoples and Terre des Femmes both have supported the rights of non-Germans, Terre des Femmes actually has had more in common with the Humanist Union, a civil liberties organization. Both conflict and convergence are possible among these four usages of the language of human rights, and one cannot completely predict the positions of individuals or organizations in each usage. However, distinguishing the four usages does clarify our thinking about the speakers and intended objects of the most important kinds of activism in West Germany.
The chapters that follow are arranged in roughly chronological order, but they do not comprise a single narrative. Chapters 1, 3, and 5 concern non-governmental organizations, while Chapters 2 and 4 focus on individual legal experts. Chapter 1 takes up the story of German human rights advocacy in the years immediately after the Second World War and follows its subject, the German League for Human Rights, into the late 1950s. The League encompassed the first three usages of the language of human rights in its troubled life: critical discussion of the Nazi past; the use of human rights concepts on behalf of expellees; and anticommunism. It finally found stability by refounding itself with a renewed focus on the critical discussion of the Nazi past. Its travails highlight for us the many stumbling blocks for people who sought to mobilize the language of human rights at the height of the Cold War in West Germany.
Chapter 2 takes up the same period of Allied occupation through the 1950s. During those years, the appropriation of the language of human rights on behalf of victims of the Allies, especially the ethnic German expellees, took hold. Contention between the first and second usages was therefore present from the very beginning. Chapter 2 presents the early postwar arguments for a right to the homeland and associated group rights through the example of the jurist Rudolf Laun. His story is important to add to the growing historiography on expellee politics because he placed himself in a progressive international law genealogy extending back to the mid-nineteenth century and the Habsburg Empire. His work helps us to see connections between older human rights thinking among international lawyers and those early West German discussions usually thought to be self-serving apologetics among former Nazis (which they sometimes were). Laun exerted strong but brief influence on discussions of human rights in West Germany. His case helps to recapture that early moment.
Chapter 3 leads the reader into the 1960s, focusing on the refounding of the German League for Human Rights and the foundation of two new organizations: the West German section of Amnesty International and the Humanist Union. All three, I argue, were manifestations of the rejection of the anticommunist usage of human rights and of demands for domestic reform. Their common tool was critical education about the Nazi past, which they sought to use for building West German democracy. Of course, West German Amnesty also shows us the earliest example of the fourth usage, work on behalf of non-Germans. Yet it took some years for that international focus to emerge, and indeed for West German Amnesty to flourish. West German Amnesty's earliest preoccupations were domestic, and domestic concerns were to recur in later years as well.
Chapter 4 returns to the theme of expellee influence on West German international law. It traces the career of the law professor Otto Kimminich to show how he emerged as West Germany's leading expert on both refugee and asylum rights as well as on the right to the homeland, self-determination, and ethnic group rights, collectively presented as Volksgruppenrecht, a distinctly right-wing project. Kimminich became important for West German human rights advocates across the board because he wrote general works on human rights at a time when very few in that country did, and he grounded these, and all of his work, on a strong criticism of state sovereignty. His career exemplifies how, in spite of the strong conflicts between advocates in the first usage and those in the second usage, in practice the relationships between the two have become intertwined. A prolific scholar right up to his death in 1997, his direct influence extends into the 2000s. This chapter, with its argument that expellee international lawyers played a formative role in postwar human rights law, contributes to the as yet unwritten history of international law in West Germany.
Chapter 5 focuses on the feminist human rights organization Terre des Femmes, which seeks to defend the human rights of non-German women and girls. Unlike the Society for Threatened Peoples, Terre des Femmes has been highly critical of group rights, turning instead to an individual rights strategy reminiscent of the Humanist Union and Amnesty International. At the same time, it has remained committed to conceptualizing women across cultural lines as a group. While it has certainly been politically sympathetic to the first usage, in practice the organization Terre des Femmes has seldom referred to the German past. Instead, it has often invoked the colonial past and neocolonial present, and Chapter 5 pays particular attention to members' discussions of ethnocentrism and racism. Terre des Femmes's success displays yet another form of West German moral credibility, one that relies on a notion of cross-cultural solidarity among women.
This book does not offer a comprehensive account of human rights advocacy in West Germany. The goal of comprehensiveness would require me to referee situations that arise directly out of the fact that diverse people and institutions use the language of human rights strategically. If I engaged in such refereeing, the reader would learn much about my idiosyncratic opinions but little about the phenomenon of strategic invocation of the language of human rights. For example, the foreign mission and domestic social welfare organizations of both the Catholic and Evangelical churches are members of the Human Rights Forum (Forum Menschenrechte), a German consortium founded in 1994 that also includes the International League for Human Rights, German Amnesty, the Humanist Union, the Society for Threatened Peoples, and Terre des Femmes. Does that mean that those agencies, and the churches behind them, are best understood as "human rights organizations"? Or is that a tent so big as to be unwieldy? A comprehensive account would also require the author to referee which was a "real" (sincere, intellectually disciplined) human rights organization, and which was not. Another member of the Human Rights Forum is the Society for the Protection of Civil Liberty and Human Dignity (Gesellschaft zum Schutz von Bürgerrecht und Menschenwürde), an organization founded in 1991. Its stated purpose is "to contribute to the realization and active protection of the basic and human rights of citizens, as well as their human dignity, particularly in the process of German unification." It is widely understood to be a gathering place for former employees of East Germany's Ministry of State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS, or Stasi), and so seeks to protect some of Germany's worst recent violators of human rights. This is on the one hand outrageous, but on the other hand perfectly logical and moreover necessary. Even human rights violators have human rights, and it is obvious that people without respect or power will turn to the law, including international law, for assistance. Protagonists who claim to serve the cause of human rights and are taken up by historians as objects of inquiry deserve neither belief nor disbelief, but rather historical contextualization.
This book therefore offers a critical mass of material and some explanations for West Germans' motivations and contexts for using the language of human rights. It establishes certain facts and patterns, namely the overwhelming salience of the four usages of the language of human rights outlined above; the importance of domestic context in inciting people to use the language of human rights, regardless of the geographical location of the intended beneficiaries of that advocacy; and the dominance of advocacy on behalf of Germans (West and East Germans) before the late 1960s and early 1970s, when West Germans began to show perduring interest in advocacy aimed at non-Germans. Throughout, I have framed this as a specifically West German story, and that state certainly did have some unusual features. However, the four usages of the language of human rights and the argument for the importance of domestic political context will aid the reader in analyzing human rights advocacy in other settings as well.
Many of the individuals encountered in the pages that follow were or are famous figures in West and unified Germany. Yet their activities on behalf of human rights, and their organizations, remain much less well known than the personnel and organizations for ecology, peace, and feminism—the West German "new social movements" that one often links with human rights advocacy. I believe that the reason why human rights advocacy has remained more elusive than the "new social movements" is its greater political indeterminacy, as well as the only intermittently popular appeal of its legalistic approach. Only in the 1970s, as socialism and Third World solidarity receded in appeal, did human rights begin to become popular under its own rubric in West Germany (and elsewhere). Human rights absorbed energies formerly directed at projects on the left. The language of human rights also lent itself well to projects of institutional democratization, such as within the churches. In those cases, "human rights" was a method of self-critique, not a free-standing movement. The political indeterminacy of human rights remains. Unlike ecology, peace, and feminist activists, speakers referring to human rights were using an open-ended language that could not be restricted to specific political goals. Whether they wished it or not, the language of human rights is an arena where very different people meet. What they have in common is their "refusal to learn" (Lernverweigerung), in the sociologist Niklas Luhmann's phrase. That is, they sustain their advocacy by refusing to give in to the overwhelming political realities of our world. It is an overarching goal of this book to illustrate that political indeterminacy and to resituate the language of human rights as a language of politics, not transcendence. As human rights have become a prominent rationale for political action, this is an important task.