Constitutions in transition
Constitutions in transition

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Constitutions in transition

3.2 The constitution in the past

The development of Germany’s civil law legal system and the history of, in particular, its constitution help to clarify a few things in relation to the modern legal system in place in the country. German constitutional history shows how evolution and revolution go hand-in-hand when it comes to constitutional development. At times, the legal framework developed through German entities reaching agreements and forming unions. At other points in history war, and unrest from inside and outside the country, caused constitutional amendments and changes.

Activity 6 German (constitutional) history

Timing: You should allow yourself 25 minutes to do this activity.
  • a.View the interactive map and click on Germany. Read the overview of Germany’s constitutional history. Then select each of the buttons underneath the map of Germany to learn more. You will see how a collection of German-speaking entities came to form one nation under one constitution.

To access the map, click on it or press the ‘View’ button located underneath it to the right. To return to the main course from within the map page, scroll down and click on the back arrow and section title. It is recommended that you open the map in a new window or tab.

  • b.Use the interactive below to help you reflect on the way the German constitution was influenced over the centuries. Look at the history and decide whether what happened can be seen as part of a revolution or relates to a more natural process of evolution. You are provided with certain historic events, names and agreements. You can drag and drop them to the relevant column in the interactive. You are welcome to use the middle column if you are unsure about where to put the event, name or agreement. You can also add them to both columns: revolution and evolution. It is not always a clear-cut matter to say whether the history was more revolutionary than evolutionary, so it is worth engaging in a discussion.


It is challenging to see the actual impact one event, person or agreement has had when looking at each of them in turn. However, looking at the bigger picture and at the German nation as it stands today, it becomes a little bit easier. Historians and other scholars will always argue about the actual impact an event, person or agreement has had.

What you can see below is one way of completing the activity according to the explanations that you have just read in the interactive map. Do not feel disheartened if you have done it differently. Reflect on the way your version relates to the explanations and whether you can agree or disagree with what is being presented to you. You also need to take into account that revolution and evolution are debatable terms that cannot be matched to every historic event, person or agreement. This is, just like most things in law, up for academic debate.

Event, name or agreementRevolutionEvolutionExplanation
Holy Roman EmpireXFirst, the early German history. Otto I (Otto the Great) was the leading sovereign in creating the Holy Roman Empire (of the German nation). While the Holy Roman Empire often expanded or shrank according to violent excesses or unrest or political agreements, under Otto the Great it evolved into a powerful and stable kingdom which stayed intact for centuries.
NapoleonXXNapoleon revolutionised and evolved the existing systems in place. He reformed some of the Roman law in place and forced French elements onto the vulnerable German system. Those German-speaking kingdoms under Napoleonic rule faced constant changes. Those kingdoms resisting successfully had to face the changes that were put in place once Napoleon disappeared.
German ConfederationXThe German Confederation was not in place for long enough to have an actual impact on German constitutional development. Still, it symbolises the Napoleonic approach and led the way for other agreements and developments.
BismarckXOtto von Bismarck, on the other hand, had a big impact on the evolution of Prussia’s (one of the most powerful German kingdoms at the time) constitutional framework. The constitution in place already showed aspects of a fundamental rights catalogue and the protection of rights, such as religious freedom.
World War IXThe two world wars apply to neither category. Both were the reason for, and result of, revolutionary and evolutionary developments.
Weimar RepublicXGermany under the regime of the Nazi party abused the constitutional framework in place and the weakened structure of the young Weimar Republic. However, it did so, from a legal perspective, in an evolutionary manner: the Nazis (NSDAP: National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were the main elected party in parliament.
World War IIXThe two world wars apply to neither category. Both were the reason for, and result of, revolutionary and evolutionary developments.
The Allied powersXThe Allied powers, however, impacted the creation of a completely new constitutional framework. They abolished the Third Reich and reinstalled a (or, more accurately, two) German state(s).
ReunificationXThe events around the process of reunification of Germany after the Cold War cannot be considered without the impact of the people’s voice. Demonstrations, especially in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), demanded the political change. A revolution was wanted and needed.

Now that we have looked at the characteristics of the German legal system and its history it is worth exploring the constitutional framework in its current form.


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