Did you ever wonder what German parties stood for? We just had a regional election, and results were publicized in strange code, “bürgerlich”, “Schwarz-Gelb”, “Rot-Grün”, and what nobody likes, “Rot-Rot-Grün”.
Let’s start with “bürgerlich” or “das bürgerliche Lager”. If you want to define a word, it helps to put it up against its opposite. Under #dailydeutsch someone tweeted the other day that in German the words for citizen and for middle-class person were the same: “Bürger”. The corresponding adjective is “bürgerlich”. To make matters even more complicated, the conservative (CDU/CSU) and liberal (FDP) parties continue to be referred to as “das bürgerliche Lager”.
What does that mean, and how do you define the opposing parties? Strangely, there is no such thing as an opposing term to “das bürgerliche Lager” in German politics. Instead, commentators talk about colors: “Schwarz-Gelb”, synonymous for “bürgerlich” vs. “Rot-Grün”, which has no word for what it signifies.
In the corporatist society of the earlier phases of the German nation, in the late Seventeens and early Eighteenhundreds, the words “Bürger” or “bürgerlich” meant the Third Estate, i.e. anyone who did not belong to the feudal nobility or the clergy. These people usually lived in towns. The word “Bürger” is derived from the same root as the English “burgher”, i.e. someone dwelling within the walls of something fortified, as towns and cities usually were in the Middle Ages.
Then came industrialization and with it a new estate, the working class. So “Bürgerlich” became distinguished from Working Class, or as the Marxists have it, “Proletarian”. The leftists of the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies declared anything they didn’t like as endemic to the “bürgerliche Gesellschaft” (middle class society) and once something was defined that way, you just had to wait for world revolution (Weltrevolution) for it to go away. This was one of the defining factors of feminism in Germany – women in the leftist environment noticed that there were things like commitments to children and the like that wouldn’t go away under any regime and that men used their political zeal to avoid personal responsibilities.
But I digress. What bothers me is that we do not use appropriate words in our political discourse. How do you describe a political spectrum other than with the names of parties? Nowadays we are all “bürgerlich”, because our society is no longer divided into classes, let alone into estates, and most people would agree that Marxism is no real help for describing the social world around us. So we all are “Bürger”, in the sense that we are equal citizens of a democratic polity.
What sense does it make therefore to describe one half of the political spectrum as “bürgerlich?”
That is why we stick to the names of our parties, or to their colors: Black for the parties with a C at the beginning of their names (that’s because these parties’ predecessor represented the catholic regions of pre-1933 Germany), Yellow for the FDP, the Liberal Democrats, Red for the Social Democrats as well as for The Left, Green for the Greens, and Orange for the Pirates.
I would like to plead for stopping to use the term "bürgerlich" as an adjective pertaining to the parties that presenty are in charge of our federal government.