German Constitution

German Constitution in Europe

Constitutional History

The constitution of the German empire is, in all essentials, that of the North German Confederation, which came into force on the 7th of June 1867. Under this the presidency (Praesidium) of the confederation was vested in the king of Prussia and his heirs. As a result of the Franco-German war of 1870 the South German states joined the confederation; on the 9th of December 1870 the diet of the confederation accepted the treaties and gave to the new confederation the name of German Empire (Deutsche Reich), and on the 18th of January 1871 the king of Prussia was proclaimed German 817 emperor (Deutscher Kaiser) at Versailles. This was a change of style, not of functions and powers. The title is “German emperor,” not “emperor of Germany,” being intended to show that the Kaiser is but primus inter pares in a confederation of territorial sovereigns; his authority as territorial sovereign (Landesherr) extends over Prussia, not over Germany.

The imperial dignity is hereditary in the line of Hohenzollern, and follows the law of primogeniture. The emperor exercises the imperial power in the name of the confederated states. In his office he is assisted by a federal council (Bundesrat), which represents the governments of the individual states of Germany. The members of this council, 58 in number, are appointed for each session by the governments of the individual states. The legislative functions of the empire are vested in the emperor, the Bundesrat, and the Reichstag or imperial Diet. The members of the latter, 397 in number, are elected for a space of five years by universal suffrage. Vote is by ballot, and one member is elected by (approximately) every 150,000 inhabitants.

As regards its legislative functions, the empire has supreme and independent control in matters relating to military affairs and the navy, to the imperial finances, to German commerce, to posts and telegraphs, and also to railways, in so far as these affect the common defence of the country. Bavaria and WĂźrttemberg, however, have preserved their own postal and telegraphic administration. The legislative power of the empire also takes precedence of that of the separate states in the regulation of matters affecting freedom of migration (FreizĂźgigkeit), domicile, settlement and the rights of German subjects generally, as well as in all that relates to banking, patents, protection of intellectual property, navigation of rivers and canals, civil and criminal legislation, judicial procedure, sanitary police, and control of the press and of associations.

The executive power is in the emperor’s hands. He represents the empire internationally, and can declare war if defensive, and make peace as well as enter into treaties with other nations; he also appoints and receives ambassadors. For declaring offensive war the consent of the federal council must be obtained. The separate states have the privilege of sending ambassadors to the other courts; but all consuls abroad are officials of the empire and are named by the emperor.

Both the Bundesrat and the Reichstag meet in annual sessions convoked by the emperor who has the right of proroguing and dissolving the Diet; but the prorogation must not exceed 60 days, and in case of dissolution new elections must be ordered within 60 days, and the new session opened within 90 days. All laws for the regulation of the empire must, in order to pass, receive the votes of an absolute majority of the federal council and the Reichstag.

Alsace-Lorraine is represented in the Bundesrat by four commissioners (Kommissäre), without votes, who are nominated by the Statthalter (imperial lieutenant).

The fifty-eight members of the Bundesrat are nominated by the governments of the individual states for each session; while the members of the Reichstag are elected by universal suffrage and ballot for the term of five years. Every German who has completed his twenty-fifth year is prima facie entitled to the suffrage in the state within which he has resided for one year. Soldiers and those in the navy are not thus entitled, so long as they are serving under the colours. Excluded, further, are persons under tutelage, bankrupts and paupers, as also such persons who have been deprived of civil rights, during the time of such deprivation. Every German citizen who has completed his twenty-fifth year and has resided for a year in one of the federal states is eligible for election in any part of the empire, provided he has not been, as in the cases above, excluded from the right of suffrage. The secrecy of the ballot is ensured by special regulations passed on the 28th of April 1903. The voting-paper, furnished with an official stamp, must be placed in an envelope by the elector in a compartment set apart for the purpose in the polling room, and, thus enclosed, be handed by him to the presiding officer. An absolute majority of votes decides the election. If (as in the case of several candidates) an absolute majority over all the others has not been declared, a test election (Stichwahl) takes place between the two candidates who have received the greatest number of votes. In case of an equal number of votes being cast for both candidates, the decision is by lot.

The subjoined table gives the names of the various states composing the empire and the number of votes which the separate states have in the federal council. Each state may appoint as many members to the federal council as it has votes. The table also gives the number of the deputies in the Reichstag.

States of the Empire. No. of
Members in
Bundesrat. No. of
Members in
Kingdom of Prussia 17 236
Kingdom of Bavaria 6 48
Kingdom of Saxony 4 23
Kingdom of WĂźrttemberg 4 17
Grand duchy of Baden 3 14
Grand duchy of Hesse 3 9
Grand duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin 2 6
Grand duchy of Saxe-Weimar 1 3
Grand duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz 1 1
Grand duchy of Oldenburg 1 3
Duchy of Brunswick 2 3
Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen 1 2
Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg 1 1
Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha 1 2
Duchy of Anhalt 1 2
Principality of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen 1 1
Principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt 1 1
Principality of Waldeck 1 1
Principality of Reuss-Greiz 1 1
Principality of Reuss-Schleiz 1 1
Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe 1 1
Principality of Lippe 1 1
Free town of LĂźbeck 1 1
Free town of Bremen 1 1
Free town of Hamburg 1 3
Imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine . . 15
Total 58 397
The Reichstag must meet at least once in each year. Since November 1906 its members have been paid (see Payment of Members).

The following table shows its composition after the elections of 1903 and 1907:—

Parties. 1903. 1907.
Centre 100 108
Social Democrats 81 43
Conservatives 51 60
National Liberals 49 57
Freisinnige Volkspartei 27 33
Reichspartei 19 22
Alsatians, Guelphs and Danes 18 5
Poles 16 20
Wirtschaftliche Vereinigung (Reform Partei) 12 21
Freisinnige Vereinigung 9 16
Wilde (no party) 9 5
Bund der Landwirte 3 6
Bauernbund 3 1
All the German states have separate representative assemblies, except Alsace-Lorraine and the two grand-duchies of Mecklenburg. The six larger states have adopted the two-chamber system, but in the composition of the houses great differences are found. The lesser states also have chambers of representatives numbering from 12 members (in Reuss-Greiz) to 48 members (in Brunswick), and in most states the different classes, as well as the cities and the rural districts, are separately represented. The free towns have legislative assemblies, numbering from 120 to 200 members.

Imperial measures, after passing the Bundesrat and the Reichstag, must obtain the sanction of the emperor in order to become law, and must be countersigned, when promulgated, by the chancellor of the empire (Reichskanzler). All members of the federal council are entitled to be present at the deliberations of the Reichstag. The Bundesrat, acting under the direction of the chancellor of the empire, is also a supreme administrative and consultative board, and as such it has nine standing committees, viz.: for army and fortresses; for naval purposes; for tariffs, excise and taxes; for trade and commerce; for railways, posts and telegraphs; for civil and criminal law; for financial accounts; for foreign affairs; and for Alsace-Lorraine. Each committee includes representatives of at least four states of the empire.


For the several branches of administration a considerable number of imperial offices have been gradually created. All of them, however, either are under the immediate authority of the chancellor of the empire, or are separately managed under his responsibility. The most important are the chancery office, the foreign office and the general post and telegraph office. But the heads of these do not form a cabinet.

The Chancellor of the Empire (Reichskanzler).—The Prussian plenipotentiary to the Bundesrat is the president of that assembly; he is appointed by the emperor, and bears the title Reichskanzler. This head official can be represented by any other member of the Bundesrat named in a document of substitution. The Reichskanzler is the sole responsible official, and conducts all the affairs of the empire, with the exception of such as are of a purely military character, and is the intermediary between the emperor, the Bundesrat and the Reichstag. All imperial rescripts require the counter-signature of the chancellor before attaining validity. All measures passed by the Reichstag require the sanction of the majority of the Bundesrat, and only become binding on being proclaimed on behalf of the empire by the chancellor, which publication takes place through the Reichsgesetzblatt (the official organ of the chancellor).

Government Offices.—The following imperial offices are directly responsible to the chancellor and stand under his control:—

1. The foreign office, which is divided into three departments: (i.) the political and diplomatic; (ii.) the political and commercial; (iii.) the legal. The chief of the foreign office is a secretary of state, taking his instructions immediately from the chancellor.

2. The colonial office (under the direction of a secretary of state) is divided into (i.) a civil department; (ii.) a military department; (iii.) a disciplinary court.

3. The ministry of the interior or home office (under the conduct of a secretary of state). This office is divided into four departments, dealing with (i.) the business of the Bundesrat, the Reichstag, the elections, citizenship, passports, the press, and military and naval matters, so far as the last concern the civil authorities; (ii.) purely social matters, such as old age pensions, accident insurance, migration, settlement, poor law administration, &c.; (iii.) sanitary matters, patents, canals, steamship lines, weights and measures; and (iv.) commercial and economic relations—such as agriculture, industry, commercial treaties and statistics.

4. The imperial admiralty (Reichsmarineamt), which is the chief board for the administration of the imperial navy, its maintenance and development.

5. The imperial ministry of justice (Reichsjustizamt), presided over by a secretary of state. This office, not to be confused with the Reichsgericht (supreme legal tribunal of the empire) in Leipzig, deals principally with the drafting of legal measures to be submitted to the Reichstag.

6. The imperial treasury (Reichsschatzamt), or exchequer, is the head financial office of the empire. Presided over by a secretary of state, its functions are principally those appertaining to the control of the national debt and its administration, together with such as in the United Kingdom are delegated to the board of inland revenue.

7. The imperial railway board (Reichseisenbahnamt), the chief official of which has the title of “president,” deals exclusively with the management of the railways throughout the empire, in so far as they fall under the control of the imperial authorities in respect of laws passed for their harmonious interworking, their tariffs and the safety of passengers conveyed.

8. The imperial post office (Reichspostamt), under a secretary of state, controls the post and telegraph administration of the empire (with the exception of Bavaria and WĂźrttemberg), as also those in the colonies and dependencies.

9. The imperial office for the administration of the imperial railways in Alsace-Lorraine, the chief of which is the Prussian minister of public works.

10. The office of the accountant-general of the empire (Rechnungshof), which controls and supervises the expenditure of the sums voted by the legislative bodies, and revises the accounts of the imperial bank (Reichsbank).

11. The administration of the imperial invalid fund, i.e. of the fund set apart in 1871 for the benefit of soldiers invalided in the war of 1870-71; and

12. The imperial bank (Reichsbank), supervised by a committee of four under the presidency of the imperial chancellor, who is a fifth and permanent member of such committee.

The heads of the various departments of state do not form, as in England, the nucleus of a cabinet. In so far as they are secretaries of state, they are directly responsible to the chancellor, who represents all the offices in his person, and, as has been said, is the medium of communication between the emperor and the Bundesrat and Reichstag.

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