The term relegation became known in Germany in 1981 after the introduction of the single-division Bundesliga 2 in conjunction with promotion to the Bundesliga. Following the introduction of the Bundesliga in 1963, two teams were selected from the first and second teams of the then five second-level regional leagues (South, Southwest, West, North and Berlin) for promotion to the Bundesliga. This system remained in place until 1974.

The Bundesliga 2 was introduced in 1974. 40 clubs, split between two divisions (North and South) played against each other for the first time for promotion. It was determined that the respective winners of each division would be promoted to the Bundesliga, while the two runners up would play a home and away round to select a third team for promotion. The three teams at the bottom of the table were relegated from the Bundesliga to Bundesliga 2 North or Bundesliga 2 South.

The single-division Bundesliga 2 was introduced in 1981 with 20 clubs, and the two-leg relegation/promotion play-off games that we know today were played for the first time between the 16th-placed Bundesliga club and the third-placed Bundesliga 2 club. In 1986, 1988 and 1991, when the two-leg play-off failed to produce a winner, a third relegation/promotion/remain play-off game had to be played. In 1988, after SV Darmstadt 98 and SV Waldhof Mannheim failed to score a single goal in the play-off even after extra time, the game went to a penalty shoot-out for the first time, which SV Waldhof won 5:4.

Following German reunification in 1991, the East German Football Association (DFV) was dissolved and the Northeast German Football Association (NOFV) was integrated into the DFB. As a result of this merger, F.C. Hansa Rostock and SG Dynamo Dresden were promoted from the GDR premier league to the Bundesliga. 20 teams therefore competed in the Bundesliga in the 1991/92 season, of which four teams had to be relegated and only two promoted, so as to return the championship to 18 teams. The Bundesliga 2 was even played with 24 clubs in the 1991/92 season – to accommodate six clubs from the former GDR premier league.

From the 1992/93 season up to and including the 2007/08 season, three clubs were relegated or promoted directly from and to the Bundesliga or Bundesliga 2.

On 9 October 2007, the DFL decided to reinstate the relegation/promotion games again for the 2008/09 season. This rule has applied ever since for Bundesliga 2 and Liga 3 as well.