Der Rechtsstaat – eine Idee, zwei Wege

Common Law und Civil Law. Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur kontinentaleuropäischen und anglo-amerikanischen Rechtsgeschichte


Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Helmut Coing (†)
Prof. Dr. Dres. h.c. Knut Wolfgang Nörr

English summary

Rule of law is regarded as one of the most important accomplishments of modern Western states. However, modern law evolved in two separate ways and this led to two different legal systems. In states of the Anglo-American realm common law is the dominant form whereas continental Europe and its former colonies rely on the system of civil law. While common law describes a system in which decisions of individual cases have precedential effect on future cases, civil law is based on principles that are codified into a system. For more than 35 years now, the Gerda Henkel Foundation supports working groups of legal historians who investigate the legal systems from a comparative perspective. The project was initiated in 1981 by Professor Helmut Coing und Professor Knut Wolfgang Nörr, and since then more than 100 scholars have participated in the working groups. The results are published in a special book series, by now comprising more than 30 volumes.

Der Rechtsstaat gilt – noch vor der parlamentarischen Demokratie – als die überragende Errungenschaft moderner westlicher Staaten. Die Entwicklung des modernen Rechts führte jedoch auf zwei unterschiedlichen Wegen zur Entstehung zweier unterschiedlicher Rechtssysteme. In den Staaten des anglo-amerikanischen Kulturraums, also hauptsächlich in den USA, im Vereinigten Königreich und dem Commonwealth, dominiert das sogenannte Common Law. In Kontinentaleuropa und dessen postkolonialen Gebieten hingegen sind Rechtsauffassungen vorherrschend, die als Civil Law definiert werden.

Die englische Bill of Rights von 1689

Beide Rechtssysteme unterscheiden sich insbesondere durch ihre Herkunft aus dem römischen und kanonischen Recht einerseits und dem mittelalterlichen Lehnsrecht andererseits. Während das Civil Law auf kodifizierten Gesetzestexten gründet, wie etwa dem Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch in Deutschland, sind die Grundlage des Common Law von der Judikative erlassene Urteile der Vergangenheit, die durch ergänzende Urteile aktualisiert und weitergebildet werden.

Seit mehr als 35 Jahren unterstützt die Gerda Henkel Stiftung verschiedene Arbeitsgruppen, die auf Tagungen in vergleichender rechtshistorischer Perspektive den Umgang mit einzelnen Themenbereichen in den beiden Rechtskreisen diskutieren und für eine gemeinsame Publikation vorbereiten. Das Forschungsprogramm geht zurück auf eine Initiative von Prof. Dr. Helmut Coing und Prof. Dr. Knut Wolfgang Nörr sowie ein internationales Kolloquium im Jahre 1981, bei dem erste Themenbereiche für Einzeluntersuchungen ausgewählt wurden. Die Stiftung hat das Gesamtvorhaben, an dem über 100 Wissenschaftler beteiligt sind, seit Anbeginn ermöglicht und die neubegründete Veröffentlichungsreihe gefördert. Bislang sind in der Reihe 32 Bände erschienen.

Wir haben einem der Herausgeber, Prof. Dr. Richard H. Helmholz von der University of Chicago, einige Fragen zu dem Projekt gestellt. 

Interview mit Prof. Dr. Richard H. Helmholz

Prof. Dr. Richard H. Helmholz

Gerda Henkel Stiftung (GHS): Prof. Helmholz, since 1982 the Gerda Henkel Foundation has supported a series of working groups and conferences comparing Common Law and Civil Law. You have participated in some of these groups. Can you summarize the central idea that combines all of these different meetings?

Prof. Helmholz: I would say it has been that progress in comparative legal history required detailed examination of different subjects and possible points of contact between the two systems. Rather than paint with a broad brush, individual groups should be formed to look at detailed questions and points of possible legal contact. This has largely been successful. Different groups have examined many diverse subjects – commercial law, the law of proof, and jurisdictional law, for example. The results have varied; some have found clear points of contact between the systems; some have not. On the whole, however, it has been a most worthwhile venture. Surprising and worthwhile results have emerged from the findings of these groups.

GHS: What is the main difference between Common Law and Civil Law? Why did specific societies develop a tradition of codified law, and others a legislation based on precedent cases? 

Prof. Helmholz: The series has shown, I believe, that the principal difference has been in the procedural systems applied. In England and other Common Law countries: the jury; on the Continent: the learned law of proof evaluating the testimony of witnesses and documents. That has made a large difference in outcomes, one not limited to procedure. However, it has not meant that points of contact and influence in the substantive law did not occur. The series has shown that movement back and forth did in fact occur – more often than many of us expected. The study of commercial law and kindred subjects (e.g. banking and commerce) have proved particularly fruitful in this regard.

GHS: Can you say something about the very beginning of the cooperation between the main editors and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. How did the cooperation develop in the first years?

Prof. Helmholz: This has been something of a disappointment. Professor K. W. Nörr has performed splendidly as general editor – in suggesting topics, choosing group members, and supervising the contributions, he has been truly outstanding. However, at least to my knowledge, the system has not led to interaction between the individual editors and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. As an editor of more than one of the volumes, I have always regretted this. It might have been possible, for example, to bring together several of the editors for a general discussion of where the series might go. That is all the more desirable now that Professor Nörr can no longer be as active as he once was. It may be, of course, that the series has now accomplished the purposes Professor Coing envisioned, at least as far as is feasible. I myself hope that the series can be continued, though it would now certainly require new leaders. I have been in consultation with Professor Reinhard Zimmermann about this and would be glad to consider it further.

Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch für das Deutsche Reich (1909)

GHS: Common in all workgroups are the workshop meetings and the final publication. Can you tell us something more about the usual work process?

Prof. Helmholz: At least in the groups with which I have been associated, there has usually been a preliminary meeting of several scholars whose own work has been in the field chosen for a particular working group. At that meeting, the organizer has asked for their suggestions for new members and, more importantly, led a general discussion about the direction the group should take. After that initial meeting, a few other invitations have gone out and each member of the group has also prepared a paper on the subject chosen.  These papers have then been read and discussed at a second meeting. Then, on the basis of this discussion, each member has made changes in his or her contribution and the final product has been sent to Duncker & Humblot to be printed in the series.

I might just add that one of the incidental but very real benefits of this system has been to bring together scholars from many different countries. Out of these meetings have come contacts and even friendships. These meetings have thus been the source of further progress in international cooperation in the field of legal history. Speaking for myself, I would say that this has been one of the real contributions the Gerda Henkel Stiftung has made to academic life.

GHS: Until now more than 30 volumes have been published. How would you describe the development of the series? How is the series perceived within the scientific community? Which impact does it have?

Prof. Helmholz: In my view, this has depended on the character of the individual volumes. Some of them have brought strong results and wide respect among scholars. For example, the volume on restitution and unjust enrichment has been very successful. The working group led by Charles Donahue produced two volumes on church court records that is now the standard resource for scholars in that field. The two volumes on the Ratio decidendi as a part of legal sentences led by Serge Dauchy and Hamilton Bryson opened up for the first time this new subject in comparative law. Some, however, have been less successful, though I do not think anything the Foundation has sponsored has proved embarrassing. It is also true that a few groups have not resulted in any publication at all. This is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable.

Prof. Dr. Richard Helmholz hat die Fragen der Gerda Henkel Stiftung schriftlich beantwortet.


Projekttitel Common Law und Civil Law. Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur kontinentaleuropäischen und anglo-amerikanischen Rechtsgeschichte

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Helmut Coing (†)
Prof. Dr. Dres. h.c. Knut Wolfgang Nörr

Institution Universität Tübingen
Fachbereich Rechtsgeschichte


Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Helmut Coing (†)
Prof. Dr. Richard H. Helmholz
Prof. Dr. Dres. h.c. Knut Wolfgang Nörr

Titelbild: Ralph Hammann, Strasbourg rNuéeBleue 11d


CC BY-SA 3.0



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