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60 years of Germany's Basic Law

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60 years of Germany's Basic Law

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After defeat in the Second World War Germany was on its knees, ruined materially and morally by the shame of the Nazis crimes. The victorious allies divided Germany into zones of occupation, and then tried to make sure no dictator could ever return to power, or that there could ever be a revival of German militarism.

On Saturday Germany celebrates the 60th anniversary of its “Basic law”, a constitution in all but name, written by the occupiers, and put into action in September 1949 by the first post-war German government. It placed political parties at the heart of the system, employing proportional representation to eliminate any chance of a return to single-party totalitarianism. The Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer became West Germany’s first Chancellor, and he would oversee the German economic miracle of the 1950s. German industry was rebuilt with help from the Marshall Plan, and little more than a decade after the war Germany was booming and people felt the worst was behind them. The symbol of this economic success and the birth of a consumer society was Volkswagen’s iconic “Beetle”, which sold its millionth model in 1955. It would go on to sell over 13 million worldwide, a supreme irony as the car was developed by the Nazis in the 1930s. The Basic Law was not perfect, but it ensured stability and when the two Germanys reunited in 1990, and Berlin resumed the role of capital over Bonn, the very transitional nature of the basic law suited the situation well. There were no calls to modernise it, or rebaptise it as a constitution. And it still seems to suit most Germans today. But that stability today is proving limiting. The current parliament is ruled by a grand coalition of the two big parties. Their support is shrinking, with three smaller groups snapping at their heels -thanks to proportional representation. Coalitions are complex, heavy administrations not the best suited to dealing with acute crises, like the current economic slump. There is no guarantee that in September’s elections there will be any change, so Germans keen for quick, decisive action may have to wait a while longer.