Why is Germany a federation, when most European states are unitary?

Oct 2012
3,315
Des Moines, Iowa
#1
It seems that Germany is one of the few European states that is organized as a federation. This is strange because the vast majority of Europe consists of centralized unitary states. What is the reason for this anomaly?

Based on what I know about Germany (which is limited), I assume that this is due to regional differences throughout the country, and the fact that Germany was not united under a single government until pretty recently (late 19th century). For most of history, from what I understand, "Germany" was a collection of small, independent states with their own laws and jurisdiction.

This brings me to two related questions:
1) How strong is regionalism and regional identity in Germany today? Do people still identify with regions like Bavaria and Hesse or do people only care about Germany (nation-state)?

2) Was there ever a time in German history when someone tried to implement a highly centralized government? I read somewhere that Nazis tried to abolish Länder federal system and instead appoint regional Nazi party leaders (gauleiter) to govern localities. What were the consequences of this action, and how successful was it?
 
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betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,276
#2
I think it has to do with the Holy Roman Empire and that Germany was unified not entirely by conquest. Also, the US set up the system in West Germany after WWII, and the US has a federal system.
 

Sam-Nary

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
6,784
At present SD, USA
#3
I think it has to do with the Holy Roman Empire and that Germany was unified not entirely by conquest. Also, the US set up the system in West Germany after WWII, and the US has a federal system.
The US didn't set up West Germany alone. The UK and France also both had zones of occupation after WW2.

More than likely I'd think the long period of "disunited rule" under the Holy Roman Empire was the main factor, and the fact that when the German states united under Prussian Rule in 1871, it was not truly by conquest but by agreement. The people of Bavaria wouldn't agree to be ruled by the Prussians if the Prussians didn't also agree to allow them some degree of autonomy within Germany. Though that's purely a guess on my part.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,820
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#4
"Germany" [it didn't exist yet, to be historically accurate] is federal [de facto] since 1,000 years ago.

It's not a process of organization of the Nazi power by the winners of WW II to have created German federalism.

The "Bundesrat" [Federal Council, we can translate it in this way] had created in 1871 [with the constitution of the German Empire].

The Bunderat became the "Reichstag" during the Republic and it was Hitler to close it in 1934 [dictatorships are not so glad to see federal organisms around ...]. The Nazis substituted the historical "Länder" with the "Gaue", which were administrative regions of the Nazi power system. The administration of the Länder became an inferior issue of the Nazi Gaue.


So, in conclusion, Germany is federal, because the German nation is historically federal, it was only Nazism [being "nationalist" at the extreme] to limit, when not to erase federalism.
 
May 2012
578
#5
When Germany was unified in 1871, it was as a federation of formerly independent states. They formed a central government which had some federal responsibilities but many topics stayed purely with the states (for example education). There was a national parliament (the Resichstag) and a federal assembly (the Bundesrat) in which each state had a number of votes which varied depending on the size. Prussia had a clearly dominant position on the federal level but if theoretically all the other states had combined their votes, they'd have had the majority in the Bundesrat.

After WW2 a similar structure was kept though the boundaries of many states changed (and Prussia ceased to exist). So we have a federal government and state governments. The states have wide autonomy in many topics like education, law enforcement, they have their own civil service and so on. When a law touches both federal and state interests, both the parliament and the Bundesrat (in which each state has votes depending on the size) need to agree.

Germans tend to be regional though this doesn't necessarily mean that they identify with the state. For examle someone from Cologne will identify with his city or with the Rhineland but not really with the state North-Rhine-Westfalia which includes also other regions. Bavaria on the other hand has a much stronger state identity (though some people in Franconia might disagree).

But these regional tendencies have mellowed in comparison to a century ago simply because there was a lot of movement of people. Obviously someone who moved to Munich from the North of Germany will be a little more relaxed about Bavarian identity than someone whose family lived there for generations.
 

Grimald

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
5,906
Hercynian Forest
#6
Germans tend to be regional though this doesn't necessarily mean that they identify with the state.
I think this has to do with the fact that the current federal states are mostly artificial creations and regularly disrespect the underlying regional structure of Germany. For example, the region of Franconia is today part of three states (Bavaria, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg), Swabia of two (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg); moreover, some states mingle together regions that have nothing to do with each other (e.g. the Rhineland and Westphalia) or artificially separate regions that have never been separated before (e.g. Berlin and Brandenburg).

If we look at the current borders, they mainly go back to foreign intrusions and occupations. For example, it was primarily Napoleon who created the modern borders of Bavaria, and it was the French policy after WWI that created the Saarland. After WWII, the state borders were again decided upon by the victorious powers by their definitions of occupation zones; for example, the existence of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate is merely a consequence of the borders of the French zone. The occupying powers, especially the British, even founded states in their own zones, like the infamous Northrhine-Westphalia that still lacks any meaningful identity.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
20,945
SoCal
#7
I think it has to do with the Holy Roman Empire and that Germany was unified not entirely by conquest. Also, the US set up the system in West Germany after WWII, and the US has a federal system.
All of this appears to be correct. After all, Otto von Bismarck preferred to have some German states join the newly unified Germany (and before that, the North German Confederation) through negotiations rather than through force, which in turn meant that Bismarck had to make some concessions (such as a federal government structure) to these German states in order to get them to agree to join the newly unified Germany (and before that, the North German Confederation).

Also, after Germany lost World War I, Germany appears to have kept most of its old federal units while simply getting rid of the monarchs of all of these federal units (such as the monarch of Bavaria).

As for the post-World War II time period, the Western Allies apparently decided to change the borders of some of Germany's federal units but to keep Germany's federal system intact.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
20,945
SoCal
#8
I think this has to do with the fact that the current federal states are mostly artificial creations and regularly disrespect the underlying regional structure of Germany. For example, the region of Franconia is today part of three states (Bavaria, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg), Swabia of two (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg); moreover, some states mingle together regions that have nothing to do with each other (e.g. the Rhineland and Westphalia) or artificially separate regions that have never been separated before (e.g. Berlin and Brandenburg).

If we look at the current borders, they mainly go back to foreign intrusions and occupations. For example, it was primarily Napoleon who created the modern borders of Bavaria, and it was the French policy after WWI that created the Saarland. After WWII, the state borders were again decided upon by the victorious powers by their definitions of occupation zones; for example, the existence of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate is merely a consequence of the borders of the French zone. The occupying powers, especially the British, even founded states in their own zones, like the infamous Northrhine-Westphalia that still lacks any meaningful identity.
If its states are so meaningless, though, then why exactly doesn't Germany try making new states in their place? Is it because doing this would be way too difficult (politically speaking, that is)? Or is there another reason for this?

Also, though, I certainly find it interesting that Germany is honoring all of its states with commemorative €2 coins :):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_euro_coins#German_Bundesl.C3.A4nder_series