The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

German court shuts down hopes for a breakaway Bavaria

Bavarian riflemen and women in traditional costumes fire their muzzle loaders in front of the "Bavaria" statue on the last day at the 183rd Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

Would Germany be Germany without Bavaria? The wealthy southern state comprises roughly one-fifth of Germany’s landmass. It is the country’s second-most populous state. Oktoberfest, lederhosen, sauerkraut? All Bavarian in origin.

Yet some Bavarians want nothing to do with Germany. The state is home to a pro-independence Bavaria Party, and one Bavarian man even filed a court case last year in an attempt to force a referendum on whether the state could vote to leave Germany.

But if 2016 was year of Brexit, 2017 is unlikely to be the year of “Bayxit” (in German, Bavaria is known as Bayern). On Monday, a German court released a decision saying that the country’s constitution does not allow Bavaria to break away. There will be no referendum, the court said, because states are not allowed to leave Germany.

“In the Federal Republic of Germany … states are not ‘masters of the constitution,’” the court wrote in the decision, according to a translation from the Local. “Therefore there is no room under the constitution for individual states to attempt to secede. This violates the constitutional order.”

The news was met with a message of defiance from the pro-independence Bavaria Party, which posted on Facebook that the “struggle for Bavarian independence” would be decided not by a court bu “by the will of the Bavarian people.” The chairman of the party, Florian Weber, said that he expected the decision: When you want to drain the swamp, Weber reasoned, “you do not ask the frogs!”

Bavaria’s independence movement isn’t especially well-known, but it has a long history in the fiercely prideful region. Bavaria was for centuries one of the richest and most influential of the many smaller territories that made up the Holy Roman Empire. It was briefly an independent kingdom in the 19th century before it was incorporated into the newly unified Germany as a state in 1871. Even after unification, many Bavarians felt their home was closer to Catholic Austria than the Protestant Prussians who ruled the nascent empire.

Efforts to leave Germany continued for years without much success. After World War I, there was a short-lived attempt to form a Soviet Republic of Bavaria. Later, in 1923, Bavarian nationalists attempted to declare Bavaria independent and restore the Bavarian monarchy (that particular attempt failed in part because a right-wing agitator named Adolf Hitler tried to co-opt the uprising in what is now known as the Beer Hall Putsch).

After World War II, there was again a push for an independent Bavaria. The state was instead accepted as part of a federal Germany, but the independence movement didn’t fully die down. The Bavaria Party earned considerable shares of the vote in the late 1940s and 1950s before fading from view.

Meanwhile, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) became the only regional party with a major national voice, forming a union with the Christian Democratic Union — the party of current Chancellor Angela Merkel — in the German Bundestag (the CSU does not favor Bavarian independence).

Over the past few years, the independence movement has made a comeback of sorts. The movement has been aided not only by the growing clout of independence movements in Britain, Spain and elsewhere, but also the woes of the European Union that helped prompt Britain’s “Brexit.” Many Bavarians feel they have to economically support not only weaker E.U. states but also poorer parts of Germany. The European refugee crisis, during which hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed into Germany through Bavaria, also fueled anger in the state, with Bavarian politicians quick to criticize Merkel for not doing more to stop refugees.

“Bavaria Can Also Go It Alone,” a book by a CSU-linked journalist, was published in 2012. The book argued that Bavaria’s powerful economic and political status mean it should be independent “Maps are not set in stone for eternity,” author Wilfried Scharnagl once told Der Spiegel. “Who would have imagined, 25 years ago, that there would soon be a free Latvia, a free Estonia and a free Lithuania?”

But even if more people are talking about independence, it's unclear how many Bavarians are willing to vote for it. One survey from 2009 found that only 23 percent of Bavarians thought they might support independence. And while the Bavaria Party scored its best result in decades in 2013’s local elections, that still amounted to just 2.1 percent of the vote.

More on WorldViews

A French town has named an ugly, dead-end road the ‘Rue du Brexit’