How to regain respect for the fundamental values of western democracy

Civil courage and human dignity: how to regain respect for the fundamental values of western democracy

Gesine Schwan


AN ESSAY REFLECTING ON COURAGE–OR MORE SPECIFICALLY, CIVIL courage–might be thought to be a timeless effort. Yet these reflections are stimulated by current experiences that challenge us and call for reassuring thoughts. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I led a seminar, along with Joachim Gauck, the director of the Stasi document center, on civil courage. Our hope was to understand the reasons some people collaborated with the Stasi, the security arm of the former East Germany, and why other people resisted. It seemed natural to compare the situation in East Germany with that which existed in Germany itself under National Socialism to determine what motivated people to resist collaboration with the National Socialist regime and what strengthened those people who helped to protect and hide Jews from persecution. They, we pointed out, practiced civil courage. At that time, however, we would not have thought to ask if suicide terrorist attacks were proof of courage, let alone civil courage. Yet the argument is now often put forward that one can recognize the moral seriousness of such actors by the fact that they offer their own lives for their ideals–that this is evidence of courage, possibly even of civil courage.

But are they? To determine whether suicide attacks can be interpreted as a form of civil courage, we will first discuss a few definitions of courage in general and civil courage specifically to learn what are possible opposites to these concepts and what are neighboring phenomena. We will then try to apply our concepts and definitions to empirical historical and psychological findings from Germany under National Socialism as well as life in East Germany in order to draw out some conclusions for the evaluation of suicide terrorism.


Since ancient times, courage has ranked among the most honored virtues. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, the great philosopher of virtue, reflects at length on the importance and contribution of virtue to what we would call a “good life”–that is, to the successful fulfillment of human potential in general–and on the meaning of courage in particular. Aristotle places the virtues between two false extremes: for example, courage ranges between cowardice and carelessness, generosity between waste and avarice. But the position in which the virtues should be placed should come from an analysis that avoids an exaggerated polarity.

To find the correct middle between the extremes we should, still following Aristotle, listen to our feelings regarding lust. As we all tend to enjoy lust, Aristotle advises us to seek the peek between the two false extremes by distancing ourselves from our interest in lust. This, of course, indicates a fundamental philosophical, anthropological, and psychological position of distrust of our natural inclinations that is balanced by Aristotle’s “socialization” theory of attitudes acquired by custom.

The practice of virtue is embedded in a life-long acquired attitude through which we develop the ability to find the right middle position in specific cases based on prior good practice. In that sense, our socialized inclinations are not to be automatically distrusted; in fact, they help us distance ourselves from the original natural lust inclinations and lead us nearly spontaneously to the middle position between the extremes. This socialization is possible because we have also from the beginning the potential to choose the virtues–we have the potential for a virtuous life.

Unlike courage, “civil courage” is a much more modern term. “Civil” points to the obverse of “military” and to the Latin word cives, which is connected to an idea of “civitas,” or civil community. Astonishingly enough, it was probably Bismarck who introduced the word Zivikourage into the German language. He noted that courage in war situations when one followed orders was a form of obedience and thus counted for less. It did, however, happen more often than courage in normal civil life because there it depended on the decision of the individual and required an independent mind. We do in fact intuitively associate civil courage with situations in which people behave in a nonconformist manner, contradicting or acting counter to a majority of the people who surround them. These individuals have the courage to follow their own reflections or consciences and thus realize the right and the strength of an individual required in the “civic culture” of a modern democracy. Whereas courage can be shown and practiced by an isolated individual, civil courage refers to a social and political frame regardless of whether it is actually present or only imagined.

Still, standing alone in opposition to the community is not proof of civil courage because it could be motivated by egocentrism or a querulous nature. Often people who oppose decisions at first glance seem to represent civil courage. But we would not call civil courage behavior in which one pursues one’s own interest without granting concessions and causes conflict with everyone. Opposition alone is an empty position and it is probably easier than a positive, argumentative, and self-reflecting opinion that would lead to courageous behavior. What are, then, the actions that do not qualify as only negative opposition and that correspond to the word “civil” in the term civil courage?

One important element is already included in the requirement of reflection. Reflection implies thinking through arguments (as in Aristotle’s ethics) and thus acts as a kind of self-distancing from one’s own position or behavior. To accept the necessity of thinking and arguing means that we accept the principal realm of arguments and thus, at least to a certain degree, the equality of the participants who are engaged in the argument. We find already therein an affinity for a democratic regime.

In searching for a deeper understanding of what constitutes the content and positive motivation behind civil courage, we realize that there is no value-free definition of this term and the corresponding behavior. It might be helpful to analyze a variety of situations in which opposition requires courage without knowing if we can call it civil courage. Adhering to the advice of the well-known Latin phrase definitio est negatio, we could try to find specific differences between our term, and the related phenomena of resistance and civil disobedience.

In the European context, “resistance” has a positive connotation and is understood generally against the background of National Socialism or communism. In Germany, on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination attempt against Hitler, a lively discussion took place on the question whether it was legitimate to include the communist resistance against Hitler as part of the official history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Those who opposed the inclusion argued that a resistance worthy of that name should not be motivated just by a desire to overthrow National Socialist power only to replace it with communism but instead should be one driven by the moral and political values incorporated in a democracy, values such as those enshrined in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic. Others reminded us that only a few representatives of the German resistance during the Third Reich were motivated by true democratic values but they nevertheless proved to be extraordinarily courageous and ready to sacrifice their lives; indeed, former right-wing German army officers as well as communists, despite the political ideas they adhered to, were prompted to resist by a vision of human dignity they saw threatened with destruction by the National Socialist regime. Thus the experience of the suppression of human dignity together with the resistance against it forged what would become only after the war a common democratic sense in Germany. It is clear that, against the totally negative background of National Socialism, resistance had from the beginning (as well in East Germany) a positive connotation that was largely nourished by the courage shown and by the belief in its fundamental motivating value: human dignity. A pure putsch within the National Socialist party to take over power would not have been termed resistance to National Socialism.

What is the relationship between resistance and civil courage? If we start from the defining elements we have discussed–of nonconformism and the courageous risk of one’s own life–resistance certainly required civil courage. And if we add the motivating value of human dignity, which is included in the term resistance, our definition of civil courage becomes more complex. But civil courage lacks one element (a necessarily defining one) that belongs to resistance: opposition to the regime. Although one can argue that the resistance against National Socialist crimes did not always include, at least in the mind of the resisting person, total opposition to the regime, it turned out that the crimes that were being resisted were a systemic element of the regime and the logic to resist them led to total opposition to the regime. The question gets more difficult in the case of Communist East Germany. But those who called themselves resistors–as distinct from reformers or dissidents–had as their object a fundamental change of regime.

The difference between the two regimes touches on the problem of the reformability of National Socialism versus communism and also on the point that even adherents of the theory of totalitarianism held: namely, that structural analogies between the red and the brown totalitarianisms should not hide the differences between their fundamental ideological intentions and hence the motivations of their militants. National Socialism began by denying any European tradition of universal values and equal liberty or dignity. Communism, however, legitimated its regime with these values–but practically denied them to a large extend. Opposition to the “bad” reality of communism could have been initiated with the slogan “back to the roots” and in accordance with democratic efforts for human dignity, something that was not possible in the case of National Socialism.

Whatever our position in that context is, it is clear resistance needs civil courage and aims mainly at changing a regime; civil courage is not necessarily tied to such radical change nor would it be required under a democratic constitution, something opponents would not want to change. But civil courage is connected to the motivation to preserve a social mechanism or the human dignity of a person. Why is civil courage also required under democratic circumstances, which theoretically and constitutionally rely on human dignity? Are a democratic constitution and corresponding institutions not self-sustaining? Do they not guarantee democratic procedures and a democratic life?

A substantial body of work on political culture tells us that good institutions do not by themselves accomplish what they are designed for; you also need good people. We can see this when we consider how difficult it is to pass laws that would fulfill the promises of democracy. This explains why in democracies like the United States and Germany considerable discussion has focused on the question of “civil disobedience.” Specifying just what this term means can help us better determine the meaning of civil courage.

In Germany during the 1970s, there was broad discussion on the difference between “legitimacy” and “legality.” Provoked by the actions of new social movements, the debate confronted the young German democracy with arguments that were laden with the historical weight of the Weimar Republic. Because the new opposition helped to delegitimate the Weimar Republic, many convinced democrats in the 1970s struggled against the renewal of that opposition. But problems such as nuclear energy, environmental degradation, and political asylum continued to fuel public discussion on the relationship between legitimacy and legality. In the 1980s a theoretical clarification took place not only under the influence of Jurgen Habermas but also through an intense examination of the Anglo-Saxon debate on civil disobedience.

As a result both sides made concessions. Those who fought for the right to break laws they found only “formally” legal but substantially illegitimate conceded that to break laws without accepting the consequences would destroy the entire legal system–without which no right can be realized. They also accepted that they had to check their subjective idea of legitimacy against generally accepted democratic norms.

The discussion led by Habermas resulted in the delineation of a number of conditions democratic civil disobedience should comply with:

* A democratic regime under the rule of law cannot guarantee the democratic substance of every law or rule. Disobedience is permissible when laws or state orders openly contradict the fundamental values of the constitution.

* If that disobedience should strengthen the democratic regime and constitution, the opponents must recognize this constitution and the principle of legality. This means that they have to accept the consequences of breaking the law and–in serious cases–the possibility they may be imprisoned.

* Their case should be general and important enough to instigate a legal change to the law in question. The case should center on a fundamental democratic value.

* The seriousness of the disobedience should be clear from the sacrifice required as a consequence of breaking the law.

Under these conditions civil disobedience is necessary. It also strengthens democratic regimes because the defects no democracy can avoid having are corrected by the commitment of the people.

We are left with the question: What now is the relationship between civil disobedience and civil courage? Both take risks and need courage, although civil disobedience is sometimes practiced by a group, which means that it is not the case that a lone individual is standing up to his or her larger community. They also share a commitment to fundamental democratic values. Civil courage may not, however, necessarily collide with a law or a legal norm to the degree that civil disobedience might be regarded as a special case of civil courage (as was the case with resistance).

To sum up. We call civil courage an attitude and behavior that relies on an individual decision motivated and legitimated by the fundamental value of human dignity for whose protection the courageous individual behaves in a nonconformist manner and takes a personal risk. As in the case of Aristotle’s analysis of courage, this behavior is rooted in a life-long acquired attitude; in practice it often occurs spontaneously despite its reflective nature. It is possible and necessary within both a democratic and a dictatorial constitutional framework and does not automatically oppose the entire political regime. In a constitutional democracy, it strengthens the institutions that require support from the subjective behavior of citizens in order to remain alive and strong. It could, therefore, lead to the breaking of a democratic rule if the person doing so is ready to accept the consequences of doing so.

What we have not addressed until now is the thorny problem of violence and the nearly endless number of definitions of violence.


Studies designed to discover the conditions that favored civil courage in East Germany and in Germany during the National Socialist period have reached the following conclusions. Reports on the motives and behavior of those who rescued Jews during the Nazi era indicate that they generally acted spontaneously. This would correspond to Aristotle’s life-long acquired attitude. Many of the rescuers had personal contacts and friendships with Jews and an ideological distance from National Socialism, and many followed mostly personal examples from their youth that had inserted into them the ideas of human dignity and equality with which they identified deeply. They did not reflect upon possible advantages or disadvantages but simply felt the impulse to help. Many showed a clear personal strength and they also felt strong; they were endowed with an intense empathy with and fidelity to their life principles. Some characteristics of their family socialization pointed to what was later called skeptically “secondary virtues” (that is, those attitudes, such as reliability, punctuality, and friendliness, that could serve very different aims). Obedience was not the recurring theme of their education. When they were punished they could easily recognize the connection between the punishment and their actions. The so-called bystanders, on the contrary, felt fundamentally helpless; punishment acted like a lightning rod, obedience was an important part of their educational experience.

These empirical findings were confirmed and enlarged by a famous experiment carried out by Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s work showed that a number of factors contributed to a subject’s inflicting pain on a victim: the authority of the person who led the experiment, the idea that the subject in the experiment was serving an important project (science), the subject’s having entered into a contract, and the fact that the subject was visually separated from the victim and was part of a larger technical setting. Those who stopped inflicting pain earlier in the experiment did so because others induced them to stop, because they had the impression they heard the victims cry, or because of special personal convictions (especially religious ones).

The empirical reasons East Germans joined the Stasi or declined the invitation to be part of it are in line with former findings and enlarge them. Many of those who became members felt fearful and powerless; they longed for integration into a social context that would strengthen their self-esteem and the idea of a meaningful life. Very often information the Stasi had received was used to blackmail or intimidate people. In a number of cases Stasi collaborators began or even maintained an unshakable trust in communism or in the individuals who tried to bring them into the Stasi.

Those who opposed the invitations to join the Stasi were repelled by the idea that they would have to deceive their neighbors or friends. Women resisted more often than men and seemed to be less attracted by the opportunity to exercise the power they could attain through Stasi membership. A strong sense of autonomy, of independent thinking and evaluating one’s own life experiences, and, of course, belonging to non-Communist ideological groups that abhorred betrayal helped individuals to decide to risk not becoming a member of the Stasi. It should be noted that the problem of trust or betrayal was a very special one because the activities of the Stasi depended on betrayal even as the Stasi depended on co-optation–which relies on trust–to recruit new members. Thus the Stasi destroyed the substance it needed to function adequately.

Civil courage in a democracy like the German Federal Republic does not have to confront the risk of state terror or oppression, but it does face threats from parts of society itself. Numerous incidents have shown that helping a person who is attacked on a tram or a bus may involve considerable risk and that those nearby watching are likely not to intervene to help the individual aiding the person who is under attack. In general a country’s political culture determines how important a role civil courage plays in a society’s support for democratic institutions.


To what degree can the suicidal attacks we have experienced in the last few years be considered examples of civil courage? The decision to commit suicide seems to require courage at least insofar it does not result from pure despair. In general, following Aristotle, to flee a despairing situation or to seek an individual advantage–a material one, to save one’s own soul–would not fulfill the theoretical conditions of courage. Man, defined by Aristotle as a rational and political animal, is not allowed to pursue just his individual happiness. He has to serve the polis. The battlefield appears for the great philosopher to be its best example. In that sense, to find the nearest way to heaven would not be the honorable execution of virtue.

Suicide as a means of freeing one’s people may be closer to courage in the Aristotelian interpretation. It could be considered a self-sacrifice. But in the form of suicide attacks it lacks open confrontation with the enemy. In addition to the innocent victims these attacks aim to create and mostly include, it cannot be considered an instrument for a free society and thus an honorable patriotic strategy because the instrument is designed to harm the social form it is used for.

Still less are suicidal attacks a form of civil courage. The civitas–the civil community–that civil courage is to serve implies as a supreme value the dignity of people, expressed in their right to self-determination; it requires nonconformism and the pondering of arguments; it is used to strengthen the rule of law and thus to find ways of compromise; and it seeks to avoid violence. Violent suicidal attacks, then, that do not merely fail to show respect for the self-esteem of the innocent attacked but in fact hurt or destroy their physical and]or psychic integrity, and cannot have status as civil courage. Such attacks cannot be imagined as instruments for a free society or an honorable, patriotic strategy. The results of these actions are not democratic societies but social organizations ruled by fear.

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