In May 1949, something extraordinary happened: exactly four years after Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, a new Germany was born. A democratic constitution was signed, which turned three of the country’s four occupation zones into the West German state. Called “Basic Law”, this constitution was enacted on 23 May, propelling Germany from a genocidal dictatorship towards a prosperous democracy. And yet, despite this feat, its 75th constitutional anniversary today will be a muted affair.

That’s not to say politicians, historians, journalists and teachers aren’t making an effort to mark it. In the former West German capital of Bonn, 11 public figures will issue “love declarations to the Basic Law”, while Berlin is hosting a three-day “Festival for Democracy” with workshops and music. But for all the attempts at fanfare, the anniversary of the Basic Law is no German Independence Day. Buildings won’t be bedecked in the national colours; street parties will be a rarity. As political expert Ursula Münch told the German press, “significant parts of the German people don’t give a monkey’s about this anniversary”.

A tempting explanation for the lack of public displays of affection for Germany’s legal framework is the country’s ultra-conscious relationship with history. But guilt alone doesn’t explain the absence of the “constitutional patriotism” that West German thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas had hoped for. Germans have long found other outlets for post-war national pride, football being the most obvious example.

When West Germany won its first World Cup in 1954, fans bellowed a part of the German anthem that is now no longer sung — the bit that starts with “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany, Germany above all”). Instead, they were supposed to sing the third stanza, the one about “Unity and Justice and Freedom”. Whether they did it out of habit or deliberately is hard to tell, but historians such as Joachim Fest have called that moment of national euphoria the true day when modern Germany was born. Similarly, the 2006 World Cup, which was held in Germany, transformed the country into a sea of black, red and gold. While critical voices remained, most Germans celebrated the summer of patriotic jubilation as a “fairytale” moment.

So, Germans can celebrate themselves under the right circumstances. But pinning a sense of national togetherness on a legal document isn’t as easy as it is on sporting success. It doesn’t help that republican democracy is not a form of government that lends itself to pomp and pageantry. With their interchangeable office holders, rules-based order and attendant bureaucracy, such systems are intended to be fair and sensible, not awe-inspiring and glamorous. How do you celebrate something that doesn’t like fanfare?

German politicians had already struggled to drum up passion for rational republicanism after the First World War, when they tried to set up the country’s first fully fledged democracy but found it difficult to compete with the ceremonial flair of the dethroned monarchy. When the new constitution was passed in 1919, “there was no jubilation, no address, no tribute, nothing”, a conservative newspaper grumbled. “The state’s constitution shuffled out into the country like an indifferent guest.” Harry Graf Kessler, a pro-democracy aristocrat, wrote in his diary, “the republic should avoid ceremonies; this form of government doesn’t lend itself to them. It’s as if a governess is dancing ballet”.

Such generalisations go too far. France and the US make a valiant effort each year to celebrate their republics, but both have rousing origin stories to draw on. When the French mark Bastille Day, they don’t remember the signing of a piece of paper but the day in 1789 when revolutionaries attempted to storm a hated political prison. It was a rebellious act that symbolises the defeat of dynastic rule by people power. Similarly, Americans see the Fourth of July as a celebration of the moment they gained national freedom. Both are dramatic stories of a victorious struggle for democracy.

Modern Germany’s story, by contrast, begins in defeat and shame. Nazism had bankrupted the nation politically, economically and morally. The country lay in ruins and its people were dejected and hungry when the Western Allies decided that they needed their zones to become a bulwark against communism in the emerging Cold War.

To remedy this, in 1948, a Parliamentary Council was summoned under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer who would soon become West Germany’s first chancellor. They discussed, drafted and redrafted the articles under the watchful eye of the Allies, and agreed them on 8 May 1949. There was no pathos. In lieu of the anthem they didn’t yet have, the delegates sang the 19th-century song “Ich hab mich ergeben” — “I have surrendered myself”. Over the next few days, the Allies signed off on the document and so did all regional governments (with the exception of Bavaria, which didn’t agree to it but acknowledged it as lawful). On 23 May, the West German constitution became law and created a new German democracy.

The origin story of the Basic Law isn’t the stuff of national legends. Many West Germans have much stronger feelings about post-war chancellors like Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt, the first Social Democrat to take office in 1969. There is an intense collective memory of the so-called “economic miracle” of the Fifties in which Adolf Hitler’s people’s car, the Volkswagen Beetle, somehow became one of the most iconic vehicles in automotive history. While the Basic Law enabled the economic, political and social stability that emerged, it remained a largely unsung hero.

Another problem with using the birthday of the German constitution as a national rallying point is that it didn’t unite the country, but rather cemented its post-war division. It only applied to West Germany and was deliberately designed to be provisional until reunification with the Soviet Zone of Occupation could be achieved. Its last article, Number 146, said the Basic Law would stay in place until a permanent constitution was “freely adopted by the German people”. At the time this meant that a West German state was founded with its own currency and legal system. The formation of East Germany was a response to that and followed on 7 October 1949.

During the country’s reunification in 1990, heated discussions ensued over whether the merger of two states necessitated a new constitution with input from Easterners. But Wolfgang Schäuble, the West German Minister of the Interior who led the reunification negotiations, made the situation very clear: “This is not the unification of two equal states,” he declared. “There is a constitution, and there is a Federal Republic of Germany. Let us start with the assumption that you have been excluded from both for 40 years. Now you are entitled to take part.” There wouldn’t be a new constitution. East Germany would join the West German system.

This has contributed to the resentment many East Germans continue to feel about the way their former country was dissolved without much input from them. Such resentment is difficult to overcome and even more difficult to turn into enthusiasm for a document over which they had no say. In the first free elections in 1990, the majority of Easterners had voted for parties that offered quick unification, but this is not the same as having explicit input into the country’s constitution.

East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part while few former West Germans would consider the history of East Germany their own. The East remains the anomaly to Western normality. As the historian Frank Trentmann put it, drawing a straight line from the West German constitution to today risks making East Germany “little more than an inconvenient detour that, with reunification, rejoins the main road to the liberal democratic West”.

“East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part”

Meanwhile, a number of German commentators are also doubtful about the self-assured celebrations of German democracy because of the rise of the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which polls as the second largest party in many surveys. The political magazine Der Spiegel is running a stark cover this week featuring a swastika covered by Germany’s red-black-and-gold tricolour and the heading “Haven’t we learnt anything?”, which seems to imply that voting for the AfD is akin to abolishing democracy in the way Hitler did in the Thirties.

Of course, few would deny that Germany is today a deeply divided country with many voters looking for ways to express their discontent outside of the established political boundaries. But the same is true for many other Western democracies who don’t, by and large, mistake a mismatch of political offerings and voters’ concerns as a sign that people are fed up with democracy itself. This equation doesn’t work out for Germany either. In a recent survey, 85% of Germans considered democracy a good form of government. If people are losing faith in parties, politicians and institutions, they still believe in the values of the Basic Law.

Where does this leave today’s anniversary? While bombastic celebrations of the Basic Law may not be appropriate for a number of reasons, few would disagree that Germany is right to take a moment to reflect on the long and winding road that took it back into the fold of the liberal democracies of the West. It is a country that takes its lessons from the past more seriously than most and has bound them into the very fabric of its political system. Passionate “constitutional patriotism” may never have materialised in Germany, but a strong commitment to democracy has. And that is well worth celebrating.

But today should also be a day for Germany to reflect on how to grow democracy out of its West German infancy. When the Basic Law was enacted 75 years ago, it introduced people-power to a deeply Nazified population that had never experienced a functioning democracy and looked to self-assured men like Adenauer to lead the way. Those days are gone. Today, a vocal, confident and well-educated population wants to be able to voice concerns and criticism without being chided by politicians for doing democracy wrong. Article 20 of the Basic Law says: “All state authority is derived from the people.” Some 75 years after those words were enshrined in law, they provide a pertinent reminder of what democracy is all about.

view 1 comments


Some of the posts we share are controversial and we do not necessarily agree with them in the whole extend. Sometimes we agree with the content or part of it but we do not agree with the narration or language. Nevertheless we find them somehow interesting, valuable and/or informative or we share them, because we strongly believe in freedom of speech, free press and journalism. We strongly encourage you to have a critical approach to all the content, do your own research and analysis to build your own opinion.

We would be glad to have your feedback.

Buy Me A Coffee

Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: