Suum quicue – Jedem das Seine


“Suum quicue” is the short form of a quote attributed to the Roman philosopher Cato the Elder among others. The orignial version “suum cuique per me uti atque frui licet” translates to “as far as I am concerned, everybody should be able to use and enjoy what he owns” (my free translation as my Latin is a little rusty). Other famous Roman and Greek philosophers and politicians to which this saying is attributed are Plato and Cicero, albeit in a slightly different meaning or use. More information here: in English and in German.

As we all know, in mid 20th century some idiots took over power in Germany and misused the German translation “Jedem das Seine” and put it on the entrance of Buchenwald concentration camp as a cynical message to the prisoners in the camp. To add to this cynicism, it is meant to be readable from within.

Still, “Jedem das Seine” is a German saying, which means, everybody should be happy his way or should do as he thinks. People often use it to point out, they wouldn’t do something in a certain way but still approve of other people doing it like that. For example, if someone likes to put chocolate cream on his cheese sandwich, that would be a perfect case to use this saying. When I grew up, it was used quite often and I did never find people annoyed by it. (For information: my environment has always been very aware of historical facts.)

So I can’t really tell, when it started, but in recent years people start to complain about the use of this sentence regularly. If you read German forums or blogs, authors using the saying will in almost every case find themselves being attacked as being a Neonazi. If the phrase is used in a more public environment like in advertisments or in a speach by politicians, the Central Council of Jews in Germany and left winged parties or organisations will make public statements criticising the use and branding the user as “denying history” or “showing bad taste”. With the allegation the use of this saying would deny historic events, very often schools are criticised for insufficient history education.

I find this astounding. Germany is maybe the only country in the world which is constantly promoting education on its history – be it good or bad. Most other countries try not to emphasise the bad events and crimes in their history too much or simply ignore them and do consequently not teach anything about this at school. During my time at school, the topic “Hitler and WWII” was recurring so often, that it bored me to death, when we had to talk through everything going on between 1933 and 1950 again in my graduation course. After we had done this 2 years and 3 years before my graduation. There was nothing new to that topic, and teachers did not try to make those events look better than they were. At which point is this “insufficient”?

Then there is the point in denying history. This saying has a history of more than 2000 years and was for the early democracies in Greek and Italy one of the basic principles of their laws. It was used saying, people should do what was within their abilities for the community or state and equally everybody should have what he needed and what belonged to him should not be taken from him. So we should deny approximately 2000 years of history because a bunch of fools distorted everything they could lay their hands on during 12 years? (For those who want to be really exact, Buchenwald concentration camp existed for only 8 years – though that was 8 years to long…) 12 years out of 2000 is 0.6% (0.4% for the exact ones)- in most other cases those number wouldn’t even be mentioned. (For me as an engineer in some cases errors of 5% are quite ok.) Why do we have to discard of almost everything that the Nazis laid their hands and distorted minds on?

On the other hand we love our Autobahnen – as far as I remember, Hitler’s most favourite programme to give people work: make them build highways. And lots of people love Wagner’s operas, although Mr Wagner and his clan were ardent followers of Hitler’s ideas. Winifred Wagner said in an 1970’s interview, that if “Hitler entered the room just now, I would be as happy to see him as always” (translated by me from my memory on the interview).

Then there are those forum and blog “critics”. A large chunk of this group are trolls who just want to annoy people by calling them names and the use of this Nazi saying is there perfect call line. For many other critics, most of them do not even know the history of this saying. They criticise the use of this “Nazi saying” and accuse the author of not knowing enough about his countries history. Who is lacking knowledge here? The author, who knwos all the other meanings and what is more the real idiomatic meaning in German or those who only know about the misuse?

Why can’t people use “Jedem das Seine” and remember that there is a tiny black spot on a 2000 year old proverb? On a 2000 year old principle of giving and receiving between people and the community they live in and the principle of people living their lives the way they want? I think political/historical correctness is carried to excess.


3 thoughts on “Suum quicue – Jedem das Seine

  1. Thanks for this.. I looked up “Jedem Das Seine” after seeing a documentary covering the little-known experience of the allied pilots (‘terrorflieger’) who were sent to Buchenwald instead of the Stalag Luft POW camps. Amazingly, only 2 out of 200 died there, because they formed a unit and helped each other, despite being from different (but allied) countries all over the world. All the other inmates were living ‘every man for himself’, which is a brutal, Hobbesian interpretation of Jedem Das Seine. In English, this saying is known as TO EACH HIS OWN and is used exactly as you described in your ice cream example.

    As for the ridiculous ‘political correctness’ you speak of, what’s next.. criticizing Buddhists for using their own 2500-year old Swastika symbol?

  2. That actually does happen. During my time in Japan I witnessed several occasions on which people thought the Buddhist swastica symbol was a left over of the close ties between Germany and Japan in WWII.

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