German federalism: How does it work? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 06.04.2021
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German federalism: How does it work?

Germany is a federal republic — for historical reasons. But the system also has disadvantages. As can be seen in the struggle to contain the COVID pandemic.

states' flags mounted outside a conference building

All of Germany's 16 states have their own flags

The territory at the heart of Europe that we now call Germany has a rich and varied history  — and federal structures have existed there in some form for centuries.

Unlike in neighboring France, where Paris became the seat of government and military stronghold early in the Middle Ages, east of the Rhine river it was local princes and lords who ruled the area that, despite a shared language and culture, was far more disjointed.

Knowing the historical context of German federalism is important in understanding the role played today by the 16 states, or Länder, that make up the modern Federal Republic of Germany.

Map showing Germany's federal states and their population sizes

Greater than the sum of its parts

The German territory was historically made up of principalities or royal houses, some small city-states like Bremen, and some large kingdoms like Prussia. Later, more kingdoms and city-states joined, most claiming their own rights, currencies, and customs duties.

It was not uncommon for levels of autonomy and jurisdiction to vary between states. For centuries, the whole area of what is now Germany was not ruled by a central power, but by numerous sovereigns. They paid fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor, and later the German Emperor.

In return, the emperor arranged allegiances in foreign wars and allowed an expansion of power to such an extent that local sovereigns were often able to act in foreign policy as independent subjects of international law.

Fortress Schönburg in Rhineland-Palatinate

Thousands of fortresses bear witness to how kings and dukes protected their territories

'Rebuilding the empire'

Following the abolishment of kings and emperors and the unsettled years of the Weimar Republic, Germany's federal tradition was broken for the first time by the Nazis.

The Nazi leadership set about bringing the local states under unified control soon after they seized power on January 30, 1933.

Exactly one year later, the "Law on the Reconstruction of the Empire" of January 30, 1934, abolished all rights of the states. The federal self-governing bodies were replaced by "imperial governors" (Reichsstatthalter) who were directly subordinate to the Nazi government in Berlin and bound by its instructions.

Nazi parade in Nuremberg 1936

Germany's federal tradition was broken for the first time by the Nazis

Reconstruction of democracy

Once Allied victory was assured, the victors of World War II began to discuss how Germany should be administered after the war. There was a consensus that the concentration of power under the Führer Adolf Hitler had been one of the main evils of the Nazi dictatorship — and such a concentration of power had to be prevented for the future.

Therefore, at the postwar conferences, the Allies decided to restore the states that had been stripped of their power by the Nazis. In addition to the pre-war states, several new ones were also founded; often in new configurations directly caused by the war.

conference working on the Basic Law in 1949

In 1949, the founding fathers of the German Federal Republic attached great importance to the rights of the states.

East Germany's centralized system

The eastern states were initially administered by the Soviet Union. These states became communist East Germany, formally called the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Federal states had been established by law there in 1945 by order of the "Soviet Military Administration" — but they were de facto abolished by the GDR in 1952.

In order to "create the socialist administrative structure," the states had to surrender their powers to districts and county administrations. Federalism also had to give way to the centralized power of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in East Berlin.

After the decline of the party's rule, one of the most important tasks of the first and only freely elected GDR parliament was to restore the old states. This took place on July 22, 1990 — and adapted the GDR to the federal system of West Germany. Three months later, the countries were officially reunified.

The federal reality in the West

In West Germany — the German Federal Republic — the founding fathers were keen to avoid a complete concentration of power in the hands of any central government. In the Basic Law, the German constitution that was signed off in Bonn in 1949, the Parliamentary Council attached great importance to protecting and guaranteeing the rights of the states.

States were and still are also supposed to act as checks and balances of the power of the central government. Due to differing political power relationships in the federal and state governments, this mutual control is virtually guaranteed to this day.

After reunification in 1990, former East Germany came under the jurisdiction of the federal republic's Basic Law.

Resistance to change

But from the beginning, there were also concerns and structural flaws that posed major problems for German federalism. The size and economic power of the states were — and still are — extremely unequal: In modern Germany, population alone varies from North Rhine-Westphalia with over 17 million inhabitants to the city-state of Bremen with barely 700,000.

The Allies had already recognized the need for changes in the divisions of the states in the 1950s and had urged the federal government to take action. But no attempt to reform state boundaries has been successful.

The most recent occurred in 1996, when the city-state of Berlin and the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds it, held a referendum to unify. The people voted against it.

Since the 1970s, there have also been several attempts to reorganize the division of powers between the federal and state governments. But neither a government commission on constitutional reform nor a constitutional commission of the German parliament in the 1990s could agree on effective changes.

Meeting of state premiers in 2004

Federalism reform has been on the agenda of many a meeting of state premiers

Federalism reform

But many believe that reforming federalism is still vital. Under Germany's proportional electoral system, coalition governments are the norm. That means each of the 16 states, plus the federal government, have their own constellation of coalition partners in power at any one time — making unified governing, at times, virtually impossible.

To try to solve some of these problems, under Chancellor Angela Merkel the federal coalition of the center-right Christian Democrats, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, and the center-left Social Democrats passed a reform package in 2006. This took powers away from the states but simultaneously guaranteed them a continued strong say. This applies above all to education policy, which is exclusively regulated at a state level.

The states also gained or retained powers concerning the civil service, the penal system, and environmental law. Overall, however, the proportion of laws requiring the approval of the states fell from more than half to barely a third.

At times, German federalism seems to allow state prime ministers to act like medieval princes defending their independence. But at the same time, federalism has been key in the success of Germany since World War II. Without it, neither the integration of more than 10 million refugees after the war nor the management of the consequences of German unity after 1990 would have succeeded.

This article has been translated from German.

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