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“The legal capacity of the human being begins with the completion of birth.”

§1, German Civil Code.

The chickens laid by Samuel von Cocceji and Frederick the Great in the Eighteenth Century, spurred on by the 1814 Thibaut-Savigny Controversy would come home to roost.

Begun in 1874, and often abbreviated as BGB, the German Civil Code finally came into force on January 1, 1900. Like the French Civil Code that had preceded it by almost 100 years, the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch covered contracts, quasi-contracts, civil liability, property, family law and wills and estates but excluding parts of the law which the Germans preferred to codify separately in a Commercial Code (Handelsgesetz buch or HGB).

Germany had delayed the preparation of a civil code as the nation had been primarily been persuaded by Savigny in the 1814 public spat between two academics as to whether Germany should promptly follow the example of France in promulgating a national code of law, a civil code. For decades, Germans struggled with the mess of a massive statute dumped on them by Frederick the Great in 1794. Many parts of Germany had come under French rule in the heyday of napoleon, and when the French eventually retreated, many Germans liked what they saw in the Code Napoleon and wanted to keep it. Some local governments in the Rhine Province even voted to make the French code their own.

The Germans went about their task patiently. The first commission was comprised of six judges, three politicians and two law professors. After 13 years of research, the commission released a first draft German civil code in 1887. It was met with a storm of protests and was submitted to a new board for review.

Throughout, according to Ryan:

“The dominating personality on the two commissions was that of Hanoverian judge, Planck.”

flag of GermanyOn July 14, 1896, the new German Civil Code was approved by the German parliament (Reichstag) and was ordered to come into force on January 1, 1900.

The German civil code of 1900 was laid out with German precision although in fairness to the French Civil Code, the latter had been thrown together in a matter of months. The Germans had a century to consider the plans for a civil code.

One of the salient features of the German product was the first book of their code in which they set out a whole set of general principles tat applied across the board unless special exemptions were later made in the code under specific topics.

According to Forrester, the civil law legacy of the Romans and Napoleon was carried on by the German BGB torch, which then served as a model for the civil codes of Japan, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey.

On the day the BGB came into force, one German publication ran this headline:

“One people. One empire. One law.”


  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law Museum
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law’s Hall of Fame
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, 1814: The Thibaut-Savigny Controversy: German Codification v Common Law
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Timetable of World Legal History
  • Forrester, I., and others, The German Civil Code (South Hackensack, New Jersey: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1975)
  • Merryman, J., The Civil Law Tradition: An Introduction to the Legal Systems of Western Europe and Latin America (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969), page 40
  • Merryman, J. and others, The Civil Law Tradition, Cases and Materials (Charlottesville, VA.: Michie Company, 1994), pages 476-479 and 1163-1173
  • Ryan, K. W., An Introduction to The Civil Law (Sydney: The Law Book Co. of Australia, 1962), pages 29-34