PEOPLE HAVE DWELLED for thousands of years in the territory now occupied by the Federal Republic of Germany. The first significant written account of this area's inhabitants is Germania, written about A.D. 98 by the Roman historian Tacitus. The Germanic tribes he describes are believed to have come from Scandinavia to Germany about 100 B.C., perhaps induced to migrate by overpopulation. The Germanic tribes living to the west of the Rhine River and south of the Main River were soon subdued by the Romans and incorporated into the Roman Empire. Tribes living to the east and north of these rivers remained free but had more or less friendly relations with the Romans for several centuries. Beginning in the fourth century A.D., new westward migrations of eastern peoples caused the Germanic tribes to move into the Roman Empire, which by the late fifth century ceased to exist.
One of the largest Germanic tribes, the Franks, came to control the territory that was to become France and much of what is now western Germany and Italy. In A.D. 800 their ruler, Charlemagne, was crowned in Rome by the pope as emperor of all of this territory. Because of its vastness, Charlemagne's empire split into three kingdoms within two generations, the inhabitants of the West Frankish Kingdom speaking an early form of French and those in the East Frankish Kingdom speaking an early form of German. The tribes of the eastern kingdom--Franconians, Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, and several others--were ruled by descendants of Charlemagne until 911, when they elected a Franconian, Conrad I, to be their king. Some historians regard Conrad's election as the beginning of what can properly be considered German history.
German kings soon added the Middle Kingdom to their realm and adjudged themselves rulers of what would later be called the Holy Roman Empire. In 962 Otto I became the first of the German kings crowned emperor in Rome. By the middle of the next century, the German lands ruled by the emperors were the richest and most politically powerful part of Europe. German princes stopped the westward advances of the Magyar tribe, and Germans began moving eastward to begin a long process of colonization. During the next few centuries, however, the great expense of the wars to maintain the empire against its enemies, chiefly other German princes and the wealthy and powerful papacy and its allies, depleted Germany's wealth and slowed its development. Unlike France or England, where a central royal power was slowly established over regional princes, Germany remained divided into a multitude of smaller entities often warring with one another or in combinations against the emperors. None of the local princes, or any of the emperors, were strong enough to control Germany for a sustained period.
Germany's so-called particularism, that is, the existence within it of many states of various sizes and kinds, such as principalities, electorates, ecclesiastical territories, and free cities, became characteristic by the early Middle Ages and persisted until 1871, when the country was finally united. This disunity was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which ended Germany's religious unity by converting many Germans to Lutheranism and Calvinism. For several centuries, adherents to these two varieties of Protestantism viewed each other with as much hostility and suspicion as they did Roman Catholics. For their part, Catholics frequently resorted to force to defend themselves against Protestants or to convert them. As a result, Germans were divided not only by territory but also by religion.
The terrible destruction of the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48, a war partially religious in nature, reduced German particularism, as did the reforms enacted during the age of enlightened absolutism (1648-1789) and later the growth of nationalism and industrialism in the nineteenth century. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna stipulated that the several hundred states existing in Germany before the French Revolution be replaced with thirty-eight states, some of them quite small. In subsequent decades, the two largest of these states, Austria and Prussia, vied for primacy in a Germany that was gradually unifying under a variety of social and economic pressures. The politician responsible for German unification was Otto von Bismarck, whose brilliant diplomacy and ruthless practice of statecraft secured Prussian hegemony in a united Germany in 1871. The new state, proclaimed the German Empire, did not include Austria and its extensive empire of many non-German territories and peoples.
Imperial Germany prospered. Its economy grew rapidly, and by the turn of the century it rivaled Britain's in size. Although the empire's constitution did not provide for a political system in which the government was responsible to parliament, political parties were founded that represented the main social groups. Roman Catholic and socialist parties contended with conservative and progressive parties and with a conservative monarchy to determine how Germany should be governed.
After Bismarck's dismissal in 1890 by the young emperor Wilhelm II, Germany stepped up its competition with other European states for colonies and for what it considered its proper place among the great states. An aggressive program of military expansion instilled fear of Germany in its neighbors. Several decades of military and colonial competition and a number of diplomatic crises made for a tense international atmosphere by 1914. In the early summer of that year, Germany's rulers acted on the belief that their country's survival depended on a successful war against Russia and France. German strategists felt that a war against these countries had to be waged by 1916 if it were to be won because after that year Russian and French military reforms would be complete, making German victory doubtful. This logic led Germany to get drawn into a war between its ally Austria-Hungary and Russia. Within weeks, a complicated system of alliances escalated that regional conflict into World War I, which ended with Germany's defeat in November 1918.
The Weimar Republic, established at war's end, was the first attempt to institute parliamentary democracy in Germany. The republic never enjoyed the wholehearted support of many Germans, however, and from the start it was under savage attack from elements of the left and, more important, from the right. Moreover, it was burdened during its fifteen-year existence with serious economic problems. During the second half of the 1920s, when foreign loans fed German prosperity, parliamentary politics functioned better, yet many of the established elites remained hostile to it. With the onset of the Great Depression, parliamentary politics became impossible, and the government ruled by decree. Economic crisis favored extremist politicians, and Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party became the strongest party after the summer elections of 1932. In January 1933, the republic's elected president, Paul von Hindenburg, the World War I army commander, named a government headed by Hitler.
Within a few months, Hitler accomplished the "legal revolution" that removed his opponents. By 1935 his regime had transformed Germany into a totalitarian state. Hitler achieved notable economic and diplomatic successes during the first five years of his rule. However, in September 1939 he made a fatal gamble by invading Poland and starting World War II. The eventual defeat of Hitler's Third Reich in 1945 occurred only after the loss of tens of millions of lives, many from military causes, many from sickness and starvation, and many from what has come to be called the Holocaust.
1945 to 1990
GERMANY WAS UNITED ON OCTOBER 3, 1990. This event came after forty-five years of division that had begun with the partition of Germany into four occupation zones following its defeat in 1945 by the Four Powers--the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Once a powerful nation, Germany lay vanquished at the end of World War II. The war's human cost had been staggering. Millions of Germans had died or had suffered terribly during the conflict, both in combat and on the home front. Intensive Allied bombing raids, invasions, and subsequent social upheaval had forced millions of Germans from their homes. Not since the ravages of the Thirty Years' War had Germans experienced such misery. Beyond the physical destruction, Germans had been confronted with the moral devastation of defeat.
Germans refer to the immediate aftermath of the war as the Stunde Null (Zero Hour), the point in time when Germany ceased to exist as a state and the rebuilding of the country would begin. At first, Germany was administered by the Four Powers, each with its own occupation zone. In time, Germans themselves began to play a role in the governing of these zones. Political parties were formed, and, within months of the war's end, the first elections were held. Although most people were concerned with mere physical survival, much was accomplished in rebuilding cities, fashioning a new economy, and integrating the millions of refugees from the eastern areas of Germany that had been lost after the war.
Overshadowing these events within Germany, however, was the gradual emergence of the Cold War during the second half of the 1940s. By the decade's end, the two superpowers--the United States and the Soviet Union--had faced off in an increasingly ideological confrontation. The Iron Curtain between them cut Germany in two. Although the Allies' original plans envisioned that Germany would remain a single state, Western and Eastern concepts of political, social, and economic organization gradually led the three Western zones to join together, becoming separate from the Soviet zone and ultimately leading to the formation in 1949 of two German states. The three Western occupation zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany), and the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany).
During the next four decades, the two states led separate existences. West Germany joined the Western community of nations, while East Germany became the westernmost part of the Soviet empire. The two German states, with a common language and history, were separated by the mutual suspicion and hostility of the superpowers. In the mid-1950s, both German states rearmed. The FRG's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, became a vital part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The GDR's National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee--NVA) became a key component of the Warsaw Pact. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 by the GDR further divided the two states.
In West Germany, by the early 1950s a system of parliamentary democracy with free and contending political parties was firmly established. The Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU), along with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU), led the coalitions that governed West Germany at the national level for two decades until late 1969. In that year, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD) formed the first of a series of coalition governments with the Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei--FDP) that governed the country until 1982. Late that year, the SPD was ousted from power when the CDU/CSU and the FDP formed a new coalition government. These parties ruled for the rest of the 1980s. As successful, however, as West Germany's adoption of democratic politics had been after 1945, the country's economic recovery was so strong that it was commonly referred to as the "economic miracle " (Wirtschaftswunder ). By the 1960s, West Germany was among the world's wealthiest countries, and by the 1990s, Germany's economy and central bank played the leading role in Europe's economy.
East Germany was not so fortunate. A socialist dictatorship was put in place and carefully watched by its Soviet masters. As in the Soviet Union, political opposition was suppressed, the press censored, and the economy owned and controlled by the state. East Germany's economy performed modestly when compared with that of West Germany, but of all the socialist economies it was the most successful. Unlike West Germany, East Germany was not freely supported by its citizens. Indeed, force was needed to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West. Although some consolidation of the GDR was assured by the construction of the Berlin Wall, the GDR remained an artificial entity maintained by Soviet military power. Once this support was withdrawn, the GDR collapsed.
During the four decades of division, relations between the two German states were reserved and sometimes hostile. Despite their common language and history, the citizens of the two states had limited direct contact with one another. At times, during the 1960s, for example, contact was reduced to a minimum. During the 1970s, however, the two peoples began to mix more freely as their governments negotiated treaties that made relations between the two states more open. During the 1980s, although relations continued to improve and contacts between the two peoples became more frequent, persons attempting to flee from East Germany still died along its mined borders, GDR officials continued to harass and arrest dissidents, and the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED) rigidly controlled political life.
A key reason for the collapse of the GDR was the poor performance of its state-owned and centrally directed economy. The efforts of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, beginning in the mid-1980s, to liberalize the Soviet Union and reform its economy were met with hostility by the GDR's top leadership. Word of these measures nevertheless reached East German grassroots opposition groups. Encouraged by the waves of reform in the Soviet Union and in neighboring socialist states, opposition in the East German population grew and became more and more vocal, despite increased state repression. By the second half of 1989, the East German opposition consisted of a number of groups with a variety of aims and was strong enough to stage large demonstrations.
The massive flow of East Germans to the West through neighboring socialist countries in the summer and fall of 1989, particularly through Hungary, was telling evidence that the GDR did not have the support of its citizens. Public opposition to the regime became ever more open and demanding. In late 1989, confronted with crushing economic problems, unable to control the borders of neighboring states, and told by the Soviet leadership not to expect outside help in quelling domestic protest, the GDR leadership resigned in the face of massive and constantly growing public demonstrations. After elections in the spring of 1990, the critics of the SED regime took over the government. On October 3, 1990, the GDR ceased to exist, and its territory and people were joined to the FRG. The division of Germany that had lasted decades was ended.
|Country Studies main page | Germany Country Studies main page|