Germany’s path towards stable democracy

Black and white photo of the first Bundestag meeting after the election in August 1949.
© picture-alliance/dpa

On 14 August 1949 – a good four years after the end of the Second World War – the first election of a German Bundestag took place in the western occupation zones. This involved the first free election in Germany since the National Socialists took power in 1933. The Federal Republic of Germany developed in the subsequent years into a stable, economically strong democracy with close ties to the USA and Western Europe.

The election campaign for the first federal election was brief, but all the tougher for it: the political opponents called each other liars and scoundrels, servants of big business and closet communists, sometimes more, sometimes less directly. The only thing the parties agreed about was the magnitude of the tasks that confronted the future government. Whole streets in many German cities were still in ruins four years after the end of the Second World War. Housing shortages and unemployment were problematically high, millions of refugees and displaced persons from the former German territories in Central and Eastern Europe needed to be integrated.

The power to govern lay with the armed forces of the Allies after Germany’s capitulation on 8 May 1945. Germany had been divided into four occupation zones: one American, one British, one French and one Soviet. The political and economic differences between the zones intensified with the beginning of the Cold War: while state socialism was established in the East under Soviet pressure, the three Western zones benefited from aid under the American Marshall Plan, and from 1947 merged economically first into the bi-zone and then into the tri-zone. The Cologne Carnival song ‘Wir sind die Eingeborenen von Trizonesien’ (the Trizonesien-Song) quickly became a supra-regional hit.

Adoption of the Basic Law

The Minister-Presidents of the Länder in the western occupation zones convened a constitutional convention in 1948 that drew up the foundations of the Basic Law. The liberal democratic constitution, in which fundamental rights occupy a prominent position, was adopted by the Parliamentary Council in Bonn on 8 May 1949. A new state had emerged in West Germany: the Federal Republic of Germany. 

All parties except the NSDAP had been banned during the Nazi dictatorship. After 1945 there were therefore new or re-established parties. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) had already existed before 1933, and the different liberal currents came together again in the Free Democratic Party (FDP). A political novelty was the cross-denominational Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CDU under its leader Konrad Adenauer advocated a social market economy and a Westward connection of the Federal Republic. The SPD under Kurt Schumacher, on the other hand, vehemently demanded the unification of Germany and the introduction of a planned economic system.

80 per cent voter turnout

The approximately 32 million ‘Trizoners’ were thus faced with a decision on the young state’s future direction. The voter turnout at almost 80 per cent was correspondingly high. German citizens aged 21 and over as well as displaced persons and refugees without German citizenship were eligible to vote. Those in the three western sectors of Berlin were not allowed to vote due to the city's special status. 

After a fierce dispute on the principles of proportional or majority representation, the parties agreed on a compromise that provided for personalised proportional representation. Only parties that had won either five per cent of the votes or a direct mandate in a federal state were admitted to the Bundestag. 11 of the 19 parties that contested succeeded in doing so, but most of them disappeared from the scene again in subsequent years.

The CDU/CSU managed to win a narrow victory: they won 31 per cent of the votes, the SPD around 29 per cent. Adenauer, who was already 73 years old at the time, formed a coalition with the FDP, which received just under 12 per cent of the vote, and the right-wing German Party (DP) and was elected German Chancellor by a majority of just one vote – an office he was to retain until 1963. The East-West conflict continued to intensify during this period. The Federal Republic and the GDR, founded on 7 October 1949, became frontline states in the Cold War.

Emergence of the European Community

Benefiting from the rapid economic miracle of the 1950s, the Federal Republic developed into a stable democracy. Adenauer's policy of Western integration led to reconciliation with France and, in 1952, to the founding of the Coal and Steel Union between Germany, France, Italy and the three Benelux countries. This organisation became the nucleus of the European Community.

Which city was the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1990?


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