“Wir sind da ein Rechtsstaat”

There’s been some discussion of how Angela Merkel responded to a Palestinian girl who spoke very fluently of her situation but afterwards began to cry, apparently in the stress of the moment. Merkel took the line that Germany can’t take all immigrants without exception, because there are too many. In a TV interview ranging over the political situation before the summer break, Merkel defended her statement, saying Germany is a Rechtsstaat. From Die Zeit:

In diesem Zusammenhang verteidigte Merkel ihre Reaktion auf ein weinendes Mädchen aus dem Libanon. “Ich finde, die Geste war in Ordnung.” Sie könne ja nicht Menschen, mit denen sie diskutiere, sagen, “weil du jetzt die Bundeskanzlerin getroffen hast, ist dein Schicksal schneller zu lösen als das von vielen, vielen anderen”, sagte Merkel. “Wir sind da ein Rechtsstaat.”

The Local translates this as follows:

“I think the gesture was fine,” Merkel, 61, said Sunday.

She said it would be wrong to tell people “just because you met the chancellor, we can resolve your case faster than many, many other people’s”.

“We are a state under the rule of law,” she said.

I often use that translation for Rechtsstaat, but it seems to me that state under the rule of law puts the wrong emphasis here: it emphasizes that the individual has rights and can enforce them at court, whereas Merkel is emphasizing law as a system that needs to be enforced. Maybe constitutional state would work better here.

This problem is particularly acute for interpreters, who have to translate this kind of thing off the cuff, and may also encounter references to the Third Reich as Unrechtsstaat: however you translate it, it tends to lose its rhetorical punch.

6 thoughts on ““Wir sind da ein Rechtsstaat”

  1. The Palestinians, including little Reem, are the ‘last victims’ of a previous German Chancellor by the name of Adolf H. whose ‘unrechtsstaatliche’ racial policies precipitated the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet this point seems too bewildering to the English- and German-speaking media to grasp. ‘Socilaist legaility’ (sozialistische Legalität’), an axiom that seems to have gone out of German and Russian vocabulary since 1994, would never have allowed Reem, paradoxically in the ex-GDR days of Rostock, to be stuck in the middle and be threatened with deportation in the first place.

  2. Unrechtsstaat sent me tangenting to the Reichenspergers and the rights of mid-C19th Prussian Catholics and Jews. (From the Dutch I’d thought of it vaguely as a tag for the Nazi state and then the DDR.) I guess Peter R’s speech will have been praised abroad in more and perhaps less predictable places, and it’d be interesting to know how it was translated back then.

    • I must say I had no idea the term Rechtsstaat came from Kant, let alone that it had been borrowed into Dutch. I’ve got a dictionary of philosophy here which has for Rechtsstaat: constitutional state, state bound by (the rule of) law, but nothing for Unrechtsstaat.
      In the speeches by German politicians I’ve used for students of interpreting, the two terms usually related to the Federal Republic in contrast to the Nazi government.
      Wikipedia has more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rechtsstaat

  3. As far as an idiomatic translation, “nation of laws” comes immediately to mind, although it may be too much of an Americanism.

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