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Map of the states with a unitary constitution

The term centralism denotes a structural principle that characterizes a social spatial arrangement that is centrally organized. In this general understanding, centralism is viewed in opposition to or as a complementary principle to regionalism . In politics , centralism means striving to concentrate all competences in the state at a central, supreme authority. If this striving becomes a social reality, the term is also used to denote the characteristic structures of a political system , especially in the case of regimes . Centralism finds a form of expression in a centrally organized, unitary state (central state), which is characterized by the exclusive concentration of political sovereignty on the national level. In religion , the term is used to describe the centralized structures of the organization of church systems; in the economy to identify planned economies and centralized group structures .


A model for centralism emerged in the West in the formation of the church system in the Roman Catholic Church . Damasus I (366–384) is considered to be an early pope who pushed for Roman centralism . However, Roman centralism developed in the early Middle Ages , when the church came to grips with the theocratic self-understanding of Germanic kingship. On the basis of the solidarity of the churches with the political order and the feared legitimacy problem in view of the "attempts to embrace kings and emperors in the individual countries", state centralism was reproduced in the church system.

In the age of absolutism of the set against the medieval model people member State of the territorial state by. In older research, in which the gaze “often got stuck on the centers of power and their agents,” centralism was pointed out across the board as a characteristic feature of absolutism. Newer, more differentiated research approaches, on the other hand, emphasize - in addition to the centralistic exercise of power by the monarchies - also the political power of the estates and the regionalism of the elites . In the “estates” research approach, the countless conflicts between estates and princes are highlighted, “which by no means always came out clearly in favor of the princes”, as well as the class involvement in individual territories of the empire and smaller states (Sweden, Denmark). “Regionalist” research has shown that even the countless state officials had a dense network of relationships with the regional elites. In this way, absolutism in the provinces - at least in the large states (Spain, France, Austria-Bohemia-Hungary, Brandenburg-Prussia) - could not take hold "downwards".

The centralist political model of the monarchical-absolutist state in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes received a theoretical foundation that was significant in the history of ideas . For Hobbes, who his writing Leviathan of on the background of his impression English Civil War wrote, which could Corporatism as a form of political organization of the country and as an institutionalized counter-power against the monarchical rule of any weight are more attached. Political power should instead be entrusted to a man or a congregation by agreement , because of the poor human qualities that Hobbes focused on, so that the real unity of all would be represented in this center. This approach was later developed by the legal philosopher John Austin , who committed himself to the idea of ​​indissoluble and unlimited sovereign power. The thesis expressed by these approaches that state power will be consolidated through centralization - and that people receive protection and security at the price of freedom - plays an important role in theoretical and public discourse up to the present day.

In Europe , France is regarded as the ultimate example of centralism, with the beginnings going back to Louis XIII. , Richelieu and Louis XIV . The latter deprived the regional feudal lords of their political rights, so that they were degraded to courtiers of the king. After the French Revolution and the constitution of the modern nation state , Napoléon Bonaparte took up the centralist way of thinking. On the basis of the Jacobean centralist tradition , the idea of ​​a strong state in which political and social changes can be implemented “from above” gained lasting importance in France . The political centralism of France found a reflection in the transport infrastructure . Across the country, the streets are star-shaped towards the capital Paris . In the second half of the 20th century, on the other hand, decentralization ideas were politically implemented, which found their expression in the establishment of different types of regional authorities .

Compared to France, the empire in Germany was never able to achieve a similarly central position of power. The federal principle was decisive in Germany . Since the Frankfurt National Assembly of 1848, the term unitarianism , originally coined in theology , has also been used with a view to the centralized unitary state, which was coined as a counter-term to federalist ways of thinking. Since then, the term centralism has had a special place in the federalism debate. Although the nation-state unitarianism developed by the national movement in the 19th century could not displace the ideas and theories of federalism, centralistic modes of thinking are still critically assessed in this discussion and highlighted as a special characteristic of totalitarianism .

In the public discourse in the Federal Republic of Germany , the term centralism as a catchphrase lost its importance overall in the second half of the 20th century. In the German Democratic Republic , the term was not used as a catchphrase, but remained present in the language through the term Democratic Centralism . At the turn of the 21st century, the temporary explosiveness of the term centralism was generally left out of the German-language dictionaries.


In systems theory , centralistic approaches are called into question when they are used across the board to describe modern societies. On the basis of the theoretical concept of functional differentiation , the sociologist Niklas Luhmann stated that " theories of hierarchy or delegation or decentralization that still start from a top or a center cannot adequately capture today's issues ". Luhmann admitted that a political system can organize the state organizations and the economic system more or less centrally, but pointed out that neither channeling of communication flows nor general centralizing of decisions can be determined. According to Luhmann, a theoretical approach that is reduced to the pattern of centralization and decentralization does not provide an explanation for the interdependencies of the systems. The distinguishing criterion in the scientific analysis is rather the extent to which systems “ combine and try to increase both according to their communication medium centralization and decentralization ”.


  • Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot: Centralization and Decentralization in France, in Adolf Kimmel, Henrik Uterwedde, Ed .: Country Report France. History, politics, economy, society. VS Verlag , 2nd edition Wiesbaden 2005 ISBN 3-531-14631-9 pp. 323–342

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Centralism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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