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Chancellor of Germany

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The head of government in Germany has traditionally been called Kanzler (Chancellor). The name of the office today is Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor); from 1871 to 1945, it was Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor). During the period of the Norddeutscher Bund from 1867 until the German unification, Bundeskanzler was also the title used by Bismarck.

See "Chancellor" for etymological notes.



Before World War II, the title in Germany was Reichskanzler, meaning Imperial Chancellor. In the 1871 German Empire, the Reichskanzler served both as the Kaiser's first minister, and as presiding officer of the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of the Imperial German parliament. He was neither elected by nor responsible to Parliament (the Reichstag). Instead, the Reichskanzler was appointed by the Emperor.

This was only changed on October 29, 1918 with an amendment to the 1871 constitution. However, the change could not prevent the outbreak of the revolution a few days later. The new constitution of the 1919 Weimar Republic said that the Reichskanzler was elected by the Imperial President, but that the parliament had the right to dismiss a chancellor or any of the ministers. In fact many of the Weimar governments depended highly on the cooperation of the President, due to uncertain circumstances in the parliament. The last of 15 Weimar chancellors was Adolf Hitler, appointed on January 30, 1933.

Reichskanzler of the 1871 German Empire:

Ebert continued to serve as Head of Government during the two months between the end of the German Empire in November 1918 and the first gathering of the National Assembly in February 1919, but did not hold the title of Chancellor.

Reichskanzler of the 1919 Weimar Republic:

Reichskanzler of the Nazi Era


Germany's 1949 constitution, the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), invests the chancellor, now called Bundeskanzler, with central executive authority. For that reason, some observers refer to the German political system as a "chancellor democracy." Germany's federal government (Bundesregierung) consists of the chancellor and his or her cabinet ministers.

The chancellor's authority emanates from the provisions of the Basic Law and from his or her status as leader of the party or coalition of parties holding a majority of seats in the Bundestag. In the past, with Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder (until 2003, where Schröder resigned from the post of chairman of the SPD), the chancellor has also frequently been the chairman of his own party - with the exception of Helmut Schmidt.

Every four years, after national elections and the seating of the newly elected Bundestag members, the chancellor is elected by a majority of the members of the Bundestag upon the proposal of the Bundespräsident. This vote is one of the few cases where a majority of all elected members of the Bundestag must be achieved, as opposed to a mere majority of those that are currently assembled. This is referred to as Kanzlermehrheit (chancellor's majority) and has, in the past, occasionally forced ill (or pregnant) members to be dragged into the assembly when a party's majority was only slim.

If the nominee of the president is not elected, the Bundestag may elect its own nominee within fourteen days. If no one is elected within this period, the Bundestag will attempt an election. If the person with the highest number of votes has a majority, the President must appoint him. If the person with the highest number of votes does not have a majority, the President may appoint him or call new elections.

The chancellor is the only member of the government elected by the Bundestag, the ministers are chosen by the chancellor himself (officially nominated by the Bundespräsident).

Unlike other parliamentary legislatures, the Bundestag cannot remove the chancellor simply with a Motion of No Confidence since, in the Weimar Republic, this procedure was abused by parties of both political extremes in order to oppose chancellors and undermine the democratic process. Instead, the early removal of a chancellor is only possible when it simultaneously agrees on a successor. In order to garner legislative support in the Bundestag, the chancellor can also call for a regular Motion of Confidence, either combined with a legislative proposal or as a standalone vote. Only if such a vote fails may the president dissolve the Bundestag. For details on both votes, see "Constructive Vote of No Confidence".

Article 65 of the Basic Law sets forth three principles that define how the executive branch functions. First, the "chancellor principle" makes the chancellor responsible for all government policies. Any formal policy guidelines issued by the chancellor are legally binding directives that cabinet ministers must implement. Cabinet ministers are expected to introduce specific policies at the ministerial level that reflect the chancellor's broader guidelines. Second, the "principle of ministerial autonomy" entrusts each minister with the freedom to supervise departmental operations and prepare legislative proposals without cabinet interference so long as the minister's policies are consistent with the chancellor's larger guidelines. Third, the "cabinet principle" calls for disagreements between federal ministers over jurisdictional or budgetary matters to be settled by the cabinet.

The chancellor determines the composition of the cabinet. The federal president formally appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, at the recommendation of the chancellor; no Bundestag approval is needed. According to the Basic Law, the chancellor may set the number of cabinet ministers and dictate their specific duties. Chancellor Ludwig Erhard had the largest cabinet, with twenty-two ministers, in the mid-1960s. Helmut Kohl presided over 17 ministers at the start of his fourth term in 1994; the 2002 cabinet, the second of Gerhard Schröder, has 13 ministers.

Bundeskanzler since WW II:

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45