Germans have long prided themselves on their commitment to the Rechtsstaat, the state based on the rule of law. However, they have not agreed on what would constitute a Rechtsstaat. Recht can mean “law,” or “right,” or “justice,” leaving open what a Rechtsstaat ought to establish. Moreover, a Rechtsstaat could be merely formal, an independently adjudicated process of applying statutes equally binding for all, or substantive, a process providing “justice.” Formal processes should minimize capricious decisions but could, in particular cases, produce outcomes that citizens perceived as unjust, and people are generally most committed to outcomes they believe to be just or appropriate. Not surprisingly, a complex debate developed among jurists, across a century and multiple regimes, over what the Rechtsstaat and Recht might mean.
Anti-AKW-Demonstration auf dem Bonner Hofgarten am 14. Oktober 1979
Nonjurists could also clash over the meanings of Recht and Rechtsstaat, as West Germans did in vigorous, often militant, clashes over nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s. For proponents of nuclear power, Germany's economic future and the viability of the legal-political order were at stake in efforts to implement energy-policy decisions that had been reached democratically and according to legal and constitutional norms. For opponents, the life and health of current and future generations and the maintenance of a free society were at stake in preventing the construction of dangerous nuclear facilities, even if the political and legal processes had formally approved them. Germans on both sides of the issue appealed to Recht and the Rechtsstaat, but they did not agree about what that meant in practice. And whereas those citizens often replayed scholarly disputes, disputes over the Rechtsstaat and Recht were not for them purely academic exercises, but rather vital elements in a struggle in which, they believed, the stakes were life or death, freedom or oppression. And because Recht and Rechtsstaat were and are so complex, West Germans (individually and in association) had to choose among varying conceptions, often out of conviction but sometimes out of expediency.