Fifty Years of the Federal Republic of Germany

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"The Basic Law has served as a stable framework of government; it has resulted in the effective realization of human rights; and it has been sufficiently durable and popular to serve as a rallying point for German reunification. The Basic Law has emerged as the vital center of Germany[alpha]s constitutional culture. It has survived and guided multiple transformations in the country[alpha]s political and social life; by any standard, it has been as adaptable to change as it has been successful in maintaining democracy and the rule of law. In fact, the Basic Law has evolved into one of the world[alpha]s most respected and imitated constitutions. This alone is a major achievement that could not have been realized without the success the Basic Law has enjoyed in Germany. While the German constitution changed in substantial ways over the years, the changes did not erode the essential nature of the constitution as a charter of limited government and individual rights. Some amendments posed a potential threat to civil liberties but the most important changes in German constitutionalism over the years are not really accounted for by these textual changes. Far more important are the adaptations to change flowing from the decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court. In 1949, 50 years ago, Germany embarked upon a fascinating constitutional experiment. In that year, with the consent of the United States, France, and Great Britain, German leaders in the western zones of occupation drafted a new constitution that created the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). They called it the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) to underscore its provisional character. The more dignified term "constitution" (Verfassung) would be reserved for the time when Germany as a whole would determine its own future. Accordingly, the Basic Law by its own terms would cease to exist on the day on which a reunited Germany replaces it with a constitution adopted by a free decision of all the German people. The Basic Law raised as many questions as it tried to answer. Could a newly minted constitution - mere words on paper - breathe new life into a people devastated by war? Would it serve as a framework of government? Would it promote respect for human rights and popular government? Would it foster internal political unity? And if the FRG were to reach the half-century mark - as it would in 1999 - how much of its success would be attributable to the values, rights, and powers laid down in the Basic Law? No one would have dared to answer any of these questions in 1949. Now, however, on the 50th anniversary of the Basic Law, we are able confidently to respond to most of them.

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