Germany: Government and Politics

The modern political history of Germany is usually considered to have begun in 1871, when the German Empire was formed. It will be remembered that prior to this time, Germany consisted of hundreds of very small states that had been gradually unified into the 39 states of the German Federation.

In 1848, representatives were elected to a parliament to discuss German unification. After the formal meetings, representatives with similar opinions began to meet together. These groups became the first political parties. The parliament, however, was disbanded in 1849 without obtaining unification. When the German Empire was established in 1871, an elected parliament was organized. There were a large number of small parties, but they fell into four groups, based on social class. The four groups were conservatives, liberals, Socialists, and Christians. The conservatives were opposed to change and represented the Protestant upper class and the new industrialists. The liberals supported change and came from intellectuals and professionals. The Socialists held most of their support with the working class. The largest party in this group was the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Catholics were the first religious group to organize to fight anti-Catholic legislation. Their Center Party broadened into a general Christian coalition called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

When the Weimar Republic was established at the end of World War I, it also had numerous parties from the four groups listed above, and as a result no party could gain enough seats to have a majority. Indeed, parties would not even cooperate with each other to form a coalition. As a result, there were 20 governments between 1919 and 1933, only four of which lasted a full year. Parties moved toward the extreme right or the extreme left. Growing hostility led to street fighting, assassinations, and property damage that rocked the country. Mean-while, an obscure labor party known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party), led by Adolf Hitler, gained power. By 1930, it was the second-largest party, and in 1933, it formed a minority government. By preventing his opponents from attending the parliament, Hitler was able to pass a law allowing him to make laws without parliamentary approval. After removing all of the existing parties except his own, he passed a law against the formation of new parties, thus creating a one-­party state. Hitler also took control of all of the state governments. He called his new government the Third Reich, or empire. It lasted from 1933 until 1945.

At the end of World War II in 1945, Germany was occupied by the Allied forces and divided into four zones. When local and zonal elections were announced, some of the old parties were reorganized and some new parties were formed. In May 1949, the zones occupied by France, Great Britain, and the United States were proclaimed the Federal Republic of Germany and became known as West Germany. Four months later, the area occupied by the Soviet Union was proclaimed the German Democratic Republic and became known as East Germany.

On paper, both countries were quite similar. Like the United States, both would have a national government and state governments, and the head of state in each country would be a president. This form of government is called a federal republic. The federal governments would consist of two houses. The lower chamber, called the Bundestag, would be filled by nationally elected representatives. The upper house, the Bundesrat, would consist of members appointed by the state governments. The leader of the government would be elected by the lower house from among its members and would be called the chancellor in West Germany, and the prime minister in East Germany. The president would be elected by the upper house. The constitutions of both countries allowed for their reunification. In reality, the two governments operated quite differently.

West Germany

The constitution, known as the Basic Law, was adopted in 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was created. The Basic Law stated that a party must win at least 5 percent of the total votes cast to have a seat in the parliament. It was hoped that this would eliminate the small splinter parties that destroyed the Weimar Republic. Eleven parties won seats in 1949. The CDU formed a multiparty coalition government. The CDU leader, Konrad Adenauer, was elected chancellor by a single vote; and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) nominee, Theodor Heuss, became the first president. The main opposition party was the SPD.

The CDU remained in power for the next two decades, usually with the support of the FDP. Indeed, for 20 years after 1961 these were the only three parties with seats: the CDU, the SPD, and the much smaller FDP. Adenauer retired in 1963 and his economics minister, Ludwig Erhard, succeeded him as chancellor. During this time, East and West Germany grew further apart. An economic recession that began in 1965 led to Erhard’s resignation as chancellor. In the 1966 elections, the CDU and SPD formed a grand coalition with Kurt-Georg Kiesinger as chancellor. In the next election, the two parties were so close that the FDP could choose the winner. The FDP decided to join with the SPD, putting the CDU into opposition for the first time, although they were still the largest party. SPD leader Willy Brandt became the chancellor. During the 1960s, both the major parties moved toward the political center so there were no strong conflicts pitting right-wing and left-wing interests as had been the case during the Weimar Republic.

The United States and the Soviet Union were now making efforts to get along better and thus America supported Brandt’s moves to sign nonaggression treaties with Poland and the Soviet Union. Brandt was awarded the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize. A treaty with East Germany recognizing its existence led to both countries being accepted as members of the United Nations in 1973.

The CDU was able to force an election in 1972, a year before one was due. This plan backfired as both the other parties gained seats. The SPD remained in power until 1982. In 1974, an East German spy was discovered in Brandt’s personal staff and Brandt was forced to resign. Helmut Schmidt replaced him. Tensions between Schmidt and the FDP led to the FDP deciding to end its partnership with the SPD and offer its support to the CDU. A new government was formed in 1982 without an election being held. CDU leader Helmut Kohl became chancellor, a position he held through the reunification process and until 1998.

During the late 1970s, a new party began to organize in local and state elections. The Green Party was organized and supported by individuals who rallied around environmental and other important social issues and concerns. For example, they supported recycling with both deposits and refunds on glass and plastics. They also supported public transportation, childcare programs, assistance for the disabled and the elderly, and the peace movement in general. “Greens” were opposed to nuclear power stations. In 1983, the Greens won state elections and subsequently won seats in the Bundestag.

East Germany

Political parties began to organize in the Soviet-­held zone in 1945. The first party to form was the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), but it was followed quickly by the SPD, CDU, and FDP as in the West. In East Germany, the Soviet military kept tight control of the political system. In 1946, the SPD was absorbed into the KPD to form the Socialist Unity Party (SED). When the German Democratic Republic was created, the SED came to power. Unlike other one-­party countries, East Germany had opposition parties, but the number of seats they would hold was determined before the elections were held. In theory, the various social groups had representation. The CDU represented churchgoers, the LDP represented the owners of small businesses and professionals, and the Democratic Farmers Party (DBD) represented farmers. The National Democratic Party (NDPD) was a strong nationalist party with about 40 percent of its membership coming from former Nazi officials. In the 1986 election, the four opposition parties won 52 seats each for a total of 208. The SED and its affiliated organizations representing the working classes won 292 seats.

The leader of the SED, Walter Ulbricht, became the first prime minister. In East Germany, the states were abolished in 1952 and replaced with 15 smaller regions. A one-­day strike in 1953 led to Soviet tanks entering the streets. Ulbricht’s power became stronger when West Germany demonstrated that it was unwilling to interfere. In 1958, the upper chamber was abolished. When the first president died in 1960, he was replaced with a council of state. A revised constitution in 1968 enshrined the leading role of the SED and limited opposition. The movement toward friendlier relations with West Germany forced Ulbricht’s resignation in 1971 and his replacement by Erich Honecker. In 1972, Western journalists were allowed into East Germany, and the people began to learn more about life outside of their country. The 1974 constitution tried to create an East German national identity and play down the all-German
links recently developed.

In 1988, Honecker expressed opposition to the Soviet perestroika (reorganization) movement, and a large number of protest groups began to form prior to the May 1989 elections. The SED’s proclamation that it had again won the election led to the removal of Honecker and his replacement by Egon Krenz in October. Three weeks later, the government resigned and was replaced by an SED-­led coalition. In early December, Gregor Gysi replaced Krenz, and the SED changed its name to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). New elections were announced and 36 parties had registered by February 1990. The first free elections in East Germany were held in March 1990, and the new government opened discussions with West Germany on unification.

The Current Government

The current Federal Republic of Germany was proclaimed on October 3, 1990, and National Unity Day was declared a national holiday. Modern Germany consists of 16 states, each representing a traditional cultural or political area in German history. As in the United States, the states vary greatly in area and population. The six former East German states were reestablished, including the city-­state of Berlin, and have governments similar to those in the 10 states of West Germany. The Basic Law was extended to all of Germany, and in December 1990, a full national election returned Helmut Kohl as chancellor.

Every citizen who has reached the age of 18 can vote in the Bundestag election and in state and local elections. Elections are held every four years. The constitution allows for any group to run for election as long as their written constitution makes it clear that their aim is not to destroy the democratic system or the republic. Many parties may run for election.

The election process is more complex than that used in the United States. The Bundestag ordinarily has 656 seats, making it the largest freely elected body in the democratic world. Like the United States, Germany is divided into constituencies where party candidates run against each other. Each voter casts a ballot for one candidate, and the person with the largest number of votes is elected. There are 328 constituencies. Much like the larger parties, those parties with strong concentrations of supporters in one area can win seats this way.

In addition to the constituencies, in each state, each elector can cast a second vote for the party of his or her choice. Parties are then given additional seats based on the number of votes they obtained as a proportion of the total votes cast. At least an additional 328 seats are allocated in this way. In addition to the largest parties, this process can give seats to a party with dispersed support, which prevents it from winning a constituency. To prevent the turmoil found during the 1920s, a party must win at least 5 percent of the popular vote to obtain a seat.

In the 1998 elections, five parties won seats. The SPD won 40.9 percent of the popular vote and 298 seats. The CDU placed second with 35.1 percent of the vote and 245 seats. In third place was the Green Party with 6.7 percent of the vote and 47 seats. The other two parties were the FDP with 6.2 percent (43 seats) and the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) with 5.1 percent (36 seats). Because the SPD Party did not have a majority of the seats, they formed an alliance with the Green Party to form the government. The leader of the SPD Party, Gerhard Schroeder, was elected chancellor on October 27, 1998. He obtained 52.7 percent of the votes cast by the members of the Bundestag. Consequently, the FDP lost its role as the ruling party. Surprisingly, the East German SED, renamed the PDS, has won enough votes, all in the former East Germany, to hold seats in the Bundestag since 1990.

The representatives in the upper house, the Bundesrat, are chosen by the 16 state governments. This gives the states far more power than they have in most other federal governments. Each state has between three and six representatives, depending on its population. The representatives of a state must vote as a block. State elections are staggered between federal elections and act as a barometer of national trends. The makeup of the Bundesrat after the 1998 Bundestag elections was as follows: SPD-­led states had 26 seats, CDU-­led states had 28 seats, and other parties had 15 seats. Regionally popular parties, such as the Republican Party, which won no seats in the Bundestag, may have seats in the Bundesrat. The Green Party is an example of a party that began at the local level, won state elections, and then moved onto the national scene. The Bundesrat has an absolute veto on legislation related to the powers and finances of the states but can be overridden by the Bundestag on other matters. The Bundesrat elects the chief of state, or president, for a four-­year term. Johannes Rau was elected president on July 1, 1999. President Rau obtained 57.6 percent of the votes.

The executive branch of the government consists of the president, the chancellor, and a cabinet that is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the chancellor. The SPD and Green Party had cabinet ministers in the government elected in 1998. The total number of cabinet ministers may vary. There are always ministers for foreign policy, finance, defense, internal affairs, justice, and the economy. But areas such as health, education, nutrition, youth and family, labor, and urban and regional development have been joined in various ministries.

The police and court systems in Germany are state run. A Federal Court of Justice is the final court of appeal for civil and criminal cases and a Federal Constitutional Court acts as the final arbitrator with respect to the legality of state and federal legislation. Now, however, the country is subject to laws imposed by the European Union and cannot pass state or federal legislation that would counter such laws.

After years of SPD dominance, the German political landscape was transformed in 2005 with the rebirth of the oncedominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In one of the most controversial elections in recent history, the CDU barely edged the SPD, its main competitor. It managed to form a coalition government after a period of political stalemate in which neither side had enough votes to form a solid majority in the parliament. What made this election particularly significant was the appointment of Angela Merkel, a CDU leader, as the new German chancellor. In assuming the office, she broke a long tradition of male dominance in German leadership. This was a rather significant step with a German society that had always favored strong male leaders at all levels of government. It exemplifies the eagerness of Germans to accept changes that were once unimaginable. Perhaps one of the reasons why the CDU won the elections was because of the voters’ dissatisfaction with the direction the country’s economy was taking. Although the economy is still expanding, it lacks the vigor it once had when it was undeniably the strongest in Europe. Current growth is more gradual, thus Merkel, who is pro-­business, is expected to lead the country in the direction of even more successful development. She is also expected to establish a firm German political presence on the international level. Ever since the end of World War II, Germans have felt uncomfortable about interfering in international affairs and their engagement has often been of a limited nature through other bodies, mainly NATO. Now that Germany is not only a powerful nation-­state, but also the leader of the European Union, it is becoming clear that the country must reassert itself as a strong economic as well as political leader.