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As civilization (from Latin civis , 'Roman citizen', 'urbanites'; since the High Middle Ages, citizens ') is a human society referred to in enables social and material living conditions through technical and scientific progress and created by government and business. General characteristics of civilizations are the formation of states , hierarchical social structures, a high degree of urbanization and a very extensive specialization and division of labor .


The term civilization is derived from the German adjective zivil ('bourgeois'), which has been used in German since the 17th century . In the 18th century, the French used the idea of ​​civilization as the opposite of the term “ barbarism ”. So non-European societies could be characterized as uncivilized. In the Romance and Anglo-Saxon languages, civilization or civilization is synonymous with culture or cultura , only German differentiates between “ culture ” and “civilization”. The work of the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington The Clash of Civilizations from 1996 is called Clash of Cultures in German .

The science of history understands cultures to be large-scale and long-lasting structures that develop a great influence, although they often show a multitude of manifestations and stages of development.

Today's definition of civilization in international politics understands this figuratively presented as a “cultural roof” for several similar cultures that do not have to be geographically bound to one another. States of a civilization share a worldview . In this context, culture is defined as the locally limited, meaningful production of common values ​​and norms. Following on from the social scientist Norbert Elias and his theory about the process of civilization , the term is also used in the sense of “civilization”.


The term civilization , which originally referred to the French society of the Ancien Régime at the end of the 18th century and expressed the positive expectations in the age of the Enlightenment for the progress of society, was reassessed in the course of colonialism in the 19th century. The idea of ​​uncivilized non-European societies established itself as opposed to one's own civilized society.

Etymologically, the word civilization comes from the French civilization . It can be traced further via the Latin civilis and its root in the term civis . This describes the citizens (initially specifically city ​​dwellers ) of Rome. There is a relationship with the Latin term civitas , which denotes cities and city-states. The term can thus be traced back to one of the decisive characteristics of civilizations, the construction of cities.

Word usage

Colloquial language

Ascribed to civilization, a people or a specific humanity , outlines:

  • Living conditions characterized by:
    • economy based on division of labor
    • Urban planning
    • a certain technical-mechanical level of development
    • a hierarchically ordered administrative and power structure
    • certain high cultural accuracy
    • institutionalized jurisprudence
    • some material prosperity
  • Sometimes the term is understood to be an evaluative definition:
    • positive in the sense of morality and refinement of life in contrast to “ barbarism ”, brutality and lawlessness or in the sense of a state of society that is felt to be superior.
    • negatively contrasted with culture , historically at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to play off “German culture” against “Welsche (French) civilization”, more recently when a society is only geared towards functionalism , usefulness, comfort and excessive mechanization .

The beginning of civilization is often seen in the early advanced civilizations . The sedentariness of farming meant that more people than ever before were tied to one place for long periods of time. This resulted in new regulations for coexistence in the newly created cities: religion , rule , culture, etc., which form the cradle of civilization .

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights , which the UN agreed on in 1948 as binding for all people and states, is colloquially referred to as a sign of civilization .


School begins . Caricature from the American satirical magazine Puck , 1899. Depicted is Uncle Sam , who takes on four new students as a teacher, namely the territories of the Philippines , Puerto Rico , Cuba and Hawaii , which were acquired in the Spanish-American War .

In the legitimation discourse on the colonialism of the major European powers, the task of “civilizing” the subjugated peoples played a central role. This was already evident in the missionary mandate with which the Spaniards justified their conquests in the New World after 1492 . Later the Christian reference faded into the background. In any case, the indigenous population was seen as inferior from a racist point of view, whether in the image of the “ noble savage ”, who is naive and inadequately clothed, but already carries central values ​​by nature and needs upbringing and education by the Europeans , or in the horror of the “ cannibal ” who is to be dissuaded from his hideous actions by all means, including violence. This was seen not only as a right of the European powers, but also as their obligation. A classic example of this is Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden from 1899, in which colonialism was portrayed not as a profitable enterprise, but as a "burden" for whites to bear and to which his best sons were morally commanded to sacrifice . The chief ideologist of British colonialism Lord Lugard admitted that colonial ownership also offered advantages for the colonial powers, and spoke of a "double mandate": On the one hand, it was about ensuring the prosperity of the metropolis, but also, in the colonies Spread the blessings of material and civilizational progress. The alleged civilization process was never imagined to be complete, because this would have implied the end of colonial rule.

The civilization with which the colonial powers justified their rule outside Europe was also used as an argument to deny it to other countries for propaganda purposes : For example, Great Britain published a Blue Book during the First World War to prove that the German Reich was not advancing its colonies , but war, Forced labor and genocide . This then formed the reason with which all colonies were taken from him in the Treaty of Versailles in 1920.

Contrast of culture and civilization

In Germany , following Immanuel Kant, a tradition arose that conceptually and normatively differentiated culture and civilization: This was understood as purely technical or political, as "all sorts of social politeness and decency", while the former encompassed a deeper morality . For Kant, culture is the means by which man actually becomes man, at the same time its purpose and the process of becoming man as understood in this way.

The anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner also used the word pejorative: He polemicized against the civilization that had used science as an idol , that spread democracy and mammonism . As a scapegoat , he assigned the responsibility for these appearances, which he viewed negatively, to Judaism. In this sense he defined civilization as a “barbaric-Judaic mixture”.

Destroy this mad brute ("
Destroy this mad brute "). American poster from 1917.

The divide between culture and civilization was nationalistically charged in the First World War . In his considerations, Thomas Mann identified an apolitical culture with the Germans and assigned the war opponents of the West to the less valuable civilization: "Germanness, that is culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilization, society, voting rights, literature". Mann established the abuse of the "civilization literary" (meant his brother Heinrich ), who, out of apparent human love, advocates democracy, with such a politicization of all areas of life, misses the essential questions of humanity that cannot be answered politically but only mentally and morally. At the beginning of the war, "representatives of German science and culture" had publicly denied the allegations that the German troops had committed war crimes in the racist manifesto of 93 of October 4, 1914 , and directed them against the Russian troops:

"Those who ally themselves with Russians and Serbs and offer the world the shameful spectacle of inciting Mongols and Negroes against the white race have the least right to act as defenders of European civilization ."

The war propaganda of the Western powers took up this conceited accusation and caricatured the German cultural claim, for example in Harry R. Hopps' advertisement to volunteer for the US Army , from the year 1917, in which the German Reich was depicted as a rape beast with a pimple hood , whose bloody club bears the German inscription "Culture" as if in derision.

In his work, The Downfall of the Occident , also published in 1918 , Oswald Spengler arranged culture and civilization one after the other: he interpreted the latter as a decadent late stage of the former, even as their death.


Norbert Elias used the term “civilization” in the sense of “civilization” (first in 1939 in On the Process of Civilization ). In this major work he describes “civilization” as a long-term change in personality structures, which he attributes to a change in social structures. Factors of social change are the continuous technical progress and the differentiation of societies on the one hand and the constant competition and elimination battle between people and groups of people on the other. These lead to a centralization of societies (establishment of state power and tax monopolies) as well as to the money economy. The link between these socio-structural changes and the changes in personality structure is the fact that the mutual dependencies grow, the “chains of interaction” in which people are integrated. This forces an increasing control of affect (also as a condition of social evolution), i. H. Between the spontaneous emotional impulse and the actual action, there is more and more retention of this impulse and a rethinking of the (re) effects of one's own actions. This attitude is internalized and solidified by strengthening the “superego”; H. centralization within society is followed with a certain delay by “centralization” within personality. This causes a decrease in the willingness to use violence , an advancement of the shame and embarrassment thresholds as well as a psychologization (increase in the ability to understand the processes within other people) and rationalization (increase of the "foresight", ie the ability to overlook the consequences of one's own actions over and over again more links of the causal chains to “calculate in advance”).

Elias shows this with extensive empirical material, particularly using the example of French history, in which these long-term trends were observed particularly early on. Since the Middle Ages , the old castle and country nobility were “courted” or “courtesy” at the courts of the monarchs who concentrated their power. This essentially followed the emergence of the standing mercenary armies and their financing through a modernizing monetary central tax system (instead of contributions in kind). The new army constitution made the unreliable feudal armies of the nobility superfluous, as they could also be paid thanks to taxes, which the nobility, who were impoverished relative to the central monarchy, could not raise. The king (most adroitly Louis XIV ) then opened up new career opportunities for the aristocrats at court, where instead of the law of fist they were retrained in courtoisie and courtly intriguing, i.e. in psychological acumen, and bullies with swords became courtiers with gallantier swords. The whole thing was a structured process of social change (a figuration ) that was not planned by anyone , in which robber-knightly brutality increasingly turned out to be impractical ( prohibitions of duels ) and manners became more refined. These customs were then also copied by the bourgeoisie (cf. Gabriel Tarde ) and changed society as a whole, civilizing it.

Ethnology / anthropology / cultural psychology

Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested differentiating cultures according to their ideological attitude towards cultural change. He had found that "primitive" nature-adapted ethnic groups have complex social behavioral systems in order to avoid any change in tried and tested ways of life as much as possible. He called them "cold societies". “Hot societies”, on the other hand, he called the modern civilizations, which are characterized by progressive development in all areas of life. The greater the drive for deeper and faster modernization of civilization, the “hotter” it is. The model was expanded and refined by other scientists.

In other cultures the term "civilization" can sometimes have a completely different meaning, as the following quote shows:

“The man who sat on the floor in his tent and meditated on the meaning of life, became aware of his kinship with all living beings and recognized his unity with the universe, this man absorbed the essentials of what civilization actually means. "

- Luther Standing Bear Oglala-Lakota


Within astrobiology and exosociology it is speculated whether there are living beings with scientific and technical organization on other worlds ( exoplanets ). These are known as extraterrestrial civilizations. The probability of their existence and possible frequency is discussed with the help of the Drake equation . The Kardaschow scale categorizes possible stages of development according to energy consumption.

See also


  • Guy Ankerl: Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations. Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. INUPRESS, Geneva 2000, ISBN 2-88155-004-5 .
  • Stanley Diamond: Critique of Civilization. Anthropology and the rediscovery of the primitive. Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York 1976
  • Fernand Braudel : The History of Civilization. 15th to 18th century . Zurich 1971, ISBN 3-463-13684-8 .
  • G. Bollenbeck: civilization. In: Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy. Volume 12, Col. 1365-1379.
  • George Basalla: Civilized life in the universe - scientists on intelligent extraterrestrials. Oxford University Press, New York, NY 2006, ISBN 0-19-517181-0 .
  • Norbert Elias : About the process of civilization. Sociogenetic and psychogenetic studies. Volume 1: Changes in behavior in the western upper classes of the West. Volume 2: Changes in Society. Draft for a theory of civilization. Edited by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 1997 (= Norbert Elias, Gesammelte Schriften. 19 volumes. Ed. On behalf of the Norbert-Elias-Stichting Amsterdam by Reinhard Blomert, Heike Hammer, Johan Heilbron, Annette Treibel and Nico Wilterdink. Volume 3). ISBN 3-518-58244-5 .
  • Jörg Fisch: civilization, culture. In: Otto Brunner u. a. (Ed.): Basic historical concepts. Historical lexicon on political and social language in Germany. Vol. 7, Stuttgart 1992, pp. 679-774.
  • Samuel P. Huntington: Clash of Cultures. The Clash of Civilizations. The reshaping of world politics in the 21st century. Munich 1997, ISBN 3-203-78001-1 , pp. 49-62 and pp. 495-531.
  • Michael Michaud: Contact with Alien Civilizations - Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials. Springer, Berlin 2006, ISBN 0-387-28598-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: civilization  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Civilizations  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikibooks: Wikijunior Ancient Civilizations  - Learning and Teaching Materials

Individual evidence

  1. Karl Dietrich Hüllmann: Urban being of the Middle Ages. I-IV, Bonn 1826-1829, Volume II, pp. 245 f. and 467-469
  2. ^ Larry E. Sullivan: The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences. Editions SAGE, 2009, p. 73.
  3. Also on the following Jürgen Osterhammel : Colonialism. History - forms - consequences. CH Beck, Munich 20065, pp. 112-115
  4. Iris Gareis: From "grim ogres" and "noble savages". Cannibalism in travel reports from America between discourse on alterity and cultural criticism . In: Robert Rebitsch, Friedrich Pöhlund Sebastian Fink (eds.): The construction of the cannibal between fiction and reality . Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2017, pp. 127–154.
  5. ^ Sönke Kunkel and Christoph Meyer: Dimensions of awakening. The 1920s and 1930s in a global perspective. In: the same (ed.): Departure into the postcolonial age. Globalization and the non-European world in the 1920s and 1930s. Campus, 2012, pp. 7-36, here p. 24.
  6. ^ Mads Bomholt Nielsen: Delegitimating Empire. German and British Representations of Colonial Violence, 1918-19. In: The International History Review (2019), pp. 1–18.
  7. Caroline Authaler: The international legal end of the German colonial empire. Global Reorganization and Transnational Debates in the 1920s and Their Aftermath . in: From Politics and Contemporary History 69, Issue 40–42 (2019), pp. 4–10, here p. 4 f.
  8. Michael Fischer: What will become of the culture? Cultural philosophy according to Kant . In: Ian Kaplow: After Kant: Heritage and Criticism . LIT Verlag Münster, 2005, pp. 136–158, here pp. 138 ff.
  9. Hildegard Châtellier: Wagnerism in the Imperial Era. In: Uwe Puschner , Walter Schmitz and Justus H. Ulbricht (eds.): Handbook on the “Völkische Movement” 1871–1918. Κ. G. Saur, Munich / New Providence / London / Paris 1996, ISBN 3-598-11241-6 , pp. 575-612, here pp. 579 f. (accessed via De Gruyter Online).
  10. Hans-Ulrich Wehler : Deutsche Gesellschaftgeschichte , Vol. 4: From the beginning of the First World War to the founding of the two German states 1914–1949 CH Beck Verlag, Munich 2003, p. 20 (here the quote); Hugh Ridley and Jochen Vogt: Mann, Thomas - considerations of an apolitical . In: Kindlers Literatur Lexikon , 3rd, completely revised edition, JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2009 (accessed from Bücherhallen Hamburg on December 8, 2019).
  11. ^ Frank Kämper: "Destroy this mad brute". Emotional mobilization in the USA 1917. In: Gerhard Paul (Hrsg.): The century of pictures. 1900 to 1949. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2009, pp. 212-219, here pp. 215 f.
  12. Detlef Felken : Spengler, Oswald - The decline of the occident . In: Kindlers Literatur Lexikon , 3rd, completely revised edition, JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2009 (accessed from Bücherhallen Hamburg on December 8, 2019).
  13. Detlef Weinich: Institutions and affect control as "constraints" of social change. Norbert Elias (1897–1990) and the theory of civilization in the light of biological-systems-theoretical evolutionary concepts. In: Würzburger medical history reports, 24, 2005, pp. 434–473, in particular pp. 460 ff.
  14. Christian Flohr: The secret messages of the primitive peoples. In: PM perspective. No. 92/028 "Naturvölker", Gruner + Jahr AG, Munich 1992.
  15. ^ Bernard M. Oliver: Proximity of galactic civilizations. In: Icarus. Volume 25, Issue 2, June 1975, pp. 360-367. doi : 10.1016 / 0019-1035 (75) 90031-7
  16. ^ Thomas BH Kuiper et al: Resource letter ETC-1 - Extraterrestrial civilization. In: American Journal of Physics. Vol. 57, Jan. 1989, pp. 12-18, bibcode : 1989AmJPh..57 ... 12K
  17. Emmanuel Davoust: Demography of Extraterrestrial Civilizations. In: Ders .: The Cosmic Water Hole. MIT Press, Cambridge 1991, ISBN 0-262-54161-0 , pp. 107-120.