The bombs of WWII may have blasted away a considerable share of Germany's architectural heritage, but a painstaking post-war rebuilding program and a wealth of sites that survived with nary a shrapnel wound make Germany an architectural wonderland. Building styles from Roman amphitheatres to 21st-century skyscrapers dot townscapes across the country. Of special interest are the many Unesco-listed gems, including Bauhaus buildings in Dessau-Rosslau, the rococo Wieskirche pilgrimage church in southern Bavaria and the Zollverein coal mine in Essen.
Roman & Carolingian
While traces of the Roman Empire are perhaps not as visible as in southern European countries, Germany has a handful of Roman sites of note. Trier, which sits on the banks of the Moselle in southwest Germany close to the border with Luxembourg, is particularly noteworthy. The city has a staggering ensemble of well-preserved Roman monuments, many of which are Unesco World Heritage-listed. Among them are the sturdy Porta Nigra gate, an amphitheatre, thermal baths, an imperial throne room, and the country's oldest bishop's church, which is Roman in part.
In Weiden on the fringes of Cologne, it's possible to take a fascinating peek inside a Roman burial chamber (the Römergrab Köln-Weiden), discovered by accident during excavations in 1843. Built from tuff (a light, porous rock), the rectangular chamber grave has niches lined with coloured marble.
Several centuries after the power of the Roman Empire fizzled out, the architectural styles they had evolved were still in vogue. Among the grand buildings of the north European, pre-Romanesque Carolingian period, Aachen’s Charlemagne-built cathedral stands out, with its extraordinary octagonal Palatine Chapel, supported by antique Italian pillars. In Paderborn in the Northern Rhineland, remnants of one of Charlemagne's palaces, built in the late 8th century, have been unearthed north of the Dom.
Fulda in central Germany is home to the Michaelskirche, an early 9th-century masterpiece that was once the cemetery chapel for the Benedictine monastery. With its witch's hat towers, Carolingian rotunda and crypt, it's one of the finest surviving early-medieval churches in the country. Close to Heidelberg is an earlier example of the Carolingian style: Lorsch Abbey. A Unesco World Heritage site founded around AD 760, its beautifully preserved medieval buildings include the Königshalle and the Altenmünster.
As Carolingian, Roman and Byzantine influences slowly flowed together to create more proportional interiors, with round arches and integrated columns, Romanesque was born. A standout Romanesque building is the elegant Stiftskirche St Cyriakus in Gernrode, Quedlinburg. Construction on the cruciform basilica, with its early use of alternating columns and pillars (later a common hallmark of Romanesque), began in 959.
Other stellar examples of the Romanesque period in Germany are Cologne's 12 Romanesque churches, which shine a light on the importance of the city during the Middle Ages. The town of Speyer in the Southern Rhineland is crowned by the Kaiserdom, an immense Romanesque cathedral with square red towers and a green copper dome. Built from around 1030, the cathedral was once the largest in Christendom. The cathedrals in Worms and Mainz are also Romanesque stunners.
Germany excels in Gothic architecture, which flourished during the Middle Ages. You'll find some magnificent examples of the style up and down the country.
Early Gothic architecture kept many Romanesque elements, as the cathedral in Magdeburg illustrates; the twin-steepled Dom is Germany's oldest Gothic cathedral. To the southwest, the Unesco-listed Kloster Maulbronn, built in 1147 and considered among Europe's best-preserved medieval monastery complexes, combines Romanesque and Gothic elements. Another early example is the Liebfrauenkirche in Trier, Germany's oldest Gothic church. Dating to around 1200, it has distinctive cross-shaped vaulting and a floor plan resembling a 12-petalled rose.
Later churches sported purely Gothic traits, such as ribbed vaults, pointed arches, tracery windows and flying buttresses, which allowed for greater height and larger windows – many of them shining like jewels with brightly coloured stained glass. There are many fine examples scattered across the country, including the cathedrals in Cologne (Kölner Dom), Marburg (Elisabethkirche), Freiburg (Münster) and Lübeck (Marienkirche). The highest of the high, however is Ulm's spirit-lifting Münster, with a 161.5m-high steeple – the world’s tallest. The colossal cathedral took 500 years to build from the first stone laid in 1377.
Brick Gothic, or Backsteingotik, is prevalent in the north of the country, particularly around the Baltic. Red brickwork, ornate facades and step gables are emblematic of the style. Some classic examples can be seen in towns and cities such as Stralsund, Lübeck, Rostock and Wismar.
After the 15th century, elaborately patterned vaults and hall churches emerged. Munich’s Frauenkirche, with its onion-domed twin towers, is typical of this late-Gothic style.
Renaissance to Neoclassical
The Renaissance rumbled into Germany around the mid-16th century, bestowing Heidelberg and other southern cities with buildings bearing ornate leaf-work decoration and columns. In central Germany, the secular Weser Renaissance style resulted in such gems as Celle's ducal palace.
As the representational needs of feudal rulers grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, they invested heavily in grand residences. This was the age of baroque, a style that merged architecture, sculpture, ornamentation and painting. In northern Germany it retained a more formal and precise bent (as exemplified by the work of Johann Conrad Schlaun in Münster), never quite reaching the exuberance favoured in the south in such buildings as the Wieskirche or Munich's Schloss Nymphenburg. One of the finest baroque churches, Dresden’s Frauenkirche, built in 1743, was destroyed in the 1945 firebombing of the city, but reconstructed and reopened in 2005.
Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, based on a Greek design, is an exquisite example of neoclassicism. Turning away from baroque flourishes, this style drew upon columns, pediments, domes and other design elements that had been popular throughout antiquity. A leading architect of the era was Berlin-based Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose colonnaded Altes Museum (Old Museum), Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) and the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) still grace the capital. In Bavaria, Leo von Klenze chiselled his way through virtually every ancient civilisation, with eclectic creations such as the Glyptothek and Propyläen on Munich’s Königsplatz.
The architecture in vogue after the creation of the German Empire in 1871 reflects the representational needs of the united Germany and tends towards the pompous. No new style as such emerged, as architects essentially recycled earlier ones (eg Romanesque, Renaissance, baroque, and sometimes all three woven together) in an approach dubbed Historismus (Historicism). As a result, many buildings look much older than they actually are. Berlin's Reichstag, Schloss Neuschwanstein in Füssen and the palace in Schwerin in northern Germany are all prominent examples.
Modern & Contemporary
Jugendstil, or art nouveau, was all the rage in German architecture at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. The early phase (from around 1890) was naturalistic in style, with floral motifs and flowing lines. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, the style became increasingly abstract, taking inspiration from the more modernist designs in Belgium and Vienna. In Germany, Munich and Darmstadt were the key cities where the movement flourished. In Darmstadt, in particular, Jugendstil shines. Its former Künstlerkolonie (artists colony) at Mathildenhöhe, established in 1899 at the command of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, is notable for its Darmstädter Jugendstil architecture.
The Belgian father of art nouveau, Henry Van de Velde, carved out a name for himself in Germany and spent most of his career working there. The 1903 Villa Esche in Chemnitz, Van de Velde's first commission in Germany, is an art nouveau masterpiece.
No architectural movement has had greater influence on modern design than the Bauhaus, an architecture, art and design institute founded in 1919 in Weimar by Walter Gropius. Based on practical, anti-elitist principles bringing form and function together, it united architecture, painting, furniture design and sculpture. The school had its most fruitful period after moving to Dessau in 1925. Its school building, which is considered a landmark of modern functionalist architecture, is open to visitors, as are the Meisterhäuser (private homes) of such Bauhaus teachers as Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. In Berlin, the Bauhaus Archive, designed by Gropius in 1964, is a must-see.
The Bauhaus moved to Berlin in 1932, only to be shut down by the Nazis a year later. Hitler, who was a big fan of architectural monumentalism, put Albert Speer in charge of turning Berlin into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania), the future capital of the Reich. Today only a few buildings, including the Olympic Stadium and Tempelhof Airport, offer a hint of what Berlin might have looked like had history taken a different turn.
After WWII, East Germany found inspiration in Stalin-era pomposity, impressively reflected in East Berlin's showcase boulevard Karl-Marx-Allee. The city's main square, Alexanderplatz, also got a socialist makeover in the 1960s, culminating in the construction of its 368m-high TV Tower (still Germany's tallest building) in 1969. Another (in)famous structure – the Berlin Wall – survives only in fragments.
By contrast, in West Germany urban planners sought to eradicate any hint of monumentalism, instead embracing the 'less is more' glass-and-steel aesthetic of the Bauhaus tradition. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) is a masterpiece, as is Hubert Petschnigg's slender Thyssenhaus (1960) in Düsseldorf. In 1972 Munich was graced with its splendid tent-roofed Olympiastadion.
After reunification, Berlin became the epicentre of contemporary building projects. On Potsdamer Platz, Italian architect Renzo Piano designed Daimler City (1998), while German-born (but Chicago-based) Helmut Jahn turned a playful hand to the glass-and-steel Sony Center (2000). Another notable Jahn creation in Berlin is the edgy Neues Kranzler Eck (2000).
Three spectacular successes in Germany by US star architect Daniel Libeskind are Osnabrück’s Felix-Nussbaum-Haus (1998), Dresden's updated Militärhistorisches Museum (Military History Museum; 2011) and, most famously, the zinc-clad zigzag Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum; 2001) in Berlin. Also in Berlin, the haunting Holocaust Memorial (2005) is the work of New York-based Peter Eisenman, while the Hamburg-based architectural firm of Gerkan, Marg und Partner took glass-and-steel station architecture to new limits with the city's Hauptbahnhof (2006).
Frank Gehry has left his mark on German cities over the past two decades, first through the 1989 Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein and later with his characteristically warped 1999 Neue Zollhof (New Customs House) in Düsseldorf's Medienhafen (Media Harbour), the Gehry-Tower (2001) in Hanover and the 1999 DZ Bank on Berlin’s Pariser Platz.
The contrast of old and new in the extension of Cologne’s Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (2001) by the late Oswald Mathias Ungers is a worthy addition to a city with one of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals. In 2003 Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank won the German Architecture Prize for their design of the Bundeskanzleramt (New Chancellery; 2001), which forms part of Berlin's new post-reunification Government Quarter. Its historic anchor the Reichstag, home of Germany's parliament, got a modern landmark addition with its sparkling glass cupola (1999), part of Norman Foster's building makeover.
Munich architect Stephan Braunfels masterminded his city's modernist Pinakothek der Moderne (2002), while the Berlin firm of Sauerbruch Hutton designed the nearby Museum Brandhorst, whose facade consists of 36,000 colourful ceramic square tubes. In 2006, Munich's famous football team, FC Bayern Munich, moved into its sparkling Allianz Arena, a remarkable rubber-dinghy-like translucent object that pleases football and architecture fans alike. Not to be outdone, Stuttgart added the futuristic Porsche Museum to its cityscape in 2009.
In Hamburg, an old docklands area has been revamped into the HafenCity, a new city quarter with futuristic architecture such as Herzog & de Meuron’s startling Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a crystalline creation topped off with a tent-like roof, which opened in 2017. In terms of sustainable construction, an award-winning standout is Hamburg's Unilever building, which makes clever use of innovative LED lighting, a cooling double-layered outer shell and rooftop heat exchangers. Architecture and urban planning aficionados should also flock to the nearby island of Hamburg-Wilhelmburg, a showcase of innovative, eco-sensitive buildings, including the striking home of the State Ministry for Urban Development and the Environment.
Not all new construction has to be cutting edge, as shown by the rebuilding of the Berlin City Palace, scheduled for completion in 2019. Although planned to be a modern repository of museums and cultural institutions on the inside, its facade will be an exact replica of the baroque-style palace that was blown up by the East German government in 1951. Nearby Potsdam has also created a replica of its Prussian city palace, which opened in 2014 as the new home of the Brandenburg state parliament.
Top Unesco World Heritage Sites in Germany
Trier’s Roman monuments The finest collection of Roman heritage in Germany.
Aachen Cathedral Begun in the 8th century, this blockbuster building is the final resting place of Charlemagne.
Kaiserdom Speyer's magnificent 11th-century cathedral holds the tombs of eight medieval German emperors.
Regensburg An Altstadt (old town) crammed with Romanesque and Gothic edifices.
Kölner Dom Cologne's 13th-century cathedral was completed over six centuries.
Potsdam’s parks and palaces Includes 500 hectares of parks and 150 buildings raised between 1730 and 1916.
Würzburg Residenz This baroque 18th-century palace is perhaps Balthasar Neumann's finest creation.
Landscapes & Wildlife
For centuries the epic beauty of Germany’s landscapes has inspired artists and writers toward the lyrical and profound. The sprightly Rhine coursing through emerald vines, the wave-lashed Baltic coast, the glacier-licked summits of the Bavarian Alps – all have been immortalised by Romantic painters and literary legends including Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. And, of course, the Brothers Grimm, who found in Germany’s dark forests the perfect air of mystery for gingerbready tales of wicked witches and lost-in-the-woods children.
Germans are the original Greens. They cannot claim to have invented environmentalism, but they were there at the outset and coined the word to describe the movement. Recycling, cycling, carrying groceries in reusable bags, shopping at Biomärkte (organic supermarkets) – it's all second nature here.
Nuclear power and its demise is still a hot topic. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Angela Merkel made the bold move to abandon nuclear power and shut down all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022 (nine have already closed).
In Frankfurt and the Southern Rhineland, environmental concerns delayed the construction of the Hochmoselbrücke (High Moselle Bridge) linking Ürzig and Zeltingen-Rachtig, but it was completed in late 2018.
Travelling across Germany, you'll be struck by the number of wind turbines dotting the landscape, especially in the windswept north. In the EU, Germany 'blows away' most of the competition, with some 23,000 wind turbines in action. In 2017 alone the country blazed ahead with a staggering 55,550 MW of installed wind capacity. While other countries debate pros and cons, Germany has long embraced the technology to become Europe's leading producer of wind energy. These turbines generate roughly 12% of German electricity and there are big plans to build more offshore.
The country is setting a shining example when it comes to solar power, too. There are more than 1.5 million solar PV systems across Germany, which makes it the world leader in photovoltaics, with solar energy accounting for an estimated 7.2% of its electricity generation in 2014. If eco-cities such as Freiburg, home to the 59-house PlusEnergy Solar Settlement, are anything to go by, Germany’s future looks bright indeed.
In 2017, the country notched up its proportion of power produced by renewables to 35%, and on sunny, windy days, this figure rose to as much as 85%.
Südlink, the new part of the national grid linked to green energy distribution, plans to put cables for Germany's longest power link underground, with a ballpark date of 2025 for completion.
Germany's vast and varied landscapes are protected to varying degrees by 105 nature parks, 15 biosphere reserves and 16 national parks. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the Wadden Sea and the beech forest of the Jasmund National Park are safeguarded as Unesco World Heritage Areas.
|Park & Website||Features||Activities||Best Time to Visit||Page|
|Bavarian Forest (www.nationalpark-bayerischer-wald.de)||mountain forest & upland moors (243 sq km); deer, hazel grouse, foxes, otters, eagle owls, Eurasian pygmy owls; botany||walking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing||winter, spring|
|Berchtesgaden (www.nationalpark-berchtesgaden.de)||lakes, subalpine spruce, salt mines and ice caves (210 sq km); golden eagles, marmots, blue hares||wildlife spotting, walking, skiing||winter, spring|
|Black Forest National Park (www.schwarzwald-nationalpark.de)||meadows, mountains, spruce, pine and beech forests, valleys, moors and lakes (100 sq km)||walking, birdwatching, cycling, nature trails||spring through autumn|
|Eifel (www.nationalpark-eifel.de)||beech forest (110 sq km); wild cats, beavers, kingfishers; wild yellow narcissus||wildlife and flora spotting, hiking, hydrotherapy, spa treatments||spring, summer|
|Hainich (www.nationalpark-hainich.de)||mixed deciduous forest (76 sq km), beech trees; black storks, wild cats, rare bats||walking||spring|
|Hamburg Wadden Sea (www.nationalpark-wattenmeer.de)||mudflats, meadows and sand dunes (345 sq km); sea swallows, terns||birdwatching, mudflat walking||spring, autumn|
|Harz (www.nationalpark-harz.de)||rock formations, caves (247 sq km); black woodpeckers, wild cats, deer||climbing, walking||spring, summer, autumn; avoid weekends (busy)|
|Hunsrück-Hochwald (www.nationalpark-hunsrueck-hochwald.de)||Upland forests and fields (100 sq km); red deer, wild boar, black storks, wild cats||ranger tours, hiking, cycling||spring through autumn|
|Jasmund (www.nationalpark-jasmund.de)||chalk cliffs, forest, creeks and moors (30 sq km); white-tailed eagles||walking, cycling||avoid summer (paths like ant trails)|
|Kellerwald Edersee (www.nationalpark-kellerwald-edersee.de)||beech and other deciduous trees, lake (57 sq km); black storks, wild cats, rare bats, stags||walking, wildlife spotting||spring, summer, autumn|
|Lower Oder Valley (www.nationalpark-unteres-odertal.eu)||river plain (165 sq km); black storks, sea eagles, beavers, aquatic warblers, cranes||walking, cycling, birdwatching||winter (birdwatching), spring (other activities)|
|Lower Saxony Wadden Sea (www.nationalpark-wattenmeer.de)||salt-marsh and bog landscape (2780 sq km); seals, shell ducks||swimming, walking, birdwatching||late spring, early autumn|
|Müritz (www.nationalpark-mueritz.de)||beech, bogs and lakes (318 sq km); sea eagles, fish hawks, cranes, white-tailed eagles, Gotland sheep||cycling, canoeing, birdwatching, hiking||spring, summer, autumn|
|Saxon Switzerland (www.nationalpark-saechsische-schweiz.de)||sandstone and basalt rock formations (93 sq km); eagle owls, otters, fat dormice||walking, climbing, rock climbing||avoid summer (throngs with day trippers)|
|Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea (www.nationalpark-wattenmeer.de)||seascape of dunes, salt marshes & mudflats (4410 sq km); sea life, migratory birds||mudflat walking, birdwatching, swimming||spring, autumn|
|Vorpommersche Boddenlandschaft (www.nationalpark-vorpommersche-boddenlandschaft.de)||Baltic seascape (805 sq km); cranes, red deer, wild boar||birdwatching, water sports, walking||autumn (cranes), summer (water sports)|
For all that it has been publicised, much of Germany’s loveliness remains unsung beyond its borders. Take Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania’s beech forests, poppy-flecked meadows and lakes; or the East Frisian Islands’ briny breezes and shifting sands; Saxon Switzerland’s wonderland of sandstone pinnacles; or the Bavarian forest’s primordial woodlands tinged with Bohemian melancholy. Who has heard of them? Bar the odd intrepid traveller, only the Germans.
The good news is that the national passion for outdoor pursuits and obsessive efficiency has made such landscapes brilliantly accessible. Every inch of the country has been mapped, cycling and hiking trails thread to its remotest corners, and farmhouses and mountain huts offer travellers shelter and sustenance. Life here is close to nature, and nature here is on a truly grand scale.
Across its 357,021 sq km, Europe’s seventh-largest country embraces moors and heaths, mudflats and chalk cliffs, glacial lakes, river wetlands and dense forests. Hugged by Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark, the land is mountainous in the south but flat in the north. Many visitors are surprised to learn Germany even possesses low-lying islands and sandy beaches.
Sidling up to Austria in the southeast are the Bavarian Alps, where Germany’s highest peak – the 2962m Zugspitze – crowns the spine of the Northern Limestone Alps, and jewel-coloured lakes scatter the Berchtesgaden National Park. Rolling almost to the Swiss border in the southwest, the Black Forest presents a sylvan tableau of round-topped hills (the highest being 1493m Feldberg), thick fir forests and open countryside.
Starting its journey in Switzerland and travelling through Lake Constance (Germany’s largest lake), the Rhine winds its 1320km-long way around the Black Forest, before crawling up the western border to drain into the North Sea. The Elbe, Oder and other German rivers likewise flow north, except for the Danube, which flows east.
Moving towards the central belt, you’ll find memorable vineyards and hiking areas in the warmer valleys around the Moselle River. The land just north was formed by volcanic activity. To the east is the holiday area of the Spreewald, a picturesque wetland with narrow, navigable waterways.
Where Germany meets Holland in the northwest and Denmark in the north, the land is flat; the westerly North Sea coast consists partly of drained land and dykes. To the east, the Baltic coast is riddled with bays and fjords in Schleswig-Holstein but gives way to sandy inlets and beaches. At the northeastern tip is Germany's largest island, Rügen, renowned for its chalk cliffs.
Snow hares, marmots and wild goats scamper around the Alps. The chamois is also fairly common here, as well as in pockets of the Black Forest, the Swabian Alps and Saxon Switzerland, south of Dresden.
A rare but wonderful Alpine treat for patient birdwatchers is a sighting of the golden eagle; Berchtesgaden National Park staff might be able to help you find one. The jay, with its darting flight patterns and calls imitating other species, is easy to spot in the Alpine foothills. Look for the flashes of blue on its wings.
Pesky but sociable racoons, a common non-native species, scoot about eastern Germany, and soon let hikers know if they have been disturbed with a shrill whistle. Beavers can be found in wetlands near the Elbe River. Seals are common on the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts.
The north coast lures migratory birds. From March to May and August to October they stop over in Schleswig-Holstein’s Wadden Sea National Park and the Vorpommersche Boddenlandschaft National Park while travelling to and from southerly regions. Forests everywhere provide a habitat for songbirds and woodpeckers.
Some animals are staging a comeback. Sea eagles, practically disappeared from western Germany, are becoming more plentiful in the east, as are falcons, white storks and cranes. The east also sees wolves, which regularly cross the Oder River from Poland, and Eurasian elk (moose), which occasionally appear on moors and in mixed forests.
The wild cat has returned to the Harz Mountains and other forested regions, but don't expect to see the related lynx. Having died out here in the 19th century, lynxes were reintroduced in the 1980s, only to be illegally hunted to the point of extinction again. Today, a few populate the Bavarian Forest National Park, although chances of seeing one in the wild are virtually zero.
Deer are still around, although with dwindling natural habitats and a shrinking gene pool, the Deutsche Wildtier Stiftung (www.deutschewildtierstiftung.de) has expressed concern for their future.
Despite environmental pressures, German forests remain beautiful places to wander away from crowds and get back to nature. At lower altitudes, they're usually a potpourri of beech, oak, birch, chestnut, linden, maple and ash trees that erupt into a kaleidoscope of colour in autumn. At higher elevations, fir, pine, spruce and other conifers are prevalent. Canopies often shade low-growing ferns, heather, clover and foxglove. Mixed deciduous forests carpet river valleys at lower altitudes.
In spring, Alpine regions burst with wildflowers – orchid, cyclamen, gentian, pulsatilla, Alpine roses, edelweiss and buttercups. Great care is taken not to cut pastures until plants have seeded; you can minimise your impact by sticking to paths, especially in Alpine areas and coastal dunes where ecosystems are fragile. In late August, heather blossom is the particular lure of Lüneburger Heide, northeast of Hanover.
Literature, Theatre & Film
Germany, with a centuries-old literary tradition, is a nation of avid readers. Some 94,000 new books are released annually and Frankfurt's International Book Fair is the publishing world's most important gathering. Theatre, too, is a mainstay of the cultural scene, with hundreds of stages around the country; Germany produced famous playwrights including Lessing, Goethe and Brecht. In film, Germany is not only a pioneer of the genre but, in the new millennium, has gained international recognition with boundary-pushing movies.
The legendary UFA (Universum Film AG), one of the first film studios in the world, began shooting in Potsdam, near Berlin, in 1912 and evolved into one of the world's most famous dream factories in the 1920s and early '30s, As early as 1919, Ernst Lubitsch produced historical films and comedies such as Madame Dubarry, starring Pola Negri and Emil Jannings; the latter went on to win the Best Actor Award at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood in 1929. In 1927 Walter Ruttmann's classic Berlin: Symphony of a City was released; it's a fascinating silent documentary that captures a day in the life of 1920s Berlin.
Other 1920s movies were heavily expressionistic, using stark contrast, sharp angles, heavy shadows and other distorting elements. Well-known flicks employing these techniques include Nosferatu (a 1922 Dracula adaptation by FW Murnau) and the groundbreaking Metropolis (1927), by Fritz Lang. One of the earliest seminal talkies was Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), starring Marlene Dietrich. After 1933, though, film-makers found their artistic freedom (not to mention funding) increasingly curtailed, and by 1939 practically the entire industry had fled to Hollywood.
Films made in Germany under the Nazis were mostly of the propaganda variety, with the brilliant, if controversial, director Leni Riefenstahl greatly pushing the genre's creative envelope. Her most famous film, Triumph of the Will, documents the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally. Olympia, which chronicles the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, was another influential work.
Some of the best films about the Nazi era include Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers among Us; 1946); Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun; 1979); Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse (2003), and Oliver Hirschbiegel's Oscar-nominated Der Untergang (Downfall; 2004), depicting Hitler's final days, with the extraordinary Bruno Ganz in the role of the Führer.
In the 1960s German film entered a new era with the Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Film) period – also known as Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film) – which brought directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog and Margarethe von Trotta to the fore. The impact of Fassbinder’s Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Longing of Veronica Voss; 1981), Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire; 1987), Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; 1972), Schlöndorff’s film version of Günter Grass' Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum; 1979) and the Schlöndorff-von Trotta co-production Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum; 1975) can still be felt on screens today.
The '70s also saw Wolfgang Petersen's first major release, the psychological thriller Einer von uns beiden (One or the Other of Us; 1974), starring Jürgen Prochnow. Prochnow returned as the lead character in Petersen's WWII submarine epic Das Boot (1981), which became a huge international success and was nominated for six Oscars.
The first round of postreunification flicks were light-hearted comedy dramas, but towards the end of the 1990s filmic fare began to mature in terms of depth and quality, inspiring international critics to hail the birth of a new 'German Cinema'. A breakthrough film was Lola rennt (Run Lola Run; 1998), which helped Tom Tykwer establish his reputation as one of Germany’s best contemporary directors.
Another international runaway hit was Good Bye, Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker’s witty and heart-warming tale of a son trying to recreate life in East Germany to save his sick mother. It was released in 2003, the same year Caroline Link won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for Nowhere in Africa. In 2007 Florian von Donnersmarck was bestowed the same honour with The Lives of Others (2006), a ruthless portrayal of the stranglehold the East German secret police (Stasi) had on ordinary citizens. Also Oscar-nominated was Uli Edel's Baader Meinhof Komplex (Baader Meinhof Complex; 2008), which addresses a dark chapter in West German history: the terrorist group Red Army Faction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another important director with a finger on the pulse of contemporary Germany is Turkish-German Fatih Akin. His breakthrough movie Gegen die Wand (Head-On; 2004) is a story about love and the cultural conflicts encountered by two Turks brought up in Germany.
These days, 'Germany's Hollywood' is once again in Potsdam, where an average of 300 German and international productions are filmed on location and at the UFA successor Studio Babelsberg each year. Movies that were at least partially shot here include The Reader, Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds, The Ghost Writer, Anonymous, Cloud Atlas, The Monuments Men, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Book Thief and Hunger Games (parts 3 and 4).
Marlene Dietrich (1901–92) was born Marie Magdalena von Losch into a good middle-class Berlin family. After acting school, she first captivated audiences as a hard-living, libertine flapper in 1920s silent movies, but quickly carved a niche as the dangerously seductive femme fatale. The 1930 talkie The Blue Angel turned her into a Hollywood star and launched a five-year collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich built on her image of erotic opulence – dominant and severe but always with a touch of self-irony.
Dietrich stayed in Hollywood after the Nazi rise to power, though Hitler, not immune to her charms, reportedly promised perks and the red-carpet treatment if she moved back to Germany. She responded with an empty offer to return if she could bring along Sternberg – a Jew and no Nazi favourite. She took US citizenship in 1937 and entertained Allied soldiers on the front.
After the war, Dietrich retreated slowly from the public eye, making occasional appearances in films but mostly cutting records and performing live cabaret. Her final years were spent in Paris, bedridden and accepting few visitors, immortal in spirit as mortality caught up with her.
Top Five GDR Retro Films
- Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), the cult box-office smash hit by Wolfgang Becker revolving around a son trying to recreate the GDR for his ailing, bedridden mother, whose health couldn’t stand the shock of a fallen Wall.
- Leander Haussmann’s nostalgia-inducing Sonnenallee (Sun Alley; 1999), set in a fantastical Wall-clad East Berlin in the 1970s.
- Helden wie Wir (Heroes Like Us; 1999), directed by Sebastian Peterson and based on the novel by Thomas Brussig, sees the protagonist recount the story of his life, including how his penis allegedly leads to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
- Leander Haussmann’s humorous Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues; 2003) relates the story of a bartending actor in West Berlin’s bohemian Kreuzberg district just as the Wall comes down.
- Andreas Dresen's Als wir träumten (As We Were Dreaming; 2015) is a parable about friendship, betrayal, hope and illusion among a group of friends in Leipzig after the fall of the Wall.
10 Must-See German Films
- Metropolis, 1927
- Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), 1930
- Olympia, 1938
- Die Brücke, 1959
- The Tin Drum, 1979
- Das Boot (The Boat), 1981
- Wings of Desire, 1987
- Run Lola Run, 1998
- Good Bye, Lenin!, 2003
- Der Untergang (Downfall), 2004
Early forms of literary expression originated during the reign of Charlemagne (c 800); the most famous surviving work of this early period is the heroic epic poem Hildebrandslied. Medieval literature flourished in the 12th century, with Minnesänger – lyric poetry performed by bards, such as Walther von der Vogelweide – and more heroic poems, including the Nibelungenlied. A key figure in German writing was Protestant reformer Martin Luther, whose 1522 translation of the New Testament created a unified standard version of the German language.
A major work of the baroque period is Grimmelshausen's novel Simplicissimus (1668), which follows the adventures of a young ne'er-do-well in the Thirty Years' War. Another landmark is Christoph Martin Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon (Agathon; 1766–67), which is considered the first Bildungsroman (a novel showing the development of the hero) and an important piece of Enlightenment lit.
The rationality of the Enlightenment was followed by the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) phase, which was characterised by emotional and subjective writing. The style was dominated by Germany's literary lion Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (eg The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774) and his friend Friedrich Schiller (eg The Robbers, 1781). Both Goethe and Schiller later distanced themselves from the movement and ushered in what would become known as Weimar Classicism, with its emphasis on humanist ideals.
Though serious academics (they wrote German Grammar and History of the German Language), the Grimm brothers – Jacob and Wilhelm – are best known for their collection of fairy tales, myths and legends, published between 1812 and 1858. Heinrich Heine produced one of Germany’s finest collections of poems, Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs) in 1827, but it was his more political writings that contributed to his work being banned under Prussian censorship laws in 1835.
Modern & Contemporary
In the 1920s, Berlin became a literary hotbed, drawing writers including Alfred Döblin, whose Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) is a stylised meander through the seamy 1920s, and Anglo-American import Christopher Isherwood, whose semiautobiographical Berlin Stories formed the basis of the musical and film Cabaret. A key figure was Thomas Mann, recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature, whose greatest novels focus on social forms of the day. Mann’s older brother, Heinrich, adopted a stronger political stance in his work; his Professor Unrat (1905) inspired the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). Erich Maria Remarque's antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) was banned (and burned) by the Nazis but today remains a widely read German book.
The postwar literary revival was led by The Tin Drum (1959), by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, tracing 20th-century German history through the eyes of a child who refuses to grow up. One of the first anti-Nazi novels published after WWII was Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin (1947), based on a true story of a couple's entanglement in the German resistance. The book became a huge hit in the UK and the US after being translated into English in 2009.
Among East German writers, Christa Wolf is one of the best and most controversial, while Heiner Müller had the distinction of being unpalatable in both Germanys. His dense, difficult works include the Germania trilogy of plays.
In the 1990s, a slew of novels dealt with German reunification. Many of them are set in Berlin, including Thomas Brussig's tongue-in-cheek Helden wie Wir (Heroes Like Us; 1998) and Jana Hensel's Zonenkinder (After the Wall; 2002), which reflects upon the loss of identity and the challenge of adapting to a new society. Günter Grass’ Ein weites Feld (Too Far Afield; 1992) addresses ‘unification without unity’ after the fall of the Wall.
The late novelist WG Sebald assured his place as one of Germany’s best writers with his powerful portrayal of four exiles in Die Ausgewanderten (Emigrants; 1992). Russian-born author Wladimir Kaminer, whose Russendisko (Russian Disco; 2000) is made up of amusing, stranger-than-fiction vignettes, has been wildly successful and widely translated. Foreign authors also continue to be inspired by Berlin. Ian McEwan's The Innocent (1990) is an old-fashioned spy story set in the 1950s, while the Berlin Noir trilogy (1989–91), by British author Philip Kerr, features a private detective solving crimes in Nazi Germany.
The Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Award), the equivalent of Britain’s Man Booker Prize and the US National Book Awards (in fiction), is a good guide to what’s new each year. Search for shortlisted and winning authors at www.deutscher-buchpreis.de.
Top 10 German Novels
- Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1774
- Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane, 1894
- Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), Thomas Mann, 1912
- Der Process (The Trial), Franz Kafka, 1925
- Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse, 1927
- Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
- Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
- Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Günter Grass, 1959
- Das Parfum (Perfume), Patrick Süskind, 1985
- Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald, 2001
Germany has around 300 state, municipal, travelling and private theatres, most of them heavily government subsidised. In fact, box office takings account for only 10% to 15% of production costs on average.
Germany's theatre history begins in the Enlightenment; a key piece of this period is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779), which is a strong plea for religious tolerance. The Thuringian town of Weimar was a cultural hotspot in the 18th century, home to both Friedrich Schiller (Don Carlos, Wallenstein, The Robbers) and his even more famous friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose two-part Faust is a powerfully enduring drama about the human condition.
Woyzeck, by Georg Büchner, is another popular piece and, having anticipated Theatre of the Absurd, lends itself to innovative staging. In the early 20th century, Max Reinhardt became German theatre’s most influential expressionist director, working briefly with dramatist Bertolt Brecht, whose Threepenny Opera (1928) enjoys international success to this day.
Like many others, Brecht went into exile under the Nazis but returned in 1949 to establish the Berliner Ensemble, which remains one of Germany's seminal stages. Others include Berlin's Deutsches Theater and the Volksbühne Berlin, the Thalia Theater and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, the Kammerspiele München, the Staatsschauspiel Stuttgart and Schauspiel Hannover. Productions from these venue are regularly represented at the Deutsches Theatertreffen, a showcase of new plays held in Berlin every May. Contemporary playwrights to watch out for include Frank Castorf, Elfriede Jelinek, Rene Pollesch, Moritz Rinke, Botho Strauss, Rainald Goetz and Roland Schimmelpfennig.
Germany's reputation as a musical powerhouse is fuelled by such world-famous composers as Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Today the country boasts 80 publicly financed concert halls, including internationally prestigious ones in Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Munich. But Germany has also punched well above its weight in the popular music arena and is one of the few countries outside the English-speaking world to have influenced rock, pop and electronic music in a significant way.
Love Ballads to Contemporary Classical
Medieval German music is closely associated with Walther von der Vogelweide (c 1170–1230), who achieved renown with love ballads. A more formalised troubadour tradition followed, but it was baroque composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) who most influenced early European music. His legacy can be explored in Bach museums in his birth town of Eisenach and in Leipzig, where he died.
Bach contemporary Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759) hailed from Halle in Saxony-Anhalt (his house is now a museum) but lived and worked almost exclusively in London from 1714, where he wrote operas and choral music. Händel’s music found favour in the circle of Vienna’s classical composers, which included Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), a teacher of Bonn-born Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who paved the way for Romanticism. Struck with deafness later in life, Beethoven's most famous works are his nine symphonies, which he composed along with piano sonatas, string quartets and choral works.
Among the Romantic composers, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–47) is hailed as a genius. He penned his first overture at the age of 17 and later rediscovered works by JS Bach; the revival gave Bach enduring fame.
Born in Leipzig, Richard Wagner (1813–83) lords it over 19th-century German music. With his operas based on German mythology (most famously The Ring of the Nibelung), he became Bavarian King Ludwig II's favourite composer. Hitler, who picked up on an anti-Semitic essay by Wagner and some late-life ramblings on German virtues, famously turned the composer into a postmortem Nazi icon. An annual summer music festival in Bayreuth celebrates Wagner’s life and works.
Hamburg brought forth Johannes Brahms (1833–97) and his influential symphonies, plus chamber and piano works. Two figures whose legacies are tied to Bonn, Leipzig and Zwickau are composer Robert Schumann (1810–56) and his gifted pianist-spouse Clara Wieck (1819–96). Schumann (born in Zwickau) and Wieck (born in Leipzig) are buried in Bonn’s Alter Friedhof.
The pulsating 1920s drew numerous classical musicians to Berlin, including Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), whose atonal compositions turned music on its head, as did his experimentation with noise and sound effects. One of Schönberg's pupils, Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), went into exile in 1933, like Schönberg, but returned to East Berlin to teach in 1950. Among Eisler's works was the East German national anthem, Auferstanden aus Ruinen (Resurrected from Ruins), lyric-less from 1961, when its pro-reunification words fell out of favour with party honchos.
Also working in Berlin, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) explored the new medium of radio and taught a seminar on film music. He too was banned by the Nazis and composed his most important orchestral compositions in exile. The Hindemith Institute (www.hindemith.org) in Frankfurt am Main promotes his music and safeguards his estate.
Perhaps better known is Dessau-born Kurt Weill (1900–50), another composer who fled the Nazi terror. He teamed up with Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s and wrote the music for the The Threepenny Opera, which premiered in 1928 with such famous songs as 'Mack the Knife'. Weill ended up writing successful Broadway musicals in New York.
The 1920s also gave birth to Schlager – light-hearted songs with titles such as ‘Mein Papagei frisst keine harten Eier’ (‘My Parrot Doesn’t Eat Hard-Boiled Eggs’), which teetered on the silly and surreal. The most successful Schlager singing group was the a cappella Comedian Harmonists, who were famous for their perfect harmonies of voices that sounded like musical instruments.
After WWII, the southwestern towns of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen emerged as hubs of contemporary classical music based on constructivist compositional techniques and modal methods, with Karlheinz Stockhausen emerging as a key figure. The arrival of American experimental composer John Cage, a pioneer of chance composition, electro-acoustic music and noise-as-music at the International Music Institute Darmstadt is widely considered a turning point in the European post-WWII musical scene.
Since the 1960s, Berlin has spearheaded many of Germany’s popular music innovations. Riding the New Age wave of the late '60s, Tangerine Dream helped to propagate the psychedelic sound, while a decade later Kreuzberg's subculture launched the punk movement at SO36 and other famous clubs. Regulars included David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were Berlin flatmates in the 1970s. Bowie partly wrote and recorded his Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) at the city's famous Hansa Studios.
In East Germany, access to Western rock and other popular music was restricted, while Eastern artists' artistic freedom was greatly compromised, as all lyrics had to be approved and performances were routinely monitored. Nevertheless, a slew of home-grown Ostrock (Eastern rock) bands emerged. Some major bands including The Puhdys, Karat, Silly, City and Keimzeit managed to get around the censors by disguising criticism in seemingly innocuous metaphors or by deliberately inserting provocative lyrics they fully expected to be deleted. All built up huge followings in both Germanys.
Many nonconformists were placed under an occupational ban and prohibited from performing. Singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann became a cause célèbre when, in 1976, he was not allowed to return to the GDR from a concert series in the West, despite being an avid – albeit regime-critical – socialist. When other artists rallied to his support, they too were expatriated, including Biermann's stepdaughter Nina Hagen, an East Berlin pop singer who later became a West Berlin punk pioneer. The small but vital East German punk scene produced Sandow and Feeling B, members of which went on to form the industrial metal band Rammstein in 1994. Known for provocative lyrics and intense sounds, the band is still Germany's top musical export today.
Once in West Berlin, Nina Hagen helped chart the course for Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW; German New Wave). This early '80s sound produced such bands as D.A.F., Trio, Neonbabies and Ideal, as well as Rockhaus in East Berlin. The same decade also saw the birth of Die Ärzte, Die Toten Hosen and the seminal Einstürzende Neubauten, who pioneered a proto-industrial sound. Düsseldorf-based Kraftwerk, meanwhile, created the musical foundations for techno, the club sound that would sweep across Germany after 1989, spawning Berlin’s legendary Love Parade.
Members of the Neue Deutsche Welle always sang in German, an exception being the singer Nena, who successfully recorded her hit single ‘99 Red Balloons’ in English, too. The NDW movement spawned the Hamburg School of musicians, with recognised acts such as Blumfeld, Die Sterne and the Tocotronic. The sensitive ballads and zeitgeist-capturing rock songs of ‘Germany’s Springsteen’ Herbert Grönemeyer, who emerged in the 1980s, continue to resonate across generations.
Dominated by disco in the 1970s and rap and hip hop in the 1980s, the club scene in the 1990s moved strongly towards electronic music, taking the impulses of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk to new heights.
The seed was sown in dark and dank cellar club UFO on Köpenicker Strasse in 1988. The 'godfathers' of the Berlin sound, Dr Motte, Westbam and Kid Paul, played their first gigs here, mostly sweat-driven acid house all-night raves. It was Motte who came up with the idea to take the party to the street with a truck, loud beats and a bunch of friends dancing behind it – and the Love Parade was born (it peaked in 1999 with 1.5 million people swarming Berlin’s streets).
The Berlin Wall's demise, and the artistic freedom it created, catapulted techno out of the underground. The associated euphoria, sudden access to derelict and abandoned spaces in eastern Berlin and lack of control by the authorities were all defining factors in making Berlin a techno mecca. In 1991, the techno-sonic gang followed UFO founder Dimitri Hegemann to Tresor, which launched camouflage-sporting DJ Tanith, along with trance pioneer Paul van Dyk. Today, the Tresor label is still a seminal brand, representing Jeff Mills, Blake Baxter and Cristian Vogel, among many others.
Key label BPitch Control, founded by Ellen Allien in 1999, launched the careers of Modeselektor, Apparat (aka Sascha Ring), Sascha Funke, and Paul Kalkbrenner. Another heavyweight is the collective Get Physical, which includes the dynamic duo M.A.N.D.Y., who fuse house and electro with minimal and funk to create a highly danceable sound. The charmingly named Shitkatapult, founded in 1997 by Marco Haas (aka T.Raumschmiere), is focused on minimalist styles and counts Apparat and Daniel Meteo among its artists.
Anyone into electro will want to plug into bands currently having their moment to shine, such as Howling, Susanne Blech, Moderat and Hundreds.
Other fine German music originates from a jazz/breaks angle such as electrojazz and breakbeats that favour lush grooves, obscure samples and chilled rhythms. Remix masters Jazzanova are top dogs of the downtempo scene. Their Sonar Kollektiv label also champions similar artists, including Micatone. Reggae-dancehall made a splash with Seeed, whose frontman Peter Fox’s solo album Stadtaffe (2008) was one of the bestselling albums in Germany of the same year. Also commercially successful is Culcha Candela, who have essentially pop-ified the Seeed sound. Home-grown rap and hip hop has a huge following, thanks to Sido, Fler, Bushido and Kool Savas. Also hugely successful are Berlin-based Casper and Marteria. K.I.Z., meanwhile, are more of a gangsta rap parody.
Foreign artists have also influenced the Berlin scene, including the provocative Canadian songster and performance artist Peaches, UK–Canadian techno innovator Richie Hawtin and Chilean minimalist master Ricardo Villalobos.
German Music In 10 Albums
Take a whirlwind tour through Germany's musical past:
- Water Music (Händel, 1717)
- Brandenburg Concertos (JS Bach, 1721)
- Beethoven's nine symphonies (1799-1825)
- Brahms' Violin Concerto (1878)
- Autobahn (Kraftwerk, 1974)
- Debil (Die Ärzte,1984)
- Crazy World (Scorpions, 1990)
- Mutter (Rammstein, 2001)
- Soundso (Wir sind Helden, 2007)
- II (Moderat, 2013)
The German People
When a 2017 BBC Worldwide poll found that Germany was considered the most positively viewed nation in the world, it surprised many people, most of all the Germans themselves – having long been called arrogant, aggressive and humourless, they were hardly used to such positive feedback. But the poll shows that times are a-changing, proving that modern leadership, a belief in the power of diplomacy and, let's not forget, a pretty good national soccer team can ultimately make a difference.
Germans are the original Greens. They cannot claim to have invented environmentalism, but they were there at the outset and it was they who coined the word to describe the movement. A few ‘values’ and ‘ecology’ parties were knocking around beforehand, but it was the group of politicians associated with Rudi Dutschke, Petra Kelly and artist Joseph Beuys who first hit on the name The Greens (Die Grünen) when contesting local and national elections in 1979 and 1980. They gained a strong foothold in Bremen, and other political groups across the world decided they quite liked the moniker.
The Greens’ concern for the health of the planet and their strong opposition to nuclear power certainly struck a chord with the local populace. Contemporary Germans recycle vigilantly, often prefer to ride bicycles rather than catch buses, and carry their groceries in reusable cloth shopping bags; all of this is simply second nature here.
Green ideology has also wielded an enormous influence on the political agenda. In the 1990s, Greenpeace Germany made international news attempting to stop nuclear-waste transports in Lower Saxony and heavily populated North Rhine–Westphalia. German Greenpeace members also helped scuttle Shell’s controversial plans to sink the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea.
Even more tellingly, the Greens were in government between 1998 and 2005, as the junior partner in Gerhard Schröder’s coalition. Under the leadership of Joschka Fischer, the party had a major say in decisions to cut carbon emissions and to wind down the nuclear industry. In 2011, Germany announced the decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. In the 2017 federal elections, the Greens scooped 8.9% of the votes and 67 out of 709 seats in the Bundestag.
The German household fits into the general mould of those in other Western European countries. However, a closer look reveals some distinctly German quirks, including a compulsion for sorting and recycling rubbish, a taste for fizzy mineral water and a springtime obsession with asparagus.
Although tradition is valued and grandmother’s heirlooms may still occupy pride of place in many a house, 3D smart TVs babble away in living rooms across the land, and Germany boasts 71 million internet surfers (88% of the population), roughly 30 million of whom also have a Facebook account. Eight in 10 Germans own a bike, but there’s a car in almost every driveway, embodying the German belief that true freedom comes on four wheels and is best expressed by tearing along the autobahn at 200km/h or more. For many outsiders this high level of car use is incongruous with the Germans' green credentials.
One aspect of life many visitors can't help but notice is the high number of smokers, although levels are declining. Almost 29% of German men and 20% of women smoke, despite various smoking bans (which are different in each state). Alcohol consumption is also high and on the increase.
Smoking is the least of the problems continuing to plague the east of the country, where unemployment and a brain drain to the west dog the economy. Even when in employment, eastern Germans can expect to earn around 20% less than they would in the western states.
Birth rates are among the lowest in the world (8.6 babies per 1000 inhabitants) and have fallen steadily over the last decade, prompting fears that future labour market shortages will damage the economy. Although the traditional nuclear family is still the most common model, there is no social stigma attached to other family forms. Since one in three marriages end in divorce, many families today are so-called 'patchwork families', composed of divorced new partners and their children from a previous relationship.
Controversially, abortion is still illegal (except when a medical or criminal indication exists), but it is unpunishable if carried out within 12 weeks of conception and after compulsory counselling. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 1 October 2017, when the Bundestag passed legislation allowing gay couples full marital rights. Gays and lesbians walk with ease in most cities, especially Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Frankfurt am Main, although LGBT folk do encounter discrimination in certain eastern German areas.
German school hours, which are usually from 8am to 1pm (until 4pm for the less common ‘all day’ schools), and the underfunding of child care make combining career and children difficult for German women. On the plus side, parents enjoy equal rights for maternity and paternity leave.
On the whole, the number of women in employment is increasing. About 74% of working-age women are employed – high for an EU country – but lower than neighbours Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Almost half of these women work part-time, and in eastern Germany women tend to have more of a presence at managerial level.
The official retirement age is 67, but changes may see this gradually increase to 69 in the coming decades.
Germany has always attracted immigrants, be it French Huguenots escaping religious persecution (about 30% of Berlin’s population in 1700 was Huguenot), 19th-century Polish miners who settled in the Ruhr region, post-WWII asylum seekers or foreign Gastarbeiter (guest workers) during the 1950s and 1960s to resolve labour shortages.
After reunification, the foreign population soared, as emigrants from the imploding USSR and the then war-ravaged Yugoslavia sought refuge. Between 1990 and 2011, Germany also accommodated around 1.4 million Spätaussiedler (people of German heritage), mainly from Russia, Poland and Kazakhstan.
In 2015 and 2016, a large influx of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere bolstered the number of people with an immigrant background in Germany to a record 18.6 million. A little over a fifth (22.5%) of the population were first- or second-generation immigrants, meaning that at least one parent was born without German citizenship.
The growth of the immigrant population has triggered a rise in extreme right-wing movements, which oppose such a huge non-native presence in the country. Ironically, the problem is worst in the eastern states, where there are fewer immigrants. As across Europe, the debate as to whether Germany should promote a German Leitkultur (lead culture), as opposed to multiculturalism, polarises opinion.
Who would want to go back to East German times? Not many, but there was more to the GDR (German Democratic Republic; the former East Germany) than simply being a ‘satellite of the Evil Empire’, as Cold War warriors from the 1980s would portray it.
The opening lines of director Leander Haussmann’s film Sonnenallee (1999) encapsulate this idea: ‘Once upon a time, there was a land and I lived there and, if I am asked how it was, I say it was the best time of my life because I was young and in love’. Another film, the smash hit Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), looked at East Germany with humour and pathos. It also gave Ostalgie – from Ost (East) and Nostalgie (nostalgia) – the kick it needed to become a more-or-less permanent cultural fixture in Germany.
Whether it be in the form of grinning Erich Honecker doubles at parties, Spreewald cucumbers and GDR soft drink Club Cola, or the Ampelmännchen (the little green man that helped East German pedestrians cross the road), Ostalgie is here to stay. For a taste of what the East offered in daily life, check out the GDR museums in Berlin, Pirna and Radebeul.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom; the main religions are Catholicism and Protestantism, with 23.6 million and 21.9 million members respectively. Religion has a stronger footing in western Germany, especially Catholic Bavaria.
Unlike the Jewish community, which has grown since the early 1990s due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, the Catholic and Protestant churches are losing worshippers. This is attributed partly to the obligatory church tax (8% or 9% of total income tax paid) forked out by those registered with a recognised denomination. Most German Protestants are Lutheran, headed by the Evangelische Kirche (Protestant Church), an official grouping of a couple of dozen Lutheran churches, with headquarters in Hanover. In 2005, for the first time in almost five centuries, a German, Joseph Ratzinger (b 1927), became pope, taking the name Pope Benedict XVI. He resigned in 2013.
The largest Jewish communities are in Berlin, Frankfurt am Main and Munich. Countrywide, 108 congregations are represented by the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany). Around four million Muslims live in Germany, most of Turkish heritage.
Always a keen sporting nation, Germany has hosted the summer Olympics and football World Cup twice each. The Germans, it seems, are dastardly good at most sporting disciplines, and if your country has a national game, the Germans probably thrashed you at it a long time ago.
Football ignites the passion of Germans everywhere and has contributed to building Germany’s self-confidence as a nation. Its national side has won the World Cup four times: in 1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014. West Germany’s first victory against Hungary in Bern, Switzerland, was unexpected and quite miraculous for a country mired deeply in post-WWII depression. The 'miracle of Bern' – as the victory was dubbed – sent national morale soaring.
During the early stages of the World Cup in June 2018, the country fell into a state of deep shock following the surprise exit of the team after just three group-stage games in a 2-0 loss to South Korea. It was the first time Germany had been knocked out in the first round since 1938.
Germany has hosted the World Cup twice, in 1974 and 2006. The first occasion was particularly special, as West Germany beat Holland 2-1 in the final, held at Munich’s Olympic stadium.
Domestically, Germany’s Bundesliga has fallen behind other European leagues, such as Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League, but still throws up some exciting duels. On the European stage, Germany’s most successful club is FC Bayern Munich, which has been Deutscher Meister (national champion) 28 times and has won the UEFA Champions League five times, the last time in 2012-13. A current star layer is Manuel Neuer, who has regularly been hailed the world's best goalkeeper.
Women’s football is growing in popularity, partly because of the success of the women’s national team. Germany has won the FIFA Women’s World Cup twice (in 2003 and 2007) and hosted the event in 2011.
Tennis was a minor sport in Germany until 1985, when the unseeded 17-year-old Boris Becker (b 1967), became the youngest ever men’s singles champion. Suddenly every German kid aspired to be the next Becker. The red-headed net-diver, from Leimen near Heidelberg, went on to win five more Grand Slam titles in his career. Even more successful was Steffi Graf (b 1969), who is among the few women to have won all four Grand Slam events in one year, and in 1988 – after also winning the gold in Seoul at the Olympics – the ‘golden slam’. A current player with the potential to follow in Becker's footsteps is Alexander Zverev, who clinched the No.4 ranking in men’s singles in 2017, a career best on the ATP World Tour.
Though a relatively minor sport in Germany, basketball is gaining in popularity. Cycling boomed after Jan Ullrich (b 1973) became the first German to win the Tour de France in 1997. With seven world championships and a record 91 Grand Prix wins, Michael Schumacher (b 1969) was the most successful Formula One driver of all time, before suffering a major head injury in a skiing accident in 2013. After months in an induced coma, he returned to his home in September 2014, but remains paralysed and wheelchair-bound.
The National Psyche
The German state of mind has long attracted speculation; two 20th-century wars and the memory of the Jewish Holocaust alone provide ample reason to consider the German psyche. Throw in Cold War division, a juggernaut-like economy that draws half of Europe in its wake and pumps tons of goods into the world economy, plus a crucial position at the crossroads of Europe, and this fascination is even more understandable.
Often, though, it pays to ignore the stereotypes, jingoism and headlines describing Germany in military terms – and maybe even forgive Germans for the systematic way they clog up a football field or conduct jagged discussion. It also helps to see the country through its regional nuances. Germany was very slow to become a nation; if you look closely, you'll notice many different local cultures within the one set of borders (somewhat similar to Italy). You'll also discover one of Europe’s most multicultural countries, with Turkish, Greek, Italian, Russian and Balkan influences.
Around 15 million people live in the former GDR, a part of Germany where, until 1989, travel was restricted, the state was almighty and life was secure – albeit highly regulated – from the cradle to grave. Unsurprisingly, many former East Germans are still coming to terms with a more competitive, unified Germany. Many 'easterners' still maintain that the GDR had its good qualities, and some elderly former East German citizens say they were happier or lived better at that time. More than a quarter-century after reunification the eastern states continue to lose brains and skills to the west.
Germans as a whole fall within the mental topography of northern Europe and are sometimes described as culturally ‘low context’. That means, as opposed to the French or Italians, Germans like to pack what they mean into the words they use, rather than hint or suggest. Facing each other squarely in conversation, giving firm handshakes and hugs or kisses on the cheek among friends are also par for the course.
Many Germans are very much fans of their own folk culture. Even a young Bavarian from, say, the finance department of a large company, might don the Dirndl (traditional Bavarian skirt and blouse) around Oktoberfest time and swill like a hearty, rollicking peasant. On Monday she’ll be back at the desk, soberly crunching numbers.
From 1200-year-old church frescos to cutting-edge street art, you're never far from creative expression in Germany. While religious themes dominated the Middle Ages, the scope widened around the time of the Enlightenment and burst into a full spectrum of creativity in the 20th century, especially with seminal Weimar-era movements such as the Bauhaus and expressionism. With scores of museums, galleries, public artworks, art colonies and festivals, Germany's artistic world today continues to be vibrant, influential and reflective of the zeitgeist.
Frescoes to Art Nouveau
The origins of German medieval art can be traced to the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne (c 800). Frescos from that period still grace the Stiftskirche St Georg on Reichenau Island, while those from Trier’s St Maximin crypt are now on display at the city's Bischöfliches Dom- und Diözesanmuseum. Stained-glass enthusiasts will find colourful religious motifs lighting up Augsburg and Cologne cathedrals. By the 15th century, Cologne artists were putting landscapes on religious panels, some of which are on display in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle.
The heavyweight of German Renaissance art, which flourished in the 15th century, is the Nuremberg-born Albrecht Dürer, the first artist to seriously compete with the Italian masters. Munich's Alte Pinakothek is one place showing several famous works, while his Nuremberg house is now a museum. In Wittenberg, Dürer influenced the court painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose Apollo and Diana in a Forest Landscape (1530) forms part of the collection at Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie.
Two centuries later, during the baroque period, sculpture was integrated into Germany’s buildings and gardens. A key work is Andreas Schlüter's Great Elector on Horseback in front of Berlin’s Schloss Charlottenburg. Around the same time, it became fashionable to decorate palace walls and ceiling with trompe l'oeil frescos to create the illusion of generous space. The one by Tiepolo gracing Balthasar Neumann's grand staircase in Würzburg's Residenz is a standout.
In the early 19th century, neoclassicism emerged as a dominant sculptural style. Leading the artistic pack was Johann Gottfried Schadow, whose Quadriga – the horse-drawn chariot atop Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate – ranks among his finest works. In painting, neoclassicism ushered in a return to the human figure and an emphasis on Roman and Greek mythology. Johann Heinrich Tischbein's Goethe in der Campagna (1787), which depicts the famous writer in a classical landscape surrounded by antique objects, hangs in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main.
Heart-on-your-sleeve romanticism, which drew heavily on emotion and a dreamy idealism, dominated the later 19th century, spurred by the awakening of a nationalist spirit after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Caspar David Friedrich, best known for his moody, allegorical landscapes, was a key practitioner. Both Hamburg's Kunsthalle and Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie have sizeable collections of his works, along with canvases by Philipp Otto Runge, intensely religious works by the Nazarenes and some later realistic paintings by Wilhelm Leibl.
Impressionism did not flourish nearly as much in Germany as it did in France. Key representatives include Max Liebermann, whose work was often slammed as ‘ugly’ and ‘socialist’, Fritz von Uhde and Lovis Corinth, whose later work, Childhood of Zeus (1905) – a richly coloured frolic in nature with intoxicated, grotesque elements – can be admired in Bremen’s Kunsthalle.
An art form popping up briefly in the final decade of the 19th century was Jugendstil (art nouveau), a florid, ornamental aesthetic inspired by printmaking that found expression less in visual art than in crafts and design. It was a reaction against the pompous eclecticism in vogue after the founding of the German Reich in 1871. In Munich, the Neue Pinakothek is the place to head for some fine examples of this most elegant of styles; in Berlin, check out the Bröhan Museum.
In the last decade of the 19th century, a number of artists banded together to reject the traditional teachings of the arts academics that stifled any new forms of expression. This led to the Munich Secession in 1892 and to the Berlin Secession in 1898. This new generation of artists preferred scenes from daily life over historical and religious themes, shunned studios in favour of natural outdoor light and inspired a proliferation of new styles. Famous secession members included Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt, Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Kirchner went on to found, along with Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, the artist group Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905 in Dresden. It turned the art world on its head with groundbreaking visions considered the dawn of German expressionism. As opposed to impressionism, which focuses on passively depicting light and nature, expressionism is imbued with an emotional quality. Abstract forms, a flattened perspective and bright, emotional colours that the artists believed exuded a spiritual quality characterised this new aesthetic. Die Brücke moved to Berlin in 1911 and disbanded in 1913. The small Brücke Museum in Berlin has a fantastic collection of these influential artists.
In 1911, another seminal group of German expressionists banded together in Munich. Calling themselves Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), this loose association of painters centred on Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Paul Klee and Franz Marc, and remained active until 1914. Munich’s Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus has a superb collection of Blaue Reiter paintings. Klee fans should also make a beeline to Düsseldorf's K20 Grabbeplatz and the Museum Berggruen in Berlin. A pilgrimage site for Marc aficionados is the Franz Marc Museum in Kochel am See in the Bavarian Alps, where the artist lived after 1908.
The most important woman painter of the period was Käthe Kollwitz, whose social and political awareness lent a tortured power to her lithographs, graphics, woodcuts, sculptures and drawings. Among her many famous works is A Weavers’ Revolt (1897). There are museums dedicated to this extraordinary artist in Berlin and Cologne.
Between the Wars
The 1920s was one of the most prolific and creative periods in Germany's artistic history. Many different forms of expression flourished in this decade, a diversity fuelled by the monarchy's demise, political and economic instability and the memory of the horrors of WWI.
One artist especially haunted by his wartime experience was Otto Dix, who, in the early 1920s, produced a series of dark and sombre paintings depicting war scenes – disfigured and dying soldiers, decomposing bodies, skulls in gas masks – in graphic detail. Dix was greatly influenced by Dada, an avant-garde art movement formed in Zürich in 1916 as a reaction to the brutality of WWI. The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart shelters one of the world's most important collections of Dix's works.
Dada artists had an irrational, satirical and often absurdist outlook that was often imbued with a political undercurrent and a tendency to shock and provoke. Aside from Dix, artists associated with this movement included Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch and George Grosz. Along with Max Beckmann, Dix and Grosz went on to become key figures of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an offshoot of expressionism that emerged later in the 1920s and was distinguished by an unsentimental, practical and objective look at reality.
After a creative surge in the 1920s, the big chill of Nazi conformity sent Germany into an artistic deep freeze in the 1930s and 1940s. Many artists were classified as degenerate and forced into exile, leading to a creative explosion among the Bauhaus movement protagonists who settled in the USA. Other artists were murdered, retreated from public life or put away their brushes and paints forever. In Quedlinburg a fine collection of works by Lyonel Feininger survived thanks to a local citizen, who hid them from the Nazis.
Abstract expressionism, surrealism, Dadaism and other forms of modern art were considered ‘Jewish subversion’ and ‘artistic Bolshevism’ in the eyes of the Nazis and classified as entartet (degenerate). The art promoted instead looked back to a classical Greek and Roman aesthetic and favoured the depicting of racial purity and the use of epic styles.
In 1937, 650 paintings by 112 artists, including Klee, Beckmann, Dix, Kirchner, Marc and Grosz, were put on display in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. It was to serve as a counterpoint to the simultaneous Great German Art exhibition at Munich's palatial Haus der Deutschen Kunst, which showcased Nazi-approved art by such artists as the sculptors Arno Breker and Georg Kolbe and painters Thomas Baumgartner and Ivo Saliger. With only 600,000 visitors, interest was low compared with the degenerate art show, which drew over two million people.
A year later, a law was passed allowing for the forced removal of degenerate works from private collections. While some art collectors saved their prized art from Nazi hands, many pieces were sold abroad for foreign currency. In 1939, about 4000 paintings were publicly burned in Berlin.
Modern & Contemporary
After WWII, Germany's art scene was as fragmented as the country itself. In the East, artists were forced to toe the socialist realism line, at least until the late 1960s, when artists of the so-called Berliner Schule (Berlin School), including Manfred Böttcher and Harald Metzkes, sought to embrace a more interpretative and emotional form of expression, inspired by the colours and aesthetic of Beckmann, Matisse, Picasso and other classical modernists. In the 1970s, when conflicts of the individual in society became a prominent theme, underground galleries flourished in East Berlin and art became a collective endeavour. The Museum Junge Kunst in Frankfurt (Oder) presents a thorough survey of art created in the GDR.
In West Germany, the creative influence of expressionists such as Emil Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff and Kandinsky was revived, as a new abstract expressionism took root in the work of Stuttgart’s Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay in Berlin. Soon, however, artists eagerly embraced abstract art. Pioneers included Zone 5, which revolved around Hans Thiemann, and surrealists Heinz Trökes and Mac Zimmermann. In the 1950s and 1960s, Düsseldorf-based Gruppe Zero (Group Zero) plugged into Bauhaus, using light and space as a creative basis. The ‘light ballets’ of Otto Piene, relying on projection techniques, were among the best-known works. Celle’s Kunstmuseum uses some of his light works for stunning effect.
In the 1960s social and political upheaval was a primary concern and a new style called ‘critical realism’ emerged, propagated by artists including Ulrich Baehr, Hans-Jürgen Diehl and Wolfgang Petrick. The 1973 movement Schule der Neuen Prächtigkeit (School of New Magnificence) had a similar approach. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, expressionism found its way back onto the canvasses of Salomé, Helmut Middendorf and Rainer Fetting, a group known as the Junge Wilde (Young Wild Ones). One of the best-known German neo-expressionist painters is Georg Baselitz, who became internationally famous in the 1970s, thanks to his 'upside-down' works.
Another top contemporary German artist is Anselm Kiefer, some of whose works are in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art. A standout is his monumental Census (1967), which consists of massive lead folios arranged on shelves as a protest against a 1967 census in Germany.
The same museum also has a large permanent display of works by Düsseldorf’s Joseph Beuys (1921–86), the enfant terrible of the post-WWII German art world and yet one of the most influential artists of the period. Beuys created a huge body of work that ranges from drawing, sculpture and installations to print-making and performance. His personal and provocative style created controversy wherever he lay his trademark hat and ultimately led to his dismissal from the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he had been a professor. Other places with sizeable Beuys holdings include Darmstadt’s Hessisches Landesmuseum (including his ground-breaking Stuhl mit Fett; Chair with Fat; 1963), the K20 Grabbeplatz in Düsseldorf and Schloss Moyland, near Kalkar, in North Rhine–Westphalia.
Other icons of contemporary German painting include Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Richter, who was born in Dresden and fled to West Germany in the early 1960s, made a huge splash in 2007 with a mesmerising stained-glass window in Cologne's cathedral. Polke, along with Richter and others, relied heavily on pop art and what they dubbed ‘capitalist realism’, which they used to describe a counterbalance in the West to socialist realism. Another heavy hitter, albeit from a younger generation, is Rosemarie Trockel, whose diverse and experimental works include drawings, sculpture, painting and video art. The Museum Ludwig in Cologne has works by her, as well as by Richter and Polke.
In the 1990s, the Neue Leipziger Schule (New Leipzig School) of artists emerged, achieving success at home and abroad with such superstar painters as Neo Rauch. Its return to representational painting may be regarded as a reaction to the dominance of conceptual art in previous decades.
These days, abstraction has again become a focus, with a particular nod to its roots in modernism. There is no particular style but a diversity of expression and an idiosyncratic, personal approach to art. Underlying themes include the commercialisation of art and critical awareness of the impact of technology. Artists to keep an eye on include André Butzer, Isa Genzken, Thomas Zipp, Georg Herold, Alexandra Bircken, Jutta Köther, Max Frisinger and Corinne Wasmuht.
Photography is another area where Germany has long made a splash. In the 1920s and '30s, German photographers took two very different directions. Influenced by the Hungarian László Maholy-Nagy, some adopted a playful approach to light, figure, form and how they developed the resulting images in the darkroom. The other direction was a documentary-style New Objectivity, whose main protagonists were Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander and Werner Mantz.
Key contemporary photographers Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer honed their skills under Bernd Becher at Düsseldorf’s Art Academy. Gursky’s work, which can be seen in Cologne’s Museum Ludwig (among others), encompasses superb images of architecture, landscapes and interiors, sometimes reworked digitally. Works by Höfer and other Becher students graces Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, along with the often provocative images of Wolfgang Tillmans.