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I'm curious to know what the difference is between "haften" and "bürgen" in German.

Google Translate says that "haften" = "to be liable for" and "bürgen" = "to guarantee for", but I'm pretty sure I have seen these words used in a more subtle differentiation than that.

The way I intuitively perceive it, one might use "bürgen" in a financial/contractual setting and "haften" otherwise, but that they are more or less interchangeable. Is that right?

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    Bürgen is voluntarily, and haften is involuntarily. – Janka Aug 7 '19 at 2:23
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    Not exactly, "haften" also applies to paying back your voluntary debts. – RalfFriedl Aug 7 '19 at 5:39
  • @RalfFriedl Nope, that would be "schulden". – Thomas Aug 7 '19 at 7:29
  • @Thomas That is not true, "Gmb Haftung" also applies to paying back the debts, although Schulden is a subset of Haftung. – RalfFriedl Aug 8 '19 at 16:37
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Both are legal terms and have a slightly different meaning, that may or may not be present in the translations suggested by Google.

"Haften" can be used for all kinds of usually financial commitments. It applies mainly to paying back debts for loans, but also paying to repair a damage someone did to another person's property or health.

"Bürgen", nouns "Bürge" and "Bürgschaft", is more specific, "haften" is a more general word that can also be applied. "Bürgschaft" means person A wants a credit, but won't get it. Person B ("Bürge") promises to repay in case person A can't. Person A has to repay the credit, but as soon as A misses a payment, the bank can get person B to pay for everything. Person B may try to get the money back from person A, but is unlikely to succeed, as person A doesn't have the money.

While "Haftung" can arise because of carelessly destroying something, "Bürgschaft" requires a contract.

Needless to say, you should think hard before signing a contract for "Bürgschaft" and consider the money lost until person A has paid back the credit.

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Apart from the fact that both may cause you to owe somebody money, those two words have little in common.

"Haftung" means that someone is entitled by law to get a (usually financial) compensation for a damage caused by either some unlawful action or by an action that is required by law which was failed to be done. (Note that "criminal" is always "unlawful", but "unlawful" isn't always "criminal".) It requires either intend or negligence and of course some kind of damage being caused by that action.

One more addition: You can read "Eltern haften für ihre Kinder!" ("Parents are liable for their children!") on an awful lot of signs in Germany. This is wrong. People are only liable for what they do (or fail to do) themselves - not for their kids.

"Bürgschaft" is a legally binding promise to pay somebody else's debt if that person can't (or doesn't want to) pay.

However, it can also mean that you agree to be held responsible for any rules a person that you guarantee for breaks. A common example may be a closed group requiring a member of that group to guarantee for any potential new member to be admitted. This of course doesn't apply to (criminal) law. There's no way to agree to be punished for somebody else's crime in case it occurs!

A third way of legally owing money to somebody would be "schulden", which requires some kind of contract between the "Schuldner" ("debtor") and "Gläubiger" ("creditor").

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  • IANAL, aber die Darstellung der Haftung für Kinder ist m.W. grob verkürzt und stimmt so nicht, auch wenn sie für die häufig zu lesenden Baustellenschilder stimmt. Wenn die Eltern ihre Aufsichtspflicht verletzt haben haften sie schon - das kommt auf den Einzelfall an. Sie haften aber nicht automatisch, nur weil da jmd. ein Schild aufstellt und das behauptet. – user unknown Aug 8 '19 at 19:45
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    Klar, wenn es eine Pflichtverletzung (hier: der Aufsichtspflicht) gibt, dann ist man dafür haftbar. Dann ist aber auch egal, ob man Elternteil des Kindes ist oder nicht. Wenn eine Kindergartengruppe an einer Baustelle vorbei spaziert, eine Erzieherin nicht aufpasst und etwas passiert, dann haftet sie und nicht die Eltern! Wenn ein Zehnjähriger auf dem Heimweg von der Schule spontan auf eine Baustelle rennt und Blödsinn macht, haftet womöglich er selbst, aber nicht seine Eltern. – Thomas Aug 9 '19 at 6:19
  • Kleine Ergänzung: Eine Erzieherin (als kommunale Angestellte) haftet nur bei Vorsatz und grober Fahrlässigkeit. Ansonsten haftet der Arbeitgeber. Beamte (Lehrer!) haften (bei Vorsatz und grober Fahrlässigkeit!) nur im Innenverhältnis gegenüber ihrem Dienstherrn, nicht aber gegenüber dem Geschädigten. Letzteres hat für den Geschädigten den Vorteil, dass eine evtl. Zahlungsunfähigkeit des Schadensverursachers etwa bei sehr großen Schäden zu Lasten des Dienstherrn geht. Ja, deutsches Recht ist... interessant... ;-) – Thomas Aug 9 '19 at 9:13
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In addition to the (correct) previous answers, I'd like to add that bürgen/Bürgschaft is not necessarily restricted to financial issues (even though it is in most cases).
But there is a famous poem by Friedrich von Schiller Die Bürgschaft (engl. the pledge) where the Bürge puts much more on the line than just some money...

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  • Such an archaic pledge would - likely among other things - be considered "sittenwidrig"/"immoral" (§138 BGB) nowadays and thus legally null and void. ;-) – Thomas Aug 9 '19 at 6:26
  • @VolkerLandgraf: In der Tat habe ich das s in answers irgendwie überlesen und lösche den Kommentar. – user unknown Aug 9 '19 at 23:52

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