As the power of the ancient Roman Empire waned, unconquered Germanic tribes took over. Among these were the Goths, Franks, Lombards, and Saxons.
In the early 9th century, the Franks under Charlemagne created an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the North Sea and the Baltic down to northern Italy. The empire broke up upon Charlemagne’s death, but small German states continued their feudal allegiance to a German king.
A series of dynasties vied to control Germany, but they had to contend with the power of medieval popes, who claimed ultimate authority over the so-called Holy Roman Empire. This did not stop Germanic expansion, as settlers took over Slav and Baltic lands.
The empire evolved a system of electors, princes, and bishops who selected their “emperor.” In time, the Austrian Hapsburgs became hereditary holders of the title, though with little authority outside their own lands.
Following the Reformation, most of northern Germany became Protestant. This religious transformation touched off the 30 Years’ War (1618–1648): a devastating conflict that cost the lives of millions in a struggle between Catholics and Protestants for dogmatic primacy. Killing in the name of Christ was never again as bloody as then.
The war diminished the Holy Roman Emperor and increased autonomy among constituent states. Political consolidation gradually evolved. By the mid-19th century, 2 states dominated the Germanic world: Austria in the south and Prussia in the north.
By the 1860s Prussia became the predominant military power in Europe, its foreign policy adroitly directed by Otto von Bismarck, the “iron chancellor.” After defeating Austria in 1866, followed by France in 1870, Prussia persuaded the smaller German states to join a Prussian-led German Empire.
Germany’s militarism led it into the disastrous Great War of 1914–1918. In its aftermath, the harsh post-war terms imposed on Germany, and worldwide economic crisis that began in 1929, proved fatal to the enfeebled republic.
Disaffected Germans embraced Hitler’s fanaticism. He his ascension to chancellor in 1933 led to abandoning parliamentary rule for the single-party Nazi state. In 1939, Hitler plunged his country into a war that would end in humiliating defeat and division of the German nation.
Soviet occupation of East Germany at the end of the war brought totalitarian rule there, while West Germany became a parliamentary republic once again. The bifurcation lasted until Soviet power dissolved in 1989, permitting unification in 1990, with West Germany absorbing East.
The current constitution of Germany is called the Basic Law. Its core principles are human rights and dignity, social responsibility, democracy, republicanism, and federalism. These principles are constitutionally entrenched and not subject to amendment. The authors of the Basic Law sought to ensure that a dictator could never again come to power in Germany.
The Basic Law has proved its worth. It is the most liberal constitution the Germans have ever had. ~ German politician Roman Herzog
Germany has 2 houses of parliament with divergent functions: the Bundestag and Bundesrat. The Bundestag is more powerful than the Bundesrat.
The Bundestag is Germany’s legislative body. The Bundestag also elects the chancellor, and exercises oversight on the executive branch.
The 630 members of the Bundestag are directly elected to 4-year terms, through a mixed process where each voter casts 2 ballots: one for a district candidate, the other for a political party. Roughly half of Bundestag seats are directly elected via first-past-the-post, while the other half are elected via party lists in each of the 16 states (Länder). The number of seats in the Bundestag has varied from 402 after WW2 to a high of 672 in the mid-1990s.
The Bundesrat represents the Länder at the national level. Each state has 3–6 members, roughly based on population, with smaller states having disproportionate representation (though not nearly as egregious as the US senate). All told, there are 69 votes in the Bundesrat.
Bundesrat members are delegated by their respective state government. As state elections are not coordinated throughout Germany, and can occur at any time, the party distributions in the Bundesrat may change after any election.
The Bundesrat acts as a check on the Bundestag. The Bundesrat must approve all legislation affecting policy in which the Basic Law grants the Länder concurrent power, and for federal regulations which the Länder must administer.
Changes to the Basic Law require a 2/3rds approval of all votes in the Bundestag and Bundesrat, thus giving the Bundesrat an absolute veto against constitutional change.
The Chancellor is the most powerful official in Germany, serving as the chief executive. Usually the leader of the majority party, or of a coalition, the chancellor is nominated by the president. The chancellor decides the composition of the cabinet and the ministers within it. Most significantly, the chancellor cannot be dismissed by a vote of no confidence.
The President is the head of state: selected by secret ballot for a 5-year term (renewable only once) by a federal convention which mirrors the makeup of the Bundesrat. The president is assisted by the president of the Bundesrat (the Federal President).
While not an executive post, the president has the considerable power of persuasion. Somewhat distanced from day-to-day politics, the president traditionally acts above party squabbles.
Federal laws must be signed by the president to come into effect. The president may veto any law which s/he believes violates the constitution.
Unlike common law polities, which rely upon accreted case law, the German legal system is based upon a comprehensive compendium of statutes. The independence and strength of the Germany judiciary predates its present republic. Almost all governmental actions are subject to judicial review.
Being a jurist in Germany is a path that begins early in a lawyer’s career. Though all judges are members of a common corps, most are state civil servants.
In both civil and criminal cases, the judiciary employs an inquisitorial system, actively investigating the facts, as contrasted to the ersatz adversarial regime, where a judge acts as a supposedly impartial referee between a plaintiff or prosecutor and a defendant.
There are 7 types of courts, with their own appellate tiers. Ordinary courts handle criminal and most civil cases. The other courts are specialized: administrative, tax, labor, welfare, intellectual property, and constitutional.
Each state (Länder) has its own constitutional court. Then there is the Federal Constitutional Court (FCC), which is Germany’s highest court. Its sole responsibility is ensuring the constitutionality of legislation. Unlike other supreme courts, the FCC is not an appeals court.
From medieval times, Germany held jury trials. Then, in 1924, an emergency decree replaced juries with jurists: a mixture of professional and lay judges. This was a money-saving measure in the face of Belgian and French occupation of the Ruhr for failure to pay war reparations. Though fiscal duress is no longer an issue, bench trials endure as the new tradition.