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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 1051-1059

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Human Rights Advocacy and National Identity in West Germany

Lora Wildenthal

In the 1990s, the language and institutions of human rights reach around the world. In the present era of political uncertainty, war, genocide, UN and NATO bombing, and the supposed "end of ideology," the idea of human rights and organizations such as Amnesty International (AI) enjoy almost unrivalled credibility. Twice in the twentieth-century, events in Germany helped drive the proliferation of human rights advocacy. In 1989, the breaching of the Berlin Wall in the context of Soviet, Polish, and Hungarian reforms was the dramatic beginning of the end of the state socialist countries' human rights violations. About forty years before that, the experience of Nazism, aggressive war, and the Holocaust was the common point of reference. Negotiations soon afterwards produced the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UNESCO tracts of the 1950s and 1960s that repudiated race as a scientific concept. 1 While basic rights, and the international human rights derived from them, have a long history, their symbolism and institutionalization in our century is very much a part of German history.

For the historian, it is noteworthy that abstract, universal imperatives of international human rights doctrine have been formulated with specific [End Page 1051] violations and violators in mind. For example, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were largely driven--though not only--by their recent memory of World War II and fascism. More recently, the Green politician and German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, was converted to military intervention by Srebrenica and a meeting with Slobodan Milosevic. Yet once human rights doctrines are formulated, the tracks of the historically specific and particular are often erased with universalistic rhetoric intended to be binding for everyone everywhere. Indeed, the very attractiveness of human rights as a universal ethic is its resistance to historical, social, or economic contextualization. The power of human rights discourse rests, to some extent, on its ahistorical, even anti-historical formulation. For the historian, however, the formulation and invocation of human rights doctrine is ineluctably intertwined with the larger political, social, and cultural history, and with the very realms it is intended to supercede, the nation and the sovereign state.

West Germans who took up human rights work faced the question of how to position themselves vis-à-vis the Nazi Germany of the past, as a globally resonant human rights violator, and the Federal Republic of the present that enshrined rights of asylum, resistance, and basic rights in its Basic Law. What sense have they made of their national identity, so contradictory and inescapable in the context of their activism? Americans have often sought the supposed certainties of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials as they consider future human rights projects. 2 What stories do German human rights activists fall back on as they forge ahead into the genuinely new realm of international human rights and ponder limited state sovereignty, the status of individuals as subjects of international law, and postcommunist, postcolonial, and feminist formulations of rights? The stories are more divergent than one might think, encompassing a political range that will be illustrated here through just two figures: Carola Stern, who helped found the West German branch of Amnesty International, among other undertakings; and Otto Kimminich, an international law expert who wrote a number of authoritative, much-cited books on asylum, migration, and minority rights.

In 1961, the journalists Gerd Ruge, Carola Stern, and Felix Rexhausen founded the German chapter of Amnesty International, just weeks after Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson's initial appeal in England. 3 Stern and the others--she points to middle-class housewives and activist Protestant men as key supporters in the early years--belonged to one of [End Page 1052] three waves of human rights activism in the Federal Republic. The early 1960s saw not only the creation of West German AI, but also the foundation of the Humanistic Union (Humanistische Union, 1961). A common concern of these early activists was the conservative Adenauer "restoration," or limits...


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