This guide provides information about researching German law: books, other print materials, subscription databases, and free internet resources. The primary focus of this guide is on English-language materials, but German-language materials are also discussed.
This guide includes links to searches of the Harvard Library online catalog, HOLLIS. These search links are formatted like this:
To run that search in HOLLIS, click the link. You can then use the "Refine my Results" links on the right side of the HOLLIS search results screen to narrow down the list.
(Photo Credit: "Two Churches: Cologne, Germany." Michael Rastetter, Creative Commons License, https://flic.kr/p/q5jYgX)
German legal research is easier if you read German; however, there are still plenty of English-language resources available. Good practices of legal research apply regardless of jurisdiction:
1. First, learn about the German legal system, including full and abbreviated names of legal bodies and institutions, and the process by which laws are enacted and published.
2. Next, review relevant secondary sources. They provide citations to primary law and help you understand the topic.
3. Finally, review applicable primary sources, including constitutional provisions, statutes, case law, and regulations.
Click the PDF icon below to view a list of select print and online dictionaries and other resources that will help you decipher the German in legal texts.
Beck-Online is a subscription database with legislation, judicial opinions, and secondary materials (statutory commentaries, journals, and practice-oriented materials). Its user interface, search functions, and materials are in German, but an English-language user guide is available (click Hilfe in the upper-right corner of the screen, and then click Brief User Guide in the menu on the left).
Beck-Online Quick Reference Guide (in English)
Click the PDF icon below to view a Beck-Online quick reference guide in English.
Like the United States, Germany's federal government is comprised of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
Germany's federal government is headed by the Federal President (Bundespräsident [male] or Bundespräsidentin [female]), who is elected by the Federal Convention, which consists of members of the Germany's federal and state parliaments. The President's main constitutional duty is to act as head of state.
The Federal Cabinet (Bundesregierung) conducts the federal government's business. It is led by the Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler [male] or Bundeskanzlerin [female]) and his or her selected Federal Ministers. The organization comprising the Cabinet, Chancellor, and other executive functionaries is referred to as the Federal Chancellery (Bundeskanzleramt).
More information about the German federal executive branch is available through the federal government's English-language websites.
The German legislature is a parliament with two chambers, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.
In the Bundestag, each member is elected either directly or through party-specific voting in the German states. The Bundestag election process is described in detail here. The Bundestag elects the federal chancellor, who must be a member of Bundestag's majority party. It also enacts federal legislation and oversees the federal government.
Members of the Bundesrat are representatives from each of the sixteen German states (Länder). Its main role is to ensure that states' interests are protected in any federal governing activities and processes.
The Dokumentations- und Informationssystem für Parlamentarische Vorgänge (DIP) website provides documents and materials related to the proceedings in both houses of parliament, including deliberation proceedings (Beratungsabläufe) and activities (Aktivitäten) and documentary records of parliamentary sessions. The active document database covers the German parliament's three most recent election periods (Wahlperiode). There is a separate database with coverage back to 1949. This website and all of its materials is only in German.
The German Parliament's website includes a series of brief illustrated descriptions of what the Parliament is and what it does in simplified German called "leichte Sprache" (easy speech). These can be a great introduction to German-language terms that describe politics and government for German learners. Visit http://www.bundestag.de/leichte_sprache/was_macht_der_bundestag/.
Germany's judicial branch is comprised of four levels of courts. An English-language court hierarchy diagram is available at http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/cooperation/cepej/profiles/CourtSystemGermany.pdf. A more extensive German-language diagram is available at http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/judicialatlascivil/html/pdf/org_justice_ger_de.pdf.
The local court (Amtsgericht) is the court of first-instance for lower-stakes civil and criminal matters.
The regional court (Landgericht) is the court of first-instance for certain higher-stakes civil and criminal cases. It also serves as the first appellate level for cases that began in the Local Court.
Higher Regional Courts
Each state has its own higher regional court (Oberlandesgericht) that hears appeals from the lower courts in its state.
Federal Supreme Courts
The highest level of the German court system is comprised of five courts:
Each subject-specific court is at the top of its own subject-specific hierarchy. For example, administrative proceedings begin in an administrative court (Verwaltungsgericht), and then progress to an appellate-level administrative court (Oberverwaltungsgericht or Verwaltungsgerichthof). The Federal Administrative Court is the court of last resort for administrative appeals.
Federal Constitutional Court
The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) determines the constitutionality of government actions.
The Bundesanzeiger is a publication of the Federal Justice Ministry (Bundesministerium der Justiz). It includes information about activities and operations of the federal government, such as the following:
Coverage of the Bundesanzeiger (date: 2002-present) is available for free online through its official publisher, the Bundesanzeiger Verlag: http://www.bundesanzeiger.de. This site is in German only. The law school library has older issues of the Bundesanzeiger in microfiche.
Federal laws (Gesetz; Gesetze (pl.)) in Germany are enacted by the Parliament. They are published in chronological order in the Bundesgesetzblatt (Federal Gazette) and codified in the appropriate subject-specific statutory code.
Statutes and Codes (Gesetze und Gesetzbücher)
In German statutory research, you will encounter two terms:
1. A Gesetz is a single law or act.
2. A Gesetzbuch is a book of laws, basically, a codification of a larger area of law, such as "civil law" or "criminal law." Gesetzbücher in German statutory law include the following:
Most other statutes merely have "Gesetz" in the title. Many have a "short name;" all have an abbreviation. Examples:
The notable exception to the above are procedural codes:
Free Online Access to Statutes: Gesetze-im-Internet
The freely-available website gesetze-im-internet.de, includes all currently in force statutes, codes, and ordinances. It is maintained jointly by Germany's Federal Justice Ministry and the publishers of the Juris legal database. The user interface of this site is in German, however, English translations of selected statutes are available.
To browse an alphabetical listing of statutes, click the Gesetze/Verordnungen link. To view a list of the most recently-enacted statutes, codes, and ordinances, click the Aktualitätendienst link.
To search by title, click Titelsuche; to search by keyword, click Volltextsuche. On these search screens, "Und-Verknüpfung" acts like the Boolean AND connector; "Oder-Verknüpfung" acts as the OR connector.
For each act or code, the German-language statutory text is updated fairly regularly. There are English-language translations for selected statutes. If there is one, it will be indicated by a British flag icon.
Other Free Online Sources for Statutory Research
The website for the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education) also includes selected statutes - http://www.bpb.de/nachschlagen/gesetze/.
Legislation in Beck-Online
To view a statute, code, or ordinance in Beck-Online, type its name in the search box at the top of the screen, and then select it in the drop down menu. On the statute page, navigate through the statutory text using the table of contents in the left column. For each section, links to citing references (commentaries, case law, journal articles, and forms) are provided in the far right column (under "Siehe auch..." ("see also")).
Federal Gazette (Bundesgesetzblatt)
The German government publishes enacted laws in its federal gazette, the Bundesgesetzblatt. Free online access is available through the following sources:
For information about finding German statutes in English, click the link to the guide below. Consult translated statutes with caution -- the German-language version of the statute always the only official version, and the English translation could be of a version that is several years old that does not include recent amendments.
Unlike in common law jurisdictions, the German judiciary does not operate under the principle of stare decisis in a strict, universal sense. Technically, lower courts are not bound to follow the decisions of higher courts, although in practice lower court judges tend to do so.
The only German court that issues truly binding decisions in the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht), which rules on the constitutionality of government actions, including enacting legislation.
As in many areas of German legal language, the names of the individual courts are often known by abbreviations, as follows:
Some judicial opinions from German courts are freely available online, either through court websites or other sources.
Highest Federal Court Websites
The Beck-Online subscription database also offers access to judicial decisions. On the Beck-Online homepage, click Rechtsprechung in the navigation box on the left. This will display the following search options:
Beck-Online has an extensive system of citing references, so when you view a case you can see a list of sources that have cited it. This list is shown on the right side of the screen when you are viewing a decision, under the heading Siehe auch... (see also...).
Beck-Online also has a source called Leitsatzkartei, which is an index of judicial opinions and legal secondary sources. Search for a topic by name in that source to view a list of related materials.
The law library's collection also has some German case law in print, including two well-known periodicals:
The law library also has selected historical coverage of print case law reporters:
The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) provides English-language translations of a limited number of its decisions through its website.
There are a few additional online sources for English-language translations of German court decisions, including the German Law Archive and the UT-Austin Foreign Law Translations (German Legal Materials) website.
The law library also has a few print sources in its collection that provide English translations of German judicial opinions, including Youngs' Sourcebook on German Law and the multi-volume Decisions of the Bundesverfassungsgericht reporter.
Journal articles can be an excellent option for researching German law, especially current developments. There are many English-language journals that feature articles about German law. One of the easiest ways to find relevant journals articles is to use an online index. Click the PDF icon below to view a list of recommended indexes for researching German legal topics.
Note that, in addition to the sources listed below, the law library has several volumes of the German Law Accessible series, published by Beck, which includes books discussing aspects of German law in English.
In general, the title of a commentary includes the abbreviation of the statute. For example, Germany's civil code, which is called Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, is abbreviated "BGB." So commentaries on the civil code will have "BGB" in their title.
Accessing Statutory Commentaries in the Harvard Law Library Collection
The best source for finding materials in the Harvard libraries is the HOLLIS library catalog, which has catalog records for all of our print commentaries and for some (but not all) commentaries available through Beck-Online (so when looking for current commentaries, be sure to check both Beck-Online and HOLLIS).
Commentaries in Beck-Online
Commentaries are listed on the Beck-Online homepage in under the heading Kommentare/Handbücher/Lexika. They are sorted alphabetically by the name of the statute or code. When you click a commentary link on the Beck-Online homepage, its table of contents (Inhaltsübersicht) will be displayed. There is also a fixed TOC on the left side of the screen.
A section in a commentary displays the statutory text in bold at the top of the screen, with commentary text below that in normal-weight font.
Administrative law (Verwaltungsrecht) in Germany falls under the broader category of "public law" (öffentliches Recht).
Administrative Regulations (Rechsverordnungen)
Normative instruments that are promulgated by an executive body rather than enacted by the legislature are called Rechtsverordnungen (regulations). They may also be referred to in German as "Gesetze im materiellen Sinn."
In general, they are included in statutory collections in many databases.
Administrative Guidelines (Verwaltungsvorschriften)
Administrative guidelines (Verwaltungsvorschriften) are different from statutes (Gesetze) and regulations (Verordnungen) in that they direct agencies how to act, and are not binding on the general public.
Verwaltungsvorschriten im Internet is a free database of federal administrative guidelines maintained by the German government in partnership with Juris. It is similar to the government's legislation site, gesetze-im-internet.de, but does not have any English-language content or translations.
General Information: German Asylum and Refugee Law
One of the best basic explanations about German asylum and refugee law in English is the Law Library of Congress's Report on German Refugee Law and Policy, written by the LLOC's German law expert, Jenny Gesley.
I created a short German Asylum and Refugee Law handout when I presented on the topic at the 2016 meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries. This handout provides an overview to the major German laws related to asylum and refugees, and includes links to many relevant additional sources.
The German government agencies that are responsible for refugees have created some helpful English-language websites:
Additional selected resources of note on this topic include the following:
German Asylum/Refugee Legislation
Unless otherwise indicated, links to the English versions of these acts from Gesetze-im-Internet are provided.
German Asylum/Refugee Case Law
The Germany page of the European Database of Asylum Law reports asylum-related cases from German courts.
Hollis Searches: Harvard Library Materials on German Asylum/Refugee Law
German business and commercial law (Handelsrecht) is a distinct area of private law (Privatrecht) in the German legal system.
The following sources can be consulted for a quick overview in English of German business and commercial law:
German Business and Commercial Law Statutes
A selection of German commercial law statutes is listed below. Links are to either the English (when available) or German version of the statute or code in the free online Gesetze im Internet database.
The Federal Ministry of Finance (Bundesfinanzministerium) also has a collection of translated commercial laws on its website.
Hollis Searches for German Business and Corporate Law Materials
Germany's constitutional instrument is called the Grundgesetz (abbreviated GG). This is generally translated into "Basic Law" in English.
The Grundgesetz entered into force on May 23, 1949. Under its main principle of the inviolability of human dignity (Unantastbarkeit der Menschenwürde), it guarantees the protection of fundamental rights related to freedom (Freiheit) and equality (Gleichheit). The Grundgesetz also defines the structure of Germany's government and legal system.
The text of the Grundgesetz is available online, in English and in German, through Gesetze im Internet. There is also an English-language translation of the Grundgesetz on the Federal Government website.
Note that the German word for "constitution" is "Verfassung." Accordingly, "constitutional law" is known in German as "Verfassungsrecht."
In the broader subject-specific breakdown of German law, constitutional law falls under "public law" ("öffentliches Recht") -- as opposed to "private law" ("Privatrecht" or "Zivilrecht") -- because is concerned with the legal relationship between individuals and the state.
Because the Basic Law defines the organizational structure of the federal government in Germany, constitutional law also falls under the category known as "state law" ("Staatsrecht") in the German legal literature.
English-Language Constitutional Law Resources from the German Government
There are several German government websites that provide information in English about the Grundgesetz:
German Constitutional Law Research: Subscription Databases
Treatises on German Constitutional Law
Click the PDF icon below to view a list of selected German Constitutional Law literature in the HLS collection.
HOLLIS Subject Searches for Civil Law
The German Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung) defines procedural rules for civil trials (Verfahren) in Germany, including jurisdiction (Zuständigkeit), venue (Gerichtsstand), standing (Parteifähigkeit), litigation costs (Prozesskosten), evidence (Beweis), enforcement of judgments (Vollstreckung der Urteilen), and more. It also provides rules for arbitration proceedings (schiedsrichterliche Verfahren).
An English translation of the Code of Civil Procedure, as amended through 2013, is available at https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_zpo/index.html.
The International Encyclopedia of Laws (IEL), published by Kluwer, includes a chapter on German civil procedure. The library subscribes to the electronic version of IEL, which can be accessed through its HOLLIS record.
HOLLIS Subject Searches for Civil Procedure
The German federal data protection law is the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz.
The text of this statute is available through the Gesetze-im-Internet website in both English (https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_bdsg/index.html) and German (https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bdsg_1990/index.html).
Data protection is also regulated by the European Union, under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). For more information about the GDPR, visit the EU's official website for it: https://www.eugdpr.org/.
HOLLIS Subject Searches for Data Protection Law
Selected Sources for German and EU Data Protection Law Research
Click the PDF icon below to view a short guide to selected sources on German and EU data protection law in the law school library.
A "notary" in civil law countries like Germany is not the same as a "notary public" in the United States.
Details about German Notaries
In Germany, a notary (Notar/Notarin) is a highly-qualified individual who has been trained as an attorney. A German notary provides advice to clients on legal transactions, as well as drafting, authenticating, and registering legal instruments like wills, deeds, corporate registration applications, trusts, etc. A notary can also serve as a mediator for legal disputes.
There are actually two types of notaries in Germany. In the majority of German states, a notary holds the title "Nurnotar" ("notary alone"). In these states, the notary works only as a civil servant and not as an attorney. A Nurnotar must undergo a very strict screening and examination process to ensure that he or she is qualified and well-suited for notarial service.
In some German states, mainly those in the northwest of the country and Berlin, it is possible to be an "Anwaltsnotar" ("attorney-notary"). An Anwaltsnotar is required to carefully avoid any conflict of interest, and can only perform notarial functions for legal matters in which he or she does not represent of the parties as an attorney.
More Information about German Notaries in English
In 2015, HLS LLM student Claudius Eschwey wrote his LLM thesis on this topic, entitled "The German Law Civil Notary in Law of Succession: An Option for the U.S.?" This thesis is available in print in the law library, see http://id.lib.harvard.edu/aleph/014417601/catalog.
HOLLIS Search for Notary Law
The Harvard Library has an extensive collection of historic materials for German legal research.
Below are links to PDFs of short guides to assist you with historic German law research in the collections of the Harvard Library. In addition to a general historical research guide, there are also guide for specific time periods, including the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia in the eighteenth century, and the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic (GDR) / Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR)).
Resources are in English unless otherwise stated.
For help, visit the HLSL Ask a Librarian website: http://asklib.law.harvard.edu.
This site includes links to all of our research guides, contact information for the research librarians (phone, text, email, chat), and a schedule of our training classes.
To request a research consult with the library's German-speaking librarian, please email Jennifer.