Federalism in Germany

Federalism in Germany. Discuss the central features of the federal political system in Germany and the role that federal institutions play in policy-making in Germany.

Federalism in the theoretical term refers to a form of government the structure of which is based on the division or distribution of power and authority between its different levels. It also reflects the capacity of the government to adapt or respond to various social conflicts even while it retains the principles of pluralism, coordination, and equal distribution of authority at all levels (Ebenstein 1946, p.285). It is the form of governmental organization that aims at establishing a stable union even as it aims at preserving diversity by providing effective representation to all the segments within the society.

The most significant factor that influences the formation of a federal form of governments is the need to give representation to the citizens with diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, religious and language differences residing in various parts of the nation. Thus, it provides for the adequate representation of minorities within the region. The country’s relative size like in case of Canada and United States might be another factor that creates the need for a federal structure to ensure a relative ease in the administering the vast region. It also provides for a structure through which different administrative territories might decide to come together to form a more unified sovereign nation while still retaining their identity. The examples of which can be the Federation of United States, the former Soviet Union etc. (Gunlicks 2003, p.4).

Another important that motivates the need to form and retain a federal form of government is the history and political legacy that has helped shape that region. Also, the federal-state exhibits much potential in establishing a decentralized political structure that provides for increasing participation of people at the ground level. The need to form a government that is based on the distribution of power at different levels thus protects the entire nation against the potential autocratic tendencies of the federal government. This was the most important reason that produced the Federation of United States as well as in. This form of government aims to counter the tyrannical and centralizing tendencies exhibited by the center.

In Europe, however, this form of governmental organization is often perceived to produce a gradual dissolution of national sovereignty. Here, with the emergence of various international organizations and associations, the political and economic reforms introduced and decisions are taken at the international level seems to heavily influence the functions of the sovereign government (Umbach 2002, p.1). With the formation of EU (European Union) that has managed to create a federation of European Nations, the need to create a balanced federal political organization that provides equal representation to its every nation while retaining the unified cohesive existence of the organization becomes more urgent especially in the era of Brexit.

Europe thus needs to be more familiar with the federal form of organizing as it welcomes the advent of neo-liberalization. The only European nations that had adopted and practiced a federal form of government are the nation of Austria, Belgium and Germany. The nation-state of Germany, however, enjoys the legacy of being one of the oldest federations in the world. The analysis of a federal experiment in Germany can hence help guide other European nations and their relationship within an organizational structure.

Federalism in Germany:

The nation’s first experimented with a federal form of government can be traced to a period as early as in 1815 when the country was first unified. Except for short episodes when a more centralized and unified form of government the Federation of Germany managed to preserve its existence. From 1815 to the present era, the German nation-state has undergone significant transformations. The nation had managed to restore itself from the ashes after its defeat in the first and the Second World War; the nation has also managed to successfully unify itself into a federation and maintain its unity in the present era of Globalization. The kind of German federal structure of government that frames the country today is thus produced through many such historical transformations.

Evolution of German Federalism:

As citied earlier, the origin of the formation of Germany as a federal structural organization can be traced back to a period as early as the 1800’s. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, the German Confederation was formed. The Confederation was made-up of thirty-nine states; the state of Austria was also a part of it. It was formed with the aim of establishing and maintaining the internal and external security of its various federating units (Gunlicks 2003, p.8).

However, some concerns emerged when it is argued that this form of government wasn’t exactly a model example of a federal structure but contained certain centralized tendencies within it. The German Confederation of 1815-1866, however, did not contain any elements of democratizing tendency that characterizes a federation and it also didn’t provide for the development and spread of federal attitude. (Ebenstein 1946, p.286). However, the Confederation continued to function and was further supplemented by the Customs Union of 1834. Through this, the nation of Austria was excluded from the confederation.

In 1866, the war was fought between two major German states of Prussia and Austria where the victory of Prussia resulted in the defeat and complete exclusion of Austria from the German Confederation. This war then resulted in the reconstruction of the Confederation into North German Federation that included within its structure more than twenty German states that were dominated by the state of Prussia. Later in 1870, the states in the North German Federation together with four other sovereign South German states a united German state was formed for the first time (Gunlicks 2003, p.8)

However, after the nation of Germany was unified in 1871, the organizational structure of its government was argued to be much similar to the unitary form of government of England. The unified nation of Germany similarly included a constitutional monarch formed under the domiantinance of Prussia. However, even under the dominating influence exhibited by a single state, the various federating units still retain authority to legislate on various issues including that of finance, education, law and various other cultural policies. The autonomy enjoyed by states was only interrupted during the period of Nazi rule (Hung 2014). The Nazis managed to replace the federal structure and introduced many centralizing reforms in the government’s organizational structure. Also, made various efforts to strengthened the nationalistic tendencies among the masses and promoted an aggressive form of nationalism.

With the defeat of Nazi’s in the Second World War, the German nation-state underwent another significant transformation. The nation was divided and some of its territories were given to the Soviet Union and Poland. Later, the cold war that followed resulted in a clear division and demarcation of the nation into two parts; the one of each was called West Germany that was under the influence of the capitalist economic system that was structured around parliamentary democracy while the other part was called as East Germany, it was under the influence of Soviet Union and was politically dominated by the left.

It was often argued that it was Germany’s political and administrative unity of the nation that resulted in the country’s military and economic development that proved detrimental to the allies during the first as well as a second world war. It was therefore understood that the by dividing Germany permanently into a number of independent states, it would be possible to incapacitate the nation’s military power and hence render it powerless and incapable of indulging in future warfare (Ebenstein 1946, p.285). Germany was however united into a single nation less than half a century later in the year 1990.

Hence, all these political transformations have played a significant role in the way that federal form of government has functioned in the present-day Germany. These changes are sought to explain why experiment of Federalism in unified Germany had proven a success. The experience of defeat during the world wars and later its total collapse after the second world war which was later followed by its subsequent unprotected existence between two superpowers forged a union in which regional animosities became negligent. The shared memories produced during the cold war era in the east and west Germany that made the unification between the two countries under a federal structure became possible (Hung 2014).

German Federalism: Its basic features

Since its unification in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany is constituted of sixteen federal State units also known as Länder or Bundesländer. Out of these, the ten Länder were part of former West Germany while, the other five new Länder belonged to the former state of East Germany and it also includes its national capital and largest city of the country, Berlin. The governments are based on a parliamentary system with the President as the head, of the state. He is a representative head while the Chancellor is appointed as the head of the government. Its legislative functions are entrusted to the parliament with two houses; the lower Bundestag also called as Federal Diet and Bundesrat, the Federal Council is its upper house.

The German federal states or Bundesländer, enjoy greater autonomy within the political structure. According to the nation’s constitution, the legislative authority of the country resides with the states unless it's stated otherwise. Each Bundesländers has its own constitution and its unicameral legislatures with members directly elected on the bases of popular votes. They can also exert considerable influence on federal legislation through a position in the Bundesrat. The taxes collected are also equally between the federal states and the federal government. The federal states also enjoy the right, with the consent of the federal government to participate and conclude international treaties and policies (Hung 2014).

The German Constitution divides the legislative powers of the federal government into exclusive powers (Articles 71 and 73), concurrent powers (Articles 72, 74, and 74a), and framework powers (Article 75). The legislative jurisdiction of the federal government exclusively includes subjects like defense, foreign affairs, immigration, transportation, communications and currency standards. Both the federal and state governments enjoy joining concurrent powers to make laws on subjects involving civil law, refugee and expellee matters, public welfare, land management, consumer protection, public health etc. (German culture, 2017).

In the legislative power of federal government, however, doesn’t extend to making laws on the subjects available in framework legislation which includes making laws on issues like mass media, nature conservation, regional planning and public service regulations. The concurrent power of both the federal government and its states has been expanded through the constitutional amendment introduced in the year of 1969 through the Articles 91a and 91b which includes various social issues like such education, regional economic development, and agricultural reform.

However, other policy areas that are within the exclusive legislative purview of the federal states also include subjects like education, law enforcement, regulation of radio and television, church affairs, and cultural activities. The Bundesländer also retain some significant authority in creating of different taxation policies. Thus, the federal states enjoy more legislative authonomy that the federal government does.


However, this increased autonomy enjoyed by the federal states result in a number of issues. The most significant of this is elaborates by Peter Schneider, Director of the Institute for Federal Studies as according to him,’Germany is often overruled because the government constantly has to confer with its individual states, which means it doesn't have the necessary flexibility for negotiations’(Göpfert 2005). As a result, Germany often refrains from voting in Brussels and this has occurred so frequently that any country that has abstained from voting is now simply referred to as the “German vote” (Göpfert 2005).

In addition, there is a conflict of interests as the federal government functions as a net contributor of the grants to the European Union while its state governments are its biggest recipients. The federal structure has its various problems and efforts have been made to mitigate them. However, in spite of this or because of this German has managed to achieve one of the most successful experiments in federal government.



Gunlicks, A., 2010. The Länder and German Federalism. Manchester University Press.


Ebenstein, W., 1946. Federalism in Germany.

Moore, C., Jacoby, W. and Gunlicks, A.B., 2008. German federalism in Transition?. German Politics, 17(4), pp.393-407.


Göpfert Angela, 2005. Federalism Weakens Germany in Europe, http://www.dw.com/en/federalism-weakens-germany-in-europe/a-1748309
Hung. J., 2014, Federalism works in Germany but may not in Britain, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/22/federalism-germany-britain-federal-system-uk
GERMAN CULTURE, 2017. Federalism in Germany, http://germanculture.com.ua/germany-facts/federalism-in-germany/

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