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European Sources of Human Dignity

A Commented Anthology

Mette Lebech

This anthology brings together texts of significance for the conceptualisation of human dignity as a constitutional principle in Europe from the earliest evidence until 1965. It divides into four parts, respectively presenting the ancient, the medieval, the early modern and the modern sources. As far as human dignity is a constitutional principle, its history follows closely that of the constitution of states. However, various traditions of human dignity, understanding it to rely on features unrelated to the state, combine in the background to reflect the substance of the idea. The introductions to texts, chapters and parts narrates this history in relation to the texts presented to reflect it. The aim is to provide for scholars and students of law, philosophy, political science and theology a collection of texts documenting the history of the concept of human dignity that is sufficiently comprehensive to contextualise the various understandings of it. A structured bibliography accompanies the work.

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Chapter 12. The Impact of the Second World War


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The Impact of the Second World War

The world wars marked a progressive but finally complete transition to nation states in Europe. This was probably a function of the ideal of democracy: demos means people, and a people is a nation. As aristocratic dynasties finally lost their grip on the last of the empires in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved out according to ethnic groups and the Jews were left with no land to claim as their own and no place to go. What followed had no real parallel in European history, and it is still difficult to talk about. It was this that forged the notion of human dignity definitively into a constitutional principle immediately after the wars had ended.

In the aftermath, reflections on human dignity continue to be profoundly marked by the experience of the wars. The idea of untouchability (Unantastbarkeit) predominates in the German linguistic sphere, whereas inalienability predominates as an innovation in the English-speaking world. It may be a by-product of the experience of horror to recognise the human dignity of the perpetrator, but it also presents a political necessity since those who had been responsible for the crimes committed were still around and some in high office. To pretend no unspeakable crime had taken place was also impossible. That human dignity was inherent in the violator as well as in the violated could be a kind of compromise that allowed for...

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