Exploring the historical roots of German federalism and the intricacies of the legislative process

Third and fourth programme events of the 5th International Diplomats Programme

20 - 21 June 2013
Event location
Berlin, Germany
Invitation type
Invitation only


The day started with a visit to the Federal Ministry of Defence, where Rear Admiral Thorsten Kähler outlined the Ministry’s perception of current threats and global challenges and the main priorities of German security and defence policy. He emphasized the historical legacy of today’s Bundeswehr, pointing out the Ministry’s location in the historical “Bendlerblock” where a resistance group of Wehrmacht officers had plotted the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944, and where its members were later executed. He explained that Germany’s comparative restraint in military matters until today and a wide-spread scepticism in the general public towards a deployment of the army abroad, which needs parliamentary approval in Germany, had to be seen against the background of the country’s belligerent 20th century history. Adhering to the principle of “mutual collective security” which is enshrined in the German constitution, the German army is firmly embedded in different military alliances today.

Over lunch, the participants had a chance to discuss current domestic policy issues, and especially the upcoming parliamentary elections in September, with Ulrich Deppendorf, Head and Editor-in-chief of the ARD Capital Studio and one of Germany’s most prominent political journalists.

The specific features of Germany’s federal system, as well as its historical roots, were addressed during the group’s visits to the Bundesrat and the Bundestag, the two constitutional organs which together form the federal legislature. Today’s federal system was devised after the Second World War in order to ensure a division of power both on a horizontal and a vertical level, and, thus, to foreclose another lapse into authoritarianism. Unlike in most other parliamentary systems, the members of the Bundesrat are not elected but appointed as representatives of each federal state, thus allowing for direct involvement of the “Länder” in the federal legislative process. After a guided tour of the Bundesrat, Deputy Director Dr Ute Rettler provided an insight into the second chamber’s role in the law-making process and the sometimes difficult task of reaching a compromise between different interests and agendas in the mediation committee.

At the Bundestag, its Vice President Dr Hermann Otto Solms introduced the participants to the characteristics of the German parliament, which, as he pointed out, is more powerful than many other parliaments in global comparison. This includes the unusual nature of the Bundeswehr as a “parliamentary army”, i.e. the need for the Bundestag to agree to any military deployment outside of NATO territory. Recently, the powerful role of the Bundestag has also been of high significance during the Euro crisis and negotiations in Brussels, as the German chancellor cannot make any financial pledges without the parliament’s consent. Asked whether such a powerful parliament could not sometimes present a severe obstacle to the work of the government, Solms emphasized that the government’s legitimacy is derived from the elected parliament, not vice versa, and that in cases of severe conflict, the government would have to be dismissed and re-elected.

During a subsequent tour of the Reichstag building, the presence of history could once more be felt; the participants were impressed by the well-preserved charcoal graffiti left on the walls of the building by soldiers of the Red Army after they had conquered Berlin in 1945.

The day was concluded with a meeting with Prof. Kai Wegrich, Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance, who shared his assessment of the merits and challenges of the German federal system: In his opinion, it is not very suitable for large-scale strategic policy change, but rather provides the mechanisms for slow and incremental changes.

The exploration of German federalism was continued two weeks later during the fourth IDP programme event, an excursion to the Northern Federal States of Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Bremen. Wolfgang Schmidt, State Councillor and Representative of the City of Hamburg to the Federation in Berlin, introduced the participants to the specificities of Hamburg being one of Germany’s three “city states”, and to its special nature as Germany’s largest port and, thus, a “window to the world”. The sheer size and impressive logistical capacity of Hamburg’s harbour, including the world’s most modern container terminal, was later experienced first-hand during a harbour tour with Captain Fritz-Wilhelm Jensen.  

Hamburg’s effort to maintain its position and compete with other major ports such as Rotterdam or Antwerp, is however, not without problems, as the group learned during a visit to Otterndorf, a small town located at the North Sea coast in the Elbe delta. Hamburg’s location about 100 km from the North Sea means that ships have to travel inland on the river Elbe to reach the harbour. In order to allow for the passage of increasingly large container ships, the fairway has already been artificially deepened several times. While the city of Hamburg and the German Federal State are currently promoting another major dredging project, several affected municipalities as well as NGOs are strongly opposing these plans, fearing detrimental effects on the river’s ecosystem as well as an existential threat to some of the communities located immediately at the river’s mouth.  

Apart from being a major logistical hub and industrial location, Hamburg is also an important centre of media production. During a visit to the headquarters of the SPIEGEL, Germany’s largest weekly news magazine, Chief Editor of the Foreign Desk Clemens Höges discussed editorial strategies and decisions, including the decision to feature, for the first time in the magazine’s history, a cover story in Turkish language.  

A visit to Cuxhaven, another coastal town in the vicinity of Hamburg, was dedicated to the topic of wind energy. While traditionally relying on fishing and tourism industries, Cuxhaven has recently become an important location for the construction and mounting of offshore wind parks, thus being at the forefront of Germany’s much-discussed “energy turnaround”. A tour of the AMBAU factory grounds, where towers and foundation structures for offshore wind parks are produced, was followed by an introduction to the processes of testing and certification of the related new technologies.

At the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Professor Dieter Wolf-Gladrow highlighted some of the institute’s recent projects and findings. How do the Polar Regions respond to climate change? What can be learned from the dynamics of an interglacial period that took place 130 000 years ago? And could “climate-engineering” through artificial stimulation of oceanic algae production be a solution for the problem of global warming? These are just some of the questions which researchers of the institute have recently tackled.

The second day of the excursion to the North Sea coast was concluded with a visit to the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, once Germany’s largest port of emigration. With its interactive concept and reliance on individual migrants’ life stories, the museum provided vivid insights into Germany’s emigration as well as immigration history.

The International Diplomats Programme is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office and the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt and is supported by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Every year, up to 14 young diplomats from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and South-East Asia are invited to experience German life and institutions from a variety of angles in a year-long program run in English. For further information please contact 1-da-r@diplo.de or visit us on facebook: www.facebook.com/TrainingForInternationalDiplomats.


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