Czerulf: Is democracy in a crisis? (Part 2 – The constitution)

"Das Grundgesetz" is Germany's constitution since 1949

“Das Grundgesetz” is Germany’s constitution since 1949

Last Wednesday – in part 1 – I kicked off with some general considerations: the origins of democracy and five fundamental conditions that a functioning democratic system needs to meet. First point on the list: The constitution. I will take Germany as an example, which means that I have to cover about 650 years of history. Lots of stuff but I will try to make it as short and crisp as I possibly can.

On Wikipedia one reads:

“A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed.”

In other words it is the basis upon a state is built. It establishes governmental institutions and assigns responsibilities to them. It also defines rights and obligations of individuals or groups of individuals towards the state.

This is my weekly column – out every Wednesday

The constitutional history in Germany begun with the Golden Bull of 1356 (Goldene Bulle). It remained in force until the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was resolved in 1806. It was devised by Emperor Charles IV and formalized long-established practices. For example, it determined that the Empire was an elective monarchy headed by an Emperor, who was to be elected by seven prince-electors.

The Reichstag of 1495 in Worms legislated the Ewiger Landfriede which prohibited arbitrary seizure and feuds. The Imperial Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht) was established to deal with such instances instead, a milestone in jurisprudence.

In 1806 Napoleon replaced the old Empire with the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) and devised new constitutional legislation (Rheinbundakte). After his defeat and the break up of the Rheinbund in 1813 a couple of former member states introduced “constitutions” on their territories.

1848 was the year of missed opportunities all over Europe. The revolution in Germany came to nothing. The attempt to form a unified national state failed miserably. The first democratic German constituion (Paulskirchenverfassung) therefore couldn’t take effect. It would have stipulated equality before the law and would have granted basic rights such as the freedom of opinion, the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion and the freedom of assembly. A two-chamber parliament (the lower house was to be elected by universal male suffrage) would have had the legislative power, the Emperor the executive authority (heritable). But it wasn’t to be.

Instead Germany was eventually united by Blood and Iron (Blut und Eisen: Otto von Bismarck). It took three wars between 1864 and 1871 to achieve this. There is little wonder that a “revolution from above” produced a constitution (1871) that fell disappointingly short of what was proposed back in 1848.

It was only after another war (WWI 1914-18) and another revolution (1918) that the first German republic came finally into being (Weimar Republic, 1919). Its constitution (Weimarer Verfassung) guaranteed all basic rights. The government was accountable to the lower house of the parliament. Its members were elected by universal suffrage (including women), so was the President of the Republic (Reichspräsident).

The result was a semi-presidential system that gave extensive emergency powers to the president (article 48). In the hands of an able person, this would have stabilised the young republic in unstable times, but entrusted to an avowed anti-republican such as Paul von Hindenburg it proved fatal. The Weimar Republic virtually ceased when Adolf Hitler took over as Prime Minister on January 30, 1933.

Democracy was suspended until the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded in 1949 comprising the three western occupation zones. The eastern zone became a communist country occupied by and closely related to the former Soviet Union. The FRG, better known as West-Germany, implemented a new constitutional law (Grundgesetz).

It proved a success. It is the most modern and liberal constitution Germany ever had and widely respected by the population. Its authors based it on the Weimar Constitution, but corrected its most evident failures. Modern Germany is defined as a parliamentary democracy. The government responses only to the sovereign (the people) and its representative (the parliament). The president has become an institution with mainly representative duties to the point that people start to wonder what a president is actually for. I would reckon that this post will be abolished altogether during my lifetime.

Coming up on Czerulf’s Thoughts

Is the Grundgesetz perfect? No, nothing is. Practically no provisions were made to facilitate referendums. For example, the EURO was adapted without asking the consent of the populace. This practice needs to alter if democracy is to remain the model for the future. The electorate demands more direct involvement which requires better information and more transparency. Democracy will only benefit from this. So will we.

Next week we will have a look at the political parties.

Source: Planet Wissen – Geschichte der Verfassung in Deutschland

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Filed under Columns, Democracy, English, History

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