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Regierungsbezirke serve as regional mid-level local government units in four of Germany's sixteen federal states: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, and North Rhine-Westphalia. Each of the nineteen Regierungsbezirke features a non-legislative governing body called a Regierungspräsidium or Bezirksregierung (district government) headed by a Regierungspräsident (district president), concerned mostly with administrative decisions on a local level for districts within its jurisdiction.
Regierungsbezirk is a German term variously translated into English as "governmental district", "administrative district" or "province", with the first two being the closest literal translations.
The first Regierungsbezirke were established in the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1808. During the course of the Prussian reforms between 1808 and 1816, Prussia subdivided its provinces into 25 Regierungsbezirke, eventually featuring 37 such districts within 12 provinces. By 1871, at the time of German unification, the concept of Regierungsbezirke had been adopted by most States of the German Empire. Similar entities were initially established in other states under different names, including Kreishauptmannschaft in Saxony, Kreis in Bavaria and Württemberg (not to be confused with the present-day Kreis or Landkreis districts), and province in Hesse. The names of these equivalent administrative divisions were standardized to Regierungsbezirk in Nazi Germany, but after World War II these naming reforms were reverted.
The Regierungsbezirke in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in modern Germany are in direct continuation of those created in the Prussian Rhine and Westphalia provinces in 1816. Regierungsbezirke never existed in Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Saarland.
In 1946, Lower Saxony was founded by the merger of the three former Free States of Brunswick, Oldenburg, Schaumburg-Lippe, and the former Prussian province of Hanover. Brunswick and Oldenburg became Verwaltungsbezirke (roughly administrative regions of extended competence) alongside six less autonomous Prussian-style Regierungsbezirke comprising the Province of Hanover and Schaumburg-Lippe. These differences in autonomy and size were levelled on 1 January 1978, when four Regierungsbezirke replaced the two Verwaltungsbezirke and the six Regierungsbezirke: Brunswick and Oldenburg, Aurich, Hanover (remaining mostly the same), Hildesheim, Lüneburg, Osnabrück and Stade.
Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the territory of the former East Germany was organized into six re-established new federal states, including a reunified Berlin. Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt established three Regierungsbezirke each, while the other new states didn't implement them.
During the 2000s, four German states discontinued the use of Regierungsbezirke. On 1 January 2000, Rhineland-Palatinate disbanded its three Regierungsbezirke of Koblenz, Rheinhessen-Pfalz and Trier. The employees and assets of the three Bezirksregierungen were converted into three public authorities responsible for the whole state, each covering a part of the former responsibilities of the Bezirksregierung.
On 1 January 2004, Saxony-Anhalt disbanded its three Regierungsbezirke of Dessau, Halle and Magdeburg. The responsibilities are now covered by a Landesverwaltungsamt with three offices at the former seats of the Bezirksregierungen. On 1 January 2005, Lower Saxony followed suit, disbanding its remaining four Regierungsbezirke of Brunswick, Hanover, Lüneburg, and Weser-Ems.
On 1 August 2008, Saxony restructured its districts (Landkreise), changed the name of its Regierungsbezirke to Direktionsbezirke, and moved some responsibilities to the districts. The Direktionsbezirke were still named Chemnitz, Dresden, and Leipzig, but a border change was necessary because the new district of Mittelsachsen crossed the borders of the old Regierungsbezirke. On 1 March 2012, the Direktionsbezirke were merged into one Landesdirektion.
Currently, only four German states out of 16 in total are divided into Regierungsbezirke; all others are directly divided into districts without mid-level agencies. Those four states are divided into a total of 19 Regierungsbezirke, ranging in population from 5,255,000 (Düsseldorf) to 1,065,000 (Gießen):
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