The Foundation of Our Society: German Constitution Celebrating 70th Anniversary

2019 will see the 70th anniversary of Germany’s post-war constitution, the Grundgesetz. It forms the foundation of our society and coexistence, which is even more important in a diverse society, in which fewer and fewer people share the same cultural roots and traditions. At the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s “Talk in the Park,” Federal Constitutional Court Justice Peter Müller comments on the past, present, and future of the Grundgesetz: What has proved valuable? Which parts should be reformed? To what extent can our constitution be reformed? And will it be able to develop the cohesive strength needed?

Robert Bosch Stiftung | July 2018

Speaking to the large audience of invited guests, Peter Müller commented on the impressive history of the German constitution, which at first was meant only as an interim solution. One reason for the permanence of the supposed interim solution proved to be the limited scope of its regulatory concerns at the time: The men and women behind the Grundgesetz intended to lay the groundwork for Germany’s post-war reconstruction without defining every little detail. This made it easier at later points to adapt the constitution to changing conditions. Justice Müller also emphasized the Grundgesetz’s convincing focus point: the individual with their dignity as a both independent and socially integrated being. This viewpoint has led to the inextricable connection between democracy and the rule of law in Germany – a connection that cannot be considered a given, as the current examples of Poland and Hungary show. A globally unique feature, Justice Müller stressed, is the role of the Constitutional Court based in Karlsruhe: “No other constitutional court has this kind of power. Although it is not democratically legitimized, it can tie the hands of political authorities.”

Controversial debate about elements of direct democracy  

Justice Müller is convinced that the Grundgesetz will continue to be the suitable foundation of a democratic society in Germany. Consequently, he does not see a need for comprehensive constitutional reform. At the same time, he underscored several problematic developments: More and more amendments, spelling out technocratic details and guiding principles for state action, overload the initially “lean” text and make it increasingly hard to understand. On top of that, the Grundgesetz is not designed to give answers to global megatrends, such as the rise of autocrats and the dismantling of democratic rights. Justice Müller also sees a lack of direct democracy elements, which could satisfy people’s increased demand for participation and force lawmakers to better explain their options for action. Not all guests agreed with this statement, as the following controversial debate with the audience showed. The Constitutional Court Justice considers the most relevant current challenge that even in Germany more and more people are questioning the general concept of democracy and due process. He called on people to step up their engagement and defend these values: “The democracy model of our constitution is a participation and not an observation model.”