History and Meaning of the German Proverb "Jedem das Seine"

Germany, Buchenwald, Entrance gate to Buchenwald Concentration Camp
Guy Heitmann / Design Pics-Perspectives@gettyimages.de

“Jedem das Seine”— “To Each His Own” or better “To Each What They Are Due,” is an old German proverb that refers to an ancient ideal of justice and is the German version of “Suum Cuique.” This Roman dictum of law itself dates back to Plato’s “Republic.” Plato basically states that justice is served as long as everyone minds their own business. In Roman law the meaning of “Suum Cuique” was transformed into two basic meanings: “Justice renders to everyone what they deserve.” or “To give each his own.” Fundamentally, these are two sides of the same medal. But despite the universally valid attributes of the proverb, in Germany, it has a bitter ring to it and is seldom used. Let’s find out, why that is the case.

The Proverb’s Relevance

The dictum became an integral part of legal systems all over Europe, but especially German law studies delved deeply into exploring “Jedem das Seine.” From the middle of the 19th century, German theorists took on a leading role in the analysis of Roman law. But even long before that, the “Suum Cuique” was deeply rooted into German history. Martin Luther used the expression and the first-ever King of Prussia later had the proverb minted on his Kingdom’s coins and integrated it into the emblem of his most prestigious knight order. In 1715, great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach created a piece of music called “Nur Jedem das Seine.” The 19th century brings a few more works of art that bear the proverb in their title. Amongst them, are theater plays named “Jedem das Seine.” As you can see, initially the proverb had a rather honorable history, if such a thing is possible. Then, of course, came the great fracture.

Jedem das Seine and Buchenwald

Just as the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free)” was placed over the entrances of several concentration or extermination camps — the most familiar example probably being Auschwitz — “Jedem das Seine” was on the gate of the Buchenwald concentration camp close to Weimar.

The way, in which “Jedem das Seine” is placed into the gate is especially appalling. The writing is installed back-to-front, so that you can only read it when you are within the camp, looking back to the outside world. Thus, the prisoners, when turning back at the closing gate would read “To Each What They Are Due” — making it the more vicious. Unlike “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Auschwitz, “Jedem das Seine” in Buchenwald was specifically designed, to force the prisoners within the compound to look at it every day. The Buchenwald camp was mostly a work camp, but over the course of the war people from all the invaded countries were sent there.  

“Jedem das Seine” is another example of the German language having been perverted by the Third Reich. Today, the proverb is seldom, and if it is, it usually sparks controversy. A few ad campaigns have used the proverb or variations of it in recent years, always followed by protest. Even a youth organization of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) fell into that trap and was reprimanded.

The story of “Jedem das Seine” brings up the vital question of how to deal with the German language, culture, and life in general in light of the great fracture that is the Third Reich. And even though, that question will probably never be fully answered, it is necessary to raise it again and again. History will never stop teaching us. 

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Schmitz, Michael. "History and Meaning of the German Proverb "Jedem das Seine"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/german-proverb-changed-through-history-4025700. Schmitz, Michael. (2020, August 27). History and Meaning of the German Proverb "Jedem das Seine". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-proverb-changed-through-history-4025700 Schmitz, Michael. "History and Meaning of the German Proverb "Jedem das Seine"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-proverb-changed-through-history-4025700 (accessed May 28, 2023).