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70 Years On, Germans Find Pride In Their Constitution

Against a tide of right-wing nationalism, Germany's Basic Law — with its emphasis on fundamental rights — is as relevant now as it was 70 years ago, when it first appeared.

Reichstag Building in Berlin
Reichstag Building in Berlin
Magali Mohr*


BERLIN — When the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (the Grundgesetz, in German) was proclaimed on May 23, 1949, one could scarcely guess what significance it would have for the country.

Since it was originally intended to last provisionally — for the time of Germany's division, which, it was assumed at that time, would not last long — its authors consciously chose not to designate it as a constitution. It was almost ironic, therefore that in 1979, when the Basic Law turned 30, the liberal political scientist Dolf Sternberger coined the term constitutional patriotism.

In his editorial for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Sternberger wrote that there was "a second patriotism based on the Constitution." For Sternberger, patriotism "in a major European tradition has always had something to do with the constitution." Thus, Sternberger viewed constitutional patriotism as an alternative to a purely ethnically-based understanding of the state, but not as an alternative to patriotism. It was patriotism in its original — but not exclusive — form.

A few years later, in the 1980s, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas described constitutional patriotism as "the only patriotism that does not alienate us from the West." Constitutional patriotism became — at least in public perception — a counter-concept to national patriotism. This caused a great deal of criticism at that time and led to the still widespread understanding of constitutional patriotism as a "bloodless," "unworldly" and "professorial fiction."

Since then, much has been said about the concept. For some, constitutional patriotism is the only acceptable form of patriotism, the historically aware and enlightened alternative to dull nationalism. For others, it remains a bloodless, elitist concept that neither creates identity nor exists beyond philosophical debates.

But how is it now, 70 years after the promulgation of the Basic Law? To what extent do people in Germany identify with their constitution?

"Human dignity shall be inviolable," first sentence of German Constitution in Frankfurt — Photo: Dontworry

Here you can see the results of the joint study by the think tank d|part​ and the Open Society European Policy Institute. The survey was carried out among more than 6,000 people across Europe — about 1,000 of them from Germany. It found that Germans consider the following values as "absolutely essential" for a "good society": freedom of expression (71%), freedom of the press (55%) and the protection of minorities (43%) — the latter even more than any other Europeans.

These values also belong to the category of fundamental rights of the Grundgesetz. This means that many Germans seem to associate a sense of high esteem with their Basic Law. And that is not all: around 38% of the interviewees said they were "proud of the Basic Law." In fact, of all the things they take pride in as Germans, the Basic Law ranked highest in the survey, ahead of Germany's cultural heritage (30%) and economic power (24%). This suggests that constitutional patriotism in fact exists, that's it's a very real concept for Germans and is not just a theoretical construct, or a fiction.

And yet, many respondents who are proud of the Basic Law also claim to be proud of other things, such as the German welfare state, German culture or the economy. Moreover, like the majority of respondents, they identify strongly as German. Here they also differ from those who said they were "not at all proud of being German" — only about 11%. In other words, constitutional patriotism exists, and it does not go against, but in conjunction with various other types of national pride and national identity.

Constitutional patriotism offers an excellent basis for a compromise.

Today, therefore, Sternberger's original definition of constitutional patriotism appears to be a significant form of patriotism. Neither ethnic nationalism, as advocated by right-wing parties and groups today, nor the idea of "new Germans' who are "proud of not being proud," as the comedian Jan Böhmermann represents them, make up the attitudes of the majority of Germans.

In view of this, constitutional patriotism offers an excellent basis for a compromise, for an avowed patriotism that is value-based and in accordance with liberal democratic fundamental rights and freedoms. But in order to attract a majority, the concept must be understood as inclusive, as complementary to and in interaction with other forms of patriotism and German identity. The data mentioned above shows that this is already the case for a majority of Germans.

Those who, for the noblest of reasons, continue to regard constitutional patriotism as the only legitimate form of patriotism need to be aware that they are not taking into account the reality of a majority of Germans. In order to prevent further gains from right-wing, populist parties, we need to have a more inclusive concept of patriotism.

As author Thea Dorn put it in her book German, Not Dull, there must be a commitment to the nation "not in a racial-ethnic, but in a constitutional, social-solidary and cultural sense." Pride in the Basic Law is understandable, in other words, but constitutional patriotism should also involve an appreciation of things like Germany's welfare state, economy or culture.

*Magali Mohr is a political scientist and researcher at the dpart think tank and co-author of the above-mentioned study.

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