1949: the birth of modern German democracy

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1949: the birth of modern German democracy
Paul Löbe opened the Bundestag's first session on September 7th, 1949. Photo: DPA

On September 7th 1949, the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament) met for the first time in Bonn. After decades of dictatorship, war and confusion, this assembly marked a new start for West Germany - in a brand new capital city.


Between 1945 and 1949, Germany was in disarray.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, the country found itself divided between Allied and Soviet powers - and for the next four years, Germany itself was practically non-existent as a political entity.

As the two sides struggled to co-operate on issues of denazification, demilitarization and reparations, it became increasingly unlikely that a unified German nation would emerge any time soon.

In 1949, two separate German states emerged out of the rubble.

First came the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Established in East Germany by the Soviet Union, the GDR was ruled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

Its Volkskammer (People's Chamber) was based in Berlin.

The Allies controlling West Germany needed to respond - and on May 23rd, the Federal Republic of Germany was born.

Deciding on a capital

For this new West German state, deciding on a capital city – and a seat for the new parliament - wasn't straightforward.

Naturally, the new capital city would have to be in the British, American or French occupation zones. It couldn't be too close to the border with the Soviet zone, and it had to have sufficient office space and facilities to house parliament.

The choice boiled down to two cities. One was Frankfurt, the other Bonn.

On May 10th 1949, the choice came down to a vote by the Parliamentary Council. This stirred up heated debate – the  Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) preferred Frankfurt as the new capital, while the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) favoured Bonn.

In the end, Bonn won by 33 votes to 29.

A 'new beginning'

From May to September, work got underway to make this small city on the Rhine fit for parliament – and on September 7th 1949, the German Bundestag met in Bonn for the first time.

The new parliament had been voted in on August 14th. Of its 410 members, 142 were CDU and CSU members. Meanwhile, 136 were members of the SPD, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) sent 53 representatives.

Votes being counted during the first Bundestag election on August 14th, 1949. Photo: DPA 

The first session on September 7th marked a "new beginning in the west," the Bundestag now remembers on its website.

After four years of post-war confusion and a lack of identity, West Germany was beginning to get back onto its feet again.

The newly-forrmed Bundestag met in the former gymnasium of a teacher training college.

SPD MP Paul Löbe opened the session. At 73 years old, Löbe was the oldest serving MP in this first term of the Bonn parliament.

A controversial journalist whose views had landed him in prison numerous times, Löbe was editor-in-chief on Volkswacht magazine until 1920.

He then served as President and Vice President of the Reichstag between 1920 and 1933, when he was briefly imprisoned by Nazi authorities.

In the modern Bundestag, he gives his name to the Paul-Löbe-Haus, where the parliament's committees meet and where the press and public affairs offices and visitor centre are located.

The Bundestag's Paul Löbe Haus illuminated in the early evening. Photo: DPA

A turning point in German history

The formation of the West German Bundestag, and its settlement in Bonn, cemented Germany's division into two separate states.

However, the Bundestag would go on to represent not only West Germany but the whole of the unified nation.

After reunification in 1990, the 12th Bundestag was the first all-German parliament to be voted in since the two nations became one.

The next year - in one of the most hotly debated moves in modern German history - the Bundestag transferred from Bonn to Berlin.

As Berlin once again became capital, the Bundestag took up office in the newly-rebuilt Reichstag building, where it remains to this day.

It may have moved almost 600km since its first session 66 years ago, but the Bundestag continues to represent democracy in Germany.

Elected by the German people every four years, the Bundestag's tasks include the passing of laws and legislature, scrutiny of the Federal Government and election of the German Chancellor.

By Hannah Butler


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