More about Bürger

Translator’s Note: Because there is no single English equivalent for Bürger — the correct translation varies with the context — I have retained the German word and its compounds below, followed in brackets by a translation that fits the context. Wherever the old English term burgher seemed to work, I did not include the German term.

Meyers Großes Konversationslexikon, Leipzig and Vienna, 1903, Vol. 3, pp. 620-621.

Bürger, member of a community, particularly Staatsbürger [national citizen] or Gemeindebürger [burgher, townsman]. We also speak of akademische Bürger [academic burghers], students at a college or university. Present-day Bürgertum [burgherhood] has its origins in the 9th century, when fortified towns were regarded as offering the greatest security. The defenders of the fortified towns (castra in Latin), as servants of the Burgen (castles), were called Bürger (burgenses in Latin, or “castlemen”). Later the inhabitants secured behind city walls, who once were subject to the absolute power of the nobility, gained independence. From then on, Bürger became a term of respect applied to every inhabitant who enjoyed city rights. But soon after the city inhabitants gained this importance, various classes began to emerge among them. Rising to the top were the “fully entitled” inhabitants — councilmen, merchants, and members of the more prestigious guilds, who constituted the burgher class, as opposed to the city-dwellers whose breadwinners were mere artisans and not eligible for guild membership. But eventually, when these underprivileged artisans gained not only the right to form guilds but also, through open rebellion against the governing families in the Middle Ages, the right to sit on city councils, the word acquired still more restricted meanings, even though all entitled members of an urban community were called Bürger,. In some towns the term Bürger was applied to homeowners, as distinct from artisans, and strict boundaries were drawn between the two groups. The definition of Bürger became even narrower by contrast with Schutzverwandten, Beisitzer, Beisassen or mere Einwohner. The latter were not full burghers, and the term Bürger came to mean only the members of the urban community with full rights. Schutzverwandte were subject to the city’s authority and jurisdiction but had no voice in city affairs and could not hold city office. Nor could they earn their livelihood as full burghers; they were restricted to certain trades. Because certain privileges, such as eligibility to own real estate or to practice certain trades, were reserved for full burghers in the cities, persons who would not have needed admittance to a city on the basis of their class were now motivated to seek burgher status. Called Ausbürger or Pfahlbürger, they too had limited burgher rights. There were also Grasbürger or Feldbürger, who lived in the villages within the city territory; and Glevenbürger (from gleve = lance, spear), who were granted burgher rights with the obligation to render military service to the city.

In the 16th century, the subjects of a sovereign state were also beginning to be regarded as a unified community; since then, fully entitled subjects of the state have been called Staatsbürger…. Their rights, called bürgerliche Ehrenrechte [civil rights], can be forfeited through unlawful behavior…. The Bürger [burghers] of the individual towns, in contrast, are designated as Ortsbürger or Gemeindebürger, generally with no distinction between urban and rural communities, just as the legal distinction between Bürger and Bauer [farmer, peasant] has completely disappeared…. As Staatsbürger [national citizens], the members of the two classes that were once strictly differentiated — Bürger and Bauer — are on an equal footing, and likewise the legal distinction between Bürger and Adel [burghers and nobility] has almost completely disappeared…. Also the gradations within the burgher class, which persisted on into modern times through custom and speech habit, are now meaningless. Those who plied trades in the cities tended to be called burghers in contrast to civil servants, artists, etc. There also used to be a distinction between upper and lower middle class. Recently proponents of socialism have sought to differentiate between the working class and the middle class, and they hold up and oppose the bourgeois [French equivalent of Bürger] as representing the capitalistic system of production. Now Staatsbürgerrecht or citizens’ rights are equally accessible to every citizen. Furthermore, in the German Empire, as in the former North German Confederation, the principle of freedom to move and resettle (freedom of movement) prevails. Important rights once linked to burgher status are now extended to every member of the state or empire. The latter have been granted “general native status,” which means that in any German state they are to be treated as if they were natives of that state. They have the right of permanent residence and the right to practice a trade, hold public office, and acquire property. They can enjoy the rights of national citizenship and all other civil rights under the same conditions as those born in the state…. ,

In modern times, the concept of Gemeindebürger [townsman, burgher] status has therefore lost much of its significance. Some of the rights implied by the term were and are a matter of public law, others of private or civil law. Among the former are the rights to vote, to hold local office, and to have a voice in community affairs. One of the latter that is still significant today in many towns is the right to use communal property, as long as it is not restricted to individual classes in the community by statute, custom, or agreement. Burgher law also imposes certain obligations on burghers (burgher services, burgher encumbrances), such as the duty to accept town posts, to perform services for the town, and to pay local fees (burgher taxes). However, nonburghers are now subject to the town tax assessments as well, if they are permanent residents of the town. Burgher status is acquired either by law, if the statutory requirements are met, or through admittance by agents of the town. In earlier times it was also customary for sovereigns to award burgher status without consulting the town council; the recipients were called Gnadenbürger [burghers by favor]. As a rule, any subject who meets the statutory requirements is eligible for burgher status. Upon admittance, the name of the new burgher is entered in the burgher book (burgher register, burgher roll); he pays a burgher fee for his admittance and then receives a burgher certificate, a document certifying his admittance. Persons who have rendered special service to a city or whom the town council wishes to honor are awarded Ehrenbürgerrecht [honorary burgher status] by the council, but this generally has no legal effect. Burgher status is lost upon renunciation or whenever the legal requirements are no longer met.

In former times there was a significant distinction between Vollbürger [full burghers] and Schutzbürger [protected burghers]. Schutzbürger or Schutzverwandte (residents with national citizenship) were people who, on the basis of a national law, were entitled to reside in the town and therefore had to exercise their rights and fulfill their duties as national citizenship in that town. Ausmärker (Forensen, Markgenossen) are persons who do not reside in the town but who own property or have other in rem rights there, on the basis of which they share the benefits and burdens of the community association.

The term bürgerlich [adjective formed from the noun Bürger] or zivil [its Latin-based counterpart] is also used to distinguish the civilian population from military personnel, as well as to distinguish private law from public law (constitutional law, criminal law). We speak of bürgerliches Recht or Zivilrecht [civil law], bürgerlicher Prozeß or Zivilprozeß [civil process]. Cf. Schröder, Lehrbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte [Textbook of German Legal History] (4th Ed., Leipzig 1902).

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