Germany is made up of sixteen states, which are partly sovereign constituent states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Land literally translates as "country", and constitutionally speaking, they are countries. Often referred to in English by German speakers as "states", the term "Land" (with an uppercase 'L') is used in the official English version of the Basic Law and in UK parliamentary proceedings. However, it is sometimes translated as "federal states" in other publications.

Although the term Land applies to all states, some are also described as "states" in German. Each of the states of Bavaria, Saxony, and Thuringia officially describes itself as a "state" (Staat) and more specifically as a "free state" (Freistaat). Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen are frequently called "Stadtstaaten" (city-states).

The remaining 13 states are called Flächenländer (literally: area countries).

States Edit

After 1945, new states were constituted in all four zones of occupation. In 1949, the states in the three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany. This is in contrast to the post-war development in Austria, where the Bund (federation) was constituted first, and then the individual states were created as units of a federal state.

The use of the term Länder dates back to the Weimar constitution of 1919. Before this time, the constituent states of the German Empire were called Staaten. Today, it is very common to use the term Bundesland. However, this term is not used officially, neither by the constitution of 1919 nor by the Basic Law of 1949. Three Länder are called Freistaat (free state, republic), i.e., Bavaria (since 1919), Saxony (since 1990), and Thuringia (since 1994). There is little continuity between the current states and their predecessors of the Weimar Republic with the exception of the three free states, and the two city-states of Hamburg and Bremen.

A new delimitation of the federal territory keeps being debated in Germany though "there are significant differences among the American states and regional governments in other federations without serious calls for territorial changes". However, "the argument the proponents of boundary reform in Germany make is that the German system of dual federalism requires strong Länder that have the administrative and fiscal capacity to implement legislation and pay for it from own source revenues. But in spite of these and other arguments for boundary reforms, action has not been taken ....

State Joined the FRG Head of government Bundesrat votes Population (thous.) Capital German abbrev.
Baden-Württemberg 1949 6 10,755 Stuttgart BW
Bavaria 1949 6 12,542 Munich BY
Berlin 1990 4 3,469 BE
Brandenburg 1990 4 2,500 Potsdam BB
Bremen 1949 3 661 HB
Hamburg 1949 3 1,788 HH
Hesse 1949 5 6,066 Wiesbaden HE
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern 1990 3 1,639 Schwerin MV
Lower Saxony 1949 6 7,914 Hanover NI
North Rhine-Westphalia 1949 6 17,837 Düsseldorf NW
Rhineland-Palatinate 1949 4 3,999 Mainz RP
Saarland 1957 3 1,018 Saarbrücken SL
Saxony 1990 4 4,143 Dresden SN
Saxony-Anhalt 1990 4 2,331 Magdeburg ST
Schleswig-Holstein 1949 4 2,833 Kiel SH
Thuringia 1990 4 2,231 Erfurt TH

History Edit

Federalism has a long tradition in German history. The Holy Roman Empire comprised numerous petty states. The number of territories was greatly reduced during the Napoleonic Wars. After the Congress of Vienna, 39 states formed the German Confederation. The Confederation was dissolved after the Austro-Prussian War and replaced by a North German Federation under Prussian hegemony; this war left Prussia dominant in Germany, and German nationalism would compel the remaining independent states to ally with Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and then to accede to the crowning of King Wilhelm of Prussia as German Emperor. The new German Empire included 25 states (three of them, Hanseatic cities) and the imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The empire was dominated by Prussia, which controlled 65% of the territory and 62% of the population. After the territorial losses of the Treaty of Versailles, the remaining states continued as republics. These states were gradually de facto abolished under the Nazi regime via the Gleichschaltung process, as the states administratively were largely superseded by the Nazi Gau system.

During the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II, borders were redrawn by the Allied military governments. No single state comprised more than 30% of either population or territory; this was done to prevent any one state from being as dominant within Germany as Prussia had been in the past. Initially, only seven of the pre-War states remained: Baden (in part), Bavaria (reduced in size), Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse (enlarged), Saxony, and Thuringia. The “hyphenated” Länder, such as Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saxony-Anhalt, owed their existence to the occupation powers and were created out of Prussian provinces and smaller states.

Upon founding in 1949, West Germany had eleven states. These were reduced to nine in 1952 when three south-western states (South Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern and Württemberg-Baden) merged to form Baden-Württemberg. From 1957, when the French-occupied Saarland was returned ("little reunification"), the Federal Republic consisted of ten states, which are called the Old States today. West Berlin was under the sovereignty of the Western Allies and neither a Western German state nor part of one. However, it was in many ways integrated with West Germany under a special status.

East Germany (GDR) originally consisted of five states (i.e., Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia). In 1952, the Länder were abolished and the GDR was divided into 14 administrative districts instead. Soviet-controlled East Berlin, despite officially having the same status as West Berlin, was declared the GDR's capital and its 15th district.

Just prior to the German reunification on 3 October 1990, East German Länder were simply reconstituted in roughly their earlier configuration as five new states. The former district of East Berlin joined West Berlin to form the new state of Berlin. Henceforth, the 10 "old states" plus 5 "new states" plus the new state Berlin add up to 16 states of Germany.

Later, the constitution was amended to state that the citizens of the 16 states had successfully achieved the unity of Germany in free self-determination and that the Basic Law thus applied to the entire German people. Article 23, which had allowed “any other parts of Germany” to join, was rephrased. It had been used in 1957 to reintegrate the Saar as Saarland into the Federal Republic, and this was used as a model for German reunification in 1990. The amended article now defines the participation of the Federal Council and the 16 German states in matters concerning the European Union.

The Länder can conclude treaties with foreign countries in matters within their own sphere of competence and with the consent of the Federal Government (Article 32 of the Basic Law).

The description free state (Freistaat) is merely a historic synonym for republic—a description used by most German states after the abolishment of monarchy. Today, Freistaat is associated emotionally with a more independent status, especially in Bavaria. However, it has no legal meaning. All sixteen states are represented at the federal level in the 'Bundesrat (Federal Council), where their voting power merely depends on the size of their population.

West Germany 1945-1990 Edit

Article 29 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany states that the "division of the federal territory into Länder may be revised to ensure that each Land be of a size and capacity to perform its functions effectively". The somewhat complicated provisions regulate that "[r]evisions of the existing division into Länder shall be effected by a federal law, which must be confirmed by referendum".

A new delimitation of the federal territory has been discussed since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949 and even before. Committees and expert commissions advocated a reduction of the number of the Länder; scientists (Rutz, Miegel, Ottnad etc.) and politicians (Döring, Apel and others) made sometimes very far-reaching proposals for redrawing boundaries but hardly anything came of these public discussions. Territorial reform is sometimes propagated by the richer Länder as a means to avoid or limit fiscal transfers.

To date the only successful reform was the merger of the states of Baden, Württemberg-Baden and Württemberg-Hohenzollern to the new state of Baden-Württemberg in 1952.


Article 29 reflects a debate on territorial reform in Germany that is much older than the Basic Law. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of large and petty principalities under the nominal suzerainty of the emperor. Approximately 300 states existed at the eve of the French Revolution in 1789.

Territorial boundaries were essentially redrawn as a result of military conflicts and interventions from the outside: from the Napoleonic Wars to the Congress of Vienna, the number of territories decreased from about 300 to 39; in 1866 Prussia annexed the sovereign states of Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel and the Free City of Frankfurt; the last consolidation came about under Allied occupation after 1945.

The debate on a new delimitation of the German territory started in 1919 as part of discussions about the new constitution. Hugo Preuss, the father of the Weimar constitution, drafted a plan to divide the German Reich into 14 roughly equal-sized Länder. His proposal was turned down due to opposition of the states and concerns of the government. Article 18 of the constitution enabled a new delimitation of the German territory but set high hurdles: Three fifth of the votes handed in, and at least the majority of the population are necessary to decide on the alteration of territory. In fact, until 1933 there were only four changes of the German map: The 7 Thuringian states united in 1920, whereby Coburg opted for Bavaria, Pyrmont joined Prussia in 1922, and Waldeck did so in 1929. Any later plans to break up the dominating Prussia into smaller states failed because political circumstances were not favorable to state reforms.

After the National Socialists seized power in January, 1933, the Länder increasingly lost importance. They became administrative regions of a centralised country. Three changes are to be noted: on January 1, 1934, Mecklenburg-Schwerin was united with the neighbouring Mecklenburg-Strelitz; and, by the Greater Hamburg Act (Groß-Hamburg-Gesetz), from April 1, 1937, the area of the city-state was extended, while Lübeck lost its independence and became part of the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein.

Between 1946 and 1947, new Länder were established in all four zones of occupation: Bremen, Hesse, Württemberg-Baden, and Bavaria in the American zone; Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, and North Rhine-Westphalia in the British zone; Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern and the Saarland—which later received a special status—in the French zone; Mecklenburg(-Vorpommern) Brandenburg Saxony Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia in the Soviet zone.

In 1948, the military governors of the three Western Allies handed over the so-called Frankfurt Documents to the minister-presidents in the Western occupation zones. Among other things they recommended to revise the boundaries of the West German Länder in a way that none should be too big or too small in comparison to the others.

As the premiers did not come to an agreement on this question, the Parliamentary Council was supposed to address this issue. Its provisions are reflected in Article 29. There was a binding provision for a new delimitation of the federal territory: the Federal Territory must be revised ... (paragraph 1). Moreover, in territories or parts of territories whose affiliation with a Land had changed after 8 May 1945 without referendum, people were allowed to petition for a revision of the current status within a year after the promulgation of the Basic Law (paragraph 2). If at least one tenth of those entitled to vote in Bundestag elections were in favour of a revision, the federal government had to include the proposal into its legislation. Then a referendum was required in each territory or part of territory whose affiliation was to be changed (paragraph 3). The proposal should not take effect if within any of the affected territories a majority rejected the change. In this case, the bill had to be introduced again and after passing had to be confirmed by referendum in the Federal Republic as a whole (paragraph 4). The reorganization should be completed within three years after the Basic Law had come into force (paragraph 6).

In their letter to Konrad Adenauer the three western military governors approved the Basic Law but suspended Article 29 until a peace treaty was agreed upon. Only the special arrangement for the southwest under Article 118 could enter into force.

Foundation of Baden-Württemberg

In southwestern Germany, territorial revision seemed to be a top priority since the border between the French and American occupation zones was set along the Autobahn Karlsruhe-Stuttgart-Ulm (today the A8 motorway (A8). Article 118 said, "The division of the territory comprising Baden, Württemberg-Baden and Württemberg-Hohenzollern into Länder may be revised, without regard to the provisions of Article 29, by agreement between the Länder concerned. If no agreement is reached, the revision shall be effected by a federal law, which shall provide for an advisory referendum.." Since no agreement was reached, a referendum was held on 9 December 1951 in four different voting districts, three of which approved the merger (South Baden refused but was overruled as the result of total votes was decisive). On 25 April 1952 the three former Länder merged into Baden-Württemberg.


With the London and Paris Agreements West Germany regained (limited) sovereignty. This triggered the start of the one year period as set in paragraph 2 of Article 29. As a consequence, eight petitions for a referendum were launched, six of which were successful:

  • Land Oldenburg 12.9%
  • Land Schaumburg-Lippe 15.3%
  • Trier into North Rhine-Westphalia 14.2%
  • Rheinhessen into Hesse 25.3%
  • Montabaur into Hesse 20.2%
  • Reconstitution of the Land Baden 15.1%

The last petition had originally been rejected by the Federal Minister of the Interior in reference to the referendum of 1951. However, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that the rejection was unlawful: the population of Baden had the right to a new referendum because the one of 1951 had taken place under different rules from the ones provided for by article 29. In particular, the outcome of the 1951 referendum did not reflect the wishes of the majority of Baden's population.

The two Palatine petitions (for a reintegration into Bavaria and integration into Baden-Württemberg) failed with 7.6% and 9.3%. Further requests for petitions (Lübeck, Geesthacht, Lindau, Achberg, 62 Hessian communities) had already been rejected as inadmissible by the Federal Minister of the Interior or were withdrawn as in the case of Lindau. The rejection was confirmed by the Federal Constitutional Court in the case of Lübeck.

Constitutional amendments

If a petition was successful paragraph 6 of Article 29 stated that a referendum should be held within three years. Since the deadline passed on 5 May 1958 without anything happening the Hesse state government filed a constitutional complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court in October 1958. The complaint was dismissed in July 1961 on the grounds that Article 29 had made the new delimitation of the federal territory an exclusive federal matter. At the same time, the Court reaffirmed the requirement for a territorial revision as a binding order to the relevant constitutional bodies.

The Grand coalition decided to settle the 1956 petitions by setting binding deadlines for the required referendums. The referendums in Lower Saxony and Rhineland-Palatinate were due till 31 March 1975, the one in Baden was due till 30 June 1970. The quorum for a successful vote was set to one-quarter of those entitled to vote in Bundestag elections. Paragraph 4 stated that the vote should be disregarded if it contradicted the objectives of paragraph 1.

In his investiture address, given on 28 October 1969 in Bonn, Chancellor Willy Brandt proposed that the government would consider Article 29 of the Basic Law as a binding order. For that purpose, an expert commission was established, named after its chairman, the former Secretary of State Professor Werner Ernst. After two years of work, the experts delivered their report in 1973. It provided an alternative proposal for both northern Germany and central and southwestern Germany. In the north, either a single new state consisting of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen and Lower Saxony should be created (solution A) or two new states, one in the northeast consisting of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg and the northern part of Lower Saxony (from Cuxhaven to Lüchow-Dannenberg) and one in the northwest consisting of Bremen and the rest of Lower Saxony (solution B). In the Center and South West either Rhineland-Palatinate (with the exception of the Germersheim district but including the Rhine-Neckar region) should be merged with Hesse and the Saarland (solution C), the district of Germersheim would then become part of Baden-Württemberg.

The Palatinate (including the region of Worms, Worms) coould also be merged with the Saarland and Baden-Württemberg, and the rest of Rhineland-Palatinate would then merge with Hesse (solution D). Both alternatives could be combined (AC, BC, AD, BD).

At the same time the commission developed criteria for classifying the terms of Article 29 paragraph 1. The capacity to perform functions effectively was considered most important, whereas regional, historical, and cultural ties were considered as hardly verifiable. To fulfill administrative duties adequately, a population of at least five million per Land was considered as necessary.

After a relatively brief discussion and mostly negative responses from the affected Länder, the proposals were shelved. Public interest was limited or nonexistent.

The referendum in Baden was held on 7 June 1970: With 81.9% the vast majority of voters decided for Baden to remain part of Baden-Württemberg, only 18.1% were opting for a reconstitution of the old Land Baden. The referendums in Lower Saxony and Rhineland-Palatinate, were held on 19 January 1975:

  • Reconstitution of the Land Oldenburg 31%
  • Reconstitution of the Land Schaumburg-Lippe 39.5%
  • Reintegration of Koblenz and Trier into North Rhine-Westphalia 13%
  • Reintegration of Rheinhessen into Hesse 7.1%
  • Reintegration of Montabaur into Hesse 14.3%

Hence, the two referendums in Lower Saxony were successful. As a consequence legislature was forced to act and decided that both Oldenburg and Schaumburg-Lippe remain with Lower Saxony. Justification was that a reconstitution of Oldenburg and Schaumburg-Lippe would contradict the objectives of paragraph 1. An appeal against the decision was rejected as inadmissible by the Federal Constitutional Court.

On 24 August 1976 the binding provision for a new delimitation of the federal territory was altered into a mere discretionary one. Paragraph 1 was rephrased, now putting the capacity to perform functions in the first place. The option for a referendum in the Federal Republic as a whole (paragraph 4) was abolished. Hence a territorial revision was no longer possible against the will of the affected population.

Politics Edit

Germany is a federal, parliamentary, representative democratic republic. The German political system operates under a framework laid out in the 1949 constitutional document known as the Grundgesetz (Basic Law). By calling the document Grundgesetz, rather than Verfassung (constitution), the authors expressed the intention that it would be replaced by a proper constitution once Germany was reunited as one state.

Amendments to the Grundgesetz generally require a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the parliament; the fundamental principles of the constitution, as expressed in the articles guaranteeing human dignity, the separation of powers, the federal structure, and the rule of law are valid in perpetuity. Despite the original intention, the Grundgesetz remained in effect after the German reunification in 1990, with only minor amendments.

Government Edit

The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany constitution stipulates that the structure of each Federal State's government must "conform to the principles of republican, democratic, and social government, based on the rule of law" (Article 28). Most of the states are governed by a Cabinet led by a Ministerpräsident (Minister-President), together with a legislative body known as the Landtag (Diet). The states are parliamentary republics and the relationship between their legislative and executive branches mirrors that of the federal system: the legislatures are popularly elected for four or five years (depending on the state), and the Minister-President is then chosen by a majority vote among the Landtag's members. The Minister-President appoints a cabinet to run the state's agencies and to carry out the executive duties of the state's government.

The governments in Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg are designated by the term Senate. In the three free state of Bavaria, Free State of Saxony and Thuringia the government is referred to as the State Government (Staatsregierung), and in the other ten states the term Land Government (Landesregierung) is used. Before January 1, 2000, Bavaria had a bicameral parliament, with a popularly elected Landtag and a Senate made up of representatives of the state's major social and economic groups. The Senate was abolished following a referendum in 1998. The states of Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg are governed slightly differently from the other states. In each of those cities, the executive branch consists of a Senate of approximately eight selected by the state's parliament; the senators carry out duties equivalent to those of the ministers in the larger states. The equivalent of the Minister-President is the Senatspräsident (President of the Senate) in Bremen, the Erster Bürgermeister (First Mayor) in Hamburg, and the Regierender Bürgermeister (Governing Mayor) in Berlin. The parliament for Berlin is called the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives), while Bremen and Hamburg both have a Bürgerschaft. The parliaments in the remaining 13 states are referred to as Landtag (State Parliament).

Subdivisions Edit

The city-states of Berlin and Hamburg are subdivided into boroughs. The state of Bremen consists of two List of German urban districts Bremen and Bremerhaven which are not contiguous. In the other states there are the following subdivisions:

Area associations (Landschaftsverbände)Edit

The most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia is uniquely divided into two area associations (Landschaftsverbände), one for the Rhineland and one for Westphalia-Lippe. This arrangement was meant to ease the friction caused by uniting the two culturally different regions into a single state after World War II. The Landschaftsverbände now have very little power.

The constitution of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern at §75 states the right of Mecklenburg and Vorpommern to form Landschaftsverbände, although these two constituent parts of the Land are not represented in the current administrative division.

Governmental districts (Regierungsbezirke)Edit

The large states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony are divided into governmental districts, or Regierungsbezirke.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, these districts were abolished on January 1, 2000, in Saxony-Anhalt on January 1, 2004 and in Lower Saxony on January 1, 2005.

Administrative districts (Kreise)Edit

The Districts of Germany (Kreise) are administrative districts, and every state except the city-states of Berlin Hamburg and Bremen consists of List of German rural districts (Landkreise), District-free Towns/Cities (Kreisfreie Städte, in Baden-Württemberg also called List of German urban districts|urban districts or Stadtkreise), cities that are districts in their own right, or local associations of a special kind (Kommunalverbände besonderer Art), see below. The state of Bremen consists of two urban districts, while Berlin and Hamburg are states and urban districts at the same time.

There are 313 Landkreise and 116 Kreisfreie Städte, making 429 districts altogether. Each consists of an elected council and an executive, which is chosen either by the council or by the people, depending on the state, the duties of which are comparable to those of a county executive in the United States supervising local government administration. The Landkreise have primary administrative functions in specific areas, such as highways, hospitals, and public utilities.

Local associations of a special kind are an amalgamation of one or more Landkreise with one or more Kreisfreie Städte to form a replacement of the aforementioned administrative entities at the district level. They are intended to implement simplification of administration at that level. Typically, a district-free city or town and its urban hinterland are grouped into such an association, or Kommunalverband besonderer Art. Such an organization requires the issuing of special laws by the governing state, since they are not covered by the normal administrative structure of the respective states.

In 2010 only three Kommunalverbände besonderer Art exist.

  • District of Hanover. Formed in 2001 out of the previous rural district of Hanover and the district-free city of Hanover.
  • Regionalverband Saarbrücken (district association Saarbrücken). Formed in 2008 out of the predecessor organization Stadtverband Saarbrücken (city association Saarbrücken), which was already formed in 1974.
  • City region of Aachen. Formed in 2009 out of the previous rural district of Aachen and the district-free city of Aachen.

Offices (Ämter)Edit

Ämter ("offices" or "bureaus"): In some states there is an administrative unit between the districts and the municipalities, called Ämter (singular Amt), Amtsgemeinden, Gemeindeverwaltungsverbände, Landgemeinden, Verbandsgemeinden, Verwaltungsgemeinschaften or Kirchspiellandgemeinden.

Municipalities (Gemeinden)Edit

Municipalities (Gemeinden): Every rural district and every Amt is subdivided into municipalities, while every urban district is a municipality in its own right. There are 12,141 municipalities, which are the smallest administrative units in Germany. Cities and towns are municipalities as well, also having city rights or town rights (Stadtrechte). Nowadays, this is mostly just the right to be called a city or town. However, in former times there were many other privileges, including the right to impose local taxes or to allow industry only within city limits.

The municipalities are ruled by elected councils and by an executive, the mayor, who is chosen either by the council or directly by the people, depending on the Bundesland. The "constitution" for the municipalities is created by the states and is uniform throughout a Bundesland (except for Bremen, which allows Bremerhaven to have its own constitution).

The municipalities have two major policy responsibilities. First, they administer programs authorized by the federal or state government. Such programs typically relate to youth, schools, public health, and social assistance. Second, Article 28(2) of the Basic Law guarantees the municipalities "the right to regulate on their own responsibility all the affairs of the local community within the limits set by law." Under this broad statement of competence, local governments can justify a wide range of activities. For instance, many municipalities develop and expand the economic infrastructure of their communities through the development of industrial trading estates.

Local authorities foster cultural activities by supporting local artists, building arts centres, and by holding fairs. Local government also provides public utilities, such as gas and electricity, as well as public transportation. The majority of the funding for municipalities is provided by higher levels of government rather than from taxes raised and collected directly by themselves.

In five of the German states, there are unincorporated areas, in many cases unpopulated forest and mountain areas, but also four Bavarian lakes that are not part of any municipality. As of January 1, 2005, there were 246 such areas, with a total area of 4167.66 km² or 1.2 percent of the total area of Germany. Only four unincorporated areas are populated, with a total population of about 2,000. The following table gives an overview.

Unincorporated areas in German states
State 01. Jan. 2004 01. Jan. 2000
Number Area in km² Number Area in km²
Bavaria 216 2725.06 262 2992.78
Lower Saxony 23 949.16 25 1394.10
Hesse 4 327.05 4 327.05
Schleswig-Holstein 2 99.41 2 99.41
Baden-Württemberg 1 66.98 2 76.99
Total 246 4167.66 295 4890.33

In 2000, the number of unincorporated areas was 295, with a total area of 4890.33 km². However, the unincorporated areas are continually being incorporated into neighboring municipalities, wholly or partially, most frequently in Bavaria.

See alsoEdit


External linksEdit