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Germany's constitution and its 75-year history

May 23, 2024

West Germany adopted its constitution in 1949 and amended it many times, with some controversial additions, such as the creation of the Bundeswehr.

A copy of the "Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany"
Germany's Basic Law was adopted on May 23, 1949Image: Joko/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

"Human dignity shall be inviolable" — so begins Article 1 of the  German constitution, officially known as the Basic Law. This first line was drafted in response to the unprecedented crimes of Nazi Germany, a country responsible both for World War II and the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews and many others throughout Europe.

1949: Basic Law adopted

When the Basic Law was adopted on May 23, 1949, it applied only to the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, which was formally established on the same day. This comprised the three zones occupied by the Western powers that had won World War II: the US, the United Kingdom, and France. The east of the country was in the Soviet Occupation Zone, which became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on October 7, 1949 — a communist dictatorship ruled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

It was because of the division of Germany that the men and women who drafted the Basic Law saw their work as provisional, one of the reasons why it was not called a "constitution."

As Germany celebrates the Basic Law's 75th anniversary, many have brought up this historical oddity once again: "It was not intended to be a permanent constitution, but a transitional arrangement until the German people as a whole were free to make their own decisions," said Potsdam-based historian Martin Sabrow at an event organized by the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship.

75 years of Germany's Basic Law: Cornerstone of democracy

1956: The German military

Even though no new constitution was drafted, the Basic Law has been amended almost 70 times over the decades — usually to reflect social and geopolitical changes. One particularly controversial issue was rearmament, which arose when West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1955, the same year that the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, were established. Following this, the Basic Law was amended in 1956 to give Germany a constitutional framework for the country to arm and defend itself.

1968: Limiting basic rights in times of emergency

The "Emergency Laws" amendment, passed in 1968, also had far-reaching consequences. The aim of these laws was to guarantee the state's ability to act in crisis situations, in particular natural disasters, uprisings, and wars. Among other things, this constitutional amendment enabled the domestic deployment of the Bundeswehr and the restriction of basic rights in emergency situations, including the secret surveillance of communications.

1990: No new Basic Law for a reunified Germany

The reunification of Germany in 1990 could have been a decisive moment. After the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the GDR regime with it, the new Germany could have adopted a new constitution. Instead, the German parliament simply voted to expand the reach of the Basic Law to include the new states in eastern Germany — effectively turning its provisional status permanent.

"Although a debate was started about a constitution for all of Germany, this idea did not have majority support in Germany," explains political scientist Astrid Lorenz of the University of Leipzig. "The main reason for this was that the Basic Law had proved its usefulness and a new one was unnecessary. People wanted stability."

A large crowd is seeing standing in front of the graffiti-covered Berlin wall, scores are standing on it, with the Brandenburg Gate visible in the background, in 1989
The reunification of Germany changed everything, except the Basic Law.Image: Norbert Michalke/imageBROKER/picture alliance

1993: Right to asylum is restricted

In 1993, three years after German reunification, the right to asylum for refugees enshrined in the Basic Law was severely curtailed following a sharp rise in applications for political asylum. Since the reform, it has been possible to deport those without German citizenship back to their country of origin, as long as that country is classified as safe. The most recent addition to this list was Georgia.

2009: Debt brake

To limit government debt, the "debt brake" was incorporated into the German Basic Law in 2009. This measure, introduced in the wake of the financial crisis severely limits government borrowing in a bid to ensure fiscal stability. The debt brake may be lifted in the event of unforeseeable crises, as the government did during the COVID pandemic. Since Germany is still facing economic crises in 2024, many are now calling for the debt brake to be relaxed.

The Basic Law's basic rules

It is only possible to amend the Basic Law if the changes are approved by two-thirds of the members of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, a measure that is meant to guard its principles from being undermined by anti-democratic forces winning a majority in the parliament.

All in all, political and academic experts largely agree that the Basic Law has stood the test of time in the 75 years of its existence.

Nevertheless, GDR-born political scientist Astrid Lorenz does have one question: "Have the constitutional debates learned any lessons from German reunification?" From her point of view, the answer is clear: "In the Basic Law, there are hardly any references to East German history and the peaceful revolution."

The Director of the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship, Anna Kaminsky, would like to take a broader view of the Basic Law: "The anniversary should also be an occasion to remember that there were always courageous people in the Soviet-occupied zone and the GDR who risked their livelihoods or even their lives to demand that the rights and freedoms that applied in the West also apply to the eastern part of Germany."

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. Sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.