For most of its history, Germany was a patchwork of semi-independent principalities and city-states, becoming a nation-state only in 1871. Yet movements and events associated with its territory – from the Hanseatic League to the Reformation and the Holocaust – have shaped the history of Europe since the early Middle Ages. The impact of figures including Charlemagne, Martin Luther, Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler resonates today, when Germany is inextricably bound up within – and a leading proponent of – European unity.
Tribes & The Romans
The early inhabitants of present-day Germany were Celts and later nomadic German tribes. Under Emperor Augustus, the Romans began conquering the German lands from around 12 BC, pushing as far as the Rhine and the Danube. Attempts to expand their territory further east were thwarted in AD 9, when Roman general Varus lost three legions – about 20,000 men – in the bloody Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Germanic forces were led by Arminius, the son of a local chief who had been captured and brought to Rome as a hostage. Here he adopted Roman citizenship and received a military education, which proved invaluable in outwitting Varus.
For many years, Mount Grotenburg near Detmold in North Rhine–Westphalia was thought to have been the setting of the epic Teutoburg Forest battle, but no one can really say for sure where it happened. The most likely candidate is Kalkriese, north of Osnabrück, where in the 1990s archaeologists found face helmets, breast shields, bone deposits and other grisly battle remains. Today the site is a museum and park.
After Arminius' victory, the Romans never again attempted to conquer Germanic lands east of the Rhine, accepting the Rhine and the Danube as natural boundaries and consolidating their power by founding such colonies as Trier, Cologne, Mainz and Regensburg. They remained the dominant force in the region until 476.
Roman Frontier Lines
In AD 83 the Romans started building what is today central Europe’s largest archaeological site – a wall running 568km from Koblenz on the Rhine to Regensburg on the Danube. Some 900 watchtowers and 60 forts studded this frontier line, dubbed Der Limes (The Limes). The 800km-long Deutsche Limes-Strasse (German Limes Road) cycling route runs between Regensburg in the south and Bad Hönningen in the north (near Koblenz), largely tracing the tower- and fortress-studded fortification. See www.limesstrasse.de for more about the Limes and routes along the wall. A 280km-long cycling route links Detmold with Xanten (where there’s an archaeological park), taking cyclists past various Roman remains and monuments.
What Was the Holy Roman Empire?
The Holy Roman Empire was a political union of feudal states that greatly influenced the history and evolution of Europe for more than 800 years. Some historians peg its origins to Frankish king Charlemagne, who, in 800, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome. It was the first time such a title had been bestowed in western Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. However, not until the crowning of Otto I in 962 did the territory truly fall under German rule; it would remain so almost exclusively until the abdication of Holy Roman Emperor Franz II in 1806.
The empire sometimes included Italy, as far south as Rome. Sometimes it didn’t – the pope usually had a say in that. It variously encompassed present-day Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Lorraine and Burgundy (in France), Sicily, Austria and an eastern swathe of land that lies in today's Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. As such it was a decentralised, multi-ethnic mosaic with many languages. Unlike France, Spain or England, it was not a hereditary monarchy. Instead, emperors were selected by a small group of electors drawn from the ecclesiastical and political nobility, although the new king was usually – however distantly – related to the outgoing one. Since there was no capital city, rulers constantly moved from one city to the next.
Incidentally, the term 'Holy Roman Empire' was not used until the 13th century. In the 15th century, the words 'of the German nation' were added.
The Frankish Reich
Based on the Rhine’s western bank, the Frankish Reich (Empire) existed from the 5th to the 9th centuries and was the successor state of the Western Roman Empire, which had crumbled in 476. Under the leadership of the Merovingian and later the Carolingian dynasties, it became Europe’s most important political power in those early medieval times. In its heyday, the Reich included present-day France, Germany, the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) and half the Italian peninsula.
Its most powerful ruler was Charlemagne (r 768–814), a Carolingian. From his grandiose residence in Aachen, he conquered Lombardy, won territory in Bavaria, waged a 30-year war against the Saxons in the north and was crowned kaiser by the pope in 800, an act that was regarded as a revival of the Roman empire. Charlemagne’s burial in Aachen Dom (Aachen Cathedral) turned the court chapel into a major pilgrimage site.
After Charlemagne's death, fighting between his son and three grandsons ultimately led to the dissolution of the Frankish Reich in 843. The Treaty of Verdun split the territory into three kingdoms: the Westfrankenreich (West Francia), which evolved into today's France; the Ostfrankenreich (East Francia), the origin of today's Germany; and the Mittlere Frankenreich (Middle Francia), which encompassed the Low Countries and areas in present-day France and northern Italy.
The Middle Ages
Germany's strong regionalism has its roots in the early Middle Ages, when dynasties squabbled and intrigued over territorial spoils. The symbolic heart of power in the early Middle Ages was Charlemagne's burial place, the cathedral in Aachen. It hosted the coronation of 31 German kings from 936 until 1531, starting with Otto I (aka Otto the Great). Otto proved himself on the battlefield, first by defeating Hungarian troops and then by conquering the Kingdom of Italy. In 962, he renewed Charlemagne’s pledge to protect the papacy, and the pope reciprocated by crowning him emperor and marking the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. For the next 800 years the Kaiser and the pope were strange, and often uneasy, bedfellows.
Power struggles between popes and emperors, the latter of which also had to contend with local princes and prince-bishops, were behind many of the upheavals in the early Middle Ages. A milestone was the Investiture Conflict between Heinrich IV (r 1056–1106) and Pope Gregory VI over whether the pope or the monarch was entitled to appoint bishops, abbots and other high church officials. The pope responded by excommunicating Heinrich in 1076. Heinrich then embarked on a walk of penance to the castle of Canossa in Italy, where the pope was in residence. Contrite, he reportedly stood barefoot in the snow for three days begging for the excommunication to be lifted. He was eventually absolved but the investiture question held the Reich in the grip of civil war, until a treaty signed in 1122 granted the emperor limited rights in selecting bishops.
Heinrich IV was a member of the Salians, one of several powerful dynasties that shaped the politics of the early Middle Ages. Others included the rival Hohenstaufen and Welf houses. One of the most powerful Welfs of the time was Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion), who reigned over the duchies of Saxony and Bavaria, while also extending influence eastwards in campaigns to Germanise and convert the Slavs.
Heinrich, who was very well connected (his second, English wife Mathilde was Richard the Lionheart’s sister), founded not only Braunschweig (where his grave is), but Munich, Lübeck and Lüneburg, too. At the height of his reign, his domain stretched from the north and Baltic coasts to the Alps, and from Westphalia to Pomerania (in Poland). Eventually, though, the Hohenstaufen under Friedrich I Barbarossa (r 1152–90) would regain the upper hand and take Saxony and Bavaria away from him.
In 1254, after the death of the last Hohenstaufen emperor, Friedrich II, the Reich plunged into an era called the Great Interregnum, when no potential successor could gain sufficient support, leaving the Reich rudderless until the election of Rudolf I in 1273. Rudolf was the first of 19 emperors of the Habsburg dynasty that mastered the art of politically expedient marriage and dominated Continental affairs until the early 20th century.
In the 14th century, the basic structure of the Holy Roman Empire solidified. A key document was the Golden Bull of 1356 (so named for its golden seal), a decree issued by Emperor Charles IV that was essentially an early form of an imperial constitution. Most importantly, it set out precise rules for elections by specifying the seven Kurfürsten (prince-electors) entitled to choose the next king to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope. The privilege fell to the rulers of Bohemia, Brandenburg, Saxony and the Palatinate, as well as to the archbishops of Trier, Mainz and Cologne. A simple majority was sufficient in electing the next king.
As the importance of the minor nobility declined, the economic power of the towns increased, especially after many joined forces in a strategic trading alliance called the Hanseatic League. The most powerful towns, such as Cologne, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Frankfurt, were granted Free Imperial City status, which made them beholden directly to the emperor (as opposed to 'non-free' towns that were subordinate to a local ruler).
For ordinary Germans, times were difficult. They battled with panic lynchings, pogroms against Jews and labour shortages – all sparked by the plague (1348–50) that wiped out at least 25% of Europe’s population. While death gripped ordinary Germans, universities were being established all over the country around this time, with Heidelberg's the first, in 1386.
The Hanseatic League
The origins of the Hanseatic League go back to various guilds and associations established from about the mid-12th century by out-of-town merchants to protect their interests. After Hamburg and Lübeck signed an agreement in 1241 to protect their ships and trading routes, they were joined in their league by Lüneburg, Kiel and a string of Baltic Sea cities stretching east to Greifswald. By 1356 this had grown into the Hanseatic League, encompassing half a dozen other large alliances of cities, with Lübeck playing the lead role.
At its zenith, the league had about 200 member cities. It earned a say in the choice of Danish kings after fighting two wars against the Danes between 1361 and 1369. The resulting Treaty of Stralsund in 1370 turned it into northern Europe’s most powerful economic and political entity. Some 70 inland and coastal cities – mostly German – formed the core of the Hanseatic League, but another 130 beyond the Reich maintained a loose association, making it truly international. During a period of endless feudal squabbles in Germany, it was a bastion of political and social stability.
By the 15th century, however, competition from Dutch and English shipping companies, internal disputes and a shift in the centre of world trade (from the North and Baltic seas to the Atlantic) had caused decline. The ruin and chaos of the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century delivered the final blow, although Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck retained the ‘Hanse City’ title. The latter's Europäisches Hansemuseum is a great place to learn more about this fascinating chapter in European history.
A Question of Faith
In the 16th century, the Renaissance and humanist ideas generated criticism of rampant church abuses, most famously the practice of selling indulgences to exonerate sins. In the university town of Wittenberg in 1517, German monk and theology professor Martin Luther (1483–1546) made public his Ninety-Five Theses, which criticised not only indulgences but also questioned papal infallibility, clerical celibacy and other elements of Catholic doctrine. This was the spark that lit the Reformation.
Threatened with excommunication, Luther refused to recant, broke from the Catholic Church and was banned by the Reich, only to be hidden in the Wartburg, a castle outside Eisenach in Thuringia, where he translated the New Testament into German.
It was not until 1555 that the Catholic and Lutheran churches were ranked as equals, thanks to Emperor Karl V (r 1520–58), who signed the Peace of Augsburg, allowing princes to decide the religion of their principality. The more secular northern principalities adopted Lutheran teachings, while the clerical lords in the south, southwest and Austria stuck with Catholicism.
But the religious issue refused to die. In 1618 it degenerated into the bloody Thirty Years' War, which Sweden and France joined by 1635. Calm was restored with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), signed in Münster and Osnabrück, but it left the Reich – embracing more than 300 states and about 1000 smaller territories – a nominal, impotent state. Switzerland and the Netherlands gained formal independence, France won chunks of Alsace and Lorraine, and Sweden helped itself to the mouths of the Elbe, Oder and Weser rivers.
The Enlightenment to the Industrial Age
In the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution, a diminutive Frenchman named Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I) took control of Europe and significantly altered its fate through a series of wars. The defeat of Austrian and Russian troops in the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 led to the 1806 collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the abdication of Kaiser Franz II and a variety of administrative and judicial reforms.
Most German kingdoms, duchies and principalities aligned themselves with Napoleon in the Confederation of the Rhine. In his restructure of the map of the Europe, Bavaria fared especially well, nearly doubling its size and being elevated to kingdom in 1806. It was to be a short-lived confederation, though, for many of its members switched allegiance again after Napoleon got trounced by Prussian, Russian, Austrian and Swedish troops in the bloody 1813 Battle of Leipzig.
In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, Germany was reorganised into the Deutscher Bund, a confederation of 39 states with a central legislative assembly, the Reichstag, established in Frankfurt. Austria and Prussia dominated this alliance, until a series of bourgeois democratic revolutions swept through German cities in 1848, resulting in Germany's first ever freely elected parliamentary delegation convening in Frankfurt's Paulskirche. Austria, meanwhile, broke away from Germany, came up with its own constitution and promptly relapsed into monarchism. As revolution fizzled in 1850, the confederation resumed, with Prussia and Austria again as dominant members.
In Bavaria, meanwhile, revolutionary rumblings brought out King Ludwig I's reactionary streak. An arch Catholic, he restored the monasteries, introduced press censorship and authorised the arrest of students, journalists and university professors whom he judged to be subversive. Bavaria was becoming restrictive even as French and American democratic ideals flourished elsewhere in Germany.
On 22 March 1848 Ludwig I abdicated in favour of his son, Maximilian II (r 1848–64), who finally put into place many of the constitutional reforms his father had ignored, such as abolishing censorship and introducing the right to assemble. His son Ludwig II (r 1864–86) introduced further progressive measures (welfare for the poor, liberalised marriage laws and free trade) early in his reign but ultimately became caught up in a world inspired by mythology, focusing on building grand palaces such as Schloss Neuschwanstein instead of running a kingdom. His death by drowning in shallow water in Lake Starnberg continues to spur conspiracy theories to this day.
‘Honest Otto’ Von Bismarck
The creation of a unified Germany with Prussia at the helm was the glorious ambition of Otto von Bismarck (1815–98), who had been appointed as Prussian prime minister by King Wilhelm I in 1862. An old-guard militarist, he used intricate diplomacy and a series of wars with neighbouring Denmark and France to achieve his aims. By 1871 Berlin stood as the proud capital of the Deutsches Reich (German Empire), a bicameral, constitutional monarchy. On 18 January the Prussian king was crowned kaiser at Versailles, with Bismarck as his ‘Iron Chancellor’.
Bismarck’s power was based on the support of merchants and the Junker, a noble class of non-knighted landowners. An ever-skilful diplomat and power broker, Bismarck achieved much through a dubious ‘honest broker’ policy, whereby he brokered deals between European powers and encouraged colonial vanities in order to distract others from his own deeds. He belatedly graced the Reich with a few African jewels after 1880, acquiring colonies in central, southwest and east Africa, as well as in numerous Pacific paradises, such as Papua New Guinea.
The early years of the German empire – a period called Gründerzeit (foundation years) – were marked by major economic growth, fuelled in part by a steady flow of French reparation payments. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the cities in search of work in factories. New political parties gave a voice to the proletariat, especially the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), the forerunner of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany; SPD).
Bismarck tried to make the party illegal but, when pressed, made concessions to the growing and increasingly antagonistic socialist movement, enacting Germany’s first modern social reforms, though contrary to his true nature. When Wilhelm II (r 1888–1918) came to power, he wanted to extend social reform, while Bismarck envisioned stricter anti-socialist laws. By March 1890, the kaiser had had enough and excised his renegade chancellor from the political scene. Bismarck’s legacy as a brilliant diplomat unravelled as a wealthy, unified and industrially powerful Germany embarked upon a new century.
The Great War
The assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, triggered a series of diplomatic decisions that led to WWI, the bloodiest European conflict since the Thirty Years’ War. Initial euphoria and faith in a quick victory soon gave way to despair, as casualties piled up in the battlefield trenches and stomachs grumbled on the home front. When defeat came in 1918, it ushered in a period of turmoil and violence. On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, bringing an inglorious end to the monarchy.
The seeds of acrimony and humiliation that later led to WWII were sown in the peace conditions of WWI. Germany, militarily broken, teetering on the verge of revolution and caught in a no man’s land between monarchy and modern democracy, signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which made it responsible for all losses inflicted upon its enemies. Its borders were trimmed and it was forced to pay high reparations.
Weimar & the Rise of Hitler
In July 1919 the federalist constitution of the fledgling republic was adopted in the town of Weimar, where the constituent assembly had sought refuge from the chaos of Berlin. Germany’s first serious experiment with democracy gave women the vote and established basic human rights, but it also gave the chancellor the right to rule by decree – a concession that would later prove critical in Hitler’s rise to power.
The Weimar Republic (1919–33) was governed by a coalition of left and centre parties, but pleased neither communists nor monarchists. In fact, the 1920s began as anything but 'golden', marked, as they were, by the humiliation of a lost war, hyperinflation, mass unemployment, hunger and disease.
Economic stability gradually returned after a new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced in 1923 and with the Dawes Plan in 1924, which limited the crippling reparation payments imposed on Germany after WWI. But the tide turned again when the US stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the world into economic depression. Within weeks, millions of German were jobless, and riots and demonstrations again filled the streets.
Nazis in Power
The volatile, increasingly polarised political climate led to clashes between communists and members of a party that had been patiently waiting in the wings – the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party, NSDAP, or Nazi Party), led by a failed Austrian artist and WWI corporal named Adolf Hitler. Soon jackboots, brown shirts, oppression and fear would dominate daily life in Germany.
Hitler’s NSDAP gained 18% of the national vote in the 1930 elections. In the 1932 presidential election, Hitler challenged incumbent Reichspräsident (President of the Reich) Paul von Hindenburg, but only managed to win 37% of the second-round vote. However, a year later, on 30 January 1933, faced with failed economic reforms and persuasive right-wing advisors, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor.
Hitler moved quickly to consolidate absolute power and to turn the nation’s democracy into a one-party dictatorship. He used Berlin's Reichstag fire as a pretext to push through the Enabling Act, allowing him to decree laws and change the constitution without consulting parliament. When Hindenburg died a year later, Hitler merged the offices of president and chancellor to become Führer of the Third Reich.
The rise of the Nazis had instant, far-reaching consequences. Within three months of Hitler’s power grab, all non-Nazi parties, organisations and labour unions ceased to exist. Political opponents, intellectuals and artists were rounded up and detained without trial; many went underground or into exile. There was a burgeoning culture of terror and denunciation, and the terrorisation of Jews began to escalate.
Hitler won much support among the middle and lower-middle classes by pumping large sums of money into employment programs, many involving rearmament and heavy industry. In Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, affordable cars started rolling out of the first Volkswagen factory, founded in 1938.
That same year, Hitler’s troops were welcomed into Austria. Foreign powers, in an attempt to avoid another bloody war, accepted this Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. Following this same policy of appeasement, the leaders of Italy, Great Britain and France ceded the largely ethnic-German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Agreement, signed in September 1938. By March 1939, he had also annexed Bohemia and Moravia.
Jews in Germany
The first Jews arrived in present-day Germany with the conquering Romans, settling in important Roman cities on or near the Rhine, such as Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Speyer and Worms. As non-Christians, Jews had a separate political status. Highly valued for their trade connections, they were formally invited to settle in Speyer in 1084 and granted trading privileges and the right to build a wall around their quarter. A charter of rights granted to the Jews of Worms in 1090 by Henry IV allowed local Jews to be judged according to their own laws.
The First Crusade (1095–99) brought pogroms in 1096, usually against the will of local rulers and townspeople. Many Jews resisted, before committing suicide once their situation became hopeless. This, the Kiddush ha-shem (martyr’s death), established a precedent of martyrdom that became a tenet of European Judaism in the Middle Ages.
In the 13th century, Jews were declared crown property by Frederick II, an act that afforded protection but exposed them to royal whim. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who is buried in Europe’s oldest Jewish cemetery in Worms, fell foul of King Rudolph I in 1293 for leading a group of would-be emigrants to Palestine; he died in prison. The Church also prescribed distinctive clothing for Jews at this time, which later meant that in some towns Jews had to wear badges.
Things deteriorated with the arrival of the plague in the mid-14th century, when Jews were persecuted and libellous notions circulated throughout the Christian population. The ‘blood libel’ accused Jews of using the blood of Christians in rituals.
Money lending was the main source of income for Jews in the 15th century. Expulsions remained commonplace, however, with large numbers emigrating to Poland, where the Yiddish language developed. The Reformation (including a hostile Martin Luther) and the Thirty Years' War brought difficult times for Jewish populations, but by the 17th century they were again valued for their economic contacts.
Napoleon granted Germany’s Jews equal rights, but the reforms were repealed by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Anti-Jewish feelings in the early 19th century coincided with German nationalism and a more vigorous Christianity, producing a large number of influential assimilated Jews.
By the late 19th century, Jews had equal status in most respects and Germany had become a world centre of Jewish cultural and historical studies. There was a shift to large cities, such as Leipzig, Cologne, Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland), Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main and the capital, Berlin, where a third of German Jews lived.
Germany became an important centre for Hebrew literature after Russian writers and academics fled the revolution of 1917. The Weimar Republic brought emancipation for the 500,000-strong Jewish community, but by 1943 Adolf Hitler had declared Germany Judenrein (literally ‘clean of Jews’). This ignored the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews incarcerated on ‘German’ soil. Around six million Jews died in Europe as a direct result of Nazism.
The number of Jews affiliated with the Jewish community in Germany is currently around 100,000 – the third largest in Europe – but there are many more who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Among them are many of the 250,000 Russian Jews who arrived in Germany between 1989 and 2005 to escape economic and political turmoil, as well as perceived widespread anti-Semitism.
WWII began on 1 September 1939 with the Nazi attack on Poland. France and Britain declared war on Germany two days later, but even this could not prevent the quick defeat of Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Other countries, including Denmark and Norway, were also soon brought into the Nazi fold.
In June 1941 Germany broke its nonaggression pact with Stalin by attacking the USSR. Though successful at first, Operation Barbarossa quickly ran into problems, culminating in the defeat at Stalingrad (today Volgograd) the following winter, forcing the Germans to retreat.
With the Normandy invasion of June 1944, Allied troops arrived in formidable force on the European mainland, supported by unrelenting air raids that reduced Germany's cities to rubble and the country's population by 10%. The final Battle of Berlin began in mid-April 1945. More than 1.5 million Soviet soldiers barrelled towards the capital from the east, reaching Berlin on 21 April and encircling it on 25 April. Two days later they were in the city centre, fighting running street battles with the remaining troops, many of them boys and elderly men.
On 30 April the fighting reached the government quarter where Hitler was holed up in his bunker with his long-time mistress Eva Braun, whom he’d married just a day earlier. Finally accepting the inevitability of defeat, the couple killed themselves. As their bodies were burning in the chancellery courtyard, Red Army soldiers raised the Soviet flag above the Reichstag.
On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. Peace was signed at the US military headquarters in Reims (France) and at the Soviet military headquarters in Berlin. On 8 May 1945, WWII in Europe officially came to an end.
The Big Chill
At conferences in Yalta and Potsdam in February and July 1945, respectively, the Allies (the USA, the UK, the Soviet Union and France) redrew Germany's borders and carved up the country into four occupied zones.
Friction between the Western Allies and the Soviets quickly emerged. While the Western Allies focused on helping Germany get back on its feet by kick-starting the devastated economy, the Soviets insisted on massive reparations and began brutalising and exploiting their own zone of occupation. Tens of thousands of able-bodied men and POWs ended up in gulags (labour camps) deep in the Soviet Union. Inflation still strained local economies, food shortages affected the population, and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) were forced to unite as the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED; Socialist Unity Party). In the Allied zones, meanwhile, democracy was beginning to take root, as Germany elected state parliaments (1946–47).
The showdown came in June 1948, when the Allies introduced the Deutschmark in their zones. The USSR regarded this as a breach of the Potsdam Agreement, under which the powers had agreed to treat Germany as one economic zone. The Soviets issued their own currency, the Ostmark, and announced a full-scale economic blockade of West Berlin. The Allies responded with the remarkable Berlin airlift. For 11 months, American and British air crews flew in food, coal, machinery and other essential supplies to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. By the time the Soviets backed down, the Allies had made 278,000 flights, logged a distance equivalent to 250 round trips to the moon and delivered 2.5 million tonnes of cargo.
East & West
In 1949 the division of Germany – and Berlin – was formalised. The western zones evolved into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD, Federal Republic of Germany or FRG) with Konrad Adenauer as its first chancellor and Bonn, on the Rhine, as its capital. An economic aid package, dubbed the Marshall Plan, created the basis for West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), which saw the economy grow at an average 8% per year between 1951 and 1961. The recovery was largely engineered by economics minister Ludwig Erhard, who dealt with an acute labour shortage by inviting about 2.3 million foreign workers, mainly from Turkey, Yugoslavia and Italy, to Germany, thereby laying the foundation for today’s multicultural society.
The Soviet zone, meanwhile, grew into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR, German Democratic Republic or GDR) with East Berlin as its capital and Wilhelm Pieck as its first president. A single party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany), led by party boss Walter Ulbricht, dominated economic, judicial and security policy. In order to suppress any opposition, the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, was established in 1950.
Economically, East Germany stagnated, in large part because of the Soviets’ continued policy of asset stripping and reparation payments. Stalin’s death in 1953 raised hopes for reform but only spurred the GDR government to raise production goals even higher. Smouldering discontent erupted in violence on 17 June 1953, when 10% of GDR workers took to the streets. Soviet troops quashed the uprising, with scores of deaths and the arrest of about 1200 people.
Through the 1950s the economic gulf between East and West Germany widened, prompting 3.6 million East Germans – mostly young and well educated – to seek a future in the West, thus putting the GDR on the brink of economic and political collapse. Eventually, this sustained brain and brawn drain prompted the East German government – with Soviet consent – to build a wall to keep its citizens in. Construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War’s most potent symbol, began on the night of 13 August 1961.
This stealthy act left Berliners stunned. Formal protests from the Western Allies, as well as massive demonstrations in West Berlin, were ignored. Tense times followed. In October 1961, US and Soviet tanks faced off at the Berlin border crossing Checkpoint Charlie in a display of brinksmanship.
The appointment of Erich Honecker (1912–94) as leader of East Germany in 1971, combined with the Ostpolitik (East-friendly policy) of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–92), allowed for an easier political relationship between the East and the West. In September that year all four Allies signed a Four Power Accord that regulated access between West Berlin and West Germany, guaranteed West Berliners the right to visit East Berlin and the GDR, and even granted GDR citizens permission to travel to West Germany in cases of family emergency.
The accord also paved the way for the Grundlagenvertrag (Basic Treaty), signed a year later, in which the two countries recognised each other's sovereignty and borders and committed to setting up ‘permanent missions’ in Bonn and East Berlin.
In 1975 West Germany joined the G6 group of industrial nations. But the 1970s were also a time of terrorism, and several prominent business and political figures were assassinated by the anti-capitalist Red Army Faction (RAF). In the same decade, antinuclear and green issues appeared on the agenda, which ultimately lead to the founding of Die Grünen (the Green Party) in 1980.
Hearts and minds in Eastern Europe had long been restless for change, but German reunification caught even the most insightful political observers by surprise. The so-called die Wende (falling of the Berlin Wall and reunification) came about as a gradual development that ended in a big bang – the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.
Prior to the Wall's collapse, East Germans were, once again, leaving their country in droves, this time via Hungary, which had opened its borders with Austria. The SED was helpless to stop the flow of people wanting to leave, some of whom sought refuge in the West German embassy in Prague. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations in Leipzig spread to other cities, including East Berlin.
As the situation escalated, Erich Honecker relinquished leadership to Egon Krenz (b 1937). And then the floodgates opened: on the fateful night of 9 November 1989, party functionary Günter Schabowski informed GDR citizens they could travel directly to the West, effective immediately. The announcement itself was correct but it was not supposed to be made until the following day, leaving border guards overwhelmed. Tens of thousands of East Germans jubilantly rushed through border points in Berlin and elsewhere in the country, bringing to an end the long, chilly phase of German division.
The New Millennium
With the formation of a coalition government of SPD and Alliance 90/The Greens in 1998, Germany reached a new milestone. It marked the first time an environmentalist party had governed nationally – in Germany or elsewhere in the world. Two figures dominated the seven-year rule of the coalition: Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (b 1944) and the Green Party vice-chancellor and foreign minister Joschka Fischer (b 1948). Despite the latter's left-wing house-squatting roots in 1970s Frankfurt am Main, he enjoyed respect abroad and widespread popularity among Germans of all political stripes.
Under Schröder, Germany began to take a more independent approach to foreign policy, refusing military involvement in Iraq but supporting the USA, historically its closest ally, in Afghanistan and the war in Kosovo. Its stance on Iraq, which reflected the feelings of the majority of Germans, strained relations with the George W Bush administration.
The rise of the Greens and, more recently, the democratic socialist Die Linke (The Left), has changed the political landscape of Germany dramatically, making absolute majorities by the ‘big two’ (ie CDU/CSU and SPD) all the more difficult to achieve. The 2005 election brought a grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD with Angela Merkel (b 1954) as chancellor – the first woman, former East German, Russian speaker and quantum chemist in the job. While many Germans hoped this would resolve a political stalemate that had existed between an opposition-led Bundesrat (upper house) and the government, political horse trading shifted away from the political limelight and was mostly carried out behind closed doors.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, the German government pumped hundreds of billions of euros into the financial system to prop up the banks. Other measures allowed companies to put workers on shorter shifts without loss of pay and such incentive schemes as encouraging Germans to trade older cars for new ones.
The election of 2009 confirmed the trend towards smaller parties and a five-party political system in Germany. Both CDU/CSU and SPD lost a considerable number of votes to the FDP, Left and Green parties. Support for the Left had been consistently strong in eastern Germany, but success in 2009 allowed it to establish itself at the federal level. The 2013 election slightly reversed the trend, with the big parties gaining back some of the votes. The biggest loser that year was the FDP, which garnered a mere 4.8% (9.8% less than in 2009), thus falling below the 5% required for representation in the Bundestag.
The 2013 election also saw the meteoric rise of a new conservative party, the Euro-skeptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany). Founded in April 2013, it scooped up 4.7% of the vote, with a platform advocating a return to the Deutschmark and other national currencies, a flat tax of 25% and tighter immigration laws. Voters were drawn from across the political spectrum but shared a general disillusionment with existing parties.
Although narrowly missing the 5% Bundestag threshold, the AfD has since gained representation in the European Parliament and in the state parliaments of Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, Hamburg and Bremen. However, the election of the national conservative Frauke Petry as party leader at the AfD convention in July 2015 prompted thousands of more moderate members, including co-founder Bernd Lucke, to leave the party. A couple of weeks later, Lucke founded a new party, called Alfa.
In her convention speech, Petry garnered some of the biggest applause for her Islamophobic stance, which reflects her popularity among sympathisers of the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant PEGIDA ('Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West'), a populist movement founded in Dresden in October 2014. Although subject to strong criticism for its ties to the far right, PEGIDA quickly managed to attract thousands of followers and made headlines throughout the winter of 2014–15 with weekly demonstrations that peaked with 25,000 participants in January 2015. This sparked numerous, even bigger counter-rallies, as well as public condemnation by senior politicians, including Angela Merkel, and celebrities.
The issue fuelling support for both AfD and PEGIDA is the wave of political and economic refugees trying to enter Europe. In 2017, Germany handled more asylum applications than the rest of the EU combined; as many as 524,185 applications for asylum were processed, an increase of 5.8% compared to the previous year. Xenophobia and frustration with existing immigration laws and policies have led to a number of arson attacks on shelters built for asylum seekers to live in while their applications grind through Germany’s complex bureaucratic process.
Amid all these serious developments came a moment of levity in 2014, when the German national soccer team won the FIFA World Cup for the fourth time. The title had previously been bestowed in 1954, 1974 and 1990.
Angela Merkel – The Enigmatic Chancellor
Some say that she’s enigmatic; others, that she likes to keep a low profile when political dissonance breaks out, especially within her own party. Indisputable, however, is that Angela Merkel’s rise to become German chancellor in 2005 brought about a number of firsts. She was Germany’s first woman and first former East German in the job and, because of the latter, she also became the first Russian-speaking German chancellor.
Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954 but grew up in the boondocks – in the Uckermark region (in Brandenburg, near the Polish border), where her father had a posting as a pastor in East Germany. She studied physics in Leipzig (and later earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry from the Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic), entering politics as the GDR was falling apart. Soon she was honing her political skills in the ministries of a reunified Germany (Women and Youth was one ministry; Environment, Natural Protection and Reactor Safety was another) under Helmut Kohl, which is why she’s sometimes called ‘Kohl’s foster child’. Her breakthrough came in the late 1990s when the reputations of several CDU high-flyers suffered as a result of a party slush fund.
While political commentators outside Germany have often compared her to the former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Merkel’s leadership style rarely has the bite of Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’. What Thatcher and Merkel do have in common, though, is that both have ranked among the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world – Angela Merkel has topped every list (bar the one in 2010 when she dropped to No 4) since 2006.
Top Insights into German History
- Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin
- Haus der Geschichte, Bonn
- Zeitgeschichtliches Forum, Leipzig
- Jüdisches Museum, Berlin
- Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne