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Germany celebrates its post-war constitution and discusses strengthening judicial independence

Germany's post-war constitution or basic law (Grundgesetz) has been in force since 23 May 1949

German constitution

Germany’s post-war constitution (Grundgesetz) was signed by Konrad Adenauer (Christian Democrat), Adolph Schönfelder (Social Democrat) and Hermann Schäfer (Liberal). Adenauer was later to become West Germany’s first Chancellor

May 2024: Some 75 years ago, on 23 May 1949, the German post-war constitution, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), came into force. Drawn up by the Parliamentary Council consisting of 70 people - 66 men and four women - the constitutional document was only legally valid in the then federal states of West Germany, consisting of the occupation zones (Besatzungszonen) of the US, France and Great Britain (1).


The Gundgesetz was intended as a provisional measure and was to be replaced by an all-German constitution after the eventual reunification of West and East Germany. However, this did not happen. After the fall of the East German regime, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the desire for rapid unification was greater than constitutional considerations. On 23 August 1990, the first freely elected GDR parliament (Volkskammer) decided to join the West German Basic Law. The Grundgesetz has therefore been in force throughout Germany since 3 October 1990.


On 1 September 1948, the so-called ‘Parliamentary Council’ convened in Bonn. It consisted of members from the federal state parliaments and representatives from West Berlin (1). Their task was to draw up a constitution for the post-war German republic. The guiding principle was to avoid all the mistakes of the Weimar Republic (2) which had contributed to the downfall of German democracy after World War I. Crimes as atrocious as those committed by Germany under the Nazis should never again be possible.


The Chairman of the Parliamentary Council was the later German Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) Konrad Adenauer.


The members of the Parliamentary Council discussed for almost nine months to agree on a joint draft. Exactly four years after the end of the Second World War, on 8 May 1949, the Parliamentary Council adopted the Basic Law. In the following days, the constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was approved by eleven of the twelve state parliaments and by representatives of the US, France and Great Britain.


The Grundgesetz enshrines several basic rights that guarantee citizens fundamental freedoms and protection. These rights in Articles 1 to 19 include the inviolability of human dignity, personal freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and information, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of faith, conscience and religion, freedom of movement, freedom to choose an occupation, the right to property and the right of inheritance.


This historical development can also be seen in how the Basic Law is structured. The fundamental rights are deliberately placed at the front of the constitutional text, unlike in the Weimar (2) constitution. A perpetuity clause safeguards the principles of constitutional law: human dignity, democracy, the rule of law, the federal state and the welfare state. They may not be abolished even with a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag and Bundesrat (Lower and Upper houses of the German parliament).


The Grundgesetz was proclaimed on 23 May 1949 by West Germany’s first Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. It then came into force in the former West German federal states (Bundesländer). It became the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and has been the constitution of reunified Germany since 3 October 1990. The Basic Law has been amended many times. Given possible extremist majorities, there is currently a debate on how the independence of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) - as the guarantor of fundamental rights - can be enshrined in the Basic Law.


(1) The Grundgesetz (Basic Law) initially applied in the West German states of Baden, Bavaria, Bremen, Greater Berlin, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein, Württemberg-Baden and Württemberg-Hohenzollern, which existed in 1949. It was to come into force in the areas of the Soviet zone after German reunification.


(2) The Weimar Republic is the name given to the German government between the end of the Imperial period (1918) and the beginning of Nazi Germany (1933). The Weimar Republic draws its name from the town of Weimar in Thuringia where the constitutional assembly met.


Sources: Bundestag (German Federal Parliament), Bundesregierung (German Federal Government), ARD (German National Broadcaster)

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