Gutmensch (literally good human in German) is an ironic, sarcastic or disparaging cultural term similar to "do-gooder". Those who use the term are implying that Gutmenschen have an overwhelming wish to be good and eagerly seek approval. Further suggesting a supposed moralising and proselytising behaviour and being dogmatic. In political rhetoric Gutmensch is used as a polemic term. See also Stereotype or Personality.


Users of the term believe that people or groups of people with a specific moral attitude show a wrong or problematic behaviour.[1] Therefore, it was used as a popular term in the 1980s for people who valued humanistic, altruistic, but also religious and human goals in life higher than utilitarian ones. They organise their actions, politics as well as their lives accordingly.[2]

The term Gutmensch is also connected to the term political correctness and has been used in a derogatory manner since the mid 1990s. In general language use it is always used as a negatively connotated foreign appellation. A use that is meant in "a nice way" can often be found only in face-to-face conversations, such as the saying "to have a heart of gold", in generosity or in an extreme form of altruism.[2][3]

The term also hints at the possible difference between "meant well" and "well done". Gutmenschen have good intentions, want to solve specific problems or have the desire to create a better world. Those who use the term Gutmensch in a negative way evaluate the actions of Gutmenschen as not appropriate or unnecessary. This is how the term is used in everyday language. The German dictionary Duden, which included the term in 2000, defines Gutmensch as "a naive person who acts in an uncritical, exaggerated or tedious way while fighting for political correctness."[4]

Origins and use

According to researcher Rembert Hüser, the term Gutmensch was coined as a joke made by German feuilleton writers of the "generation 1989", such as Matthias Horx and Klaus Bittermann. They were among the authors of dictionaries opposing the protests of 1968. These dictionaries were written in the style of Eckardt Henscheids Dummdeutsch dictionary (dealing with language criticism) and can be considered a combination of popular and political literature. They did not differentiate between the meaning of a word and how it is used. Bittermann explains in his epilogue of the Wörterbuch des Gutmenschen (dictionary of the Gutmensch):

Literary scientist Karl Heinz Bohrer wrote at the end of his commentaries, in which he argued against the "terror of conciliation exerted by the provinciality of the Federal Republic of Germany": 'Maybe it would be best, if the Merkur established a little dictionary of the Gutmensch, including entries like tearing down the wall in our minds, constructive debates, weird thinking or stubbornness. We have long been waiting for that to happen, in vain as it turns out. Since things have not improved, we feel like we have to take care of that matter ourselves.'

Since the mid 1990s, Gutmensch has been used alongside political correctness[5] in political and ideological debates, in order to degrade political opponents as over-moralizing.[6]

Former Merkur publisher Kurt Scheel once claimed to have used the term first in that sense.[7][8] Gutmensch was considered the "latest critical chic" in the art sections of newspapers. Writers, like Klaus Bittermann, came up with a variety of neologisms referring to PC and accompanying the appearance of Gutmensch. Some of them can roughly be translated as Gutmensch language, bleeding-heart language, attitudinal kitsch, attitudinal language or chatter jargon.

In 2006, the German Journalists Association claimed that the term Gutmensch had its origins in Nazi Germany. Following that claim, the association planned on including the term in a handbook on the sensitive use of language for journalists, which they wanted to publish in cooperation with the Duisburg Institute of Language and Social Studies.[2] However, some time later the Institute explicitly objected to that claim made by the DJV. Having conducted their own research on this topic, the Institute concluded that there was no clear connection between Gutmensch and Nazi Germany.[9] Nevertheless, in a pre-published sample of the above-mentioned handbook, it was stated that Gutmensch had been introduced by the Nazis to refer to followers of Cardinal von Galen, who had openly opposed the Nazi programme of forced euthanasia. According to the DJV, Gutmensch was derived from the Yiddish expression "a gutt Mensch" (a good human). Furthermore, they indicated that it was Adolf Hitler, who in his book Mein Kampf had repeatedly used the prefix "gut" (good) in a derogatory way, so as to accuse people who expressed goodwill and good-heartedness of collaborating with the German enemies.[10]

Another widespread opinion on where Gutmensch originates, is that it was Friedrich Nietzsche who coined it.[2] There are numerous disparaging remarks in Nietzsche's writings concerning the "good human", albeit not as a fixed expression. The Association for the German Language mentions as their first source a 1985 edition of the Forbes magazine, in which Franz Steinkühler, at that time co-chairman of Germany's biggest metalworker's union, is called a Gutmensch.[11]

A more positive link may be Bertolt Brecht's play The Good Person of Szechwan (German: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan) whose main theme is the difficulty of acting good in a world that is not good.[12]

Die Welt journalist Matthias Heine brings into play German pedagogical scientist Christian Oeser, who may have invented the term. In Oeser's book "Letters to a Maiden on the most fundamental Topics of Aesthetics", published in 1859, he writes about naive Gutmenschen as follows: "Isn't it clear that in the end, such a gullible Gutmensch will be laughed at for his unconditional love towards humans, that the whole world will call him a fool and that he will eventually fall prey to his own weakness?"[13]

It is worth mentioning that similar terms can be found in other languages as well, for example the Italian buonismo, with meanings all referring to the Gutmensch.

In areas critical of society

Occasionally, people who see themselves as critics of society ironically condemn would-be campaigners who criticize society without applying the same criteria to themselves. The term Gutmensch sees criticism of racism as symbolic when the speakers own racist behaviour is not reflected. That kind of criticism means that political utterances which don’t demand consequences are only made to allow the speaker to appear in a good light. Especially Sunday speeches of politicians will be criticized, if they pretend to be advocates for "victims". People who are concerned determinedly reject a locking up into a role as victim.[14]

The "friend of foreigners", having good intentions, is a specific example. According to humanistic approaches, they think everyone is equal, but foreigners impose their "own needs, ethical and moral ideas and goals" on him (jemandem etwas aufzwingen, aufdrängen) Sabine Forschner).[15]

Norbert Bolz (TU Berlin), an academic in media and communication, said in a radio station Deutschlandfunk on 11 August 2014:

Gutmenschen are people who have oral presentation techniques that have been given a name in the last couple of decades, i.e. political correctness. This political correctness can be described precisely and therefore also the Gutmensch is described; it is composed of political moralisation, from a kind of hygiene of speech, with a vast amount of speech taboo and furthermore, also from a kind of frigidly puritan attitude.

In political debates

The term is used with a different purpose and frequency in the overall political spectrum, i.e. as a polemic term in a discussion with (actual and would-be) representatives of a "political correctness", but mainly in the field of conservativeness, rightwing populism and rightwing totalitarianism.[2][16]

In political rhetoric

The political right use the term more often in order to discrediting political opposites. By downgrading "left" ideals to "do-goodism", they emphasise the claim to argue in an own realistic way and on a factual level while the Gutmensch are implied to have lost touch with reality, to have a weak reflecting capacity, an unrealistic and high claim or utopian ideas.[1][17][18] Michael Klonovsky, for example, chief executive at German news magazine Focus, accused:[19]

The Gutmensch finds the fact outrageous that there is an unproductive lower class, a benefit-scrounging scum, that there is plebs. Therefore, he declares everyone of being bad who points it out to someone. If it is, on top of everything, an economic migrant, the popular accusation of racism and xenophobia is coming very likely into practice in the same way as the user of the term settles far from social inner cities.

People who are offended in such a way see this as a rhetoric trick, which ridicules their striving for humanism, solidarity and social equity. Seeing the counterpart as Gutmensch took the discussion to a personal (argumentum ad hominem = "ad personam") and emotional level, in order to avoiding a discussion on a content level.[1]

The term is often used as an aggressive defense strategy against criticism on personal positions. Potential criticism on (factual or putative) racist, homophobic, anti-semitic (and increasing also anti-Islamic) or sexual violations taboos is debilitated by downgrading the person with those rhetoric strategies.[1]

Moralistic strategy

In political discussions the usage of the term Gutmensch gains a moral polarized shape, which is convenient to decrease the respect of the political opponent and to discredit them. There are strategies in political rhetoric to discuss political topics either on a factual level or on a moral level. Stigmatizations of political opponents by using terms like "pc" (political correctness) or Gutmensch moralize communications. Therefore, the position of the political opponent is discredited and he is forced to change position, if he doesn`t want to lose reputation. Especially obvious becomes the strategy, if there are actual or claimed taboos. The art of the rhetoric is working when terms like Gutmensch or "moralizing prig" bring the political opponent in discussions into situations where the reply is supposed to say "my opinion or the tabooed view". This rhetoric proves as effective, because only under difficult circumstances can factual matters be discussed analytically. Clemens Knobloch (Universität Siegen) refers to this relationship.

As "ideological code"

According to a discourse analytical survey, which was published by political scientist Katrin Auer in the Österreichischen Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft (ÖZP), are especially topics placed by the political right under the cipher "pc" (the term coming up usually because of Gutmenschen) of which the society was not able to talk openly without falling victim to the "terror of Gutmenschen". Gutmenschen thereby revealed were often pictured club swinging, in this context talking about "moralizing prig", "racist prig", "fascist prig", "Auschwitz prig" or similar, so Auer. Therefore, a concept of the enemy and a concept of the taboo came up, in which in particular misogynist, racist and anti-Semitic comments appeared rebellious and taboo breaking, it was said in the article. The term Gutmensch functioned here as code in order to being able to talk and being understood in this paradigm without having to expose one's own attitude, Auer adds. A well-known example was to replace the word "Jew" by the term Gutmensch in anti-Semitic speeches. Parts of the audience which understood themselves not as anti-Semitic, were allowed to agree without hesitation, concludes Katrin Auer.[20]

Further use

Until 20th century

Gutmenschen, then called bonhommes or boni homines, was a term used for members of the heretic movement in medieval times. They were also referred to as Cathars, but for themselves they used the name veri christiani (true Christians). Aside from the derogatory use, the French term bonhomme (good person) did carry a positive connotation at times, ascribing moral qualities just as the English term gentleman does. On the other hand, it was non other than Karl Marx who used bonhomme in a derisive manner. He polemically wrote about "Jacque le bonhomme", which was a disguise for mocking Max Stirner.[21]

Harald Martenstein

German author and journalist Harald Martenstein developed his own definition of Gutmensch after repeatedly having dealt with the term shitstorm (in German exclusively referring to an internet meme) in his writings. In 2015, he proposed using Gutmensch to describe people who act aggressive and self-righteous when fighting for what they think is the good cause, unmindfully considering themselves being excluded from any set of social rules. Gutmenschen, in that sense, believe that it is ok to be offensive, humiliating and to even exert violence.[22] Not even having publicized his proposal, Martenstein already received heavy criticism. Among the critics was Die Welt journalist Matthias Heine, who accused Martenstein of tempting the wrong people to over-use the word by putting too much of an emphasis on the term, therefore turning Gutmensch into an unusable word for those being of sound mind.[13] Ironically, one year earlier, German writer Akif Pirinçci had called Martenstein a Gutmensch in his polemic Deutschland von Sinnen (Germany unhinged).[23] At that time, Martenstein was still rather in favor of the term, polemically explaining in his book Die neuen Leiden des alten M. (The New Suffering of Old M.): "As for good-doing and most things in general, it is a question of the dosage: when overdone it becomes totalitarian."[24]

Wordmark Gutmensch

In 2014, Patrick Orth, manager of German rock band Die Toten Hosen, registered the wordmark Gutmensch.[25] Since then, the band has been selling print T-shirts labeled "Gutmensch – No one likes us. We don't care!".

Unwort des Jahres

In Germany, the "Unwort des Jahres", a word with bad connotations, is annually nominated by a changing, independent jury of four linguists and one journalist. Gutmensch was nominated in 2011 (second position) and 2015 (first position).[26] In 2011 the jury stated:

By using the term the ethical idea of the good man is picked up maliciously in internet forums in order to vilify all dissidents without considering their arguments. The term "Wutbürger" (enraged people) is used in a similar way, although the term Gutmensch violates principles of democracy (...). The term has been used in that way for already 20 years. However, it has gained more influence in different socio-political contexts in 2011 and has therefore increased its potential of vilifying dissidents.[27]

The statement in 2015 said that the term is connected to the refugee crisis. Here, especially those are insulted who voluntarily help refugees or stand against refugee asylums attacks.[28][29][30][31] The choice was influenced by the refugee crisis in 2015. The term Gutmensch was selected because "readiness to help others" vilified everyone who helped as naive, stupid and unworldly.[32] The criticism was not only against populists of the right, but also against journalists of important media channels who would use the term "Gutmensch".[33]

See also


  1. Clemens Knobloch: Moralisierung und Sachzwang. Politische Kommunikation in der Massendemokratie. Duisburg 1998 (künftig: Knobloch: Moralisierung).
  2. Jürgen Hoppe/Deutscher Journalisten-Verband: "Memorandum zur "Initiative Journalisten gegen Rassismus"" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2016-07-20.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link), 27 March 2006 (accessed 26 October 2007; PDF; 27 kB).
  3. Katrin Auer: "'Political Correctness' – Ideologischer Code, Feindbild und Stigmawort der Rechten." (PDF; 103 kB). In: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft. Volume 31, Nr. 3, 2002, pp. 291–303, especially p. 294; further: Knobloch: Moralisierung; Gesa von Leesen: "'Das sagt man nicht!' Political Correctness zwischen Moral und Kampfbegriff". In: Das Parlament. 1 February 2007.
  4. in, accessed 24 February 2012.
  5. Z. B. von Reinhard Günzel, siehe dort.
  6. Vgl. Auer: "Political Correctness", p. 294; Brigitta Huhnke: "'political correctness' – ein Mantra nationaler Erweckung". In: ZAG 30, 1999 (also in: ZAG Online); Brigitta Huhnke: "'pc' – Das neue Mantra der Neokonservativen". In: Andreas Disselnkötter u. a. (eds.): Evidenzen im Fluß. Demokratieverluste in Deutschland. Duisburg 1997.
  7. Letter to the editor by Karl Scheel in the Frankfurter Rundschau, 19 November 1997.
  8. Dieter Herberg u. a.: Neuer Wortschatz: Neologismen der 90er Jahre im Deutschen. Berlin 2004, pp. 148 ff
  9. DISS-Journal des Duisburger Instituts für Sprach- und Sozialforschung
  10. Vgl. Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf. Dort als die "Gutmeinenden" oft synonym für "die Juden", aber auch für Deutsche, die sich nicht eindeutig für oder gegen die nationalsozialistische "Bewegung" entscheiden können. Wie im Falle Nietzsches konnte jedoch auch hier keine Verwendung des Wortes "Gutmensch" dokumentiert werden.
  11. Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache zum ersten Aufscheinen des Begriffs im Deutschen: Fragen und Antworten: Gutmensch.
  12. Theaterbremen: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (accessed 2 January 2017)
  13. Matthias Heine: "Wer Gutmensch sagt, verdient sich seinen Shitstorm" (in German). Retrieved 2015-05-13., Die Welt, 23 March 2015
  14. Siehe Susan Arndt: Weißsein. Die verkannte Strukturkategorie Europas und Deutschlands und Mythen des weißen Subjekts: Verleugnung und Hierarchisierung von Rassismus. In: Maureen Maisha Eggers u. a. (Hrsg.): Mythen, Masken und Subjekte. Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster 2005, pp. 24–29 and p. 340–362.
  15. See also Susan Arndt: "Mythen des weißen Subjekts: Verleugnung und Hierarchisierung von Rassismus". In: Maureen Maisha Eggers u. a. (eds.): Mythen, Masken und Subjekte. Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster 2005, pp. 340–362
  16. Auer: "Political Correctness", p. 294.
  17. Auer: "Political Correctness"
  18. Von Leesen: "Das sagt man nicht!".
  19. Michael Klonovsky: Das Gott-Wort der Guten. In: Focus, 31, 2 August 2010.
  20. Auer: Political Correctness., pp. 294, 300 (PDF; 103 kB).
  21. Marx, Engels: Marx-Engels-Werke. 3, pp. 121–123.
  22. Harald Martenstein: "Über die Sehnsucht nach moralischer Überlegenheit" (in German). Retrieved 2015-05-13., Zeit-Magazin, 6 April 2015
  23. Harald Martenstein: "Über Kritik von allen Seiten" (in German). Retrieved 2015-05-13. Zeit-Magazin, 17 May 2014; Akif Pirinçci: Deutschland von Sinnen. Der irre Kult um Frauen, Homosexuelle und Zuwanderer. Manuscriptum, Waltrop 2014, ISBN 978-3-944872-04-9, p. 228
  24. Harald Martenstein: Die neuen Leiden des alten M. Unartige Beobachtungen zum deutschen Alltag. Bertelsmann Verlag, München 2014, ISBN 978-3-641-15077-8, p. 45
  25. Deutungshoheit: "Tote Hosen" sichern sich Rechte am Unwort "Gutmensch",
  26. "Sprachkritik: Gutmensch ist Unwort des Jahres". Spiegel Online (in German). 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2016-01-12.
  27. "Pressemitteilung: Unwort des Jahres 2011", 17 January 2012
  28. Pressemitteilung der Jury
  29. "Wahl des 25. "Unworts des Jahres"" (PDF). Pressemitteilung der sprachkritischen Aktion UNWORT des Jahres (in German). 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2016-01-18.
  30. Der gute alte Gutmensch ist zurück, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12 Januar 2016.
  31. Sprachkritik: "Gutmensch" ist Unwort des Jahres, Spiegel Online, 12 Januar 2016.
  32. "Gutmensch" ist Unwort des Jahres 2015. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12 Januar 2016.
  33. Gutmensch ist Unwort des Jahres, Die Zeit, 12 January 2016.
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