The German Civil Code is 120 years old - and still an international force to be reckoned with

A hand takes a copy of the BGB off the shelf.

German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB), © dpa

25.01.2020 - Article

The German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB) entered into force on 1 January 1900. Many of the basic principles of German civil law enshrined in the Code are still valid today. Over the years, the BGB has left its mark around the world, influencing numerous other legal Systems.

Legal scholars studying civil law in other countries often encounter similarities with German norms, regarding the way a contract is formed, for example, or who inherits property following a death. How did these German principles, some of which are ancient, come to be included in foreign codifications?

Influence in Europe...

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to think that German-speaking countries might influence each other. The Swiss Civil Code (ZGB) was adopted in 1907, and could thus draw on lessons learned from the German BGB. It is generally considered to be less complex and easier to understand. However, the Swiss Code of Obligations, which is formally part of the ZGB, was first adopted in 1881 and thus predates the BGB.

Greece likewise drew considerable inspiration from the BGB when codifying its civil law. The BGB was taken as a model when drafting the Greek Civil Code (Αστικός Κώδικας), which entered into force in 1946. Much the same is true as regards the Portuguese Código Civil of 1966, which is structured in the same way as the BGB. Like the BGB, the Portuguese Civil Code still contains a General Part and a Code of Obligations.

However, the BGB is naturally not the only model for civil codifications in Europe. The Italian Codice Civile of 1942 was, for example, based not only on the BGB, but above all on the French Code Napoléon. And the Dutch Nieuw Burgerlijk Wetboek of 1992 reformed the Dutch civil code on the basis of painstaking comparative legal research. Dutch private law represents a unique amalgamation of Roman and German law. Many provisions relating to the law of obligations resemble those in the BGB.

And beyond...

The BGB has also inspired and served as a template for legislators in the Far East. Following centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan opened up to the world in the second half of the 19th century. As part of its modernisation drive, the country adopted a new civil code (Minpō; 民法) in 1896, which was based in large part on a preliminary draft of the BGB. It also adopted a criminal code, adapted from the German Strafgesetzbuch. A few years later Japan annexed Korea, taking its laws with it. Even today, the BGB underpins civil law in both Japan and Korea.

Following Japan’s positive experience, China also planned to adopt many elements of German civil law in the course of its modernisation efforts. First steps in this direction were taken in the final years of the Qing dynasty, but did not come to fruition. It was under the Kuomintang that the first three books of the German BGB (the general part, the law of obligations and property law) were introduced into China between 1927 and 1930, in a slightly amended form. Family law and the law of succession remained based on local traditions. When the Communists won the civil war in 1949, they revoked the civil law as it stood on the mainland. However, the Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan, taking their law with them, where it remains in force to this day.

As a result of the economic reforms in the late twentieth century, civil law has regained importance on the Chinese mainland, and so the provisions of the BGB that had been incorporated into Chinese law in the 1920s once again play an important role in the People’s Republic of China.


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