Opinions - 26.07.2013 - 00:00 

Democracy made in Germany

If the German variety of democracy had to be expressed in a few words, one could say: young and pacifist, set in stone – and decidedly indirect. A comment by Professor Christoph Frei.


14. August 2013. When it comes to the formulaic characterisation of political systems, the vocabulary of political science comes in handy. You would talk about a “parliamentary system”, a “constructive vote of no confidence”, of a “five per cent clause”, etc. Per se, however, such terms are lifeless; only if they are associated with historical facts and circumstances will they acquire meaning.

German democracy is comparatively young. If we ignore the failed prelude of the Weimar Republic, the old Länder are just under 65 years old, the new ones 25. The genetic make-up of the Federal Republic includes the polemical dissociation from the moral, military and material disaster of Hitler’s time and from Soviet-type communism.

This dual anti-totalitarian consensus, as well as the brooding and sometimes self-tormenting search for undesirable developments in Germany’s own past characterises its political culture to this day. The fact that the new democratic beginning in East Germany at the end of the Cold War started in completely different conditions from forty years earlier in the Federal Republic, is obvious. For the foreseeable future, two “democratic” memories will be living here side by side, perfectly in line with the fact that a remarkable diversity of political traditions in Germany’s Länder and regions is disregarded far too frequently.

A hegemon without the will to hegemony
War, destruction, holocaust: the ugly past of the “Third Reich” has remained part of Germany’s psychological constitutional reality. The “Never again!” explains young Germans’ conspicuously pacifist colouring. The hand of every German who handled a rifle once more should drop off, demanded Franz Josef Strauss in 1946, and even now high waves of pacifist sentiments wash across the country on every suitable occasion.

It is not accidental that the external recovery since the Second World War is inextricably linked with the proceeding incorporation into an integrated European structure of countries. By far the biggest, most populated and economically potent member of the European Union cultivates a kind of political self-denial which may be irritating and whose background can only be elucidated by history.

The moral impetus of “Never again!” also serves to explain the idealisation, if not even the absolutisation, of the values of the then novel political system. As a consequence of the famous eternity clause in Article 79 of the Constitution, democracy has been divested of any partial amendment to the Constitution: it has literally been set in stone. Its institutional implementation provided the country with a great, albeit sometimes dysfunctional, number of safeguards against authoritarian lapses.

Direct democracy – too dangerous?

These safeguards include the consistently representative nature of democracy. The adoption of direct-democratic participation rights for citizens was only very rarely demanded in the course of the constitutional discussion of 1948. Speaking for an overwhelming majority opinion, the liberal MP Theodor Heuss rejected postulates along these lines with the oft-quoted formula that in a democracy with a large territory, people’s rights were “a premium for every demagogue”. Little confidence in the people, then, no decision-making options for the people: democracy became a matter for politicians.

Finally, the above-mentioned safeguards also include the judiciary which is without equal in other countries. Thus the German version of democracy is literally in the shadow of the Federal Constitutional Court, which has the last word wherever the political actors are unwilling or unable to decide for themselves. And this powerful instance does not shrink from answering questions, which a case does not raise at all, with constitutional principles which are not yet enshrined in the Constitution anyway – now, is that authoritative or authoritarian? Here, constitutionality comes before democracy.

Bild: Photocase / Deborre

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