The Federal Republic of Germany consists of 16 Länder (states) as the top level of political subdivision. Below the Länder level there is the communal level, which is organised by the Länder themselves, so that the communal organization differs somewhat in the different Länder. The communal entities are Selbstverwaltungskörperschaften, self governing bodies. The communal level itself consists of one to three sublevels, depending on the Land:
The first (lowest) level is the municipality (Gemeinde), bigger municipalities are called Markt (market-town) or Stadt (city).
The municipal level can be found in all German Länder
though in two of them, namely Berlin and Hamburg, the territorial boundaries of the Land and of the city converge).
The second (intermediate) level is the Landkreis, sometimes also called Kreis (county). Each Landkreis contains several municipalities. There are also kreisfreie Städte, cities that do not belong to a Landkreis, and having the competences of both communal levels.
The county level is established in 13 of the 16 Länder, the exceptions being Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen.
A third, highest, communal level can be found in seven of the Länder: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony. These communal entities are called as a whole the Höhere Kommunalverbände, higher communal associations. The history, the tasks and the organization of these differ widely. Their main tasks contain social and cultural competences, that cannot be handled by the lower communal levels. As other communal entities, higher communal associations have an elected assembly, and use their own symbols, mostly logos, but also coats-of-arms and flags. Some of these flags are traditional regional flags that had been used before.
The higher communal associations should not be confused with the purely administrative subdivisions of the Länder into Regierungsbezirke, administrative districts. These are basically only regional offices of the respective Ministry of the
Interior, and do not have their own parliamentary assemblies as communal bodies do.
The designation Markt is used only in Bavaria. In Lower Saxony the designation Flecken is used.
In some states there is an additional level of administration between the municipalities and the counties; these bodies have varying names and competences. Some have their own parliament (e.g. the Samtgemeinden in Lower Saxony), others execute the decisions of the municipalities they are composed of (e.g. the Ämter in Schleswig-Holstein). As with the Kreisfreie Städte there are amtsfreie Gemeinden (or their equivalents) which do not belong to such an intermediate body.
Stefan Schwoon, 16 October 2001
These Samtgemeinden / Ämter / Verwaltungsgemeinschaften are usually included in the level of the municipality, though. In some of the Länder they can have their own symbols, in others (e.g. Bavaria) they usually do not have symbols of their own.
Only one part of Rheinland-Pfalz constitutes a higher communal association, namely the Bezirksverband Pfalz.
As in Hesse, the whole territory of Saxony also forms a Landeswohlfahrtsverband Sachsen. It only uses the arms of Saxony, and has neither arms, logo or flag of its own. Source: Landeswohlfahrtsverband Sachsen website.