Thursday, 7 July 2022 – 07:42

Explaining Politics in Germany

Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany is a country in Europe home to around 83 million people.

The German political system today is one that mirrors many of the institutions across European democracies; a distinctly multi-party electoral system with frequent governing coalitions (government through multiple different parties), although since 1949 the nation has been dominated by two parties, The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

The German system is a Federal Parliamentary Republic, meaning that the power is vested in the people and that there is a significant degree of power devolved to the different German states. In this sense (being a Federal Republic) Germany is similar to the United States, however, unlike the US, Germany has a Parliament from which the leader of the government is drawn.

Click through the tabs below to learn more about politics in Germany.

{tab Germany’s Political History}

Although modern Germany can trace its roots back through hundreds of years of history, the late 19th century saw significant developments that lead to the German nation as it is today, under the guidance of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. From 1862-1890, Bismarck guided the German Empire, as it was then, towards the modern state that Germany became in the 20th century.

In the 1860s Bismarck served as the Prussian minister-president (Prussia being the most prominent state within what became the German Empire) and secured military victories during a series of Central European wars that allowed the proclamation of the German Empire as a unified state in 1871, under the leadership of Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I, who appointed Bismarck as the first chancellor of this new empire. Bismarck significantly expanded the territory of the German Empire during this time, with Alsace-Lorraine ceded from France to this new German Empire.

 

The German Empire was made up of 25 Federal States, with the state of Prussia being dominant, representing two thirds of the total land area and population of the empire. Prussia made up much of what is considered to be the current German state today and dominated much of central Europe during this period at the end of the 19th century.

Bismarck became known for his foreign policy whilst chancellor of Germany, aiming to isolate France from the other nations of Europe, particularly avoiding an alliance between France on the western border and Russia on the eastern border. The aim was to prevent a two-front war – the failure of which in the early 20th century twice brought Germany to its knees – with Bismarck perhaps the most skilled diplomat of the 19th century, maintaining strong alliances with the Austria-Hungarian Empire and a strong relationship with the Russian Empire.

Upon Kaiser Wilhelm’s death his son Frederick became Kaiser, but lasted only 99 days before succumbing to throat cancer, being replaced by his son, Wilhelm II. The 29-year-old attempted to install an extremely conservative regime, ousting Bismarck as Chancellor two years into his reign as Kaiser. After nearly four decades of the nation being led by the skilled diplomat, the empire followed an increasingly erratic and undiplomatic path that saw the breakdown of many of the alliances that Bismarck had worked on for the protection of the young state.

Germany became increasingly isolated as a series of chancellors failed to exact an effective foreign policy, under the erratic guidance of Wilhelm II and the nation was increasingly threatened from the war on two fronts that Bismarck was so keen to avoid. It was this erratic foreign policy that contributed to the beginning of World War One, with tense international relations in Central Europe boiling over following the assassination of Austria-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand.

Following German defeat in the First World War the Treaty of Versailles – signed in the same palace that German unification was originally declared – the nation was given heavy sanctions, including reparations of $400 billion in today’s money. Following the war, the political system was also replaced, with the Weimar Republic being formed.

The Weimar Republic was unpopular with the German people, seen as being forced on them by the western powers of France, United Kingdom and United States and was underlined by a series of attempted revolutions against the government, the most notable being the Munich Putsch in 1923, led by the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, Adolf Hitler – his actions landed him in prison.

Following a period of hyperinflation that saw German’s burning money for warmth, the repayment of reparations was restructured and Germany received loans from the United States to prop up their economy, resulting in a period of growth that saw industrial production above 1913 levels by 1928. However, the Wall Street Crash in 1929 caused a period of economic turmoil.

This led to political unrest which saw the National Socialist German Workers Party receive a significantly increased vote share, winning 37% of the vote in July 1932. Although they lost seats at a snap election in November 1932, just one year later they secured 44% of the vote and later that year Adolf Hitler would become the German chancellor. His power was consolidated following the Reichstag fire (allegedly an arson by the Nazi’s as a precursor to him taking full control and in 1934 he became Fuhrer.

During his time in power (1933-45), Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust; one of the worst human tragedies of human history, resulting in the death of approximately 6 million Jews and a further 6 million disabled, gay, Romani, Soviet and other prisoners of war.

Following the end of the Second World War, Germany was occupied in the west by the allies – the western was divided into three separate zones occupied by each of the allied powers, France, United Kingdom and United States – and in the east by the Soviet Union. In 1949, the three allied zones, which had been merged in 1946, officially became the Federal Republic of Germany, whilst the Soviet occupied zone became the German Democratic Republic.

Although these two halves of one country were significant throughout the Cold War, with Berlin (the German capital) being in the eastern zone – but with a western half of the city – the political system that we see in Germany today is almost entirely that of the western half. West Germany relocated their capital to Bonn, with the FRG being known as the Bonn Republic.

During the Cold War, Berlin became a microcosm for the proxy conflict between the east and the west, with the flight of many east Berliners into the western zone being a source of angst for the Soviet propaganda machine. This led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, to prevent anyone from crossing into the western zone. There were still several infamous attempts, with some managing to cross into the west, although many did not make it, with armed guards patrolling the wall day and night. Throughout the Cold War, the Berlin Wall became the enduring image of the divide between east and west, capitalism and communism, and for some, good and evil.

Following the divide between the nation, East and West Germany took extremely different paths, with the West experiencing an ‘economic miracle’ that saw them become one of the wealthiest nations in the world, a legacy that has carried over into reunification. East Germany, even 30 years after reunification, is significantly less economically powerful than the west, suffering significantly from economic hardship during their time within the Soviet sphere of influence.

With the Soviet Union becoming weakened during the late 1980s, East Germans were becoming increasingly hungry for change, with ‘peaceful revolution’ or ‘die Wende’ resulting in reforms that eventually led to reunification. With growing unrest in East Germany, Eric Honecker, the East German leader was forced to resign and the government allowed East Germans to cross into the west for the first time in nearly 30 years. On 9th June 1989, East Germans flooded into the west, with citizens of both countries coming out onto the streets of Berlin to pull down the wall, in what became the enduring image of the fight against communism for many in the western world. Less than a year later, the states of East Germany would be absorbed into the FRG and the reunification of Germany, under the political system it has today, was born.

 

{tab Germany’s Political System}

Legislature

The German legislature is a bicameral system, with one chamber (the Bundestag) where all federal power is vested, and a second chamber (Bundesrat) representing the different Federal States.

The Bundestag is usually made up of 709 members who are elected through Mixed Member Representation (MMR) which means that members are elected to constituencies with additional members added to represent the proportion of the vote more effectively. This means that currently, the largest party are Angela Merkel’s CDU, with 246 seats, equating to 34.7% of the seats after achieving 32.9% of the vote in 2017.

The system for deciding how many members get to sit in the Bundestag is complex, but essentially any party with a vote share greater than 5% is guaranteed representation, with constituencies electing their representatives and then more candidates selected from party lists to allow the overall makeup of the Parliament to reflect the national vote share more closely.

It is largely different in the Bundesrat, which although works together with the Bundestag – often considered the upper house –is considered by some as a separate branch of the legislature. The Bundesrat represents the ‘Länder’, which are the federated states of Germany. There are only 69 members of the Bundesrat and each state’s delegation roughly reflects the makeup of the state government in that jurisdiction.

It is a relatively complex system and a far more deliberative body that allows the states to ensure that they have significant representation within the national decision making. The number of votes that a state delegation is allocated is determined by their population, with 4 votes going to states of over two million, 5 for over six million and 6 for over seven million inhabitants.

Executive

The head of state in Germany is the president, although they have limited power in the daily administration of the nation, with the role acting largely as a ceremonial position. They are expected to be above party politics (they are not directly drawn from any party) but not required to be politically neutral. The role of the president is severely limited, although they sign all laws into effect most actions of the president cannot be carried out without the countersignature of members of the legislature.

Since 2017, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has held this role. Elected for five year terms, the president of Germany is chosen by a secret ballot by a special Federal Convention which is aimed at mirroring the party makeup of the Bundestag and the governments of the German Federal states.

The true head of the executive, in a practical sense, is the Federal Chancellor, a position that has been held by Angela Merkel since 2005. The Chancellor of Germany is elected by the Bundestag and is therefore will come from the largest party in the Bundestag. They cannot be removed during their term in office, unless a successor has already been elected, making it extremely unlikely that there will be a vote of no confidence, such as the imminent VoNC within the Conservative Party that forced Prime Minister Theresa May to resign in 2019. Angela Merkel was re-elected as Chancellor in 2017, but after poor Federal Election results was ousted as the leader of her party in 2018, replaced by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, making her a lame duck for the remained of her term as Chancellor, leaving office in the 2021 German elections.

The Chancellor therefore does not technically sit within the legislature, although they draw their cabinet from this body. They are usually elected by a coalition of at least two parties, meaning the cabinet will be formed as a coalition, drawing members from the different parties who elected the chancellor.

Judiciary

The German judicial system is akin to most other western democracies, using a civil law system, although there are three distinct branches within the judicial system. The first and most important are the Ordinary Courts, which most cases will be heard in. They are responsible for civil and criminal cases, whilst the Specialised Courts will hear cases related to patent, administrative and fiscal law and is perhaps best considered a dispute court.

The final branch of the German judicial system is the Constitutional Courts system, which focus on constitutional law and judicial review. The highest of these is the Federal Constitutional Court and is perhaps most akin to the Supreme Court in the United States, having the highest authority over judicial review and the constitution.

 

{tab Germany’s Constitution}

The German constitution, approved in 1949, was known as the “Basic Law” for the Federal Republic of Germany. The Basic Law was signed by the allies, who defeated Germany in the Second World War, and was originally the constitution of the West German states before reunification in 1990.

The constitution is almost entirely tailored to eliminate the flaws that were in the constitution of the Weimar Republic, the German political system that briefly served as the government from 1919 until the ascent of the Third Reich, in 1933.

Within the constitution, the Federal Republic of Germany is enshrined, with the powers given to the different state governments and the federal governments outlined. Particularly around the role of the president and the chancellor, the constitution drew heavily on the constitution of the Weimar Republic, eliminating many of the weaknesses that made the system of government so easy to dismantle under the observation of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party).

Following reunification, the Basic Law was administered to those East German States that had formerly been part of the German Democratic Republic, with these states being absorbed into the West German government, rather than through the creation of a new system of government.

{tab Political Parties in Germany}

Although there are tens of political parties in Germany, representing a plethora of different political perspectives – ranging from the Humanist Party (which emerged from a Facebook group of the same name) to the V-Partei (a vegan and vegetarian alliance). However, there are two major parties that have dominated the legislature since 1949, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Christian Democratic Union

The Christian Democratic Union – party of Chancellor Angela Merkel – is the major centre right party in Germany, although is largely considered a ‘broad-tent’ party meaning that it represents a vast array of different views. The CDU traditionally governs in an alliance with the CSU, which is the Christian Democratic Union of Bavaria, which although is a separate party, in an ally of the CDU and together forms a faction called the Union.

Konrad Adenauer was the first leader of the CDU, becoming the first chancellor of West Germany in 1949. The party claims to represent Christian Social values, as well as liberal economic positions and conservatism; generally, the party are pro-European, leading the pro-EU movement within Germany under Chancellor Merkel.

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

The Social Democratic Party have its roots far deeper in German history than the CDU, being founded in 1863 as one of the major pro-Marxist parties in Europe. Following the end of the First World War, the SPD were significant in the founding of the Weimar Republic and SPD politician, Friedrich Ebert, was also the first German president and the first president of the Weimar Republic. The party was banned throughout the period of the Third Reich.

Following the Second World War, the SPD merged with the KPD in East Germany, to form the Socialist Unity Party, but in the west, dropped its commitment to Marxism and became the major centre-right party and competitor to the CDU. They are currently the second largest party in the Bundestag and since 2013 have served as a minor partner in the governing coalition of Germany, despite being ideologically different from the CDU/CSU alliance.

 

{/tabs}

 

 

 

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