Political Structure and History

The roots of the modern German political system, including local government in Berlin, lie in the post-war settlement agreed at Potsdam between the Allies - the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and France - and the turbulent Cold War years.

The Allied Sectors
After 1945 the city was divided into 4 sectors, each administered by one of the Allies, but in the growing Cold War climate the arrangement that allowed each of the Allies to veto collective decisions taken by the four-power Kommandatura collapsed, and the city started to drift into two separate camps. Following a victory of the German Social Democrats (SPD) in the city elections of 1946 the Communist leader of the Soviet sector, Walther Ulbricht, obliged them to merge with the Communist Party (KPD) in the east of the city to form the SED. The SPD in the west refused. In 1948 the western Allies merged the economies of their zones introducing a new currency - the Deutschmark (DM). The Soviet authorities meanwhile limited access from West Germany to West Berlin - which was surrounded by East German territory - to three air corridors, one road and one rail link.

Berlin Airlift (State Department Archives)Two Berlins
Tension grew. Elected local government representatives were beaten up outside their assembly, and the next day the Soviets closed the land routes to West Berlin from West Germany, shutting off power supplies and food imports. For 462 days the city was supplied by air - the Berlin Airlift - till the Soviets lifted the blockade.West Berlin had survived but felt isolated from the outside world. On the 9th of September, 1948 half a million West Berliners assembled in the Platz der Republik to listen to their mayor, Ernst Reuter, demanding that the world "Look at this city" - not to forget Berlin. Through the 50s relations between the two halves of the city deteriorated still further, the western half of the city benefitting from American aid under the Marshall Plan, the eastern half paying massive war reparations to the USSR. In 1953 there was an abortive uprising in the East, crushed by Soviet tanks, and in 1961 West Berlin was sealed off overnight and the Berlin Wall was erected encircling the western part of the city, under the direction of Erich Honecker, who was later to succeed Ulbricht, in an attempt to stem the flow of economic and political refugees out of East Berlin. And despite the softening of relations between the BRD and the DDR which commenced with Willy Brandt, mayor of Berlin (1957- 1966) and later Chancellor (1969 - 1974), travel restrictions out of the eastern zone remained. During the 60s, 70s and 80s many fugitives were killed trying to escape to the West.

Stand Off across the Wall
For three decades two political systems faced one another across the Wall in one of the most dangerous stand-offs of the Cold War. Berlin was the front line between East and West which neither side could afford to sacrifice, and attracted symbolic visits from Heads of State like Kennedy, who announced that he too was "a Berliner" (which, incidently, is also the German name for a jelly-filled donut).

Each side had been presented with the dramatic challenge of reconstruction and denazification after the war had ended. Most experienced administrators, businessmen, engineers, teachers, lawyers, judges, the police and army were implicated in some way or other with the Nazi Regime. Despite the Nuremberg Trials of prominent National Socialists both sides needed the skills of Germans who had at least sympathised with the Nazis, and each side accused the other of fascism. Both sides implemented (different) constitutions in their respective countries, formally separate since 1949, both ran elections (different systems), and each organised its economy on totally different lines - East Germany (DDR) was a supply-led controlled economy, West Germany (BRD) a social market economy.

The Ways Part
From the early Sixties it was becoming obvious that the living standards in West Berlin were far higher than in the East, partly due to money the United States pumped into Berlin - the showcase of capitalism - and tax breaks Berliners were allowed by their own government, but also because the centralised Supply-led economy of the East suffered regular shortages of raw materials and could offer its population very little in the way of consumer goods - certainly not the range and variety available in the West. The West German economy, on the other hand, boomed, and continued to boom till the Seventies, when Europe was hit by the oil crisis.

New Politics
Perhaps this hiccup in Germany's steady growth partly explains the questioning of conventional political channels which characterised the period. From the early Seventies West Germany was hit by a wave of terrorist attacks - the Baader-Meinhof gang or Red Army Fraction was involved in bank raids and kidnappings, and despite the arrest of its leaders, cells were operating into the Eighties. The Seventies also saw the rise of the world's first ecologically focussed party - the Greens - and they were to grow steadily, first sharing government in several States, and eventually in 1998 sharing in national government, a junior partner in a coalition with the SPD which is still ruling today.

The Eighties
The Eighties saw Helmut Kohl become Chancellor - a CDU politician who ascended to power in 1982 remained there till 1998, and left a mixed record behind him. While some give him much of the credit for the Unification of Germany and the introduction of a common currency in Europe, the Euro, others point to a succession of financial scandals that dogged his regime, and which are still surfacing today.

The Fall of the Wall
When the Wall fell in 1989, the socialist experiment across Eastern Europe had failed decisively in economic and political terms, and the eastern states of the former GDR were formally reunited with the West, on October 3rd 1990, adopting the western constitution, economic and political system. Already in Berlin the local council, the Senat, had been meeting in joint session since 12th June, but on 2nd December 1990, the first free elections since 1946 were held city-wide.

Unified Germany
Berlin now constitutes one of the 16 states or Bundeslšnder of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is divided into twelve Bezirke or districts which elect representatives to govern both the affairs of the district and city. Germany itself has a proportional representation electoral system, with two Houses of Parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. Since Berlin once again assumed the role of capital of the united country, the government moved from Bonn, and Parliament now meets in the rebuilt Reichstag.

Political Parties
The largest political parties are the Social Democrats (SPD), the Christian Democrats (CDU), with their sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) which governs in Bavaria, the Greens (an ecological party) who merged with the newly-formed East German party, Bundnis 90 (who were part of the group of dissidents of the communist rule), the Democratic Socialist Party (PDS formed from the remnants of the East German communist party), and the Free Democrats (FDP). Since each state elects its own local government different parties control the administration in different parts of the country. Currently Germany is governed by an SPD-Greens coalition, Berlin by a SPD-PDS coalition. The PDS has considerable strength in the East where unemployment is high and reunification has not delivered all the promises it seemed to offer. The political style features considerable amounts of compromise, reflected in the electoral system, the number of coalitions, and relatively harmonious industrial relations.

Germany has a Constitution - the Grundgesetz - which specifies separate legislative, executive and judiciary functions, including courts of appeal. Until NATO's recent engagement in Kosovo and, more recently, with the UN mission in Afghanistan, German troops hadn't taken part in any military activity outside the country, and their involvement on both occasions was a matter of impassioned debate. There is compulsory conscription with an opt-out option for conscientious objectors.

Germany has an extensive social security system, funded by a high rate of tax, compulsory medical insurance, a state pension scheme, and unemployment benefits. The education and training system is extremely developed with around 30% of young people going on to Higher Education. After the "Economic Miracle" of the 50s and 60s, the economy suffered periods of stagnation during the 70s and 80s, and mild recession in the 90s due to the enormous costs of reunification and the rebuilding of the infrastructure in the old East, and because of the increasing competition brought about by globalisation.

Berlin - the Future
At the moment the city is changing furiously. New life is pouring in, from other parts of Germany - politicians, civil servants, businesses, and from other parts of Europe. The city has an increasingly cosmopolitan feel - tolerant, open and full of fresh ideas. And huge building projects are everywhere in evidence - the Potsdamer Platz site in Berlin has been dubbed the biggest building site in Europe, and Alexanderplatz is soon to follow.

For lovers of cities, Berlin is a good place to be now.

Germany is a member of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO.

To get a better idea about what it means to be a "Berliner", see Culture.

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