During the centuries when Germany was a collection of medium-and small-sized states, wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of the nobility, landed gentry, and wealthy merchants in the cities. With the collapse of the German Empire in 1918, the nobility and landed gentry suffered a major setback, but they still retained much power and influence. During the interwar years, however, much political power devolved to representatives of other classes. A vivid illustration of the transfer of power was former army corporal Adolf Hitler's assumption of the German presidency following the death of General Paul von Hindenburg in 1934.
The old propertied and monied elites suffered an additional loss of power after World War II. In the new worker-dominated GDR, they saw their property confiscated and their power evaporate. West German society was transformed by the rapidly expanding social market economy and the migration of millions of displaced persons from the east, many of whom were well educated and capable. Some of the old elite and their offspring retained positions of influence (most notably in the military and the diplomatic corps), but to an extent greater than ever before, the elite class became open to society as a whole.
According to Geissler, Germany's elite numbers just a few thousand, less than 1 percent of the population, but its influence far outweighs its numbers. The elite consists of persons occupying key positions in such social sectors as business, politics, labor unions, the civil service, the media, and the churches. Membership in the elite is based on performance and is rarely inherited. For this reason, Germany's elite is pluralist in nature because members of lower social strata can enter it by rising to the top of a social sector. The openness of elite positions varies. Sons of workers routinely come to hold high positions in labor unions or in the SPD, but rarely in banking or the diplomatic corps. A vital criterion for advancement is a university degree, most notably a law degree, because about one-third of Germany's elite consists of lawyers.
Entry into East Germany's elite was determined almost exclusively by ideological considerations. Small and entrenched, the East German elite has been characterized as monopolistic, in contrast to that of the West German elite, where numerous groups shared or competed for power. Most of the GDR elite has lost power since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, a new elite similar to the pluralistic elite of the old Lšnder is forming in the new Lšnder .
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