Citizens celebrate the Basic Law: “Democracy is not a spectator sport”

Germany is celebrating 75 years of the Basic Law – including with civic festivals in Berlin and Bonn. When top politicians like Olaf Scholz answer questions from the audience, the focus will soon be on concrete issues – the shortage of skilled workers, the climate and Taurus for Ukraine.

A crowd of people is gathered in front of a grandstand in the Reichstag. A thin, black, red and gold twisted cord holds families with children and elderly couples together. One or two of them impatiently ask the security staff on the other side of the cord where the dome is. Then Bundestag President Bärbel Bas enters the stage. The SPD politician thanks everyone for the advance applause and welcomes the Bundestag visitors: “Dear friends of democracy, I am delighted that you are celebrating with us!”

75 years ago, on the night of May 23-24, 1949, the Basic Law came into force. It was the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany as a free, democratic and social constitutional state. On Thursday, Federal President Steinmeier had already praised the Basic Law as the basis for living together at a state ceremony with invited guests in Berlin. For the citizens, Berlin and in Bonn this weekend the Festival of Democracy instead of.

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron will be visiting the Berlin Festival of Democracy. The event will conclude on Sunday evening with a large concert on one of the stages, where musicians such as the Fantastischen Vier, Lena Meyer-Landrut, Sebastian Krumbiegel, Vanessa Mai and Zoe Wee will pass the microphone to each other. The festival will end with a fireworks display and the sounds of Alle Farben.

The birthday child on the silver platter

After her short opening speech on Friday, Bärbel Bas leads the crowd of visitors through an exhibition that recounts the life stories of the mothers and fathers of the Basic Law. “Come to my side,” says Bas to a somewhat shy visitor. Other visitors come close to the President of the Bundestag on their own initiative because they want to take a photo with the SPD politician. Karlchen and Karla are just as popular. The two gray bird mascots are the siblings of the federal eagle.

Popular photo motif: the mascots Karla and Karlchen.

Popular photo motif: the mascots Karla and Karlchen.

(Photo: Wegmann)

In the Reichstag building, once around the corner and two long corridors straight ahead, visitors can admire the “birthday child”, as Bas calls this special part of the program. The original Basic Law of 1949 is laid out and well protected in a display case. The original usually only leaves the parliamentary archives when the Federal Chancellor or Federal President is sworn in, says Bundestag archivist Angela Ullmann.

When Bas enters the library, people are lined up almost to the next corner. They can only visit the sensitive person celebrating his anniversary in small groups. “The interest is enormous. I am surprised,” says the Bundestag archivist. She or two of her colleagues stand next to the display case over the weekend to answer questions. “We owe that to the people,” says Ullmann.

The original copy of the Basic Law is available in the library of the Bundestag. The original copy of the Basic Law is available in the library of the Bundestag.

The original copy of the Basic Law is available in the library of the Bundestag.

(Photo: Wegmann)

As Bas approaches the display case in the middle of the book-lined room, the SPD politician says she feels a sense of melancholy. “But the fingerprints aren’t mine,” she says as she stands in front of the display case. Many people want a photo with Bas in front of the original constitution. 13-year-old David from Rhineland-Palatinate also has his photo taken with the President of the Bundestag. He traveled to Berlin on the ICE train for six hours with his mother and little sister – and not just to celebrate democracy. Like many visitors, David is wearing a white 1. FC Kaiserslautern jersey.

On Saturday, Kaiserslautern and the new German champions Bayer 04 Leverkusen will meet in the DFB Cup final in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. “It’s a unique opportunity to be here in the Bundestag. You don’t get to do that every day,” says David. “We spent a few days in Berlin and took the opportunity to see the Basic Law,” says his mother Vera. “It is the basis of our coexistence.”

In dialogue with citizens

A few hundred meters further on, on the square in front of the Chancellery, the so-called heads of the constitutional bodies answer questions from selected guests: In addition to Bas, these are President of the Federal Council Manuela Schwesig, President of the Federal Constitutional Court Stephan Harbarth and Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck.

Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in dialogue with citizens at the Democracy Festival on Friday afternoon. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in dialogue with citizens at the Democracy Festival on Friday afternoon.

Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in dialogue with citizens at the Democracy Festival on Friday afternoon.

(Photo: picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress)

Scholz will start things off on Friday afternoon. Volunteers from culture, sport and society are invited. Around a hundred people in traditional costumes, fire service uniforms or simply in T-shirts and trousers sit in a circle around a small round stage. The dialogue forum is actually about volunteer work as a bond that holds society together, but those asking questions often steer the conversation towards other problems: climate change, energy supply or a shortage of workers.

For example, 19-year-old Ostap asks the Chancellor about the lack of Taurus deliveries to Ukraine. Ostap lives in Berlin. He came to Germany from Ukraine two years ago. “I understand his position on the Taurus deliveries. He doesn’t want the war to escalate,” Ostap later told 23-year-old Viktoriia and 21-year-old Andriana agree with him. They also came to Germany after the Russian attack on Ukraine.

After the dialogue forum with Scholz, the three stroll along the festival mile between the Reichstag building, the Paul Löbe House and the Chancellery. “I think politics in Germany is very transparent,” says Andriana. She has just completed a two-month internship with a member of the Bundestag. Andriana could not imagine that people would even visit the Bundestag or talk to the Chancellor in Ukraine. After two years in Germany, the three Ukrainians feel part of society. This Friday they are also happy to join in the celebrations.

“In Germany you can freely express your opinion”

One of the four impulses during the dialogue was given to 32-year-old Matthias Keussen, Vice President of the Athletic Sonnenberg e. V. football club. One statement by the Chancellor has stuck in his mind. In response to a question about the state of freedom of expression, Scholz said: “In Germany, you can freely express your opinion. In particular, you can freely say: you can’t express your opinion at all.” That impressed him, says Keussen. “We live here in Germany, where we can have such dialogues with a Chancellor.”

Julian Lagemann from Cologne agrees. Even though both are in a celebratory mood, they see democracy more threatened than ever by anti-democratic and populist parties. Keussen says he is afraid that extremists could undermine democracy. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. If we all just watch and only eleven people play, and half of them somehow play against their own team, then democracy is in danger,” says Lagemann. He sees dangers where people just watch and right-wing extremists gain a foothold.

“There is no longer East and West here”

A volunteer in front of the map of the Democracy Festival in Berlin. Celebrations are also taking place in Bonn. A volunteer in front of the map of the Democracy Festival in Berlin. Celebrations are also taking place in Bonn.

A volunteer in front of the map of the Democracy Festival in Berlin. Celebrations are also taking place in Bonn.

(Photo: picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress)

Early on Friday evening, the cordoned-off streets around the Bundestag in Berlin began to fill up with people. The 16 federal states each introduced themselves at a stand. Directly in front of the Federal Chancellery, there were just as many stands representing the federal ministries.

A retired couple takes a short break in the shade of a tree in front of the hut of the Federal Ministry of Defense. Horst and Doris have come to the festival from Berlin-Biesdorf. They lived and worked in the GDR for most of their lives. “There is no longer an East or a West here,” says 90-year-old Horst.

They do not find it problematic that the Basic Law became the constitution for all of Germany in 1990. “The Basic Law is a good thing,” says Horst. “But there are some things that need to be improved.” Men and women are not quite as equal as the Basic Law states. As a young woman in the GDR, she did not understand how important the Basic Law is, says his 87-year-old wife Doris. But now she is increasingly understanding the impact the Basic Law has. “Especially for us women,” says Doris. She links arms with her husband to support him, then they walk off towards the bratwurst stand.

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