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The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (German: Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is the constitution[1] of Germany. It was formally approved on 8 May 1949, and, with the signature of the Allies, came into effect on 23 May 1949, as the constitution of West Germany.

The German word Grundgesetz may be translated as either Basic Law or Fundamental Law (Grund is cognate with the English word ground). The term Verfassung (constitution) was not used, as the drafters regarded the Grundgesetz as a provisional constitution for the provisional West German state and would not prejudice the decisions of a future reunified Germany to adopt a constitution. Shortly after its adoption, the East German Soviet occupation zone was transformed into the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) with its own constitution.

Germany reunified when the Communist regime in East Germany was toppled and the GDR peacefully joined the Federal Republic of Germany. After reunification, the Basic Law remained in force, having proved itself as a stable foundation for the thriving democracy in West Germany that had emerged from the ruins of World War II. Some changes were made to the law in 1990, mostly pertaining to reunification, such as to the preamble. Additional major modifications of the Basic Law were made in 1994, 2002 and 2006.

Contents

Drafting process

The idea for the creation of the Basic Law came originally from the three western occupying powers. In view of the Nazi usurpation of Germany's prewar Weimar Constitution, they made their approval of the creation of a new German state conditional on

  • A complete rejection of the ideology that the German people are a master race (German: Herrenrasse) superior to others and entitled to commit genocide, or to treat barbarically those not belonging to it;
  • An unequivocal commitment to the inviolability and inalienability of human rights.

The draft was prepared at the Herrenchiemsee convention (10 – 23 August 1948) on the Herreninsel in the Chiemsee, a lake in southeastern Bavaria. The delegates at the Convention were appointed by the leaders of the newly formed Länder (states). After being passed by the Parliamentary Council assembled at the Museum Koenig in Bonn on 8 May 1949 — the Museum was the only intact building in Bonn large enough to house the assembly — and after being approved by the occupying powers on 12 May 1949, it was ratified by the parliaments of all the Länder with the exception of Bavaria (Bayern). The Landtag of Bavaria rejected the Basic Law mainly because it was seen as not granting sufficient powers to the individual Länder, but at the same time decided that it would still come into force in Bavaria if two-thirds of the other Länder ratified it.[2] On 23 May 1949, the German Basic Law was promulgated and came into force a day later. The time of legal nonentity ended, as the new West German state, the Federal Republic of Germany, came into being.

Important differences from the Weimar Constitution

Basic rights are fundamental to the Basic Law, in contrast to the Weimar Constitution, which listed them merely as "state objectives." Pursuant to the mandate to respect human dignity, all state power is directly bound to guarantee these basic rights. Article 1 of the Basic Law (in German legal shorthand GG, for Grundgesetz), which establishes this principle that "human dignity is inviolable" and that human rights are directly applicable law, as well as the general principles of the state in Article 20 GG, which guarantees democracy, republicanism, social responsibility, federalism, and the right of resistance should anybody undertake to abolish this order, remain under the guarantee of perpetuity stated in Article 79 Paragraph 3, i.e., those two cannot be changed even if the normal amendment process is followed.

There are no emergency powers such as those used by the Reichspräsident in the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 to suspend basic rights and to remove communist members of the Reichstag from power, an important step for Hitler's Machtergreifung. The suspension of human rights would also be illegal under Articles 20 and 79 GG, as above.

The constitutional position of the federal government was strengthened, as the Bundespräsident has only a small fraction of the former power of the Reichspräsident. The government now depends only on the parliament.

To remove the chancellor, the parliament has to engage in a constructive vote of no confidence (Konstruktives Misstrauensvotum), i.e. the election of a new chancellor. The new procedure was intended to provide more stability than under the Weimar Constitution, when extremists on the left and right would vote to remove a chancellor, without agreeing on a new one, creating a leadership vacuum. In addition it was possible for the parliament to remove individual ministers by a vote of distrust, while it now has to vote against the cabinet as a whole.

Constitutional institutions

The Basic Law established Germany as a parliamentary democracy with separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The executive branch consists of the largely ceremonial Federal President as head of state and the Federal Chancellor, the head of government, normally (but not necessarily) the leader of the largest grouping in the Bundestag.

The legislative branch is represented by the Bundestag, elected directly through a mixture of proportional representation and direct mandates, with the German Länder participating in legislation through the Bundesrat, reflecting Germany's federal structure.

The judicial branch is headed by the Federal Constitutional Court, which oversees the constitutionality of laws.

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Presidency

The German Bundespräsident (federal president) is the head of state. It is a largely ceremonial position with only a minor role in day-to-day politics. Whereas the Weimar Constitution provided the president with far-reaching executive powers, the Federal President's main functions are representative and ceremonial, though as head of state he signs bills into laws and appoints federal officials. In contrast to the Weimar president, the new federal president can neither take the initiative to dissolve the Bundestag nor appoint a new chancellor without the consent of the Bundestag.

Executive branch

The Chancellor heads the federal Cabinet, consisting of ministers appointed on the Chancellor's suggestion. While every minister governs his department autonomously, the Chancellor may issue overriding policy guidelines. The Chancellor is elected for a full term of the Bundestag and can only be dismissed by parliament electing a successor in a vote of no confidence.

Judicial branch

Federal Constitutional Court

The guardian of the Basic Law is the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) which is both an independent constitutional organ and at the same time part of the judiciary in the sectors of constitutional law and public international law. Its judgements have the legal status of ordinary law. It can declare statutes as null and void if they are in violation of the Basic Law.

The court is famous for nullifying several high-profile laws, passed by large majorities in the parliament. An example is the Luftsicherheitsgesetz, which would have allowed the Bundeswehr to shoot down civilian aircraft in case of a terrorist attack. It was ruled to be in violation of the guarantee of life and human dignity in the Basic Law.

The Federal Constitutional Court decides on the constitutionality of laws and government actions under the following circumstances:

  • individual complaint — a suit brought by a person alleging that a law or any action of government violated his or her constitutional rights. All possible solutions in the regular courts must have been exhausted beforehand.
  • referral by regular court — a court can refer the question whether a statute applicable to the case before that court is constitutional.
  • abstract regulation control — the federal government, a government of one of the federal states or a third of the Bundestag's members can bring suit against a law. In this case the suit need not refer to a specific case of the law's application.

The Weimar Constitution did not institute a court with similar powers. When the Basic Law is amended, this has to be done explicitly; the concerning article must be cited. Under Weimar the constitution could be amended without noticing; any law passed with a two-thirds majority vote was not bound by the constitution. Under the Basic Law, the fundamentals of the constitution in Art. 1 GG and Art. 20 GG, as well as elements of the federalist state, cannot be removed. Especially important is the protection of the division of state powers in the three branches, legislative, executive and judicial. This is provided by Art. 20 GG. A clear separation of powers was considered imperative to prevent measures like an over-reaching Enabling act, as happened in Germany in 1933. This act had then given the government legislative powers which effectively finished the Weimar Republic and led to the dictatorship of the Third Reich.

Other courts

Article 95 establishes the Federal Court of Justice, the Federal Administrative Court, the Federal Finance Court, the Federal Labour Court and the Federal Social Court as supreme courts in their respective areas of jurisdiction.

Article 96 authorises the establishment by federal law of the Federal Patent Court, of federal military criminal courts having jurisdiction only in a state of defence or on soldiers serving abroad,[note 1] and of a federal disciplinary court.[note 2] Article 92 establishes that all courts other than the federal courts established under the Basic Law are courts of the Länder.

Article 101 bans extraordinary courts, such as the Volksgerichtshof.

General provisions for the judiciary and rights of the accused

Article 97 provides for judicial independence. Article 102 abolishes capital punishment. Article 103 mandates a fair trial, forbids retroactive criminal legislation and multiple punishment for the same criminal act. Article 104 mandates that deprivation of personal liberty must be provided for by statute and authorised by a judge before the end of the day following the arrest (analogous to the common law concept of Habeas corpus), and that a relative or a person in the confidence of the prisoner must be notified of a judicial decision imposing detention.

Legislative branch

Bundestag

The main body of the legislative branch is the Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, which enacts federal legislation, including the budget. Each member of the Bundestag has the right to iniate legislate, as have the cabinet and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag also elects the Chancellor, the head of government, usually (but not necessarily) the leader of the majority party or the party with a plurality of seats in the Bundestag, and takes part in the election of the Federal President.

Bundesrat

The Bundesrat represents the Länder (~States) and participates in federal legislation. The Bundesrat's power has grown over the years, as the fields of federal legislation were extended at the expense of state legislation. In return, the number of laws requiring the assent of the Bundesrat was also extended.

Role of political parties

In contrast to Weimar, political parties are explicitly mentioned in the constitution, i.e., officially recognized as important participants in politics. Parties are obliged to adhere to the democratic foundations of the German state. Parties found in violation of this requirement may be abolished by the constitutional court. In the Weimar Republic, the public image of political parties was clearly negative and they were often regarded as vile. At the same time there was no obligation to adhere to democratic standards (in contrast, the Basic Law stipulates that parties' "... internal organisation must conform to democratic principles", which precludes any party using the Führerprinzip, even internally.)

Other stipulations

Role of the military

The Weimar Constitution contributed to the Reichswehr becoming a state inside a state, outside of the control of the parliament or the public. The army directly reported to the president who himself was not dependent on the parliament. Under the Basic Law, during times of peace the Bundeswehr reports to the Minister of Defence, during time of war to the chancellor. The chancellor is directly responsible to the parliament, the Minister is indirectly responsible to the parliament because it can remove the entire Cabinet by electing a new chancellor. The Basic Law also institutes the parliamentary post of the Wehrbeauftragter, reporting to parliament not to the executive. The Wehrbeauftragter is a soldiers' ombudsman who can be petitioned directly by soldiers, bypassing the chain of command. Disciplinary measures against soldiers petitioning the Wehrbeauftragter are prohibited.

Although this is not explicitly spelled out in the Basic Law, a number of Constitutional Court cases in the 1990s established that the military may not be deployed by the government outside of NATO territory without a specific resolution of parliament, which describes the details of the mission and limits its term. There are also strict restrictions on the intervention of the military within Germany (i.e. a ban of the military being used for police-type duties), which generally only allow the military to act in unarmed roles within Germany (such as disaster relief).

Referendums and plebiscites

Unlike the Weimar Constitution, the Basic Law only allows referendums, concerning the federal level of legislation, on a single issue: changing borders of the Länder. Baden-Württemberg was founded following a 1952 referendum that approved the fusion of three separate states. In a 1996 referendum the inhabitants of Berlin and Brandenburg rejected a proposed merger of the two states. After referendums on reestablishing to Länder borders as existed in the Weimar Republic all failed, this institution has not been used, as some little border changes can be done by state contract.

The denial of referendums in other cases was designed to avoid the kind of populism that allowed the rise of Hitler. Yet Article 20 states that "All state authority is derived from the people. It shall be exercised by the people through elections and other votes [Abstimmungen] and through specific legislative, executive and judicial bodies"[3]. These other votes – the words are to be understood meaning votes on legislative issues – are, by now, common practice on the level of the Länder. Claims of extending this practice also to the federal level have an undisputed constitutional basis in the Article 20, being the general and unchangeable article on state structure. However, this could only be conferred by a constitutional amendment nevertheless.

Development since 1949

Important changes to the Basic Law were the re-introduction of conscription and the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1956. Therefore several articles were introduced into the constitution, e.g., Art. 12a, 17, 45a-c, 65a, 87a-c GG. Another important reform were the introduction in 1968 of emergency competences, for example Art. 115 Paragraph 1 GG. This was done by a grand coalition of the two main political parties CDU/CSU and SPD and was accompanied by heated debate. In the following year there were changes to the articles regarding the distribution of taxes between federal government and the states of Germany.

During reunification, the two states discussed the possibility of drafting a new common constitution followed by a plebiscite, as envisioned in Art. 146 (1990), but this path was ultimately not taken. Instead the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic decided to keep the Basic Law with only minor changes, because it had proved to be effective in West Germany. To facilitate reunification and to reassure other states, the FRG made some changes to the Basic Law. Article 23 was fulfilled by reunification itself, and then withdrawn to indicate that there were no other parts of Germany that existed outside of the unified territory.[4][5] The question of “using″ Article 146 to draw a new constitution, and hold a referendum, was left to the twelfth (and first all-German) Bundestag, who after considering the question decided against a new draft. However, the Bundestag passed the constitutional reform of 1994, a minor change, but still fulfilling the constitutional question together with some other amendments between 1990 and 1994. For example, affirmative action was allowed in women's rights, and environmental protection was made a policy objective of the state in the new Article 20a. In 1992, membership in the European Union was institutionalised (Art. 23 GG). For the privatisation of the railways and the postal service, amendments were necessary as well. Since then, there have only been minor amendments. In 2002, protection of animals was explicitly mentioned in Art. 20a GG.

The most controversial debate arose concerning the limitation of the right to asylum in 1993 as in the current version of Art. 16 a GG. This change was later challenged and confirmed in a judgment by the constitutional court. Another controversy was spawned by the limitation of the right to the invulnerability of the private domain (Unverletzlichkeit der Wohnung) by means of acoustic observation (Großer Lauschangriff). This was done by changes to Art. 13 Paragraph 3 and Art. 6 GG. The changes were challenged in the constitutional court, but the judges confirmed the changes. Other changes took place regarding a redistribution of competencies between federal government and the Länder.

Early elections

The Basic Law contains no clear provision to call early elections. Neither the chancellor nor the Bundestag has the power to call elections, and the president can do so only if the government loses a confidence vote if the chancellor so requests. This was designed to avoid the chronic instability of Weimar Republic governments. However, early elections have been called three times (1972, 1982, and 2005). On the last two occasions this was a controversial move and was referred to the constitutional court for review.

In 1972, Chancellor Willy Brandt's coalition had lost its majority in the Bundestag, so that the opposition CDU/CSU tried to do a constructive vote of no confidence, thus electing Rainer Barzel as new chancellor. Surprisingly, two representative of CDU/CSU voted for SPD's Willy Brandt, so that the vote failed. Nevertheless, the coalition had no majority in the Bundestag, so that a new election was necessary. (Later it turned out that the GDR secret service had bribed the two dissenting representatives.)

In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Kohl intentionally lost a confidence vote in order to call an early election to strengthen his position in the Bundestag. The constitutional court examined the case, and decided that the vote was valid, but with reservations. It was decided that a vote of no confidence could be engineered only if it were based on an actual legislative impasse.

In 2005, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder engineered a defeat in a motion of no confidence after a power shift in the Bundesrat. President Horst Köhler then called elections for 18 September 2005. The constitutional court agreed to the validity of this procedure on August 25, 2005, and the elections duly took place.

See also

Former constitutions

Others

Notes

  1. ^ This authorisation has not been implemented by statute; German soldiers are under the jurisdiction of the civilian court system. See German military law.
  2. ^ The Federal Disciplinary Court was abolished in 2003 and its jurisdiction merged into the administrative court system. See Bundesdisziplinargericht (German).

References

  1. ^ Deutscher Bundestag: Grundgesetz (German)
  2. ^ Bayerischer Rundfunk: "Bayern und das Grundgesetz - Ein entschiedenes 'Jein' aus dem Freistaat" (German)
  3. ^ German Bundestag: Official English Translation of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany: Article 20 (2) (English)
  4. ^ Johnson, Edward Elwyn. International law aspects of the German reunification alternative answers to the German question. Page 11 footnote 18, and Page 26. (English)
  5. ^ Periodic reports of States parties due in 1993 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), 22 February 1996. Introduction: paragraph 6.

6. Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Official english translation Stand 22.09.09)

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Germany

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File:Preamble
Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany
The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany is the name of Germany's constitution. It was written in 1949 when Germany was split into the countries of East Germany and West Germany. Many parts of the constitution are very different from the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

The writers decided not to call it the constitution because they hoped it would only be a temporary law for West Germany and that the two Germanys would soon be made into one.

It was more than 40 years before East Germany and West Germany became one country again, but the old name of Basic Law has been kept.

Contents

Protecting the Constitution

The Federal Constiutional Court (German: Bundesverfassungsgericht) protects the constitution by banning laws which break the constitution. There are some "eternal clauses" in the constitution which the court will protect even by banning constitutional amendments (laws to change them). Article 1, about human life, and article 20's basic principles are protected from change. This is to make sure nothing like the Nazi period happens again. The Nazis were able to pass an act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree.

The Five Constitutional Bodies

Germany is a federal parliamentary democracy. To show this there are five "constitutional institutions".

Presidency

The Federal President (German: Bundespräsident) is the head of state. It is largely ceremonial position with only a small role in daily politics. The president does not have the massive power of the president of the Weimar Republic, or the President of the United States. He is the formal head of state, and signs laws before they can enter into force and appoints federal officials, he cannot decide when to dissolve the Bundestag or name a new chancellor until a majority of the members of the parliament (German: Bundestag) vote in favour.

Executive branch

The Chancellor is chosen by the Bundestag. He or she is head of the executive branch, and heads the federal Cabinet.

Judicial branch

The Judicial branch is made up of the Federal Constitutional Court and five other Supreme Courts. There are also local and regional courts which make the first decision about cases. Their decisions can be overturnned by the courts of appeal or Supreme Courts.

Federal Constitutional Court

The Federal Constitutional Court is the most important court in Germany. Its job is to protect the Basic Law. Its decisions are like laws. The court can cancel laws if they break the Basic Law.

Federal Social Court

The Federal Social Court is the Supreme Court of Appeal for cases about social security, pensions and health insurance

Federal Labour Court

The Federal Labour Court is the Supreme Court of Appeal for cases about labour law. This includes contracts of employment, strikes and trade union agreements

Federal Tax Court

The Federal Tax Court is the Supreme Court of Appeal for cases about tax and customs law

Federal Administrative Court

The Federal Social Court is the Supreme Court of Appeal for cases involving a government body. These may be because a person might feel they have been treated unfairly by government or because there is a dispute between two government bodies about which of them is allowed to do something.

Federal Supreme Court

This court is the Supreme Court of Appeal for cases all civil and criminal cases which are not heard by one of the other supreme courts

Legislative branch

The legislative branch has two of the constitutional bodies.

Bundesrat

Germany's upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, represents the Länder. It also shows that Germany is a federal state. Federalism is one of the "eternal clauses" of the constitution, that can never be changed..

Bundestag

The Bundestag is the part of the legislature chosen by election. The Chancellor must be a member of the Bundestag.

Other stipulations

The military

The Weimar Constitution had the Reichswehr outside of the control of the parliament or the public. The army directly reported to the president, and the president did not have to report to the parliament.

Under the Basic Law, the Defence Forces Bundeswehr are responsible to parliament, because

  1. during times of peace the Bundeswehr reports to the minister of defence
  2. during time of war it reports to the chancellor.

The chancellor is directly responsible to the parliament, the minister is indirectly responsible to the parliament because it can remove the government by electing a new chancellor.

The Basic Law also created a soldiers' ombudsman or Wehrbeauftragter, reporting to parliament not to the government. Soldiers can write directly to the Wehrbeauftragter if they feel they have been treated unfairly or unlawfully, or if they think their commanders are acting illegally. Soldiers cannot be punished for writing to the Wehrbeauftragter.

A number of Constitutional Court cases in the 1990s said that the Bundeswehr cannot be used by the government outside NATO territory unless the Bundestag first gives permission in a resolution. The resultion must describe where the Bundeswehr is to go, and for who long the mission will last.

Referendums and plebiscites

The Basic Law only allows referendums about changing borders of the Länder. There have been two referundums:

  1. Baden-Württemberg was created in 1952 after a referendum approved joining together three separate states (Baden Wurttemburg Baden and Wurttemburg Hohenzollern).
  1. In 1996 the people who live in Berlin and Brandenburg decided not to join the two states.

Development of the Basic Law since 1949

Important changes to the Basic Law were the re-introduction of conscription and the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1956.

During reunification East Germany and West Germany decided not to write a new constitution, but to keep the old one, which had worked so well in West Germany. The constitution was amended to allow East Germany to join, and then changed again to strengthen the claim that Germany wanted no more territory. This was a promise made in the Final Settlement.[1][2]

Footnotes

  1. Johnson, Edward Elwyn. International law aspects of the German refunification alternative answers to the German question. Page 11 footnote 18, and Page 26.
  2. periodic reports of States parties due in 1993 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), 22 February 1996. Introduction: paragraph 6.

Other pages

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Former Constitutions

Others

  • Bremen clause
  • Bundesrechnungshof
  • German Emergency Acts
  • History of Germany
  • Politics of Germany

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