German Local Government

German Local Government in Europe


In the details of its organization local self-government differs considerably in the various states of the German empire. The general principle on which it is based, however, is that which has received its most complete expression in the Prussian system: government by experts, checked by lay criticism and the power of the purse, and effective control by the central authorities. In Prussia at least the medieval system of local self-government had succumbed completely to the centralizing policy of the monarchy, and when it was revived it was at the will and for the purposes of the central authorities, as subsidiary to the bureaucratic system. This fact determined its general characteristics. In England the powers of the local authorities are defined by act of parliament, and within the limits of these powers they have a free hand.

In Germany general powers are granted by law, subject to the approval of the central authorities, with the result that it is the government departments that determine what the local elected authorities may do, and that the latter regard themselves as commissioned to carry out, not so much the will of the locality by which they are elected, as that of the central government. This attitude is, indeed, inevitable from the double relation in which they stand. A Bürgermeister, once elected, becomes a member of the bureaucracy and is responsible to the central administration; even the headman of a village commune is, within the narrow limits of his functions, a government official. Moreover, under the careful classification of affairs into local and central, many things which in England are regarded as local (e.g. education, sanitary administration, police) are regarded as falling under the sphere of the central government, which either administers them directly or by means of territorial delegations consisting either of individuals or of groups of individuals. These may be purely official (e.g. the Prussian Regierung), a mixture of officials and of elected non-official members approved by the government (e.g. the Bezirksausschuss), or may consist wholly of authorities elected for another purpose, but made to act as the agents of the central departments (e.g. the Kreisausschuss). That this system works without friction is due to the German habit of discipline; that it is, on the whole, singularly effective is a result of the 819 peculiarly enlightened and progressive views of the German bureaucracy.3

The unit of the German system of local government is the commune (Gemeinde, or more strictly Ortsgemeinde). These are divided into rural communes (Landgemeinden) and urban communes (Stadtgemeinden), the powers and functions of which, though differing widely, are based upon the same general principle of representative local self-government. The higher organs of local government, so far as these are representative, are based on the principle of a group or union of communes (Gemeindeverband). Thus, in Prussia, the representative assembly of the Circle (Kreistag) is composed of delegates of the rural communes, as well as of the large landowners and the towns, while the members of the provincial diet (Provinziallandtag) are chosen by the Kreistage and by such towns as form separate Kreise.

In Prussia the classes of administrative areas are as follows: (1) the province, (2) the government district (Regierungsbezirk), (3) the rural circle (Landkreis) and urban circle (Stadtkreis), (4) the official district (Amtsbezirk), (5) the town commune (Stadtgemeinde) and rural commune (Landgemeinde). Of these areas the provinces, circles and communes are for the purposes both of the central administration and of local self-government, and the bodies by which they are governed are corporations. The Regierungsbezirke and Amtsbezirke, on the other hand, are for the purposes of the central administration only and are not incorporated. The Prussian system is explained in greater detail in the article Prussia (q.v.). Here it must suffice to indicate briefly the general features of local government in the other German states, as compared with that in Prussia. The province, which usually covers the area of a formerly independent state (e.g. Hanover) is peculiar to Prussia.

The Regierungsbezirk, however, is common to the larger states under various names, Regierungsbezirk in Bavaria, Kreishauptmannschaft in Saxony, Kreis in Württemberg. Common to all is the president (Regierungspräsident, Kreishauptmann in Saxony), an official who, with a committee of advisers, is responsible for the oversight of the administration of the circles and communes within his jurisdiction. Whereas in Prussia, however, the Regierung is purely official, with no representative element, the Regierungsbezirk in Bavaria has a representative body, the Landrat, consisting of delegates of the district assemblies, the towns, large landowners, clergy and—in certain cases—the universities; the president is assisted by a committee (Landratsausschuss) of six members elected by the Landrat. In Saxony the Kreishauptmann is assisted by a committee (Kreisausschuss).

Below the Regierungsbezirk is the Kreis, or Circle, in Prussia, Baden and Hesse, which corresponds to the Distrikt in Bavaria, the Oberamt in Württemberg4 and the Amtshauptmannschaft in Saxony. The representative assembly of the Circle (Kreistag, Distriktsrat in Bavaria, Amtsversammlung in Württemberg, Bezirksversammlung in Saxony) is elected by the communes, and is presided over by an official, either elected or, as in the case of the Prussian Landrat, nominated from a list submitted by the assembly. So far as their administrative and legislative functions are concerned the German Kreistage have been compared to the English county councils or the Hungarian comitatus. Their decisions, however, are subject to the approval of their official chiefs. To assist the executive a small committee (Kreisausschuss, Distriktsausschuss, &c.) is elected subject to official approval. The official district (Amtsbezirk), a subdivision of the circle for certain administrative purposes (notably police), is peculiar to Prussia.

Rural Communes

As stated above, the lowest administrative area is the commune, whether urban or rural. The laws as to the constitution and powers of the rural communes vary much in the different states. In general the commune is a body corporate, its assembly consisting either (in small villages) of the whole body of the qualified inhabitants (Gemeindeversammlung), or of a representative assembly (Gemeindevertretung) elected by them (in communes where there are more than forty qualified inhabitants). At its head is an elected headman (Schulze, Dorfvorsteher, &c.), with a small body of assistants (Schöffen, &c.). He is a government official responsible, inter alia, for the policing of the commune. Where there are large estates these sometimes constitute communes of themselves. For common purposes several communes may combine, such combinations being termed in Württemberg Bürgermeistereien, in the Rhine province Amtsverbände. In general the communes are of slight importance. Where the land is held by small peasant proprietors, they display a certain activity; where there are large ground landlords, these usually control them absolutely.


The constitution of the towns (Städteverfassung) varies more greatly in the several states than that of the rural communes. According to the so-called Stein’sche Städteverfassung (the system introduced in Prussia by Stein in 1808), which, to differentiate between it and other systems, is called the Magistratsverfassung (or magisterial constitution), the municipal communes enjoy a greater degree of self-government than do the rural. In the magisterial constitution of larger towns and cities, the members of the Magistrat, i.e. the executive council (also called Stadtrat, Gemeinderat), are elected by the representative assembly of the citizens (Stadtverordnetenversammlung) out of their own body.

In those parts of Germany which come under the influence of French legislation, the constitution of the towns and that of the rural communes (the so-called Bürgermeistereiverfassung) is identical, in that the members of the communal executive body are, in the same way as those of the communal assembly, elected to office immediately by the whole body of municipal electors.

The government of the towns is regulated in the main by municipal codes (Städteordnungen), largely based upon Stein’s reform of 1808. This, superseding the autonomy severally enjoyed by the towns and cities since the middle ages (see Commune), aimed at welding the citizens, who had hitherto been divided into classes and gilds, into one corporate whole, and giving them all an active share in the administration of public affairs, while reserving to the central authorities the power of effective control.

The system which obtains in all the old Prussian provinces (with the exception of Rügen and Vorpommern or Hither Pomerania) and in Westphalia is that of Stein, modified by subsequent laws—notably those of 1853 and 1856—which gave the state a greater influence, while extending the powers of the Magistrat. In Vorpommern and Rügen, and thus in the towns of Greifswald, Stralsund and Bergen, among others, the old civic constitutions remain unchanged. In the new Prussian provinces, Frankfort-on-Main received a special municipal constitution in 1867 and the towns of Schleswig-Holstein in 1869. The province of Hanover retains its system as emended in 1858, and Hesse-Nassau, with the exception of Frankfort-on-Main, received a special corporate system in 1897. The municipal systems of Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony are more or less based on that of Stein, but with a wider sphere of self-government. In Mecklenburg there is no uniform system. In Saxe-Coburg, the towns of Coburg and Neustadt have separate and peculiar municipal constitutions. In almost all the other states the system is uniform. The free cities of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen, as sovereign states, form a separate class. Their constitutions are described in the articles on them.

Where the “magisterial” constitution prevails, the members of the Magistrat, i.e. the executive council (also called variously Stadtrat, Gemeindevorstand, &c.), are as a rule elected by the representative assembly of the burgesses (Stadtverordnetenversammlung; also Gemeinderat, städtischer Ausschuss, Kollegium der Bürgervorsteher, Stadtältesten, &c.). The Magistrat consists of the chief burgomaster (Erster Bürgermeister or Stadtschultheiss, and in the large cities Oberbürgermeister), a second burgomaster or assessor, and in large towns of a number of paid and unpaid town councillors (Ratsherren, Senatoren, Schöffen, Ratsmänner, Magistratsräte), together with certain salaried members selected for specific purposes (e.g. Baurat, for building).

Over this executive body the Stadtverordneten, who are elected by the whole body of citizens and unpaid, exercise a general control, their assent being necessary to any measures of importance, especially those involving any considerable outlay. They are elected for from three to six years; the members of the Magistrat are chosen for six, nine or twelve years, sometimes even for life. In the large towns the burgomasters must be jurists, and are paid. The police are under the control of the Magistrat, except in certain large cities, where they are under a separate state department.

The second system mentioned above (Bürgermeistereiverfassung) prevails in the Rhine province, the Bavarian Palatinate, Hesse, Saxe-Weimar, Anhalt, Waldeck and the principalities of Reuss and Schwarzburg. In Württemberg, Baden and Hesse-Nassau the system is a compromise between the two; both the town and rural communes have a mayor (Bürgermeister or Schultheiss, as the case may be) and a Gemeinderat for administrative purposes, the citizens exercising control through a representative Gemeindeausschuss (communal committee).(1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

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