The German Basic Law (i.e. de facto Constitution) begins with the bold statement in Article 1, (1):

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.

Once that principle is established, I assume it is for the Bundestag to determine the definition and boundary of the term "human dignity" by law.

What is the current legal framework around "human dignity" in Germany? Is there any legislation that elaborates on its definition?

Additionally, what role does the German judiciary have in shaping the definition of human dignity? I know Germany is not a common law country so legal precedence does not matter as much, but it's still worth looking into.


2 Answers 2


Judicial precedent might matter less than under common law systems, but it does matter in Germany, especially if it comes from the highest courts.

For instance, much data privacy protection prior to the EU regulations was derived from the Constitutional Court interpreting Article 1 and 2. This led to the term informational self-determination, which can be much more sweeping than mere privacy. Another interpretation of human dignitiy is the ban on life sentences without the possibility of parole, which is reflected in criminal law (this came up when a lower court referred the constitutionality of life sentences to the constitutional court).

It wrote

Bei alledem darf nicht aus den Augen verloren werden: Die Würde des Menschen ist etwas Unverfügbares. Die Erkenntnis dessen, was das Gebot, sie zu achten, erfordert, ist jedoch nicht von der historischen Entwicklung zu trennen.

Considering this it must not be overlooked: human dignity is not open to disposition. But the understanding of what the requirement to respect human dignity entails cannot be divorced from historical development. (My translation)

So mostly human dignity is used as a basis to judge other laws and regulations, which happens by the courts if the legislative has overreached or by the legislative if it refrains from overreaching in the first place.

  • 1
    That may be true, but it doesn't answer the question. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 12:47
  • 1
    @henning: This answer requires the reader to read between the lines. Human dignity is defined by the courts because it is not defined by the law.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:00
  • Yes, but how do the courts, especially the federal constitutional court, define it in their standing jurisprudence? Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:08
  • 1
    @henning, it does clarify that the constitutional court plays a major role in defining the meaning of dignity, which is very much the question in the last paragraph. A more extensive answer would certainly be possible, and I'd upvote it if it is good ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:10
  • I see, we interpret the question a bit differently. I take "the law" to include constitution, legislation, and jurisprudence (case law). +1 then for answering an important part of the question, if my vote weren't locked. (Unfortunately, I'd don't really have time to dig into the case law at the moment.) Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:53

There is, in fact, no law or codified legal definition passed by parliament of human dignity (Menschenwürde) in Germany. This is by design. Compare with the text of article 4, section 3:

Niemand darf gegen sein Gewissen zum Kriegsdienst mit der Waffe gezwungen werden. Das Nähere regelt ein Bundesgesetz.

No person shall be compelled against his conscience to render military service involving the use of arms. Details shall be regulated by a federal law.
Translation as given by Wikisource

In this article, it is explicitly mentioned that details regarding the right not to serve in the military against one's conscience are to be regulated by a federal law. Article 1 (like most of the basic rights articles 1 through 19) lacks that explicit statement.

Of course, the lack of an explicit statement requiring regulation by law does not mean something cannot be regulated by law. Nonetheless, throughout the history of the Federal Republic of Germany no government felt the need to define the term by passing an appropriate law.

Instead, human dignity is to be understood as a general guideline that the government and parliament have to interpret in order to legislate accordingly without violating the spirit of the article. The closest there is to a legal definition of human dignity is the content of the following articles 2 through 19, where they codify human and citizen rights (such as freedom of speech, right to private ownership, gender equality, etc.).

On the other hand and maybe somewhat surprisingly, it is indeed the judiciary that is most active in defining the scope and limitations of human dignity; more precisely it is the Federal Constitutional Court. This has a number of responsibilities but the two that stand out in this context are the Constitutional Complaint (Verfassungsbeschwerde) and Regulation Control (Normenkontrolle). The second is the request by a court of law, the Bundestag or a state or the federal government to confirm that a law complies with constitutional requirements while the first -- which makes up upwards of 90 % of cases the court has to deal with -- is a complaint by a person to investigate whether any branch of government has violated their constitutionally protected rights.

In important cases the court has to decide, it will often elaborate how and under which circumstances specific acts or laws violate the spirit of Article 1, human dignity. One example was its ruling on the Luftsicherheitsgesetz (Air Security Law) of 2005 (link in German). Briefly, the law which was written based on the experience of the 2001 terror attacks in the US included a provision to shoot down an aeroplane which was being used as a weapon against civilians as a last resort. Among other reasons, it ruled that this law violated article 1. It elaborated that a core element of human dignity is being treated as a subject, permitting one's own choices of action. In the case of a plane being shot down, the passengers and crew would, however, be degraded to objects at the hand of the state as they would have no chance to influence their fate. Copied into the quotation block below is the relevant part of the original ruling in German which would be too complicated for me to translate.

Was [die Verpflichtung zur Achtung und zum Schutz der Menschenwürde] für das staatliche Handeln konkret bedeutet, lässt sich nicht ein für allemal abschließend bestimmen (vgl. BVerfGE 45, 187 <229>; 96, 375 <399 f.>). Art. 1 Abs. 1 GG schützt den einzelnen Menschen nicht nur vor Erniedrigung, Brandmarkung, Verfolgung, Ächtung und ähnlichen Handlungen durch Dritte oder durch den Staat selbst (vgl. BVerfGE 1, 97 <104>; 107, 275 <284>; 109, 279 <312>). Ausgehend von der Vorstellung des Grundgesetzgebers, dass es zum Wesen des Menschen gehört, in Freiheit sich selbst zu bestimmen und sich frei zu entfalten, und dass der Einzelne verlangen kann, in der Gemeinschaft grundsätzlich als gleichberechtigtes Glied mit Eigenwert anerkannt zu werden (vgl. BVerfGE 45, 187 <227 f.>), schließt es die Verpflichtung zur Achtung und zum Schutz der Menschenwürde vielmehr generell aus, den Menschen zum bloßen Objekt des Staates zu machen (vgl. BVerfGE 27, 1 <6>); 45, 187 <228>; 96, 375 <399>). Schlechthin verboten ist damit jede Behandlung des Menschen durch die öffentliche Gewalt, die dessen Subjektqualität, seinen Status als Rechtssubjekt, grundsätzlich in Frage stellt (vgl. BVerfGE 30, 1 <26>; 87, 209 <228>; 96, 375 <399>), indem sie die Achtung des Wertes vermissen lässt, der jedem Menschen um seiner selbst willen, kraft seines Personseins, zukommt (vgl. BVerfGE 30, 1 <26>; 109, 279 <312 f.>). Wann eine solche Behandlung vorliegt, ist im Einzelfall mit Blick auf die spezifische Situation zu konkretisieren, in der es zum Konfliktfall kommen kann (vgl. BVerfGE 30, 1 <25>; 109, 279 <311>).
quoted from Wikipedia

Without having to understand the entirety of what has been written in that quote, note that there are cross-references to other rulings the court has made on how to interpret human dignity; they begin with vgl. BVerfGE.

The ability of the Federal Constitutional Court to elaborate what exactly constitutes human dignity even though Germany is a civil law country is regulated by law, specifically the Bundesverfassungsgerichtsgesetz (BVerfGG) or Act on the Federal Constitutional Court which regulates the details of how the court operates in accordance with Article 94, Basic Law. § 31 BVerfGG regulates that decisions of the court are binding to executive, legislative and judiciary powers and that in certain enumerated cases these decisions have the force of law. Essentially, this makes the highest court of a civil law country a type of common law precedent-setting court.

As minor asides, it is worth noting that precedent also matters in civil law countries (i.e. it is generally expected for later cases to be decided in the same way as previous ones unless the situation is markedly different) and that the Federal Constitutional Court is not part of the appeals process. One cannot appeal one's case all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court. If however, one successfully claims that another court violated one's constitutional rights in a Constitutional Complaint, the FCC may annul the ruling in question including the entire chain of appeals and resubmit the case to the lowest court anew.

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