Themes: Civil Society

Around 800,000 organised movements, organisations and institutions comprise German civil society, as well as numerous unorganised or spontaneous collective action groups, which

  • are based on voluntary action,
  • see themselves as pursuing goals pertinent to general welfare,
  • do not fulfil governmental tasks,
  • do not aim to generate profits,
  • do not distribute surpluses from their activities to members, partners or third parties,
  • act in a self-empowered and self-organised manner,
  • rely significantly on gifts of empathy, time, material resources and others

Civil society is a lively arena in collective public action, which is characterised by its diverse positions on questions, solutions and processes. Civil society actors work in a space that, alongside approval from other actors and society as a whole, can also receive strong criticism.

Actors that participate in civil society (CSOs) are, however, very different – in size as well as in their functions and goals but have similar attributes that distinguish them from state and for-profit organisations.

On the whole, there are only very inaccurate notions and numerous misunderstandings among the German public. Views are often marked by prejudices, clichés, outdated opinions or expressions that have spread to Germany from other countries.

Regardless of that, the perception of what we today call civil society has clearly shifted for new generations. In previous times, help for those in need was the main focus and, furthermore, the promotion of culture and sport were important areas of action for general interest. Therefore, since the late 1960s, new social movements in exercise of civil liberties have been advocating for social change, political participation or the denunciation of abuses have a stronger focus. Since the 1980s, we have been able to observe the backlash against repressive regimes in preparation for transformation processes as a core component of civil society action. Today, on the one hand, we connect civil society with worldwide humanitarian aid, but also with the confrontation with global as well as with local challenges; and on the other hand, with spontaneous civic actions. The traditional fields of action for CSOs have largely stayed the same but have partly changed.

To find out more, read our Civil Society Primer here.

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