What is a German “Bundesland”?

What is a German “Bundesland”?

by Anne Walther

Updated May 17, 2022

The federal republic of Germany consists of 16 different federal states, known as Bundesländer. Each state has its own constitution, capital and culture. If you travel around in Germany, you might therefore find yourself surrounded by different traditions and holidays depending on where you are, like Oktoberfest in the South, carnival in the West or Walpurgisnacht in the East. It’s a good idea to find out which Bundesland you are in and what regional traditions to pay attention to. In addition, the Bundesländer play an important role in the German government. We’ll give you a short overview of the German federal states, their capitals and how they work.

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The different Bundesländer

There are 16 federal states, or Bundesländer, in Germany, divided into smaller city-states and larger area states.

Area states and their capitals

BundeslandCapital
Thuringia (Thüringen)Erfurt
Hesse (Hessen)Wiesbaden
Bavaria (Bayern)Munich (München)
Baden-WürttembergStuttgart
SaarlandSaarbrücken
Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz)Mainz
Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen)Hanover (Hannover)
Mecklenburg-VorpommernSchwerin
Schleswig-HolsteinKiel
Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt)Magdeburg
BrandenburgPotsdam
Saxony (Sachsen)Dresden
North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen)Düsseldorf

City states

  • Bremen
  • Hamburg
  • Berlin

Each Bundesland has its own capital, and is further divided into administrative districts and municipalities. They all play an important role in the governance of local affairs and during national elections

The different German federal states not only have differences in administrative aspects such as bank holidays, but people often also speak a particular dialect in the region. In addition, each region has its own culture, traditions and customs. For example, Bavaria is famously known for its beer festivals like Oktoberfest in Munich, while the biggest celebrations in northwestern states like North Rhine-Westphalia are all about carnival. 

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The function of a Bundesland

Germany is a federal state. This means that it is a union of different provinces or states that are partially self-governed, but are all considered to be German. The states are all bound by one national constitution, but each state has its own constitution and parliament. They have a legislative role in regional affairs, and can set up regulations as long as those are not conflicting with the national law. It’ss because of this construction that, for example, the death penalty is outlawed in all German states by federal law even though the Bundesland Hessen techically never banned it. In this case, federal law trumps state law. But the opposite can also be true. Federal states in Germany can independently decide on other topics, like education, for example. 

The history of the German Bundesländer

The federal republic of Germany, or Bundesrepublik Deutschland, is only 73 years old. After the Second World War, Germany was divided into four parts – each controlled by either the Americans, British, French or Russians. In 1949, all but the Russians unified the three regions into a federal republic with initially eleven states –  Saarland only followed in 1957. The remaining states were included in the republic after the German reunification in 1990. This moment is still celebrated in Germany on the third of October each year, known as Germany Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). 

Germany with many faces

Because of the diversity of the many federal states in Germany, there is a rich culture to explore in the country. Knowing that each German Bundesland can have its own policies and culture is also important for settling in Germany. For example, you want to be aware of regional public holidays so you don’t end up in front of a closed shop or in the middle of a festival.

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Anne is a German freelance writer and communication consultant. In addition to her job, she is founder and coach of the Dutch non-for-profit organization CLUB Coaching. Due to her work, she resides in both Germany and the Netherlands. Whenever her time is not occupied with communication in all its forms, she spends time with her six pets, gardening or being creative with fashion and design. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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