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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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