Federalism in Germany

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The vertical (federal) separation of powers across the federal government (white), the states (yellow), and the municipalities (brown).Federal LevelFederal StatesCity States(Governmental Districts)(Rural) Districts(Collective Municipalities)Municipalities(Municipalities)Urban Districts
Administrative divisions of Germany. (Clickable image).

Federalism in Germany is made of the states of Germany and the federal government. The central government, the states, and the German municipalities have different tasks and partially competing regions of responsibilities ruled by a complex system of checks and balances.


German federalism dates back to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, to the reforms that came with the Peace of Westphalia and to the constitution of the German Empire from 1871.[1]

Following German unification, German federalism came into conflict with German nationalism. Nationalists argued for power to be concentrated in the central government in Berlin, but were resisted by monarchs and their governments in the various German states outside the Kingdom of Prussia, with the Kingdom of Bavaria in particular keen to defend the rights afforded to it in the Imperial constitution.

Since re-unification in 1990, the Federal Republic has consisted of sixteen states: the ten states of the Federal Republic before re-unification ("West Germany"), the five new states of the former East Germany, and Berlin.

Division of powers[edit]

The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany divides authority between the federal government and the states (German: "Länder"), with the general principle governing relations articulated in Article 30: "The exercise of governmental powers and the discharge of governmental functions shall be incumbent on the Länder insofar as this Basic Law does not otherwise prescribe or permit."[citation needed] Thus, the federal government can exercise authority only in those areas specified in the Basic Law. The states are represented at the federal level through the Bundesrat, which has a role similar to the upper house in a true bicameral parliament.

The Basic Law divides the federal government's legislative responsibilities into exclusive powers (Articles 71 and 73), concurrent powers (Articles 72, 74, and 74a), and framework powers (Article 75). The exclusive legislative jurisdiction of the federal government extends to defense, foreign affairs, immigration, transportation, communications, and currency standards. The federal and state governments share concurrent powers in several areas, including civil law, refugee and expellee matters, public welfare, land management, consumer protection, public health, and the collection of vital statistics. In the areas of mass media, nature conservation, regional planning, and public service regulations, framework legislation limits the federal government's role to offering general policy guidelines, which the states then act upon by means of detailed legislation. One of the major fields in which the states (Länder) are largely sovereign is "culture", which in Germany includes not only matters like subsidies for the arts but also most education.

The areas of shared responsibility for the states and the federal government were enlarged by an amendment to the Basic Law in 1969 (Articles 91a and 91b), which calls for joint action in areas of broad social concern such as higher education, regional economic development, and agricultural reform.

International relations, including international treaties, are primarily the responsibility of the federal level but, as in other federations, the constituent states have limited powers in this area. As provided in Article 23, Article 24, and Article 32 of the Basic Law, the states (Länder) have the right to representation at the federal level (i.e. through the Bundesrat) in matters of international relations that affect them, including the transfer of sovereignty to international organizations and, with the consent of the federal government, have limited powers to conclude international treaties.[2]

Some older treaties between German states and other countries also remain in effect. The Bavarian–Austrian Salt Treaty of 1829 (German: Konvention zwischen Bayern und Österreich über die beiderseitigen Salinenverhältnisse vom 18. März 1829), for instance, is the oldest European treaty still in effect.[3] 1957 the government of Bavaria used a revision of the treaty to actively claim the states' rights against the will and claims of the federal government.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Umbach, Maiken (2002-05-17). German Federalism: Past, Present, Future. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780333968604.
  2. ^ Leonardy, Uwe (1999). "Länder Power-Sharing in International Relations and European Affairs". The institutional structures of German federalism. Working papers / Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, London Office (electronic ed.). Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
  3. ^ a b Alexander Wegmaier: Salinenkonvention 1829 und 1957 In: Historisches Lexikon Bayerns (24.6. 2013)