By Werner Jann

18 Aug 2021

The federal government in Germany has developed a third way between the models of the UK and US civil services, with political control over only the top jobs. Prof. Dr. Werner Jann sheds light on this hybrid system

While the United States changes its top civil service leaders with every new president (see the recent CSW article by Lorenzo Castellani), and the UK, at least in theory, sticks to a model of apolitical civil servants who can serve any government, Germany has developed a system of of 'political civil servants', which places it somewhere in between the US and the UK.

This model is not very well known nor well understood outside Germany, but the institution of 'political civil servant' and a 'political retirement' tradition for civil servants in Germany date back to the middle of the 19th century – around the same time as the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in the UK. During this period in Prussia, the 'lifetime principle' for civil servants was introduced. This meant that civil servants could no longer be dismissed unless they committed a civil offense, and this raised the question of how to constrain the power of civil servants – and how to secure a degree of 'harmony' between the monarch and top civil servants. Therefore, in 1849 (when quite a few civil servants had shown sympathies with the failed 1848 revolution) in Prussia a new ordinance was introduced that set out a number of leading positions within the administration which could be temporarily retired by the king at any time. In the following decades, this concept of ‘political civil servants’ was introduced in most German Länder and from 1871 on, in the new German empire. And it is still in place today.

According to section 54 of the German law on federal public servants, civil servants in the two highest hierarchical ranks in federal ministries – administrative state secretaries (the official administrative heads of ministries, like permanent secretaries in the UK) and directors-general (heads of directorates) – are defined as 'political civil servants'. Most of them are career civil servants, but they serve at the request of their ministers and can be retired at any time without any reason given, while they keep their earned pension rights and can also be recalled at any time. The basic idea is that ministers should be able to choose as the most important officials and advisors in their departments civil servants they trust and if this trust – for whatever reason – no longer holds, can replace them.

Alongside the federal chancellor, there are currently 15 federal ministers and 35 parliamentary state secretaries, so all in all 50 ministerial positions in the federal government, and about 160 political civil servants – less than 1% of all 22.000 civil servants in all federal ministries. All other civil servants, i.e. heads of sub-directorates, heads of divisions and all lower hierarchical ranks are career civil servants in tenure positions. But this does not mean that they do not fulfil politicised functions in policymaking or have no party affiliation.

One important and defining feature of the German system is that all civil servants, from the lowest to the highest level, can be members of political parties, and very often are. Allowing party membership (even for soldiers) is one of the many lessons the ‘founding fathers’ of the Federal Republic drew from the experiences of the downfall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany, which was strongly supported from inside the civil service. A famous liberal constitutional lawyer already in 1930 characterised the apolitical civil servant as the 'living lie of the authoritarian state' (Lebenslüge des Obrigkeitsstaates).

As a result, Germans prefer their civil servants not to hide behind a false veil of political disinterest. This does not mean that all civil servants are members of a political party, but that being a member is legitimate. For many civil servants – but certainly not for all – their political preference is therefore well known. This political orientation does not impede their role as civil servants – indeed their loyalty to serve all democratically elected leaders is taken for granted. In practice, the party political activities of civil servants are much less restrained than in many other countries. Highly visible activities for left- or right-wing radical parties are, however, forbidden.

“Germans prefer their civil servants not to hide behind a false veil of political disinterest”

Empirical studies examining the career background of the political civil servants in federal ministries repeatedly have shown that many of them collect professional experience in civil service positions close to politics such as personal assistant to a minister or head of the ministers’ office, in the federal chancellery or as party staff in parliament while being on leave from their position in the ministry. All those positions are not only suitable to acquire ‘political craft’, they may also reflect a civil servants’ party political attachment. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that many higher civil servants in Germany are party members. A recent biographical study finds that 46% of all state secretaries between 1949 and 2013 belonged to their minister’s party, 13% to another government party, and the remaining 40% were nonpartisan at the time of appointment, while recent studies show that about 60% of state secretaries are members of political parties. The percentage is much lower at lower positions, but there are no data about the entire civil service.

Promotion to the top positions in federal ministries thus depends both on professional competence and on party political attachment and loyalty. Political civil servants are mostly, but not necessarily, members of the same political party as the minister and most of them are replaced after a change in government. But also in between elections it is not unusual that political civil servants are sent into early retirement, when their relationship with ministers go sour. The share of party members and civil servants with clear party political loyalties among top civil servants is high, even among heads of sub-directorates and divisions, which are not part of the ;political civil servant’ group, and there can be no doubt that party membership is relevant for top-administrative careers in the German civil service. But while top civil servants may depend on political support for their careers, this relationship cuts both ways. Ministers are as much, or perhaps even more, dependent on the support, loyalty professionalism and expertise of top civil servants. The result is, amongst others, that in Germany there is not a class of special advisors, separate from the civil service, as in Britain.

In sum, in German ministries (also at the regional Länder level) the institution of 'political civil servants' are key. While Prussian public administration was a key factor in the development of the idea of a merit bureaucracy, the political relevance of top civil servants has, nevertheless, been acknowledged since the middle of the 19th century.


Political civil servants, therefore, act as linkages between the professional bureaucracy and the political leadership, helping to create mutual understanding, trust and softening misunderstandings and suspicion between both spheres. The typical blame games between politicians and civil servants, or even 'a government of strangers' (a well-known description of the US system), are therefore rather unusual in Germany. The relationship between politics and administration, between elected politicians and appointed civil servants, is never without tensions and conflicts, but the German politicised civil service, both in functional and party political terms, seems to have led to fewer conflicts, misunderstandings and blame games than in other democratic countries.

Top civil servants in Germany need both professional expertise and political craft, they do not pretend to be a-political, and both politicians and the German public usually know where their top officials come from and what they stand for.

Prof. Dr. Werner Jann is the senior professor emeritus for political science, administration and organisation at the faculty for economics and social sciences at Potsdam University. For more information see his and Sylvia Veit's contribution on 'Politics and Administration in Germany' in a new Handbook on 'Public Administration in Germany', which can be downloaded here.


Foreign Affairs
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