Constitutions in transition
Constitutions in transition

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Constitutions in transition

3.3.1 Grundgesetz

This legal framework is based on a codified constitution. Anyone can go to a bookstore and order a copy of the German constitution. There is even a public distribution system where one can get a free copy. The constitution is a collection of rights and values relating to the citizens. It also provides a clear and essential structure of state organisation and administrative law.

Described image
Figure 9 Basic Law – Grundgesetz

Activity 7 Constitutional structure

Timing: You should allow yourself 20 minutes to do this activity.

This activity invites you to explore the overall structure of the German constitution.

Go to the German constitution [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Look at some of the articles that you find most interesting. While doing so, take note of the structure and order in which those articles are organised. Can you think of a reason why they appear in this order? What might be the logic behind this structure?

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The German constitution splits into eleven sections. Each contains articles relating to a different area of rights protection or state organisation.

Their order may seem random at first sight, but it follows a certain understanding of the workings of the constitution. The most important articles, from the perspective of the individual, are at the beginning. This boils down to the idea that the electorate is the sovereign – this will be covered later in the course. Another aspect relating to the order concerns the actual content. Those rights regulating relatively general aspects are at the beginning (e.g. Art. 1 Human dignity). More specific rights then follow (e.g. Art. 12 Occupational freedom). The structure of the constitution is therefore twofold: its order is based on importance and generality.

The first 19 articles of the German constitution are setting out the fundamental rights and values. Most of those articles are free from any amendment whatsoever. However, at the same time some of them are subject to limitations, just as with most constitutional rights in other nations.

This section is followed by a summary of regulations organising the state. There are sections that relate to the federal states of Germany (Arts. 20–37), or the state institutions, such as Bundestag (parliament), or the federal governments (Section III and Section VI). There are also sections setting out constitutional regulations for the situation of a state in emergency (or state of defence, as the translated version of the constitution calls it).

This brief summary of the constitution shows how explicitly the German constitution expresses the protected rights and values and at the same time provides the organisational essentials, such as the workings of the electoral system. However, Activity 7 will have also made clear that the provisions themselves are not always as transparent as the structure promises. Some of the actual articles are quite complicated to read and their scope is not clear for the non-legal eye.

The next part of this section will explore this aspect of the constitution in a bit more depth in order to illustrate the degree of actual transparency and the scope of protection German citizens can rely on.


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