Germany | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered defeats in state parliamentary elections in 2012. President Christian Wulff resigned in a corruption scandal in February and was replaced by former East German human rights activist Joachim Gauck. In June, a regional court ruled that circumcision of boys could be considered a criminal offense, raising an outcry from Jewish and Muslim groups, and prompting the federal government to adopt legislation in December guaranteeing their right to the practice.

Modern Germany emerged in 1871, when the patchwork of German states united under Prussian leadership following the Franco-Prussian war. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the German Empire was replaced in 1919 by the Weimar Republic, which gave way in 1933 to the Nazi-led Third Reich and led to World War II. Following its defeat in World War II, Germany was divided into two states—the capitalist and democratic Federal Republic in the west and the communist German Democratic Republic in the east—during the ensuing Cold War. The Berlin Wall, which had kept East Berliners from fleeing west, was opened in 1989, and East Germany was absorbed into the Federal Republic the following year.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a coalition of his center-right Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the socially liberal, market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) ruled Germany for 16 years. In 1998, Germans elected the so-called “red-green coalition,” consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, with the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder as chancellor. The red-green coalition won a narrow victory in the 2002 elections.

In 2005, Schröder engineered a no-confidence vote against himself to trigger national elections. Neither the red-green coalition nor the CDU/CSU-FDP opposition was able to garner an outright majority. After unusually protracted coalition negotiations, the CDU/CSU and the SPD were obliged to form a “grand coalition,” and the CDU’s Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor. Tensions between the two parties of the grand coalition grew during the second half of its term.

In the 2009 federal parliamentary elections, the CDU/CSU won 239 seats, while the FDP took 93 seats. The SPD had its worst result in a federal election since World War II, capturing only 146 seats. Meanwhile, the left and the Greens both made large gains, receiving the highest share of votes in their histories; however, they could not offset the SPD’s losses. As a result, the alliance of the CDU/CSU and FDP received an outright majority of seats and formed a new center-right government, ensuring Angela Merkel a second term as chancellor.

In November 2009, the controversial trial of John Demjanjuk—a Ukrainian-born former U.S. citizen and accused World War II Nazi concentration camp guard—began in Munich. Demjanjuk, the lowest-ranking official to go on trial for Holocaust-related crimes, was charged with facilitating the murder of thousands of Jews at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. In May 2011, Demjanjuk, then 91, was convicted of accessory to murder in 28,060 counts at the Sobibor camp, and was sentenced to five years in jail. However, he was released pending appeal and was living in a German nursing home when he died in March 2012.

President Horst Köhler of the CDU resigned in May 2010 after criticism over comments he made suggesting that military intervention abroad could be justified by economic interests. One month later, CDU candidate Christian Wulff was elected to replace Köhler, but only after three election rounds, which demonstrated divisions in Merkel’s majority coalition.

Marked by ongoing antinuclear sentiment reignited by the nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan, the 2011 state parliamentary elections, which were held in seven states throughout the year, saw a series of electoral defeats for Merkel’s CDU (Merkel had supported nuclear energy until reversing her position in May 2011 and setting a plan to phase out the country’s nuclear plants by 2022). In Baden-Württemberg, a region ruled by the CDU since 1953, a new coalition came to power led by the Green party—the first time in German political history that a member of the Green Party would preside over a state parliament. Other notable results included the election of the Pirate Party, which campaigned for issues including information privacy and internet freedom, and won 15 seats in the Berlin state parliament.

Wulff resigned in February 2012, after becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal over financial favors he had allegedly accepted while he was governor of Lower Saxony state. The Bundestag in March elected former Lutheran pastor and former East German human rights activist Joachim Gauck as president. He was backed by all major parties after Merkel, who had opposed his previous presidential candidacy in 2010, threw her support behind him.

On May 6, 2012, in Schleswig-Holstein state elections, the incumbent CDU/FDP coalition was ousted by the SPD and the Greens; the CDU had its worst result in the state since 1950, and the FDP’s share of the vote dropped by nearly half from the previous election in 2009. The Pirate Party won 8.2 percent, to enter its third state parliament. On May 13, the SPD and the Greens won a majority in North Rhine–Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The two parties had governed in a minority coalition since 2010 but were forced to call early elections after failing to pass a budget. The SPD won nearly 40 percent of the vote, the CDU took 26.3 percent, and the Greens took 11.3 percent. The Pirate Party won 7.8 percent and qualified for seats in the state parliament.

The SPD in December 2012 nominated former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück as its candidate for chancellor in the 2013 election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Germany is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the 622-seat Bundestag (Federal Assembly), elected at least every four years through a 50-50 mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts; as well as an upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which represents the country’s 16 states. The country’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen jointly by the Bundestag and a group of state representatives to serve up to two five-year terms. In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education, policing, taxation, and spending. The chancellor, the head of government, is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a four-year legislative session, which can be cut short only if the Bundestag chooses a replacement in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence.

For historical reasons, political pluralism is somewhat constrained. Under electoral laws intended to restrict the far left and far right, a party must receive either 5 percent of the national vote or win at least three directly elected seats to be represented in parliament. The Constitutional Court outlawed the Socialist Reich Party (a successor to the Nazi Party) in 1952 and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956 on the grounds that their goals disregarded the principles of the constitution. However, the former ruling party of communist East Germany—the Socialist Unity Party, renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism—participated in state governments after reunification. It then merged with Labor and Social Justice­­˗The Electorate Alternative, a party of former left-wing SPD members, to form the new Left Party ahead of the 2005 elections. The main extreme right party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), is hostile to immigration and the EU, and has been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In December 2012, the opposition-controlled Bundesrat voted to petition the Constitutional Court to ban the NPD, but the government did not back the move.

Germany is free of pervasive corruption. The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. Germany was ranked 13 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. However, hate speech is punishable if publicly pronounced against specific segments of the population and in a manner that incites hatred, such as racist agitation and anti-Semitism. It is also illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler. Internet access is generally unrestricted. However, in October 2012, at the request of local authorities in Lower Saxony state, Twitter blocked German users from gaining access to a neo-Nazi group’s account, in what was reportedly the company’s first action in any nation to block “country-withheld content” at a government’s request.

Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, Germany has taken a strong stance against the Church of Scientology, which it deems an organization pursuing commercial interests rather than a religion. A number of federal states have also denied the Jehovah’s Witnesses the official “public law corporation” status, which has been granted to 180 other religious groups in the country. Eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing the headscarf, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for all civil servants. Economic uncertainties in the aftermath of the global recession have worsened xenophobic tendencies toward immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, as evidenced by the 2011 re-election of the extreme right NPD party in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In June 2012, a regional court in Cologne ruled that doctors could be prosecuted for carrying out circumcisions, calling it a form of physical abuse when carried out on boys below the age of consent, in a case concerning a four-year-old Muslim boy who suffered complications from the procedure. Both Muslim and Jewish groups protested the ruling as an infringement of their religious freedom. In July 2012, the Bundestag passed a nonbinding motion calling on the government to ensure that circumcision, “carried out with medical expertise and without unnecessary pain, is permitted.” On December 12, the Bundestag approved legislation to that effect, which had been proposed by the Justice Ministry in September. Academic freedom is generally respected.

The right of peaceful assembly is not infringed upon, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing the democratic order. Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations operate without hindrance. Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are free to organize.

The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails. Prison conditions are adequate, though the Council of Europe has criticized elements in the practice of preventive detention. In February 2012, Merkel led an official tribute to the victims of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell that killed 10 people—nine small business owners mostly of Turkish origin and one policewoman—between 2000 and 2007. The three-member cell was tracked down in November 2011, when two men committed suicide and a woman was arrested. The woman, Beate Zschape, 37, was charged with murder in November 2012; four men were charged with assisting the group. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, Heinz Fromm, resigned in July 2012 after it emerged that the agency had destroyed files on the case and made other mistakes that allowed the cell to evade capture for years.

Germany was accused by international human rights organizations in 2011 of repatriating asylum seekers to countries where their safety could be threatened, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.

Women’s rights are well protected under antidiscrimination laws. However, gender wage gaps persisted in 2011, with women’s wages and salaries approximately 23 percent less than men’s wages for the same work. Women held 6 of the 16 federal cabinet positions and 33 percent of the seats in parliament. Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected.