Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Germany is a federal democracy, with rights guaranteed by the Basic Law, or constitution. The federal government shares power with 16 states.

Branches of Government: The dual executive consists of a chancellor, who is head of government, and a president, who is head of state. The chancellor is the leader of the party or coalition of parties holding a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament. The president is usually one of the senior leaders of the largest party in the lower house of parliament but is nonetheless expected to be non-partisan after assuming office. A cabinet officer, often from a smaller coalition party, serves as vice chancellor. The Basic Law grants most executive authority to the federal chancellor; the presidency is primarily a ceremonial post, and its occupant represents the Federal Republic in international relations. The president is selected every five years by secret ballot at a Federal Convention composed of members of the lower house of parliament and delegates chosen by state legislatures. A president may serve no more than two five-year terms. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who took office in November 2005, and President Horst Köhler, who took office in July 2004, both belong to the Christian Democratic Union.

Two federal legislative bodies form the national parliament: the Bundesrat (Federal Council, or upper house), consisting of 69 members appointed by state governments in proportion to the population; and the Bundestag (Federal Diet, or lower house), the main legislative body, consisting of 601 popularly elected members. The Bundestag is responsible for passing federal laws, which are then implemented by the government. The chancellor, who is elected by the Bundestag, functions as prime minister in the cabinet. The chancellor’s authority emanates from the provisions of the Basic Law, which invests the chancellor with central executive authority, and from his or her status as leader of the majority party or coalition in the Bundestag. The Basic Law limits parliament’s control over the chancellor and the cabinet. Unlike most parliamentary legislatures, the Bundestag cannot remove the chancellor simply with a vote of no-confidence. The Basic Law allows only for a “constructive vote of no-confidence.” That is, the Bundestag can remove a chancellor only when it simultaneously agrees on a successor. This stipulation was recently a source of controversy when ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for a vote of no-confidence to trigger an early national election in September 2005. President Köhler and the Federal Constitutional Court decided that this step was consistent with the Basic Law.

Germany has an independent judiciary, with most judges appointed for life. The Federal Constitutional Court resolves issues relating to the Basic Law and conflicts between the branches of government. Germany has five types of courts: ordinary courts for criminal and civil matters, labor courts for employment disputes, administrative courts to provide protection against administrative acts, social courts for social security cases, and fiscal courts for tax-related disputes. Ordinary courts are organized hierarchically in four tiers—local courts, regional courts, state courts, and the Federal Supreme Court.

Constitution: Germany’s constitution, known as the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), was enacted on May 23, 1949. The Basic Law recognizes fundamental human rights, such as the freedoms of speech and the press, the right of equality before the law, and the right of asylum. These basic rights are legally binding and apply equally to the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Any individual who believes that his or her rights have been violated may file a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court.

In addition to codifying human rights, the Basic Law stipulates the structure of the German government, including the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament), the president (chief of state), the executive branch and administration, the independent judiciary, the financial system, and the relationship of the states to the federal government. The Basic Law requires that Germany work toward a unified Europe under the aegis of the European Union (EU). It also specifies the requirements for a declaration of war.

In May 2005, Germany’s Bundestag and Bundesrat ratified the EU constitution.

Administrative Divisions: Administratively, Germany is divided into 16 states (Länder; sing., Land), including five that belonged to the former East Germany until reunification in 1990. The states are as follows, with new states labeled as such: Baden Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Brandenburg (new), Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (new), Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Saxony (new), Saxony-Anhalt (new), Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia (new). The unification of West Berlin and East Berlin did not add a new state.

Provincial and Local Government: Germany’s 16 states enjoy limited autonomy, particularly in the areas of law, education, the environment, media, police, social assistance, and other local issues, within a federal system. Each state has its own elected parliament (Landtag or Bürgerschaft). Depending on size, states are subdivided into up to three levels of local government—districts; Landkreise (sing., Landkreis), or counties; and Gemeinden (sing., Gemeinde), or municipal government authorities.

Judicial and Legal System: The legal system is based on principles of Roman law, and courts rely on a comprehensive system of legal codes rather than on precedents from prior cases as in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The Basic Law (constitution) is the primary basis of the legal system, but the laws of the European Union and the international community also are taken into consideration. Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence, the right to an attorney, and the right to appeal. Trial by jury is the norm, but judges hear some cases. Germany is less litigious than the United States. In fact, Germany has only about 100,000 attorneys.

Electoral System: Germany’s electoral system combines indirect election of the chancellor (head of government) and president (head of state) with direct elections for the Bundestag (lower house of parliament). Bundestag representatives are selected by a combination of majority vote and proportional representation. Each voter casts two ballots: the first for a candidate in his or her jurisdiction and the second for a national party list of candidates. Each method determines approximately half the seats. The chancellor is elected indirectly because his or her name appears first on a party list. Any German 18 years or older, including those living overseas, is eligible to vote. Popular elections are held every four years, but federal, state, and local elections are staggered throughout the year, not held simultaneously as in the United States. Parliamentary elections were last held in September 2005.

Politics and Political Parties: Political parties are explicitly recognized in the Basic Law, and they receive government subsidies. The current German administration is a coalition of the moderate-to-conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), headed by Matthias Platzeck. Following the latest elections in September 2005, these two major parties, which are normally bitter rivals, joined forces in an unusual “Grand Coalition” when neither was able to form a majority with its preferred coalition partner. The CDU’s territory covers all of Germany outside Bavaria, while the CSU is the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. The CDU/CSU has 226 representatives, slightly more than the 222 SPD representatives. The CDU/CSU controls the following ministerial posts: Chancellor, Chief of the Chancellor’s Office, Interior, Economics, Defense, Family, Education, Consumer Protection/Agriculture, Culture, and Bundestag President. The SPD controls the following: Vice Chancellor, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Finance, Health, Environment, International Development, Labor, and Transportation.

The opposition parties represented in the Bundestag are the business-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP), led by Guido Westerwelle; the Left Party, led by Lothar Bisky; and the ecologically oriented Green Party, led by Renate Künast and Fritz Kuhn. The FDP has 61 seats, the Left Party has 54 seats, and the Green Party has 51 seats. Four seats are assigned to others. The Left Party is the successor to the former East Germany’s communist Socialist Unity Party (SED). Far-right parties have no representation.

In order to win representation in the Bundestag or a state parliament, a party is required to obtain at least 5 percent of the vote. This minimum threshold is designed to prevent extremist parties on the left and right from exercising power. On the federal level, the “5 percent rule” has been successful in marginalizing extreme right-wing parties, but it has failed to prevent parties on the far left and right from gaining representation in certain state parliaments in the new eastern states. For example, in the Brandenburg Landtag (Brandenburg state parliament), representation is as follows, reflecting the results of the latest election on September 19, 2004: SPD (33 seats), CDU (20 seats), the far-left Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS (29 seats), and the far-right German People’s Union, or DVU (6 seats). Following the election, the SPD and CDU took the unusual step of forming a ruling coalition, much like the one that subsequently took power on the federal level, to limit the influence of the PDS and DVU.

Mass Media: The mass media in Germany take advantage of the guarantee of freedom of the press under Article 5 of the Basic Law (constitution). They do not face any censorship. The federal government’s involvement with the mass media is restricted to the Press and Information Office, which serves as a liaison between government, particularly the chancellor, and almost 1,200 accredited journalists. Some of these journalists are affiliated with Germany’s largest press agency, Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

On average, Germans listen to radio for 3.5 hours, watch television for three hours, and read a newspaper for 36 minutes each day. In 2002 daily newspaper circulation was 23.2 million copies. The newspaper with the largest circulation is Bild, a tabloid. The most influential broadsheets are the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Handelsblatt, and the weekly Die Zeit. Two popular news magazines are Der Spiegel and Focus. Glossy magazines include Stern and Bunte. The two main television stations are ARD and ZDF. Public television and radio are financed by fees, while their private counterparts depend on advertising for revenue.

Foreign Relations: Germany’s role has been changing in the post-Cold War era. Previously bound to a close trans-Atlantic relationship with the United States, in 2003 Germany resisted pressure from the United States to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Germany also distanced itself from the United States by supporting the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court. These steps reflected, in part, Germany’s belief in the primacy of the United Nations (UN) in settling international disputes. Germany also is seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a means of asserting a more independent international role. Many observers expect an improvement in U.S.-German relations following the emergence of Angela Merkel as chancellor in the fall of 2005. Germany is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In general, Germany advocates the solidification and expansion of the European Union, although it has not committed to admitting Turkey into the organization. Germany often joins forces with France on foreign policy issues. Germany gives priority to economics over human rights in its relationship with China. The country also is pursuing deeper economic and political ties to Russia. Germany helped spearhead the Group of 8 (G–8) decision in June 2005 to cancel US$55 billion of debt owed by the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Membership in International Organizations: Germany is a member of the African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Australia Group, Bank for International Settlements, Council of the Baltic Sea States, Caribbean Development Bank, Council of Europe, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, European Monetary Union, European Organization for Nuclear Research, European Space Agency, European Union, Food and Agriculture Organization, Group of 5, Group of 7, Group of 8, Group of 10, Inter-American Development Bank, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Chamber of Commerce, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization, International Development Association, International Energy Agency, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for International Development, International Hydrographic Organization, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, International Telecommunication Union, Multilateral Investment Geographic Agency, Nonaligned Movement (guest), North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nuclear Energy Agency, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Paris Club, Permanent Court of Arbitration, United Nations (UN), UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Industrial Development Organization, UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, Universal Postal Union, West African Development Bank (nonregional), Western European Union, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, World Trade Organization, and Zangger Committee.

Major International Treaties: In the area of arms control, Germany is a party to the Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, Limited Test Ban Treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Ottawa Convention on Land Mines, and Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Regarding the environment, Germany is a party to the conventions on Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulphur 85, Air Pollution-Sulphur 94, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling. Germany has signed, but not ratified, the convention on Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants. In the area of human rights, Germany is a party to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Germany also has ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


Armed Forces Overview: Germany is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1999 Germany participated in an armed conflict for the first time since World War II during NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Previously, Germany made a token military contribution to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (by deploying an air squadron to Turkey) but later refused to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. However, Germany’s military has participated in many United Nations (UN)-sanctioned peacekeeping operations, including those in Afghanistan, Djibouti, and the former Yugoslavia.

Germany’s military consists of 284,500 active-duty personnel and 358,650 reserves. The active-duty troops, who normally serve for nine months, are assigned to the various services as follows: army (191,350), navy (25,650), and air force (67,500). The reserves, who are enlisted personnel up to age 45 and commissioned and non-commissioned officers up to age 60, are assigned as follows: army (297,300), navy (11,500), and air force (49,850).

Reflecting the realities of the post-Cold War era, Germany’s military is moving away from territorial defense toward readiness to participate in multilateral operations under the aegis of the UN, NATO, European Union, and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This new vision for the military is articulated in an official document issued in May 2003 called Defense Policy Guidelines. As part of this transformation, troop strength will be reduced by about 35,000 to about 250,000.

Foreign Military Relations: Under the doctrine introduced by the 2003 Defense Policy Guidelines, Germany continues to give priority to the transatlantic partnership with the United States through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, Germany is giving increasing attention to coordinating its policies with the European Union through the Common European Security and Defense Policy.

External Threat: According to former German Defense Minister Peter Struck, Germany does not face a conventional threat to its territory. In his own words, “At present, and in the foreseeable future, a conventional threat to the German territory is not recognizable.”

Defense Budget: In 2003 Germany’s defense budget totaled US$35 billion, or 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. Germany’s defense minister advocates a US$30 billion cut in defense expenditures over a five to seven-year period, in keeping with the military’s transformation into an international peacekeeping and intervention force.

Major Military Units: Germany’s army command consists of a Germany/Netherlands headquarters corps, a Germany/United States headquarters corps, five divisions (including two armored infantry), one air-mobile division, one special operations division, one support command (forming), one SIGINT/ELINT brigade, and two logistics brigades. The navy is organized into submarine, frigate, patrol boat, mine countermeasures, and naval aviation commands. The air force command consists of four air divisions, eight fighter wings, one reconnaissance wing, six surface-to-air missile wings, and two tactical air control regiments. The air force also has a transport command and training forces.

Major Military Equipment: Germany’s army is equipped with 2,398 main battle tanks, 523 reconnaissance vehicles, 2,122 armored infantry fighting vehicles, and 909 armored personnel carriers. In addition, the army has 1,682 artillery pieces, 1,915 antitank guided weapons, 1,509 air defense guns, 143 surface-to-air missiles, 18 surveillance vehicles, 525 attack and support helicopters, and various unmanned aerial vehicles. The navy is equipped with 12 submarines, 13 principal surface combatants, 20 patrol and coastal combatants, 23 mine warfare vessels, 38 support vessels, 20 special purpose vessels, and 4 research and survey vessels. Naval aviation has 65 combat aircraft and 22 armed helicopters. The air force is equipped with 384 combat aircraft but no combat helicopters.

Military Service: Germany has nine months of compulsory military service for men at age 18.

Paramilitary Forces: In May 2005, the paramilitary German Federal Border Guard was renamed the “Federal Police” to reflect new responsibilities for domestic security that combine law enforcement and intelligence. The organization not only is responsible for protecting the country’s borders but also participates in United Nations peacekeeping missions and supports intelligence-gathering activities. Border Security Troop 9 is a special unit that was created for preventing hostage incidents, assassinations, and organized crime. Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher established the unit after the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.

Foreign Military Forces: Several foreign militaries are stationed in Germany under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) umbrella. They include 69,790 U.S. troops, 22,000 British troops, 3,200 French troops, and 2,600 Dutch troops.

Military Forces Abroad: In recent years, Germany has deployed troops to several multinational peacekeeping operations, including those in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Djibouti, Montenegro, Sierra Leone, and Uzbekistan. The largest contingents were in Montenegro and Afghanistan.

Police: The states are responsible for managing Germany’s police, which are divided into the following units: the general police (for crime prevention and response), the emergency police (for natural disasters and major accidents), and the water police (for waterways). The public prosecutor’s office is responsible for handling criminal prosecutions, and the general police are subordinate to it. The Federal Border Guard is a national police force that has jurisdiction over security on the borders, on the railroads, and at airports. Despite isolated reports of abuses of police detainees, Germany’s police generally respect individual human rights.

Internal Threat: At the end of 2004, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution identified 24 Islamic organizations operating in Germany that pose a security risk or promote extremism. Members and followers of these organizations total approximately 31,800, about 1 percent of Muslims living in Germany. The Turkish organization Islamic Society Milli Görüs has the largest following, numbering 26,500. However, only a small hard core of fanatics is considered to be capable of terrorism. The primary targets are believed to be American, British, Israeli, and Jewish facilities, although the facilities of other nations also are endangered. Potential targets include embassies, consulates, nuclear power plants, dams, airports, sewage plants, subways, skyscrapers, sports stadiums, and churches, according to the former interior minister. The fact that Germany refused to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom may mitigate the risk of terrorism by extremist Islamic groups somewhat. However, German authorities are not complacent.

Germany also faces an internal threat from right-wing and left-wing extremists. At the end of 2004, there were 168 right-wing extremist organizations with 40,700 members, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Neo-Nazis totaled about 3,800. A hard core of right-wing extremists capable of violence is estimated at about 10,000. Three political parties are associated with right-wing extremism: the Republicans, the German People’s Union, and the National Democratic Party of Germany. The far-right German People’s Union holds six seats in the Brandenburg state parliament and one seat in the Bremen state parliament. At the end of 2004, the far left, which has revolutionary Marxist and anarchist factions, had about 30,800 adherents. Only about 1,000 out of 65,800 members of the Party of Democratic Socialism support a communist platform. Approximately 5,500 far-left extremists are deemed to be capable of violence.

Terrorism: Following al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, terrorist attack against the United States, Germans were surprised to learn that the mastermind of the strike and several accomplices previously had been living in Hamburg. Since then, Germany has been a reliable partner in the United States-led war on terrorism, according to the U.S. Department of State. German courts have a very high standard of proof, which has made it difficult for authorities to convict or deport terrorist suspects. In February 2003, a Hamburg court convicted Mounir el Motassadeq of aiding and abetting the conspiracy and sentenced him to the maximum available term of 15 years. However, in March 2004, the German supreme court overturned this conviction, which was the first in the world related to the 9/11 incident, for lack of evidence and remanded the case for retrial. Finally, in August 2005, a Hamburg court re-convicted el Motassadeq and sentenced him to a seven-year prison term. In another case, years of procedural maneuvers were required before the German judicial system finally succeeded in October 2004 in deporting an Islamic extremist, the so-called “caliph of Cologne,” to Turkey. In yet another case, in July 2005 a Syrian-German terrorist suspect was released from custody after the German supreme court ruled that he could not be extradited to Spain under a European Union arrest warrant because this step would violate Germany’s Basic Law.

Human Rights: Fundamental human rights are enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, or constitution. These rights encompass the freedoms of speech and the press, the right of equality before the law, and the right of asylum. Freedom of speech is not universal. Statements promoting racial hatred or Nazism are prohibited, as are statements denying the Holocaust. Efforts to enforce these bans extend to all modes of communication, including CDs and the Internet.

Although Germany endorses religious freedom and the separation of church and state, majority religions, such as Protestantism and Catholicism, enjoy a privileged status. In fact, the government recognizes them as legal corporations and collects taxes for them. Some minority religions fare less well. For example, the government views the Church of Scientology as a cult and a threat to democracy rather than as a legitimate religion and openly discriminates against its members. For similar reasons, Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church has been denied entry to the country. Several states have banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in the public schools, and a federal court has upheld the ban on appeal.

Index for Germany:
Overview | Government


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