Federal Republic of Germany - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Federal Republic of Germany

Federal Republic of Germany (German Bundesrepublik Deutschland), major industrialized nation in Central Europe, a federal union of 16 states (Länder). Germany has a long, complex history and rich culture, but it was not unified as a nation until 1871. Before that time, Germany had been a confederacy (1815-1867) and, before 1806, a collection of separate and quite different principalities. Today, Germany is overwhelmingly urban. Berlin is the capital and largest city.

Germany has a varied terrain that ranges from low-lying coastal flats along the North and Baltic seas, to a central area of rolling hills and river valleys, to heavily forested mountains and snow-covered Alps in the south. Several of Europe’s most important rivers, including the Rhine, Danube, and Elbe, traverse the country and have helped make Germany a transportation center.

Germans have made numerous noteworthy contributions to Western culture. Among the many outstanding German authors, artists, architects, musicians, and philosophers, the composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven are probably the best known the world over. German literary greats include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Thomas Mann.

A major industrialized nation, Germany is home to one of the world’s largest economies. The country is an economic powerhouse in the European Union (EU), and a driving force behind greater economic integration and cooperation throughout Europe.

Germany’s central location in Europe has made it a crossroads for many peoples, ideas, and armies throughout history. Present-day Germany originated from the AD 843 division of the Carolingian empire, which also included France and a middle section stretching from the North Sea to northern Italy. For centuries, Germany was a collection of states mostly held together as a loose feudal association. From the 16th century on, the German states became increasingly involved in European wars and religious struggles. In the early 19th century, French conquest of the German states started a movement toward German national unification, and in 1815, led by the state of Prussia, the German states formed a confederacy that lasted until 1867 (see German Confederation).

Once unified under Otto von Bismarck in 1871, Germany experienced rapid industrialization and economic growth. During the early 20th century Germany embarked on a quest for European dominance, leading it into World War I. Germany’s defeat in 1918 triggered political and economic chaos. An ultranationalist reaction gave rise to the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, which gained power in the 1930s under German leader Adolf Hitler. In 1939 Nazi Germany plunged the world into a new global conflict, World War II.

In 1945 the Allied Powers of the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) defeated Germany in World War II. The Allies agreed to divide the country into four zones of occupation: the British, American, French, and Soviet zones. When the wartime alliance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union broke up in the late 1940s, the Soviet zone became the Communist-led German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. The three Western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany. Control of Germany’s historic capital of Berlin was also divided between the two German states, despite its location deep within East Germany. In 1961 East Germany built the Berlin Wall and other elaborate border fortifications to stop the exodus of millions of East Germans to the more prosperous and democratic West Germany.

In 1989 Germans from the East and West breached the Berlin Wall, an event that symbolized the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the beginning of German reunification. Amid joyful celebrations, the two Germanys were reunited on October 3, 1990, as the Federal Republic of Germany. However, Germany faced long-term social and economic challenges as it absorbed millions of new citizens and sought to blend different cultures and institutions. Its difficulties included chronic high unemployment and reduced levels of economic growth.


Germany has a total area of 357,114 sq km (137,883 sq mi), which makes it the fifth largest European country after Ukraine, France, Spain, and Sweden. Germany is bounded on the north by the North Sea, Denmark, and the Baltic Sea; on the east by Poland and the Czech Republic; on the south by Austria and Switzerland; and on the west by France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Stretching from the Baltic and North seas to the Alps, Germany measures 800 km (500 mi) from north to south; the country extends 600 km (400 mi) from west to east. In addition to coastline and mountains, the varied terrain includes forests, hills, plains, and river valleys. Several navigable rivers traverse the uplands, and canals connect the river systems of the Elbe, Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers and link the North Sea with the Baltic.

Natural Regions in Germany

Germany has three major natural regions: a lowland plain in the north, an area of uplands in the center, and a mountainous area in the south. The northern lowlands, called the North German Plain, lie along and between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and extend southward into eastern Germany. The lowest point in Germany is sea level along the coast, where there are areas of dunes and marshland. Off the coast are several islands, including the Frisian Islands, Helgoland, and Rügen. The flat area was originally formed by glacial action during the Ice Age and includes an alluvial belt, southwest of Berlin, which is Germany’s richest farming area. Farther west, this belt supported the development of the coal and steel industries of the Ruhr Valley in cities such as Essen and Dortmund. Historically, the north German lowlands have been wide open to invasions, migrations, and trade with Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. East of the Elbe River, they also sustained large-scale agriculture and huge feudal estates once owned by the Prussian aristocratic elite.

The central uplands feature mountain ranges of modest height, separated by river valleys. Navigable rivers facilitated economic development by providing inexpensive transportation before the age of railroads and trucking. This region is located between the latitude of the city of Nürnberg and the Main River in the south and the latitude of Hannover in the north. Much of it is heavily forested and exploited for its timber. The region is marked by an abundance of waterpower. Intense cultivation and industrial development have occurred in cities such as Dresden and Kassel, located in the river valleys.

The mountainous region, or Alpine zone, in the south includes the Swabian and Franconian mountains, the foothills of the Alps, and two large forests, the Black Forest in the southwest and the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest in the east. Germany’s highest point is Zugspitze (2,962 m/9,718 ft) in the Bavarian Alps. Major cities in this area include Stuttgart and Munich. The region has traditionally relied on small-scale agriculture and tourism, but many high-technology industries developed there during the late 20th century.

Rivers and Lakes in Germany

Rivers have played a major role in Germany’s economic development. The Rhine River flows in a northwesterly direction from Switzerland through much of western Germany and the Netherlands into the North Sea. It is a major European waterway and a pillar of commerce and trade. Its primary German tributaries include the Main, Mosel, Neckar, and Ruhr rivers.

The Oder (Odra) River, along the border between Poland and Germany, runs northward and empties into the Baltic; it provides another important path for waterborne freight. The Elbe River originates in the Czech mountains and traverses eastern and western Germany toward the northwest until it empties into the North Sea at the large seaport of Hamburg. The Danube River connects southern Germany with Austria and Eastern Europe. Since the recent construction of the Rhine-Danube Canal, freight can be transported by barge from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Smaller rivers such as the Neisse and Weser also play a significant role as transport routes. There are several large lakes, including the Lake of Constance (Bodensee) in extreme southwest Germany and the glacial moraine lakes of Bavaria, but none of them have rivaled the importance of rivers in German economic development.

Coastline of Germany

Germany’s coastline along the North Sea is characterized by vast stretches of tidal flats and several important seaports, including Hamburg, Bremerhaven, and Emden. Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, is traversed by the vital Kiel Canal, which carries freight between the Baltic and North seas, eliminating the need for a shipping route around Denmark. Major seaports of the German Baltic coast include Kiel and Rostock. The coastline also features recreation areas, some on small islands off both coasts.

Plant and Animal Life in Germany

Once a country of thick forests, Germany today includes mostly areas that have been cleared for centuries. However, forest conservation since the 18th century has preserved large areas of oak, ash, elm, beech, birch, pine, fir, and larch. About one-third of the country is woodland.

Of the many animals that once roamed the forests, deer, red fox, hare, and weasel are still common, but these animals and wilder game such as wild boar, wildcat, and badger depend increasingly on conservation efforts. Private hunting licenses are very expensive, and even fishing in the streams and lakes where edible species abound is not encouraged. Instead, there is a good deal of fish farming, including trout and carp; deer are also raised commercially to satisfy the demand for venison. Many species of songbirds migrate to Germany every year, as do storks, geese, and other larger fowl that fly in over the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. Herring, flounder, cod, and ocean perch are found in coastal waters.

Natural Resources of Germany

The presence of coal and iron ore encouraged German industrial development in the late 19th century. Most of the deposits were found in close proximity to one another, allowing for the convenient use of coal as fuel first to process the iron into steel and then to manufacture products from the steel. The availability of inexpensive transport by water, and later by land, facilitated the growth of manufacturing and encouraged exports. The presence of certain minerals in great quantity, such as potash and salt, permitted the development of a chemical industry, including the production of fertilizers and pharmaceuticals. The availability of wood, petroleum, natural gas, brown coal (also known as lignite), and waterpower further smoothed the path of German industrial progress.

Climate in Germany

Germany has a mostly moderate climate, characterized by cool winters and warm summers. River valleys such as that of the Rhine tend to be humid and somewhat warmer in both winter and summer, whereas mountain areas can be much colder. Precipitation on the average is much heavier in the south, especially along the Alpine slopes, which force incoming weather fronts to rise and shed their moisture in the form of rain and snow.

Environmental Issues in Germany

Germany is located amid other heavily industrial nations whose air pollution and water pollution enter the country with the wind and rain, and in the rivers. Also every summer many automobiles, including those from other European countries, drive across Germany’s autobahn on their way to vacations in southern Europe. Among Germany’s homegrown environmental problems, the most important are probably those connected with industrial overdevelopment and automobile traffic.

A densely settled country, Germany has limited land, air, and water in which to bury and dissipate all the toxic wastes produced by its intensive industrial development. Pollutants released by factories and automobile exhausts are blamed for the widespread destruction of forests from acid rain. Agricultural development results in fertilizer and pesticide runoff into lakes and streams, contaminating the groundwater supply. Germany also received some nuclear fallout at the time of the 1986 Chernobyl’ reactor meltdown in Ukraine (Chernobyl’ Accident). Public resistance halted the development of nuclear energy in Germany as people objected to the proposed sites of nuclear plants.

With unification, West Germany inherited the enormous pollution problems of East Germany, whose government had not dealt with serious environmental damage. Among the worst problems were the open remnants from strip mining and the legacy of the chemical industry, both located in southern East Germany. The poisoning of soil and groundwater by uncontrolled industrial and agricultural development required enormous expenditures for cleanup. The burning of brown coal, the only kind of coal abundant in East Germany, has led to health problems, including respiratory ailments and lung and heart disease.

Germany has developed a number of measures to address environmental problems, ranging from controls on industrial emissions to identification of additives in food to smog control devices on vehicles. In the 1970s an environmental protest movement developed, and the Green Party—a political party that focuses on environmental issues—was formed. These two events led the major political parties to devote more attention to the environment because they felt they had to compete with the Green Party. The most remarkable result of this increased environmental awareness was the development of an “eco-industry,” a new manufacturing sector that makes pollution-control devices and other environmentally useful equipment. This industry has also produced new jobs, helping counter the fears of both trade unions and existing industries that environmental controls would cost jobs and handicap business. In addition, Germany has ratified various international environmental agreements on air pollution, biodiversity, global warming, endangered species, oceans, the ozone layer, wetlands, and whaling.


Germany has a total population of 82,329,758 (2009 estimate). As is the case in many industrialized countries, the German population has grown substantially older, on average, since the early 20th century. This is a result of declining birth rates and the shrinking of family size as Germans have chosen to have fewer children. In addition, the numbers of single-parent and one-person households are increasing.

The German population is overwhelmingly urban. Germany has more than three dozen cities exceeding 200,000 residents, and 12 metropolises with more than 500,000 residents. Three of Germany’s federal states are city-states: Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg. Berlin is the capital and largest city.

Germany’s population density is highest in the northwest, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen), which includes Germany’s old industrial heartland, the Ruhr Valley, and a number of large cities. Population density is lower in the former East Germany and in the more rural states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), and Bavaria.

Ethnic Groups in Germany

Several ethnic minorities live in Germany, including the Danes of northern Schleswig-Holstein and the Sorbs of southeastern Brandenburg, who are descended from the Slavic tribes called the Wends. The largest group of foreign residents in Germany is Turkish. Although more than a million refugees from Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, sought asylum in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, only about 5 percent were granted asylum. Immigrants have also arrived in Germany from the original member countries of the European Union (EU), such as Italy, Spain, and Greece.

Immigration in Germany

As a result of being defeated in World War I and World War II, Germany lost large areas of land. After World War II, many ethnic Germans fled from lost territories and East European countries to what remained of Germany. About 8 million refugees fled from East Prussia, the Czech Sudetenland, and the region between the Oder and Neisse rivers in Poland. About another 3 million ethnic Germans fled from Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Most of these ethnic Germans had lived for centuries in Eastern Europe. However, during and after the wars they were driven out, often violently, with the loss of an estimated 2 million German lives. This process began with the collapse of the German Empire (see German Unification) and Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the establishment of East European countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. The failed attempt of the Nazi Party to reconquer and expand German ethnic dominance by force led to the final flight and expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe.

Once they arrived from their trek to East and West Germany, these millions of ethnic German refugees were rapidly integrated into German society. Many refugees continued to move from rural to urban areas, and from east to west as 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.

A second great population movement began in the 1950s as the rapidly expanding West German economy demanded a larger labor supply. To meet this demand, West Germany looked outside the country to fill labor needs. From 1955, under bilateral treaties with various countries that had underemployment, West Germany brought in thousands of so-called guest workers on limited-term contracts to work for a few years. When Germany’s economic growth slowed in the early 1970s, West Germany stopped foreign recruitment and expected the guest workers to return to their home countries. However, most of them—including large numbers of workers from Turkey and Yugoslavia—did not leave. In addition, many workers had brought their families with them to share in Germany’s opportunities, living standards, and welfare benefits.

During the 1980s and 1990s Germany continued to experience waves of migration. The disintegration of Eastern European Communist regimes led ethnic Germans from as far away as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, and Romania to seek a new life in Germany, where the Basic Law offers them instant citizenship even if they do not speak the language. The crumbling of Communist rule in East Germany was also accompanied by a massive migration of East Germans to West Germany. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people a year from Sri Lanka, Lebanon, West Africa, and other regions sought refuge in Germany under Article 16 of the Basic Law, which provides asylum for victims of political persecution.

Some Germans have not welcomed these immigrants; many believe that the immigrants came only to participate in Germany’s high living standards. Official responses to these different kinds of immigration challenges have been varied and at times inconsistent, especially since Germany is a federal country and different states and cities have widely varying labor needs and problems. Ethnic German “resettlers” and East German migrants encountered prejudice even though they are German citizens. Asylum-seekers were kept in hostels all over the country, barred from jobs and social integration while individual cases for political asylum were examined. This process sometimes took years and resulted in large numbers of people being turned away. Restrictive immigration procedures adopted in the early 1990s reduced the number of annual asylum-seekers by two-thirds. With the expansion of the EU in 2004 to include new eastern European members, limits were placed on the right of EU nationals to seek employment in Germany. But German immigration laws were loosened in 2005 to attract skilled workers from non-EU countries.

The great influx of foreigners in the early 1990s, especially illegal aliens and asylum-seekers, coincided with the collapse of the East German Communist regime. Unification brought numerous economic and social problems to Germany, including increased taxes, budget deficits, housing shortages, strikes and demonstrations, high unemployment, and rising crime rates. Enormous social changes and economic fears brought xenophobia (fear of foreigners) to the surface. While an angry public focused on the unwelcome strangers and competitors for scarce housing and other benefits, neighborhood youth gangs attacked visible aliens and set fire to their government-assigned housing shelters. At its peak in 1992 this antiforeign violence became the object of extraordinary media concern in Germany and abroad, where it was sometimes interpreted as a sign of German racism and the revival of Nazi activities. Massive counter-demonstrations drew millions of Germans opposed to racism and antiforeign violence. Nevertheless, episodes of racist violence claimed an estimated 100 lives between 1990 and 2000, and continued into the new millennium.

Principal Cities of Germany

Germany’s largest cities tend to be either the capitals of former or present states—for example, Berlin, the capital of former Prussia; Munich, the capital of Bavaria; and Dresden, the capital of Saxony (Sachsen). In addition, many of Germany’s largest cities are centers of important super-regional functions or part of industrial areas. For example, the Rhine-Ruhr area, the center of German heavy industry, is a vast population hub with five large cities: Cologne, Essen, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Duisburg. Because many people live in adjacent areas or towns and commute to the city, each of these urban centers accounts for far more people than just those living within the city limits.

The cores of many of these large cities and many smaller ones are quite old and have maintained their historic centers with authentically preserved old buildings and cathedrals. Many small towns, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber in northern Bavaria, boast medieval towers, gates, and parts of their ancient city walls. Many medium-sized and larger cities also pride themselves on a rich, publicly subsidized cultural life of theater, opera, music festivals, and galleries, which add modern refinement to regional traditions.

Languages spoken in Germany

The principal and official language of Germany is German, an Indo-European language (see German Language). Standard High German is used for official, educational, and literary purposes. Spoken German, however, differs from High German in the form of dozens of distinctive dialects and simplified street usage. One version, Low German, or Plattdeutsch, resembles Dutch and is spoken in the seaboard areas of the northwest. Southern dialects such as Swabian and Bavarian may be hard to understand for North Germans or for foreign visitors who learned only High German in school. There are small language minorities, such as the Sorbs of southeastern Brandenburg and the Danes of northern Schleswig-Holstein; both of these groups also have some cultural autonomy. The various immigrant populations also retain their separate languages, such as Turkish, Greek, Italian, and Polish. However, the public schools require all children to learn German.

Religion in Germany

Religion in Germany plays a fairly small role in society. Church attendance in Germany is much lower than that in the United States. Under German law, all churches are supported by a modest church tax that is collected by the state.

Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion in medieval Germany until the major crises and reformation efforts of the 14th and 15th centuries. After that time, Protestant churches came to power in the majority of principalities of the north, east, and center of the Holy Roman Empire. The actual Reformation began with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses of protest by Martin Luther in 1517. After considerable religious and political conflict, the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 decreed that each ruler of the approximately 300 German principalities could determine the religion of the subjects. The Catholics eventually met the rapid spread of Protestantism with the Counter Reformation, which involved internal church reforms and a stricter interpretation of church doctrine. Religious strife finally culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated the country.

Roman Catholics and Protestants each account for slightly more than a third of the German population. Roman Catholics are mainly concentrated in the south. Protestants, the great majority of whom are Lutherans (see Lutheranism), live primarily in the north. Several German Protestant churches form a loosely organized federation called the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). Muslims (see Islam) make up a small percentage of the population.

Only a very small percentage of Germans are Jewish (See also Judaism). Until the 19th century, the Jewish community was segregated and barred from many activities in most German states. In 19th-century Prussia and with the unification of Germany in 1871, German Jews were granted equal status under the law. At that point, German Jews became integrated into cultural and economic life. More than 500,000 Jews lived in Germany in the early 1930s. By the end of World War II in 1945, most of them had been killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust or had fled the country. By 1970 only about 33,000 Jews lived in Germany. With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, tens of thousands of East European and Russian Jews began to settle in the larger cities of Germany, particularly Berlin. Today, due to in part to an immigration policy that generally grants visas to Jews from formerly Communist states, Germany is home to one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in Europe, now numbering more than 200,000, according to the German government. However, many of the Jews from Eastern Europe no longer practice their religion.

Education in Germany

Full-time school attendance in Germany is free and mandatory from age 6 to age 14, after which most children either continue in secondary schools or participate in vocational education until the age of 18. Kindergarten is not part of the public school system, although before unification East Germany had a nearly universal system of childcare facilities. Under the treaty of unification, the East German public education system was required to conform to the model in use in West Germany.

Education in Germany is under the jurisdiction of the individual state governments, which results in a great deal of variation. Most states in the former West Germany have a three-track system that begins with four years of Grundschule (primary school), attended by all children between the ages of 6 and 9. After this period, a child’s further educational program is determined during two “orientation grades” (ages 10 and 11). Those who are university-bound then enter a track of rigorous preparatory secondary education by attending a highly competitive, academic Gymnasium (junior and senior high school). Many Gymnasium students leave school at age 16 to pursue business careers. Others graduate at age 19 after passing a week-long examination called the Abitur. If they pass, they receive a certificate, which is a prerequisite for entering a university. The Gymnasium has three alternative focuses: Greek and Latin, modern languages, and mathematics and science. Only about one-tenth of German students graduate from the Gymnasium.

The overwhelming majority of German students attend either a six-year Realschule (postprimary school), which offers a mixture of business and academic training, or a five-year Hauptschule (general school) followed by further skills training and on-the-job experience in a three-year vocational program, or Berufsschule. From age 14 nearly all Realschule and Hauptschule students, both male and female, enroll in trade apprenticeship programs, which combine training in workshops, factories, or businesses with vocational schooling. Apprentices are supervised by a trade master and must demonstrate their mastery of the trade in examinations.

Since the German three-track system has often been accused of conforming to class distinctions, some states have opted instead for a comprehensive high school system that combines all the tracks within the same institution. The result is somewhat similar to an American high school, but far more competitive. Before unification, East Germany’s polytechnic high schools also provided a comprehensive program. Since 1990, East German education has moved in the direction of West German models.

The Abitur is required for university entrance but there are alternative routes to it. Some students are permitted to change from one kind of school to another during the course of their education. Such midcourse changes are easiest at comprehensive high schools. Those who opt for three years of vocational training after tenth grade can also go on to specialized trade colleges, or Fachhochschulen. Schools of continuing education for adults, such as the many Volkshochschulen (German for “people’s colleges”), offer a variety of adult education courses and have some programs leading to diplomas.

Enrollments at German universities have quadrupled since the 1960s, which has caused the expansion of many old universities and the building of a number of new ones. Germany has quite a few venerable old universities, such as those of Heidelberg, Freiburg, Munich, Tübingen, and Marburg.


The German people have made many noteworthy cultural contributions. However, the antecedents of contemporary German art, music, and literature are so thoroughly embedded in the broader European intellectual traditions as to defy most attempts to separate any specifically German cultural roots. A visitor, for example, can see abundant evidence of early medieval art and architecture in the many splendid cathedrals, monasteries, and castles of Germany, but these follow the same styles and style periods that are be found in other European countries—Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and so on. German literature and music were similarly part of the larger European culture.

Literature in Germany

From the beginnings of Germany in the 9th century through the Middle Ages, classical Latin was the language of literature and theology in the country. In the 12th and 13th centuries, a vernacular literature appeared, particularly of heroic epics told by wandering minstrel poets. Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan und Isolt (1210) and Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival (about 1210), both of which dealt with Christian themes from the French Arthurian cycle. The two most important epics of the Middle Ages, the Nibelungenlied (about 1200-1210) and the Gudrunlied (about 1210), are based on pagan Germanic traditions.

Two important events—the construction of a printing press using movable type around 1450 by German printer Johannes Gutenberg and the translation of the Bible into German in 1521 by religious reformer Martin Luther—had a profound impact on Western culture as a whole. They also opened new possibilities for a specifically German literature, because they founded a uniform High German language above the regional dialects, and made it accessible to all who could read. Religious unrest and the Thirty Years’ War put an end to most German literary efforts until a revival occurred in the 18th century.

One of the first writers to stand out beyond Germany was 18th-century dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, whose play Nathan the Wise (1779; translated 1781) argued for religious toleration. Philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried von Herder was an important contemporary of Lessing. The revival of German literature was marked by two great literary movements, classicism and romanticism, which were united in the works of Germany’s greatest poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The lyrical poetry and novels of Goethe and his drama Faust (1808-1832; translated 1834) and the plays and poems of Schiller brought together classical form and the romantic emotions that marked much of the literature to come. The great inspiration for this golden age of German literature was classical antiquity, which was considered admirable for its balance and perfection. The romantics, on the other hand, often used German folk materials, such as medieval history and the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers. Ancient Greek poetry inspired the romantic poems of Friedrich Hölderlin. The brothers August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Friedrich von Schlegel edited Athenaeum, which was the chief journal of the romantic movement, translated Shakespeare, and produced literary works based on classical antiquity.

In the mid-1800s the new literary schools of naturalism and symbolism developed. Naturalism regarded human behavior as controlled by instinct, social and economic conditions, and biological factors; it rejected free will. Naturalist playwright Gerhart Hauptmann explored hereditary factors that shaped the individual, while the work of symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke was marked by mystic lyricism and imagery. Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal created aesthetic moods. Great German novelists of the early 1900s include Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain (1924; translated 1927) and other famous novels, and Alfred Döblin, who is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929; translated 1931). The most influential expressionist writer was Franz Kafka, whose novels and short stories present a world of oppression and despair.

Social criticism was also a common theme in the early 1900s; it provided the primary focus for the novelist Robert Musil and the playwrights Arthur Schnitzler and Frank Wedekind. In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published the antiwar novel Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), with grimly realistic portraits of World War I. Writers like Hermann Hesse, author of Siddhartha (1922; translated 1951), drew on Indian philosophy and religion. The narrative epic theater of see Bertolt Brecht during the 1920s in Berlin specifically attacked capitalist, bourgeois society. German writing, like many German arts, suffered when the Nazi Party (see National Socialism) took control of Germany in 1933; led by Thomas Mann, many creative minds fled the country and went into exile.

After World War II a new generation of German writers, which called itself Group 47, examined themes of overcoming the Nazi experience. Novelists Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Uwe Johnson led this group. Playwrights Peter Weiss and Peter Handke and poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan made important contributions to German literature in the late 20th century.

Art and Architecture of Germany

Medieval German art and architecture were embedded in the dominant European styles of the time. No monumental painting or sculpture, however, has survived from the earliest period except the 9th-century Carolingian cathedral at Aachen, one of the most important circular buildings in Europe.

The cathedrals of Hildesheim and Magdeburg, the illuminated manuscripts, the sculpture, and the church paintings of the 10th century reflect the spirituality of Byzantine art and architecture. The 11th- and 12th-century cathedrals of Speyer, Goslar, Mainz, and Worms are outstanding examples of the Romanesque style, with rounded arches and dark interiors. The cathedrals of Strasbourg, Trier, and Cologne are fine samples of the Gothic style and its soaring pillars, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. In the 14th century a family of architects and artists, the Parlers, helped spread Gothic designs and sculpture throughout southern Germany, from Ulm to Nürnberg and Prague. During the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, the great German artist Albrecht Dürer created extraordinary woodcuts and copper engravings and pioneered ways of reproducing and disseminating art. Other well-known artists of the time include the painters Matthias Grünewald, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein the Younger, and the superb wood altars and sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider.

Another style, the opulently ornamented baroque, flourished in the Catholic churches and monasteries and the secular palaces of southern Germany and Austria during the 17th and 18th centuries. Its rich ornamentation accompanied the renewed style of the Catholic church service of the Counter Reformation, which was a reaction to the Protestant preference for stripping churches of statuary and paintings of saints. Andreas Schlüter designed the Royal Palace in Berlin in 1706, and architect Balthasar Neumann built the Bishop’s Residence in Würzburg with a great stair hall and a reception room decorated with ceiling paintings.

Outstanding examples of late baroque, or rococo style, include the Wies Church near Munich in southern Bavaria, a vision of light and lightness built by Dominikus Zimmermann, the Benedictine Abbey of Melk on the Danube, and the Royal Zwinger Palace in Dresden, a creation of Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann. Rococo is distinguished by its fanciful use of curves and light, its flowing asymmetric lines, and its pierced shellwork. In the 19th century, great architects such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel designed many of the representative buildings in Berlin, and Gottfried Semper pioneered the revival of Renaissance styles in Dresden and Vienna. Artists of the German romantic period include Caspar David Friedrich, who painted meditative landscapes and seascapes, and Carl Spitzweg, who provided humorous glimpses of small-town life.

At the beginning of the 20th century, German art and architecture developed a range of new styles, beginning with the Jugendstil (see Art Nouveau), whose rich and colorful ornamentation and graceful curves left an indelible imprint on the rest of the century. The Bauhaus school of design, under the direction first of Walter Gropius and later of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, pioneered a functional, severely simple architectural style during the years of the Weimar Republic. The Bauhaus also attracted great abstract painters such as Paul Klee and artists from other countries, including Wassily Kandinsky of Russia and American Lyonel Feininger. In addition, the early 1900s produced the bitter caricatures of George Grosz, the tragic graphic art of Käthe Kollwitz, and the expressionist art of groups such as Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Among the leading expressionists were painters Max Beckmann, who produced highly dramatic and energetic paintings, and Emil Nolde, who used contorted brushwork and raw colors to visually shock the viewer. The Nazis pilloried their work as “degenerate art.” As with German literature, nearly every leading figure in art and architecture fled Germany during the Nazi years, and only a few returned after 1945. In postwar Germany, artists of note include sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys and painter Anselm Kiefer, who explored themes of the German cultural crisis under dictatorship and total war.

Music in Germany

The earliest roots of German music lie in monastic chants and religious music. In the 12th century the mystic abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote stirring compositions and hymns that sought to free musical expression from narrow conventions. From the 12th century to the 14th century, wandering nobles and knights called minnesingers wrote and recited courtly love poems in the tradition of French troubadours and trouvères. Of the approximately 160 known minnesingers from this time period, the most famous are Walther von der Vogelweide and Reinmar von Hagenau. In addition to the minnesingers, a secular folk music tradition also developed. Some collections of student and vagabond songs survive, including the Carmina Burana verses of 13th-century Bavaria, which in the 20th century were set to music by Carl Orff. From the 14th to the 16th century the German middle class favored the rigid musical style composed by the poets and musicians who belonged to the Meistersinger guild.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, polyphonic music, in which simultaneous melodies were interwoven, arrived in Germany in the form of the Protestant chorale. In contrast to the music of the traditional Catholic service, the rousing Protestant chorale became the participant music of the faithful. Protestant leader Martin Luther himself contributed some of the most popular chorales, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to this genre of sacred songs written in the vernacular. Other leading religious composers included Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Pachelbel.

The age of baroque music, with its exuberant ornamentation, began with one of Germany’s greatest composers, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s towering work of the early 1700s was admired for its artistic use of counterpoint. It includes the formal Brandenburg Concertos; four orchestral suites; concertos for violin, keyboard, and various wind instruments; preludes; fugues; and a huge volume of choral works, including his Christmas Oratorio, The Passion of St. Matthew, The Passion of St. John, and many cantatas. He also had two musically talented sons, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who became well-known composers in their own right. Two famous contemporaries of Bach were composers Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel—who wrote more than 40 operas, chamber music, and the famous oratorio Messiah.

By the 1740s princely courts in such cities as Berlin, Dresden, Mannheim, and Vienna had emerged as sponsors of orchestral music and of composers and musicians. In Mannheim, for example, Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz held the post of court composer. In Vienna, the Hungarian Esterházy princes extended their patronage to the immensely gifted and versatile Joseph Haydn, who gave the string quartet (see Chamber Music), the symphony, and the sonata their classic form. In Salzburg and also in Vienna in the late 1700s, child prodigy and musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart experimented with strains of the dominant Italian musical tradition until he developed his own unmistakable graceful and lyrical style. In his short but brilliant life he produced about 50 symphonies; concertos for piano, violin, and wind instruments; masses; and a requiem. His most famous operas, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), and lighter operatic pieces, The Magic Flute (1791) and The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), still dominate the operatic stage.

The age of the French and American revolutions characterized the heroic emotion of the work of Ludwig van Beethoven, a student of Haydn’s in Vienna, who also revolutionized musical form and expression in the early 1800s. He used unorthodox harmonies in classical sonatas and symphonies to inspire exalted moods. His nine symphonies—including the Eroica (begun 1803) and the Symphony no. 9 (1824), with the famous Ode to Joy—five piano concertos, his violin concerto of haunting beauty, an opera, and a large volume of superb chamber music, including his brilliant string quartets, earned Beethoven a reputation as one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition. Another musical innovator of the 1800s, Franz Schubert, created the German lied (art song), usually a piece of romantic or lyrical poetry—some by Goethe—set to music and accompanied by a pianist. Schubert’s lieder cycles, such as The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter (1823), became the model for a long list of other romantic composers, including Hugo Wolf, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert had found Vienna a musical center of the highest creativity and the most refined musical tastes. But there was also a burst of more popular music with the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss the Younger and his immortal operettas Die Fledermaus (1874; The Bat) and Der Zigeunerbaron (1885; The Gypsy Baron). There were also other operetta masters such as Albert Lortzing and the Hungarian Franz Lehár, whose Merry Widow (1905) brought operetta into the 20th century. Other composers such as the prolific Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler—a genius of romantic expression in his song cycles—continued the Vienna tradition in a serious vein.

Many 19th-century German composers mixed the style of classicism (see Classical Music) with the less-structured, more spontaneous style of romanticism. Brahms, for example, tended more toward the classical in his four symphonies, his violin and piano concertos, his requiem, and his chamber music. Schumann’s haunting melodies, including symphonies, piano pieces, and chorales, were more on the romantic side. His talented wife, Clara Schumann, also composed romantic pieces. Classicist Felix Mendelssohn produced orchestral, choral, and chamber works.

German opera of the 19th century enjoyed a dramatic evolution at the hands of Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Wagner developed a closer linkage between the music and the action on stage by using such devices as the leitmotiv, which presents a musical theme for each important figure or recurrent action. Both Weber and Wagner preferred themes from German history, particularly the Middle Ages. Among Wagner’s best-known operas are The Mastersingers of Nürnberg (completed 1867), The Flying Dutchman (1841), and the four-part epic cycle of the Ring of the Nibelungs (completed 1874). Later, Richard Strauss produced outstanding operas such as Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and Engelbert Humperdinck experimented with operas for children. At the same time, Austrian Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg devised a revolutionary twelve-tone music that abandoned traditional melodies and harmonies for emphasis on rhythm and dissonance. Composer Kurt Weill collaborated with writer Bertolt Brecht on two of the great works of the German popular stage, The Three-Penny Opera (1928; translated 1933) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930; translated 1956). Germany has also produced a multitude of talented orchestra conductors (see Conducting), including Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, and Kurt Masur.

As it did in other fields, the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s choked off German musical development. Hundreds of musical artists fled Germany during the years of the Third Reich. After the war, only a few new modern composers appeared, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen and his electronic music, and Hans Werner Henze, known for his lyrical modern operas. However, the classical music tradition continues in Germany with the performances and recordings of more than 150 major orchestras, including such world-renowned groups as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.

The German people have a long tradition of supporting the arts. Government subsidies have helped fund the cost of opera and symphony performances. Each summer the operas of Richard Wagner are performed at a festival in Bayreuth. The Bayreuth festival and annual Bach festivals held at Anspach and Leipzig attract international visitors.

Libraries and Museums in Germany

German cultural life has flourished in the many cities that were once the capitals of near-independent states. Their rulers sponsored the arts, music, and theater, and established many fine libraries, galleries, and museums that survived long after the dynasties were gone. The kings of Prussia founded the Prussian State Library (now the Berlin State Library-Prussian Cultural Heritage), the National Gallery, and the Museum of Greek and Roman Antiquities in Berlin. In Munich the Bavarian kings founded the Bavarian State Library, the Alte Pinakothek art gallery, and the famous Deutsches Museum, a museum of scientific and technological inventions. The kings of Saxony founded a splendid art collection in the Zwinger Palace in Dresden. In addition, excellent university libraries and many city and monastery libraries exist throughout the country. Records of the Nazi period are located in the Federal Archives in Koblenz and in the Berlin Document Center, which houses 25 million Nazi Party documents. A large number of private archives of businesses and individuals and fine private museums, such as the Wallraf Museum in Cologne, are also found in Germany.

Film in Germany

The German film industry flourished during the Weimar years, which produced well-known directors such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and F. W. Murnau. These directors left Germany for the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and the German film industry became largely a wasteland until the post-World War II period. However, the documentary films of Leni Riefenstahl drew praise for their novel camera work and creative editing, despite their distasteful glorification of the Nazi regime. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the help of government subsidies and television contracts, a few new directors nurtured a modestly successful film industry. German filmmakers later honored at international film festivals include Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jürgen Syberberg, and Margarethe von Trotta.


When Germany became a nation in 1871, it was a latecomer in the race toward industrialization (see Industrial Revolution), which was then dominated by the United Kingdom and France. Unification under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck resulted in a boom that made Germany an industrial leader by 1910. Germany’s economic development was based on an alliance of industrial business leaders with the Prussian aristocracy, who controlled much of the land. It emphasized the production of coal and steel, machines and machine tools, chemicals, electronic equipment, ships, and later, motor vehicles. Well-organized business, labor, and farm associations in league with the government produced a distinctive “organized capitalism,” different from the less regulated forms of capitalism in Britain and the United States. Germany’s strong economy carried it into two world wars in the 20th century. Despite heavy Allied bombing against German targets that helped end World War II in 1945, Germany’s industrial base survived largely intact.

After World War II Western powers saw the need to strengthen European economies to resist the threat of Soviet expansion and the encroachment of Communism. To this end, the U.S. government in 1947 initiated the European Recovery Program, commonly called the Marshall Plan, which offered generous investment loans to all European countries devastated by the war. Under the stewardship of German economics minister Ludwig Erhard, the Marshall Plan helped launch a 20-year economic expansion in West Germany that raised living standards and industrial production far above prewar levels. This recovery is often described as West Germany’s “economic miracle.”

East Germany did not participate in the Marshall Plan and instead constructed a communist economic system, in which central planning by a state commission set all wages and prices. Most private industries and farms were turned into state or cooperative enterprises. East Germany became one of the most industrialized and prosperous Communist countries.

However, after German unification in 1990, the enormous differences between the West and East German economic systems brought East Germany to the brink of collapse. Many East German workers abandoned their jobs for better opportunities in the West, and East German consumers spurned their own products for Western goods. To make matters worse, the overvalued East German currency, the ostmark, was exchanged one-to-one for the West German deutsche mark (DM), whose street value was actually seven to ten times higher. This exchange plunged struggling East German enterprises into the highly competitive West German and international markets without protection. The East German enterprises now had to pay their debts and payrolls in higher-value DM while at the same time losing market share to the superior West German products that were becoming widely available. A wide range of West German goods became available on East German shelves. The Eastern European markets for East German exports disappeared, since many of these countries could not afford to pay in DM for East German goods previously attained by bartering their own products.

Many large state-owned manufactures and cooperative agricultural enterprises in East Germany did not survive the transformation to a market economy, a process that resulted in unusually high unemployment. In early 1997 unemployment in Germany hit a postwar high of 12.2 percent, with more than 4 million Germans out of work. In the west, the level was more than 9 percent, while eastern Germany’s rate was about 17 percent. Among the reasons for the sluggishness in job creation were the high wage rate common in Germany and the strong trade unions, which sought to protect existing wages and jobs.

Private and public investments, most of them from western Germany, flowed into the former East Germany as its economy was restructured and privatized. Since reunification the German government has invested tens of billions of dollars every year to modernize the infrastructure of roads, transport, communications, and housing in the former East Germany. In just the first seven years after unification, financial transfers from east to west involved an amount equivalent (in real, uninflated value) to 70 times the Marshall Plan aid to West Germany. These immense financial transfers were expected to continue into the second decade of the 21st century. During convergence of the two economies, Germany has experienced relatively low rates of annual growth—especially following a painful economic downturn in 2002 and 2003.

From the early 1990s into the 2000s structural economic problems—high unemployment, lagging productivity in the east, and sluggish economic growth overall—plagued the German economy. Germany’s economy, long regarded as the economic powerhouse of Europe, has been weakened by these problems. Nevertheless, with its large and modern industrial base, Germany’s economy remains the largest in the European Union (EU) and one of the largest in the world. Germany uses the EU’s common currency, the euro, and more than one-half of German export and import trade is with other EU countries.

Manufacturing and Industry in Germany

Manufacturing and industry have long been central to German economic development, although recent global and European trends are forcing changes upon the German economy. Industry helped the country recover economically from World War II and from the unification of East and West Germany. Although the economy has gradually moved in the direction of services, manufacturing and industry are still important in the country and accounted for 30.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007. Germany is a leading producer of such products as chemical products, electronics, food and beverages, machinery and machine tools, and motor vehicles.

Large-scale manufacturing enterprises have traditionally been concentrated in several areas. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which includes the Ruhr region, was once Germany’s center of heavy industry. The majority of Germany’s iron, steel, and bituminous coal came from the Ruhr region. Its early and intense development have also made this region the equivalent of the rustbelt area in the United States, where traditional manufacturing has been in decline and unemployment is high. Today, North Rhine-Westphalia is developing as a center of research in such areas as biotechnology, medical engineering, and nanotechnology. The area around the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers forms another major industrial region, comprising the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Wiesbaden, Mainz, and Offenbach. They produce metals, electronic equipment, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and motor vehicles. To the south, Stuttgart and Munich are also manufacturing hubs. Their products include aircraft, textiles and clothing, office machinery, optical instruments, and beer. Berlin, the Hannover-Brunswick area, and the port cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel, and Wilhelmshaven are other important industrial centers.

Following reunification, industry in the former East Germany suffered from a number of problems stemming from the long years when it was protected from international competition. Some industries—such as chemicals and plastics, shipbuilding, textiles, and motor vehicles—lost their markets to superior or less expensive products made in western Germany or abroad. Germany broke up most large eastern corporations and transferred them from state ownership into private hands. Some enterprises were taken over by their own managers; most were bought in bits and pieces by West German or foreign investors. By the mid-2000s worker productivity and the quality of goods produced had risen in the east. German automobile manufacturers, including BMW and Porsche, opened factories in eastern Germany. The east, moreover, has become known for its high-technology instruments, such as lasers and optical goods. Investments in the electrical engineering and chemicals manufacturing sectors have also helped bring down unemployment in the east.

Mining in Germany

Mining plays a small role in the modern German economy. Hard coal deposits have been mined in the Ruhr area and the Saarland. Brown coal, also known as lignite, was mined in the foothills of the Harz Mountains; near Cologne; in southeastern Brandenburg; and in central Germany. However, brown coal causes massive environmental problems, and its extraction is controversial. The German government plans to phase out subsidies to the coal industry by 2018. Many coal mines have shut down as a result.

Iron ore production had declined in West Germany by the mid-1980s because it could be imported more inexpensively than producing it locally. Germany’s potash salts industry ranks as one of the largest exporters of potash-based fertilizers in the world. The deposits are located mostly in Thüringen in central Germany.

Farming in Germany

Farming is of limited importance to Germany’s economy. The nation’s principal crops are wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and barley. The fruit industry is also significant, producing apples and grapes, some of which are used to make Germany’s famous wines. In addition, farmers raise livestock, including hogs, cattle, sheep, and poultry.

German unification demonstrated the economic superiority of well-managed small and medium-sized farms in the West over the collective and cooperative giant farms of East Germany. The latter proved inadequate to the tasks of marketing and meeting refined consumer demands, and they generated a great deal of air and water pollution. They also failed to inspire desire in their cooperative farmers to take back and maintain their own original farm properties once the collectives were broken up. Today, Germany imports much of its food.

Forestry and Fishing in Germany

Environmental management and conservation have played increasingly important roles in German forestry and fishing. Forests cover 31 percent of German territory, much of it mountainous. The forests sustain timber production and wood products, such as furniture, construction materials, and toys. The harvesting of timber, however, has always had to be supplemented with imports.

German law requires forest owners to maintain their forestland consistently and to replant harvested and thinned-out areas. Public concern with the depletion of this resource led to the enactment of the Forest Preservation and Promotion Act of 1975 and to the progressive withdrawal of forestland from commercial exploitation. Since the early 1980s, increasing industrial pollution and automobile emissions have been blamed for a tree blight that had affected half of the nation’s forests by the mid-1990s, causing leaves and needles to drop and slowing tree growth (see Acid Rain). This damage was discovered, on unification, to be particularly high in the forests of the former East Germany, since the Communist government had made no effort to monitor environmental damage.

Germans consider their woodlands and forests important recreation areas, especially near cities, where they are regarded as the ideal antidote for the stresses and pollution of urban life. The states with the largest forests are Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, and Rhineland Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), but there are also densely forested areas in the northeast and in the south of former East Germany.

The importance of Germany’s fishing industry has declined since the 1970s, reflecting the expansion of other countries’ territorial fishing zones and the depletion of fish stocks in the remaining open waters. Germany’s annual catch includes marine fish such as Atlantic herring, blue mussel, Atlantic mackerel, cod, and varieties of flatfish. Domestic fish production, especially of carp and trout, has dramatically increased by the raising of fish in ponds and by systematic fish management on rivers and lakes.

Foreign Trade in Germany

Germany is a major trading nation and one of the export leaders of the world, in close competition with Japan and the much larger United States. Germany’s main trading partners are countries in Europe, such as France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Italy, and the United States. Germany has been a strong promoter of European economic integration through the EU.

Transportation in Germany

Germany has a highly developed transportation system including a limited-access superhighway known as the autobahn. Part of the funds transferred to eastern Germany have gone to upgrade and expand the highway system there.

The country’s extensive passenger and freight rail system played a major role in German economic development. Most of the railroads were government-owned until 1993, when legislation was approved to privatize them. Germany has major navigable inland waterways and canals. The canals, such as the Mittellandkanal, supplement the traffic routes of the major rivers; some canals, such as the Kiel Canal and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, connect major bodies of water. Air transportation of passengers and goods is served by several international airports and many regional airports.

Tourism of Germany

Germany’s beautiful scenery and varied culture attract many tourists, both foreign and domestic. Tourists who enjoy outdoor activities tend to favor the resorts of the North and Baltic seas, the Alps, the forests of the southern uplands, and the valleys of the Rhine, Main, Mosel, Neckar, upper Elbe, and Danube rivers. Since unification, tourists have gained access to the natural parks of former East Germany, such as those of the Oder (Odra) Valley or the island of Rügen. Tourists also flock to Germany’s many medieval cities, including those along the so-called Romantic Road from Würzburg to Augsburg, and to the baroque wonders and art collections of Dresden. Large numbers of tourists attend famous music and theater festivals, such as the Wagner Opera Festival at Bayreuth and the Passion Play in Oberammergau. Ski resorts in the Alps draw many people, as do the numerous noteworthy spas and health resorts, such as Bad Kissingen and Bad Schandau.


After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Allied forces of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) divided the country into four zones. In 1948 France, Britain, and the United States merged their zones into one region while the Soviet Union imposed Communist rule over its zone. In 1949 this division of Germany was perpetuated by the creation of East Germany and West Germany.

In West Germany, a council composed of members of the state legislatures created the Basic Law, or constitution, in 1948 and 1949. It was approved by the state legislatures and by U.S., British, and French occupation authorities. The Basic Law established West Germany as a parliamentary democracy and a federation of states (see Federalism). It has been amended many times, most recently in the 1990s to help anchor the unification of East and West Germany in the constitution. At that point, Germany decided to reconstitute the five original states of East Germany and to admit them, one by one, into the federal union without changing the basic structure of the West German system. The Unity Treaty of 1990 permitted East Germany to retain some of its laws that conflicted with West German statutes until the all-German parliament could bring about a uniform settlement.

Federal Union

The kind of federalism set forth in the Basic Law is based on German federal traditions and differs from the federal system of the United States. German federalism concentrates legislative power at the federal level and places administrative and judicial powers at the state level. Each state has a popularly elected legislature, which chooses a minister-president or a first mayor (in Hamburg and Bremen) to serve as chief executive. However, the Basic Law subordinates most state legislative powers to the federal government. The states formulate some educational and cultural policies, maintain police, and administer all laws.

The key German federal institution is the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which is the representative of the state governments and has the final say in disputes between states and between the states and the federal government. The Bundesrat is the upper house of parliament but its members are state ministers or civil servants and are not elected; instead their respective state governments appoint them. The four largest German states—North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Baden-Württemberg, and Bavaria—are in the west and tend to dominate in the Bundesrat.


Germany has a parliamentary head of government, or prime minister, called the chancellor. The chancellor is chosen by a majority vote of the popularly elected lower house of parliament, the Bundestag (Federal Assembly), usually by a coalition of parties. The chancellor selects a cabinet of ministers from among the parties in the coalition. The Basic Law gives the chancellor the authority to determine the guidelines of government policy and to select and dismiss the ministers. The chancellor can be removed from office only if the Bundestag elects a successor or when the Bundestag itself is reelected. Due to the existence of strong, disciplined parties, Germany has a stable system of government with little turnover.

The federal president, who acts as the head of state, is elected for a five-year term by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), which consists of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members from the state legislatures. The president’s functions are largely ceremonial and nonpartisan. The president receives foreign ambassadors and promulgates laws but has no authority to make policy.


Germany’s federal parliament consists of two legislative bodies, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag is popularly elected at intervals of no more than four years. All citizens who are 18 years of age or older may vote. The number of seats in the Bundestag varies from election to election; there were 614 seats in 2005.

Bundestag seats are determined by a two-part electoral process. German voters cast two votes: one to select a candidate for their district, and the other to select a particular party. Half of the seats are filled by directly elected candidates, while the other half are filled based on the percentage of the total vote that each party receives. The final distribution of each party’s seats is also adjusted in proportion to the total popular vote. A party must have at least three candidates directly elected or receive a minimum of 5 percent of the national popular vote to win representation. The Bundestag is organized into topical legislative committees, such as for foreign affairs and for agriculture. The committees discuss and modify appropriate bills, but nearly all bills originate with the chancellor’s cabinet.

The members of the Bundesrat are appointed by the 16 state governments. Representation is determined by population, with each state having no less than three and no more than six seats. The ratio of seats favors the smaller states because it gives them a veto over any action that requires a two-thirds majority, such as constitutional amendments. Each state delegation must vote as a block and according to the instructions of its state government. In its legislative role, the Bundesrat has only a suspensive veto (whereby it can delay but not actually prevent the passage of bills approved by the Bundestag) over most legislation. The exception to this is bills that deal with the administrative responsibilities of the state governments, which are the more important bills before parliament. On these, the Bundesrat has a veto, which cannot be overridden.


Germany follows civil law (or Roman law) procedures and organization, which differ substantially from American and British common law. Judges play a more activist role, and attorneys a lesser one, than in an American courtroom. In a typical German criminal trial, a panel of judges hears the case. The panel includes the investigating judge, who conducts a prior investigation of the facts of the case and decides if it should be tried at all. The states’ ministries of justice appoint and promote most judges.

German courts at the state level form separate hierarchies depending on the kind of law that they administer: civil, criminal, administrative, social insurance, financial, or labor law. Each state system is headed by a high court, and there is one federal court for each of these specialties. Germany also maintains a separate, non-Roman law system of constitutional courts, which interpret their respective state constitutions and the Basic Law. The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is the most important.

Political Parties

A number of political parties are represented in the Bundestag. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) is Germany’s oldest party. Founded in 1875, the SPD has developed from a Marxist socialist workers’ party into a broadly based people’s party, which now also emphasizes Christianity and humanism. The SPD has often allied itself with Germany’s Green Party, which has gradually gained strength since it first won representation in the Bundestag in 1983 (see Green Parties).

The major conservative party is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is closely allied with the Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria. The CDU/CSU has also formed an alliance in the past with the much smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP). This coalition brought about German unification in 1989 and 1990 against considerable opposition. The CDU and the CSU were both established in 1945. The FDP, founded in 1948, is a party of traditional liberals and libertarians.

Also represented in the Bundestag is the Left Party. The Left Party is a successor to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which in turn succeeded the state-run Communist Party of East Germany. Many Left voters are former East Germans. Others belong to a breakaway faction from the SPD.

Dozens of other parties run candidates in every election but have not yet managed to gain representation in the Bundestag. Some have won seats in state legislatures. Among them are radical right groups.

Social Insurance

Germany has one of the most comprehensive and generous systems of health, old age, disability, and unemployment insurance in the world. Basic universal healthcare and old age and disability pensions are financed equally by employer and employee contributions. Long-term nursing care for the elderly is financed by payroll taxes. Parliament sets the rates of these insurance programs, which are administered by boards staffed by trade unions and employers’ associations.

The German welfare state began in the 1880s with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s old age and disability insurance, and it has always enjoyed broad support. With the birth of West Germany in 1949, the welfare programs continued to grow as the result of a social partnership between business and labor, and the economic policies of the CDU/CSU governments. These programs were based on the belief that a well-ordered welfare state can be highly productive at the same time that it takes care of its weaker members. Such generous benefits, however, depend upon high tax rates.

International Organizations in Germany

Germany is a member of numerous European and international groups. It is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to which West Germany’s external security has been tied since 1955. As a condition for remaining in NATO following reunification, Germany reduced the size of its already limited armed forces and continued to forswear the production and use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Together with France, Germany has played a leading role in the European Union (EU). Under EU auspices, Germany has pressed for a more unified and cooperative Europe in economic, political, and security affairs.

Both Germanys were members of the United Nations (UN), and united Germany joined the UN in 1990. Germany also participates in UN agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Germany belongs to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Communications Satellite Corporation (INTELSAT), and Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization).


Germany lacked any clearly defined geographical boundaries until modern times. The idea of a single German people, or Volk, is likewise a relatively recent development, largely invented by 19th- and 20th-century writers and politicians. From ancient times, several ethnic groups have mixed to shape the history of Germany, resulting in a stunning diversity of cultures and dialects. Political definitions of Germany have tended to reflect this ambiguity, at various times including many regions that today are sovereign nations (such as Austria and Switzerland) or parts of other countries (such as France, Poland, Russia, and Hungary). Modern Germany is the product of centuries of social, political, and cultural evolution. This history section provides a brief survey of that evolution.

Early History

The forests of Germany were occupied during the Old Stone Age by bands of wandering hunters and gatherers. They belonged to the earliest forms of Homo sapiens, who lived about 400,000 years ago. Neandertal people, who were similar to modern humans in many ways, first appeared in Europe about 200,000 years ago. (The name Neandertal comes from fossils discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf.) By about 30,000 years ago, the Neandertals had disappeared, but another human group, the Cro-Magnon—known for spectacular cave drawings, such as those at the famous site at Lascaux, France—had appeared in Europe. See also Human Evolution: Late Homo sapiens.

About 7000 BC Homo sapiens societies experienced a crucial transformation, which archaeologists have labeled the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, revolution. During this period, many groups began producing their own food through agriculture and the domestication of animals. Their permanent settlements and more stable food supply in turn triggered a significant increase in population. The indigenous hunters of central Europe encountered farming peoples migrating up the Danube Valley from southwest Asia in about 4500 BC. These populations mixed and settled in villages to raise crops and breed livestock.

Bronze Age Peoples

The Bronze Age began in the region of central Germany, Bohemia, and Austria in about 2500 BC with the working of copper and tin deposits by prospectors from the eastern Mediterranean. Around 2300 BC new waves of migrating peoples arrived, probably from southern Russia. These so-called Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of the Germanic peoples who settled in northern and central Germany, of the Celts in the south and west, and of the Baltic and Slavic peoples in the east. Their language was the precursor of all modern languages in those regions, including English, German, and all of the Romance (Latin-based) languages (see Indo-European Languages).

From 1800 to 400 BC, Celtic peoples in southern Germany and Austria developed a succession of advanced metalworking cultures. They introduced the use of iron for tools and weapons (see Iron Age). Teutons, Germanic tribes of obscure northern origin, absorbed much of the Celtic culture and eventually displaced the Celts. The various ancient peoples known collectively as Germans represented a diverse assortment of Celtic and Teutonic peoples and cultures. The Latin word Germanus is probably derived from an ancient Celtic word for a neighboring Teutonic tribe. The term was later applied by the Romans to a variety of peoples in western and central Europe.

Germans and Romans

From the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD northern Germanic and Celtic tribes, constantly pressed by new migrations from the north and east, were in contact with the Romans, who controlled southern and western Europe. The writings of Romans Julius Caesar and Cornelius Tacitus describe these encounters and provide almost the only accounts of life among these so-called barbarian peoples. In general, the Romans denounced the Germans for heavy drinking, relentless fighting, and atrocities such as human sacrifice. But Romans also commended the virtue of Germanic women as well as the overall absence of any avarice among the tribes.

In 101 and 102 BC the Cimbri and the Teutons were defeated by Roman general Gaius Marius as they were about to invade Italy. The Suevi and other tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), west of the Rhine, were subdued by Julius Caesar around 50 BC. The Romans tried several times to extend their rule to the Elbe River, but their efforts were halted at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. The Rhine and Danube rivers became the boundaries of Roman territory, connected by a line of fortifications, or limes, that extended from Colonia (Cologne) to Bonna (Bonn) to Augusta Vindelicorum (Augsburg) to Vindobona (Vienna). Most of the peoples within Roman Germany were gradually assimilated as auxiliary Germanic troops by the empire, often employed against Germanic raiders from outside the limes.

In the 2nd century the Romans prevented confederations of Franks, Alamanni, and Burgundians from crossing the Rhine into the empire. By the 4th and 5th centuries, however, the population pressures outside the empire proved too much for the weakened Romans. The Huns, sweeping in from Asia, set off waves of migration, during which the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and other Germanic tribes poured into and eventually overran the empire. See also Goths.

Medieval Germany

Scholars continue to debate at what point it is possible to speak of Germany or a German state. Even though the Romans had often grouped several peoples under the name Germans, it is doubtful that most of these groups viewed themselves as connected in any cultural, linguistic, or political sense. The formation of an eastern Frankish kingdom in the 9th century seems a watershed event in German development (see Holy Roman Empire), although this kingdom featured a diversity of cultures and political allegiances. Most of the medieval “German” rulers actually considered themselves kings of the Romans, and, later, Roman emperors. Not until the 15th century did the emperors officially add “of the German nation” to their title.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the medieval emperors who called themselves Roman were in fact Germans. During the 10th to 13th centuries, their state, the Holy Roman Empire, was the most powerful in Europe, dominating not only German lands but northern Italian city-states as well. In turn, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire marked a period in which political power was fragmented among many German princes. By the time that the late-15th-century emperor Maximilian attempted to revive imperial authority and institutions, the division of power among German princes had become entrenched. Even his powerful grandson, Charles V, was eventually forced to recognize the political pluralism of Germany, which prevailed until the late 19th century.

The Origins of a German State (486-911)

Frankish Kingdoms

Throughout western Europe and northern Africa, the political and cultural bonds of the Roman Empire were gradually replaced by a multitude of successor states. In 486 the Salian chieftain Clovis defeated the last Roman governor in Gaul and established a Frankish kingdom that included southwestern Germany. Clovis and his successors, known as the Merovingian dynasty, succeeded in uniting many Germanic tribes under one king. Following his conversion to Christianity in about 500, Clovis formed a special relationship with the bishop of Rome (later known as the pope). He forcibly converted his subjects from the Arian form of Christianity to the Roman version (see Arianism). During the following century, many monasteries and churches were built in the Merovingian kingdom, usually sponsored by the king or wealthy nobles.

In 751 the Merovingian dynasty was overthrown by the Frankish noble Pepin the Short. In order to boost his own claims to legitimate rule, Pepin secured the endorsement of the kingdom’s bishops and the pope; this was the beginning of a long tradition of church leaders conferring kingship. The rule of Pepin’s son Charles had a major impact on German and European history. Known as Charlemagne (Charles the Great), the ambitious king expanded the Frankish kingdom to include large parts of modern-day Germany and Italy during his long reign (768-814). He fought the Slavs south of the Danube River, annexed Bavaria, and ferociously subdued and converted the pagan Saxons in the northwest. Charlemagne was received in Rome as the champion of Christianity and restorer of the western empire. Just as importantly, he supported the papacy against Rome’s restive populace. On Christmas Day in 800, he was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, thereby reviving the Roman imperial tradition in the west as well as setting a precedent for dependence of the emperors on papal approval.

The Carolingians

Charlemagne’s empire, known as the Carolingian Empire, assumed many of the traditions and social distinctions of the late Roman Empire, but it also introduced some key innovations. Charlemagne persuaded Alcuin of York, considered the greatest scholar of the day, to come to his palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and establish a new school to train clerks and scholars in classical Latin. The official language of the court and of the church was Latin, but Franks in Gaul adopted the Latinate vernacular that became French, while Franks and other Germanic tribes in the east spoke various languages that were ancestors of modern German.

Charlemagne granted large landholdings, known as fiefs, to many tribal military leaders, or dukes. In addition, he appointed numerous Frankish aristocrats to the lesser posts of count (the head of a smaller district called a county) and margrave (the count of a border province). These aristocrats were kings in miniature, with all of the administrative, judicial, and military authority of the emperor within their respective districts. Each county had a parallel ecclesiastical, or church, district, called a diocese, that was headed by a bishop with authority in all church matters. Both counts and bishops were vassals of the emperor, and were overseen by traveling representatives of the emperor, known as missi dominici. Every year, both counts and bishops attended a general assembly where they would advise the emperor and hear his directives.

The empire was vulnerable to tribal dissension and did not long survive Charlemagne’s death in 814. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the Carolingian Empire into three parts: East Francia (roughly modern-day Germany), West Francia (roughly modern-day France), and, separating the two, an area running from the North Sea through Lotharingia (modern-day Lorraine) and Burgundy to northern Italy. In 870 the middle kingdom was divided, with Lotharingia going to East Francia and the rest to West Francia. The Carolingian dynasty in East Francia came to an end in 911 when the last of Charlemagne’s descendents died without an heir.

The Tribal Duchies

By the 10th century, East Francia was being buffeted from the north and east by new waves of pagan invaders. Rival tribes of Vikings, Magyars (Hungarians), and Moravians virtually tore East Francia apart. As royal authority declined, the feudal dukes, counts, and other members of the aristocracy gradually made their fiefs hereditary. Increasingly, they established their own local governments and provided defense for their people. The greatest secular lords in East Francia were the rulers of five stem (tribal) duchies: Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine. Lesser warriors joined noble or princely retinues out of tribal loyalty and in exchange for smaller grants of land and other gifts. Common people worked the fields of warriors and nobles in return for protection and a share of the crops.

Growth of the Holy Roman Empire (911-1250)

Following ancient German tradition, the kings of East Francia did not automatically inherit the throne. Instead, they were elected by the wealthiest and most powerful nobles of the realm at the time—a group that was subject to change as fortunes rose and fell. None of these families wanted to be subject to another family or to a strong king so they often chose weak kings who were not a threat to the nobles’ power.

Once elected, medieval German kings had three major concerns. One was checking rebellious nobles; for this they often relied on the support of bishops and abbots. The second was controlling Italy and preserving the imperial coronation by the pope, which they considered an essential part of the Carolingian heritage. The third was territorial expansion to the north and east, especially after 955, when the Viking and Magyar threats subsided.

Otto I, the Great, and the Saxon Kings

The first strong king of East Francia was Otto I. Elected in 936, Otto combined extraordinary forcefulness, dignity, and military prowess with great diplomatic skill and genuine religious faith. Determined to create a strong centralized monarchy, Otto married his relatives into the families of the duchies in order to gain control over them. This plan backfired, however, as his family members began to plot against him to usurp his power. After several dangerous uprisings, Otto began to break up the duchies into nonhereditary fiefs granted to bishops and abbots. By bringing these church figures into the court, Otto ensured their loyalty and was able to use their literacy to produce correspondence and legislation. The counts maintained their judicial functions from Carolingian times, but the church leaders were used much as Charlemagne had used the missi dominici—as the king’s representatives throughout the realm. Otto’s successors continued this Ottonian system of making alliances with the church and shifting toward a more formalized state.

Otto also defended his realm from outside pressures. In the west, he strengthened his hold on Lorraine and gained influence over Burgundy. In the north and east, he defeated the Danes and Slavs and permanently broke the power of the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. Wishing to emulate Charlemagne as the divinely sanctioned emperor, Otto established the archbishopric of Magdeburg in 968 and other dioceses as centers of civilization in the conquered lands.

In 951 Otto began the disastrous policy of German entanglement in Italy. He was perhaps tempted by the prosperity of the area and its political vacuum in the wake of feudal disorder and Saracen (Muslim) invasions. During his second Italian campaign in 962, Otto was crowned emperor by Pope John XII, who was grateful for Otto’s help against encroaching Italian nobles from the north and Byzantine Greeks and Saracens from the south. By a treaty called the Ottonian Privilege, Otto guaranteed the pope’s claim to most of central Italy in exchange for the promise that all future papal candidates would swear allegiance and loyalty to the emperor. This treaty effectively united the German monarchy and the Roman Empire until 1806, when the Holy Roman Empire, as it came to be called, was dissolved.

Otto’s successors in the 10th and 11th centuries continued his domestic and Italian policies as best they could. Otto II established the Eastern March (now Austria) as a military outpost; the influx on settlement from within the empire effectively Germanized the local population. He attempted to secure southern Italy, but was defeated by the Saracens. Otto III ruled from Rome. He supported the monastic reform movement originating in Cluny (Burgundy) that encouraged a more austere, disciplined, and prayerful life within monasteries and convents. The childless Henry II, gentle and devout, also encouraged the Cluniac movement and sent out missionaries from his court.

Salian Kings

From 1024 to 1125 German kings were chosen from the Salian line of Franconia, which was related to the Saxons. The Salians brought the empire to its height, both in terms of power and territorial expansion, but also initiated a period of intense religious and political strife. The rulers often faced difficulties with the German princes both in securing election as king and then in maintaining power.

Powerful rival dynasties developed during this period. These included the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, the Welfs of Saxony, and the Hohenstaufens (sometimes called Staufers) of Swabia. Rivalry between the last two families led to a long international division between their respective allies in both Germany and Italy. In Italy the Welf allies were known as Guelph and the Hohenstaufen allies as Ghibelline (see Guelphs and Ghibellines).

The first Salian kings consolidated their power in Germany and were able to maintain control over the papacy. Conrad II, who ruled from 1024 to 1039, was clever and ruthless. He asserted royal authority over princely opposition by making the fiefs of lesser nobles hereditary, thus undermining their dependence on the princes, and by appointing ministariales, non-nobles responsible directly to him, as officials and soldiers. He also seized Burgundy, strengthened his hold on northern Italy, and became overlord of Poland.

Conrad’s son (Henry III), who ruled until 1056, was possibly the first undisputed king of Germany. A pious visionary, he tried with little success to introduce to an empire torn by constant civil strife the Truce of God, a weekly respite from warfare lasting from Wednesday night to Monday morning. His ecclesiastical reforms were somewhat more successful, particularly his efforts to end simony, the practice of buying and selling church offices. At the same time, he continued to exercise strong control over the church in Germany, appointing key church figures as his vassals as well as deposing three rival popes and creating four new ones, most notably the reform-minded Leo IX.

In 1056 Henry IV, while still a child, succeeded his father. During his mother’s regency, long-restive princes annexed much royal land in Germany, while the Normans seized control of Italy. Henry IV sought to recover lost imperial power, but his efforts to retrieve crown lands aroused the Saxons, who had always resented the Salian kings. He crushed a Saxon rebellion in 1075 and proceeded to confiscate land, thus intensifying their enmity.

Investiture Controversy

In addition to his struggle with the German princes, Henry also became involved in a controversy with the papacy over who would appoint clergy in Germany. The ensuing struggle was known as the Investiture Controversy.

Pope Gregory VII wanted to free the church from secular control and forbade lay investiture (the appointment of clergy by nonclerical officials). The German kings, however, wanted to appoint major church officials such as bishops, because they were powerful vassals of the king. Henry retaliated by having the pope deposed by an episcopal synod at Worms in 1076. The pope promptly excommunicated Henry, which denied him the benefits and privileges of church membership, and released all of his subjects from their oath of loyalty to him, a move that pleased the princes. To keep his crown, Henry cleverly sought to see the pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077. He waited outside the palace for three days as a barefoot penitent in the snow. Thinking he had succeeded in humiliating a disobedient emperor, Gregory forgave Henry.

The princes, however, felt betrayed and elected a rival king, Rudolf of Swabia, triggering nearly 20 years of civil war. In 1080 Gregory again excommunicated Henry, who had continued to practice lay investiture, and recognized Rudolf as emperor. When Rudolf died later that year, Henry marched on Rome, free from the threat of Rudolf’s forces. He deposed Gregory by force and installed the rival pope Clement III in his place; Clement crowned Henry emperor in 1084. Henry returned to Germany to continue the civil war against a new rival king. Henry’s son, Henry V, betrayed and imprisoned him and forced him to abdicate in 1106.

The treacherous and greedy Henry V continued his father’s struggle for supremacy, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Suffering military defeats, he lost control of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia. Despite the support of churchmen, ministeriales, and the towns, he could not suppress the princes, who forced the weary emperor and Pope Callistus II to compromise on investiture. Pope and emperor accepted the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which stipulated that clerical elections in Germany were to take place in the presence of the emperor without simony and that the emperor was to invest the candidate with the symbols of worldly office before a bishop invested him with the spiritual ones. The pope had the better of the bargain, but the struggle was not resolved and the rivalry between empire and papacy contributed in many ways to the decline of the German monarchy.

The Guelph-Ghibelline Conflict

Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the rivalry centered around two princely families: the Hohenstaufen, or Waiblingen, family of Swabia, and the Welfs of Bavaria and Saxony. The rivalry extended to Italy where the Hohenstaufens were known as the Ghibellines and the Welfs as Guelphs. The Hohenstaufens held the German and imperial crowns, while the Welfs were allied with the papacy.

When Henry V died childless in 1125, the princes passed over his nephews, Frederick and Conrad Hohenstaufen, and chose Lothair, Duke of Saxony, as Henry’s successor. When he became allied with the pope, however, and was crowned Emperor Lothair II in 1133, the Hohenstaufen princes and their allies refused to recognize the coronation and rose up in revolt. At Lothair’s death in 1137, the princes chose Conrad Hohenstaufen, rather than Lothair’s powerful Welf son-in-law and heir, Henry the Proud of Bavaria and Saxony. Civil war erupted again, this time between the charming but weak Conrad III and the Welf dukes Henry the Proud and his son, Henry the Lion. Peace was temporarily restored at Conrad’s death by the election of his nephew Frederick, a Hohenstaufen whose mother was a Welf.

Frederick I, Barbarossa

Intelligent, handsome, warlike, and judicious, Frederick I, known as Frederick Barbarossa, ruled from 1152 to 1190. Regarding himself as the successor of Augustus, Charlemagne, and Otto the Great, he took the title Holy Roman Emperor and spent most of his reign shuttling between Germany and Italy, trying to restore imperial glory to both regions and coming closer than any other medieval ruler to this goal.

In the north, Frederick joined Germany and Burgundy by marrying Beatrice, heiress to Burgundy. He then declared an imperial peace, and to ensure it he placated the Welfs by recognizing Henry the Lion as duke of Saxony and Bavaria. But when Henry refused to contribute troops to a critical Italian campaign, Frederick and jealous princes exiled him as a traitor. Henry’s duchies were split up, with Bavaria going to the Wittelsbach family, who would remain its rulers until the modern unification of Germany.

In the south, Frederick made six expeditions to Italy to assert full imperial authority over the pope and the Lombard city-states, a group of northern Italian cities that had organized to resist Frederick’s imperial claims in Italy. On his first trip in 1155, he was crowned emperor by Pope Adrian IV. During the next 20 years he was successful in defeating a variety of alliances between the popes and the Italian city-states, capturing Rome itself in 1166. During his fifth Italian expedition, though, he was defeated by the Lombard League at the Battle of Legnana in 1176, partly because he lacked the crucial support of Henry the Lion. The subsequent Peace of Constance recognized the autonomy of the Italian cities, which remained only nominally subject to the emperor. Stubbornly, Frederick made one last trip, gaining new support among the quarrelsome cities. He resigned as emperor in 1190 in favor of his son Henry VI and set out to lead the Third Crusade, in which he died.

The Last Hohenstaufen Kings

More ambitious even than his father, Henry VI wanted to dominate the known world. To secure peace in Germany, he put down a rebellion by the returned exile Henry the Lion and then restored him to power. He forced the northern Italian cities to submit to him, and on the basis of an inheritance claim through his Norman wife, he seized Sicily. Intending to create an empire in the Mediterranean, he exacted tribute from North Africa and the weak Byzantine emperor. However, when Henry died suddenly in 1197 while planning a new crusade, his empire immediately fell apart. The German princes refused to accept his young son, Frederick II, as king and thus initiated a new civil war between backers of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and those of the Welf Otto of Brunswick. When Otto invaded Italy, Pope Innocent III secured the election of Frederick II in 1211 on the promise that the young king would give up Sicily so as not to surround papal territory.

Outstandingly accomplished in many fields, Frederick II, who reigned from 1212 to 1250, was called Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World). Determined to keep Sicily as his base of operations, he revised his coronation promise to the pope, giving up Germany rather than Sicily to his young son Henry. In exchange for the German princes’ support of his Italian campaigns, Frederick allowed them to usurp many of his own powers, making them virtually kings in their own territories. On the empire’s eastern frontier, he granted a fief to the Teutonic Knights, a military religious order that eventually created the Prussian and Baltic states, on the condition that they convert the natives to Christianity.

In Sicily, Frederick suppressed the local nobility, reformed the laws, founded the University of Naples, and kept a brilliant court, where he shone as scientist, artist, and poet. He was also an excellent soldier, diplomat, and administrator, and led a successful crusade to Jerusalem in 1228. In his absence, however, Pope Gregory IX invaded Sicily. Frederick quickly returned and made peace with the pope, but by 1237 he was waging battle against a second Lombard League of cities in northern Italy. Once again, their ally, the pope, excommunicated Frederick, but this time Frederick responded by seizing the papal states. Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, fled to Lyon and declared the emperor deposed.

Frederick died before he could secure his position against the league, however, and under his successor, Conrad IV, the Hohenstaufens were finally ousted from Sicily. The empire then suffered the turmoil of the Great Interregnum (1254-1273), during which two non-Germans—Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castille—claimed the crown, although neither was ever crowned. The German princes, meanwhile, exploited the absence of an emperor, further solidifying their own political independence. At the very time that French and English kings were centralizing their power, German lands moved ever further into political pluralism and fractured authority. The Great Interregnum marked a decisive turning point in the history of Germany and the empire, beginning the slow decline of real imperial power.

Decline of the Empire and Growth of Habsburg Power (1250-1519)

By the end of the 13th century, dynastic realignments resulted in the gradual replacement of the stem duchies by several new principalities. Three of the new dynastic powers in particular—the Habsburg, Wittelsbach, and Luxemburg families—struggled to secure the imperial crown. In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing Rudolf of Habsburg, a minor Swabian prince who was unable to repossess the lands that the principalities had usurped. Instead, Rudolf I concentrated on aggrandizing his own dynastic holdings. Aided by the Wittelsbachs and others, he defeated the rebellious Ottokar II of Bohemia and took the lands of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola (modern Slovenia). The Habsburgs thus became one of the most powerful dynasties in the empire.

Rudolf reigned until 1291, and his two immediate successors were deposed and murdered by the princely electors. Still seeking a weak emperor, in 1308 they chose Henry, count of Luxemburg. Anxious to restore imperial claims to Italy, Henry VII crossed the Alps in 1310 and temporarily subdued Lombardy. He died in 1313 while trying to conquer Naples from the French. His death precipitated a civil war that raged until the Wittelsbach candidate for the throne, Louis the Bavarian, defeated his Habsburg rival at the Battle of Mühldorf in 1322. Louis IV reigned until 1347.

At Rhense in 1338, the electors made the momentous declaration that henceforth the king of the Germans need only be the majority choice of the electors, instead of the unanimous one as was previously the case. This decision averted a civil war. They also declared that he would automatically be emperor without being crowned by the pope. This was reflected in the king’s title, official by the 15th century: Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation.

The popes, of course, objected to this change. Clement VI immediately opened negotiations with Charles, king of Bohemia and grandson of Henry VII. In 1347 Charles was chosen by five of the seven electors, who had deposed Louis IV. Charles IV diplomatically ignored the question of papal assent. In the Golden Bull of 1356, he specified the seven electors as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia. Because the bull made their lands indivisible, granted them monopolies on mining and tolls, and secured monetary gifts from all imperial candidates, these seven rulers were now the strongest of all German princes.

Charles then began building a great state in the east by entrenching his own dynasty in Bohemia, buying Brandenburg (which allowed him to become one of the seven electors), and taking Silesia from Poland. To obtain cash, he encouraged the silver, glass, and paper industries of Bohemia. He also oversaw a major cultural revival, adorning his capital Prague with new buildings in the late Gothic style and founding the first German university in Prague in 1348.

Charles’s son, Sigismund, who reigned from 1410 to 1437, was involved in calling the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council invited the popular religious reformer Jan Hus (John Huss) to come to the assembly under imperial protection to present his views. Huss’s proposals for ecclesiastical reform challenged not only the authority of many church figures but also the political and cultural dominance of Germans in a predominantly Czech region. When he arrived in Constance, Huss was immediately imprisoned, tortured, and burnt at the stake as a heretic. His death was considered a martyrdom by many Czechs in Bohemia and led to a series of confrontations, known as the Hussite Wars, during the 1420s and 1430s. While the more radical branches of the revolt were suppressed, moderates won some concessions from both Sigismund and the church in exchange for reconciliation.

When Sigismund died without an heir, the electors unanimously chose his Habsburg son-in-law Albert of Austria as Emperor Albert II. Albert died shortly thereafter, in 1439, but from that time on the imperial crown became in practice, although not officially, hereditary in the Habsburg line. Albert’s cousin and successor Frederick III successfully reunited different branches of the Habsburg family that had been previously split by inheritance, but he lost Hungary and Bohemia and sold Luxemburg to France. He also continually struggled with the German princes and the ever-encroaching Ottoman Empire on his eastern borders. In 1486 the princes forced him to cede his authority to his son Maximilian, but he retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 1493.

Maximilian I, who reigned from 1486 to 1519, was a knight and art patron. He enthusiastically laid many plans for the empire, but these never materialized. His chief success was in arranging marriages to benefit his family. By his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy, he acquired a rich territory that included thriving Dutch and Flemish towns. By marrying his son, Philip the Handsome, to Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, Maximilian ensured for his heirs all of the expanding Spanish empire, including possessions in Italy and the Americas. He betrothed his grandson Ferdinand to the heiress of Hungary and Bohemia, thus adding those states to his inheritance. The office of emperor meanwhile had become an increasingly symbolic position, to be used in the next five centuries to further Habsburg dynastic ambitions.

Life in Germany During the Middle Ages

Feudal Society

With the decline of the Roman Empire and particularly with the onset of Viking and Magyar raids during the 9th and 10th centuries, political authority became increasingly fractured and localized throughout western and central Europe. The model for political authority developed from the Roman and Frankish tradition of seignorialism. In this tradition, large landowners provided farmland and protection to their tenants in return for taxes and labor. This tradition gradually evolved into a variety of forms, collectively known as feudalism.

In general, all types of feudal relations in the Middle Ages shared two features. First, and most importantly, all political relationships were based on personal bonds, or contracts, between two individuals, whether between king and noble or noble and peasant. Such mutual loyalty had been the basis for the comitatus, a group of warriors in ancient German societies. By the time of Charlemagne, the formation of a lord-vassal relationship between two warriors, or nobles, was increasingly formalized, usually involving the exchange of military service and loyalty for land. Land tenure—the key to personal wealth and power—was the second universal element of feudal relations. In most instances, kings were the largest landowners, and they secured the support of other nobles by giving each of them an estate, or fief.

By the beginning of the 11th century, most parts of Germany were dominated by aristocrats. Everywhere nobles monopolized the right to bear arms. They held supreme jurisdiction within their own lands and dispensed all types of justice. Only taxation, which was considered an exceptional and generally temporary practice in medieval Europe, required the approval of the emperor and all of the other nobles. The German nobles and the emperor gathered irregularly and in different locations in an imperial assembly, or diet, eventually called the Reichstag. A similar meeting within a territory, or land, was called a Landtag.

The German nobility ranged from the powerful seven electors and the princes of more than 240 states to the minor imperial knights who held fiefs directly from the emperor. Violent conflicts among noble families were common throughout the Middle Ages and usually aimed at expanding a dynasty’s landholdings. Arranged marriages provided another method of dynastic expansion and consolidation. Beginning in the 11th century, many families constructed castles, both for defense and as a sign of social importance.

About 90 percent of the German population during the Middle Ages lived in small, rural communities and worked on the land. In many regions peasant families entered into an unfree relationship with landowners, commonly known as serfdom. Serfs were required to give part of their labor to the landlord. The majority of those who worked the soil in Germany, though, were free tenant farmers who gave nobles a share of their annual harvest as rent. Peasants—all of those who farmed the land and bred livestock—relied on local secular and ecclesiastical patrons for various kinds of protection, both from invaders and criminals as well as from natural disasters such as famine and flood.

The material conditions of the peasants’ lives were generally harsh. Infant and child mortality was exceptionally high: One out of two babies born did not reach adulthood. Most Germans lived in one-room wooden or mud shacks with all the members of their family and even some domesticated animals. The diet consisted largely of bread, some vegetables, and beer or wine. Meat was expensive and generally reserved for holidays and other special occasions. Whether tenant or serf, peasants relied on the lord for most services—including milling and baking—and were required to provide him with their own labor at certain times. Famine and taxes occasionally drove some individuals to revolt, but the result was always violent suppression. More often peasants negotiated with landlords for better conditions or simply fled to the nearest city.

Population Growth and Movement

At the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were probably only about 700,000 people in the area of modern Germany. These numbers rose gradually to about 3 million by the year 1000. As elsewhere in Europe, the population of Germany then boomed for the next three centuries, possibly growing as high as 12 million people by the end of the 13th century. In addition to contributing to the growth of towns, the growing number of people increased the demand for food and arable land. One result was the push to the east, a deliberate policy of German settlement of various areas east of the Oder, Vistula, and Memel rivers. From the 12th century to the 14th century, recruiters, working for German lords, led wagon trains of Germans to settle thinly populated Slavic lands. Monastic orders such as the Cistercians and the Premonstratensians also came to the new frontier. The Teutonic Knights moved their headquarters to Marienburg in eastern Germany and led a crusade against the pagan Prussians. The knights’ defeat in 1242 by Russian prince Alexander Nevsky marked the eastern limit of German expansion, but by then most of modern-day eastern Germany, northern Poland, and the Baltic states had been overrun by German settlers. Tensions between German and Slavic cultures in these areas have endured into modern times.

The later Middle Ages were dominated by the plague, a deadly disease known as the Black Death. Perhaps as many as 5 million Germans—about one-third of the population—died during the first wave of plague from 1348 to 1350, and subsequent outbreaks prevented the population from recovering to preplague levels until 1500. For those peasants and workers who survived, the decrease in the labor supply generally meant more favorable leases and wages. In the eastern lands, however, nobles reacted in the opposite manner. Determined not to lose their privileges, they brutally cracked down on their tenants, introducing what is known as a second serfdom, with even more oppressive feudal demands.

Commerce and the Growth of Towns

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, urban centers everywhere in Europe declined dramatically. By the beginning of the 11th century, however, trade revived and towns began a three-century growth spurt. A few, such as Trier and Cologne, were based on Roman settlements, but the majority were new centers, some connected to nearby castles or monasteries. In eastern Germany, cities such as Breslau (modern Wrocław, Poland) and Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad, Russia) developed as part of deliberate colonization. Cologne and Frankfurt prospered greatly because they were on the routes that traders traveled between Germany and the large merchant fairs of Champagne, in what is now northeastern France. Mainz grew because it lay on the trade route across the Alps to Italy. Of the 3,000 German towns established by 1300, almost all were small, with populations under 1,000. Cologne, the largest city in medieval Germany, had a population of 30,000 at its peak in the early 14th century.

As their economic power grew, the cities’ demands for freedom from attack and from feudal tolls often led to war with neighboring nobles. Shrewd town magistrates were able to use the ongoing struggle between German emperors and princes to their own benefit. Beginning with Frederick Barbarossa in 1183, emperors granted some cities complete political autonomy and the right to form alliances in exchange for tax revenues. These were called imperial cities. Most were located in southern Germany and formed defensive unions such as the Swabian League.

Meanwhile, in the north, several German and Scandinavian towns—particularly Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen—combined forces to form the powerful trade association of the Hansa, or the Hanseatic League. At its peak in the early 15th century, the league monopolized all trade on the Baltic and throughout northern Europe. The league constructed canals and roads, arranged commercial treaties, and even waged war.

In Switzerland, eight city-states, or cantons, won their independence from the Habsburgs in the 13th century. They were eventually joined by others in the Helvetic (Swiss) Confederation, which has endured to this day. As befitted a decentralized empire, no one city gained undisputed prominence, although Prague served as the imperial capital during the 14th and 15th centuries.

During the later Middle Ages, the cities became increasingly important in an expanding money economy. In the south, the imperial cities of Nürnberg and Augsburg, home of the Fugger Bank, thrived on mining and trade with Italian city-states. The growth of trade was accompanied by a marked increase in production of finished goods beginning in the 12th century. Throughout Germany, skilled artisans organized themselves into guilds devoted to a particular specialty, for example weaving. The guild was a local monopoly that held complete power over production quality and quantity, prices, and admission into its ranks. By the late Middle Ages, guilds had gained for their members the most powerful economic and political positions in the cities.

The medieval city was dominated by a few powerful people, just as the countryside was. The key difference was that in the cities, the various merchant and craft guilds (both virtually hereditary by the 15th century) struggled with one another for political power. Those who were successful dominated the town councils. Beginning in the 12th century, these councils legislated on a variety of matters, including safety, hygiene, and social behavior. The majority of the urban population—artisans, shopkeepers, day laborers, and the destitute—had no say in governing the city.

Many German cities included Jews who in theory were under the special protection of the emperor, but in fact they endured countless organized attacks, or pogroms, throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 13th century, most German cities required all Jews to live within an enclosed district (ghetto), supposedly for their own safety, but sporadic persecutions persisted.

Technological Developments

During the Middle Ages, the productivity of agriculture increased as a result of several technological advances. The proliferation of the heavy-wheeled plow by the 6th century greatly improved production on German lands but also required much animal power—from two to eight oxen per plow. As a result, many farmers gathered in small settlements with common livestock and fields. By the 9th century, the introduction of the collar and harness permitted horses to do the same work as oxen; developments such as the tandem harness (two teams, one behind the other) and the horseshoe improved productivity even more. Undoubtedly the greatest agrarian innovation of the early Middle Ages was the three-field rotation. Common by the 9th century, this method allowed farmers to improve their annual yield and avoid exhausting the soil by rotating crops on three fields—one for a winter wheat, one for a spring crop (such as oats, barley, peas, or beans), and one left unused. An agricultural revolution during the 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the clearing of millions of acres of forests and swamps for cultivation as well as the introduction of the windmill, which harnessed the power of the wind to mill grain or pump water.

The two areas of technological innovation most prominent in late medieval Germany were mining and printing. By the late 15th century, a series of inventions and improved techniques resulted in a fivefold increase in central European mining output. Saxon methods of extracting pure silver from the lead alloy in which it was often found helped expand the money economies of Europe. Increased iron production also meant more and stronger pumps and other machine parts and a related boom in construction work and shipbuilding.

The invention of movable metal type was one of the most significant developments of all human history. Johannes Gutenberg discovered a durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony that allowed books and other writings to be duplicated in a fraction of the time needed for manuscript copying. Gutenberg’s Bible, completed around 1455, was the first major work to be printed. Within 50 years, more than 250 cities throughout the empire and Europe had one or more printing shops operating full time. The impact of the printing press on society is still being explored, but it is clear that it touched the lives of many more than the 10 percent of the population who could read.

Religion and the Church

Ancient Germanic peoples worshiped many gods, usually distinguishing between the greater sky gods, such as Wodin (see Odin) and Thor, and the lesser divinities who dwelled in fields, trees, and streams. The first recorded Christian missionary to the Goths was Ulfilas in the 4th century, who preached the Arian version of Christianity. This version was considered heretical because it denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ. Ulfilas and his successors converted almost all of the German peoples within the empire. Clovis and the Franks reconverted them to orthodox (Catholic) Christianity beginning in the 6th century.

The Frankish kingdom established a special relationship with the Roman church that continued under the Carolingians. Charlemagne enthusiastically encouraged missionary work among the Germans, which was largely completed by the end of his reign in 814. The pagan Slavs of eastern Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states were also eventually converted.

By the 10th century, numerous German monasteries and convents were operating under the Benedictine rule. This rule of daily life for monasteries was established by Saint Benedict of Nursia and stressed communal living, physical labor, prayer, and study. However, not all the monasteries adhered strictly to the rule. This prompted a monastery in Cluny, in central France, to lead a reform movement to restore strict adherence to the Benedictine rule. The Cluniac movement was well organized because all the monasteries were responsible to the central abbey in Cluny. The movement attracted support from many kings and bishops who supported monastic reform. The widespread following and strict rule of the Cluniacs made the movement a powerful force for stability in the Catholic Church.

Although this movement had little impact in German lands until the late 11th century, from that time on aristocratic and imperial families established numerous monasteries and convents. Parish churches and grandiose cathedrals also multiplied during this period and with them the number of clerics. The social background and duties of the clergy mirrored the hierarchical nature of the larger society. Positions of power, such as bishop (head of a diocese) and abbot (head of a monastery) tended to be held by members of aristocratic families, while parish priest and other lower positions went to individuals of peasant or worker status.

Converts often blended secular and even pagan ideas and practices with those of Christianity. This intermingling eventually resulted in a great diversity of local religious traditions in medieval Germany. Religious practices were woven into civic and village processions, festivals, and other communal gatherings.

There was no standardized training for parish priests, so sometimes they taught beliefs considered heretical by Rome. In southern Germany, followers of Peter Waldo, who were known as Waldenses, were especially critical of wealthy and powerful clerics during the 12th and 13th centuries. Another major challenge to the church came from Jan Hus (John Huss), who in the early 15th century advocated reducing the clergy’s authority, both in secular and ecclesiastical matters.

Perhaps the most distinctive German contribution to medieval Christianity was in the area of mysticism, the idea that an individual could achieve personal union with the divine. The Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen was the most famous mystic of the High Middle Ages and inspired a cult of followers long after her death in 1179. One of the most influential mystics of the later Middle Ages was Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian who became a popular preacher in the Rhineland. Eckhart taught that union with God could be achieved through emptying the self and allowing the divine spark to enter. Some of his ideas were declared heretical after his death, but his influence on German spirituality as well as literature was profound. The works of his disciples Heinrich Suso and Johannes Tauler represent some of the greatest German literary achievements of the later Middle Ages.

Beginning in the late 14th century, many of the teachings of the Rhineland mystics were incorporated in a movement called Modern Devotion. Also known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, this group established several houses in northern Germany and the Netherlands where laypeople and clerics could meditate. Most of these houses also maintained small grammar schools where children—most notably Erasmus and Martin Luther—were taught to read and write.

Intellectual Developments

During the early Middle Ages, the centers of scholarship were the monasteries. In the 9th century, the so-called Carolingian Renaissance did much to revive the literary arts of classical Latin, but the number of individuals who could read and write remained small and for the most part limited to clerics. By the 12th century there were more than 200 small cathedral schools in Europe. By the next century, many of these had expanded or been absorbed into new institutions of learning called universities. The first German university was founded by Charles IV in Prague in 1348, eventually followed by similar institutions in Vienna (1356), Heidelberg (1386), Cologne (1388), Erfurt (1392), Leipzig (1409), Tübingen (1477), and Wittenberg (1502).

The Age of Religious Strife (1519-1648)

Dramatic changes occurred in Germany and other European societies during the next period, which historians call the early modern era. During this time, Christianity was divided by the Reformation and the Americas were explored. Both had profound effects on politics, economies, and society. Another force for change was the new mass medium of the printing press, which carried diverse ideas, news, and entertainment to large audiences.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, territorial rulers and city councils in Germany expanded their authority, often in conjunction with religious changes stemming from the Reformation. At the same time, capitalism expanded and the population grew, resulting in widespread inflation throughout the period and a greater polarization of wealth within German society. On the other hand, many of the basic structures of medieval life—dynastic politics, predominantly agrarian economies, and low standard of living—remained largely constant throughout the period.

Charles V

When Charles V succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519, he was already hereditary lord of a vast assortment of territories. Due to a combination of politically astute dynastic marriages and fortuitous accidents, he had inherited the French Burgundian lands as well as the Netherlands (modern Holland and Belgium), the Habsburg’s Austrian and Bohemian holdings, and the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille (modern-day Spain), including all of the Spanish territories in the newly discovered Americas.

Charles made a concerted effort to consolidate and institutionalize the empire. He expanded the number of imperial districts to facilitate the raising of armies and money for imperial wars against the Ottoman Empire. His 1532 criminal code, known as the Carolina, was widely copied throughout German cities and principalities, providing some limited standardization to the widely diverse laws and customs of Germany.

On the whole, though, German princes and cities resisted what they perceived as imperial encroachments on their prerogatives. Although Charles had ruled more territory than any European leader since Charlemagne, by the time he abdicated in 1556 the Holy Roman Empire was more politically fractured than at any time since the Great Interregnum of the 13th century.

Habsburg Conflicts with the French

In 1494 the French had invaded Italy, and Europe’s two most powerful dynasties—the Habsburgs and the Valois, the French ruling family—engaged in a series of military conflicts aimed at dominating the continent. At first, Maximilian and the Habsburgs only joined leagues of Italian cities in fighting the Valois and supplied arms and troops to the Italians. After the battle of Marignano in 1515, though, the Valois ruler Francis I resumed expansionist policies in Italy and in 1519 even presented himself as a candidate for Holy Roman emperor.

When the Habsburg Charles was elected instead, lingering resentment over Burgundian territory now in Charles’s possession led to the first Habsburg-Valois war, from 1521 to 1526. In a decisive battle at Pavia in 1525, Francis was captured and forced to renounce all claims to Milan, Naples, Genoa, and the duchy of Burgundy. Alarmed by Charles’s growing power, Pope Clement VII and Henry VIII of England joined Francis in the League of Cognac, leading to the second Habsburg-Valois war. After two years of disastrous consequences for all participants, little had changed, except that Charles gave up Burgundy. In 1535 the house of Valois once more made a claim on Milan and marched into the duchy of Savoy. Charles counterattacked in southern France, thus initiating the third Habsburg-Valois war, which ended in a stalemate three years later.

Tensions continued during the next 20 years, with further outbreaks of war in 1542, 1551, and 1557. Finally, in 1559, both sides were financially and psychologically exhausted and sued for peace. The resulting Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis gave the Habsburgs control over Italy, the free county of Burgundy, and most of the Netherlands. The Valois maintained the duchy of Burgundy, most of Piedmont (Piemonte) and Savoy, and parts of the Rhineland.

Wars with the Ottoman Empire

Under the ambitious sultan Süleyman I, the Ottoman Empire in the 1520s began to expand into the eastern Habsburg holdings in Austria and Hungary. After Süleyman’s armies defeated imperial forces at Mohács in 1526, they moved on to besiege Vienna. The same year, Charles made concessions to Protestant princes at the imperial diet in Speyer to gain their support for a counteroffensive. The Ottomans were temporarily checked, but by 1532 they once again threatened Vienna, forcing Charles to make another truce with Protestant rulers in return for their military assistance. After three years of fighting, Charles succeeded in capturing Tunis and halting the Ottoman advance for the time being.

Meanwhile, Francis I signed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and made plans to reopen an offensive while the emperor was occupied in the Mediterranean. A truce was reached in 1545, but for the next 25 years imperial and Ottoman troops skirmished in southern Europe until the imperial troops achieved a smashing defeat of the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. While all European rulers, particularly the Habsburgs, remained concerned about the Ottoman threat for the next century, Ottoman advancement had been halted.

The Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther, one of the most important figures in all of German history, was a monk and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Through his studies, he gradually developed an alternate interpretation of how Christians obtained salvation. In his interpretation, an individual could be saved only through faith, not through good works, as the Catholic Church taught. His famous posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517 was a call for reforming certain abuses within the Catholic Church, such as the selling of indulgences, remissions of sin granted by the Church. By 1520, however, Luther had decided that his interpretation of Christianity was incompatible with that of the existing church. Within six months, he published three significant pamphlets that stated his belief in salvation by faith alone, described how the Roman church had deviated from the Scriptures, and called on the German princes to take a more active role in governing the church within their territories.

Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, an official statement giving Luther until the end of 1520 to recant or face excommunication; the reformer replied by publicly burning the bull and all the books of canon (church) law. The following year Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to defend himself at the imperial diet in Worms. When Luther attended and refused to bend before the assembled heads of Germany, he was outlawed. Fortunately, his powerful patron Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, ignored the ban and instead installed Luther at Wartburg castle, where Luther began to translate the New Testament into German.

Diversity of the Early Reformation

Luther’s evangelical ideas found fertile soil in diverse parts of German society. The imperial knights Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen took up Luther’s appeals to the German nobility to rid their land of Roman Catholic influences. In 1522 they launched an armed offensive against church lands that was crushed within a year.

In 1524 a much larger and more destructive revolt, known as the Peasants’ War, spread from southwestern Germany up the Rhine to the heart of the empire. By 1525 more than 500,000 peasants had taken up arms, making a variety of demands on their feudal lords. These peasants often mingled Luther’s language and ideas with their own complaints about taxation and the loss of traditional feudal rights, such as the use of common lands.

Luther, however, claimed that the rebelling peasants had misunderstood him, and that spiritual equality before God was not the same as social or political equality in the world. He urged the princes to strike down those who upset the social order intended by God. The princes did just that, massacring as many as 100,000 peasants. The largest peasant revolt in German history was crushed, as were the hopes of all those seeking a radical social reformation.

From the mid-1520s on, the German Reformation entered an urban phase, in which city magistrates assumed importance. Throughout the empire, local reformers persuaded the leaders of all but 5 of the 60 imperial cities to embrace Luther’s reforms. The resulting religious reform ordinances varied. Some cities thoroughly revised all church rituals; others stressed reform of morals and public decency. Most allowed priests to marry and transferred control over all church property and offices to the municipal government.

Meanwhile, some Swiss cantons had come under the influence of theologian Huldreich Zwingli, who developed the Reformed Christian movement. Zwingli disagreed with Luther on some important questions of doctrine and favored a more thoroughly integrated theocracy, with almost no division between church and state. This religious tradition continued through the work of Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich and John Calvin in Geneva.

There were many other interpretations of Luther’s evangelical message, and many who disagreed were persecuted by Lutherans and Catholics alike. The Anabaptists were a universal target of persecution. These small groups of believers, who called themselves Brethren or simply Christians, accepted Luther’s emphasis on faith and Scriptures but also believed in the extremely unpopular practice of adult baptism. Because all of the people of the time had already been baptized as infants, baptizing adults was considered double baptism, a capital offense since the late Roman Empire. Most Anabaptists were also pacifists (see Pacifism) and thus easy prey for persecution. The one major exception was the Anabaptist citizenry of the city of Münster, whose leader, Jan of Leyden, declared a theocratic kingdom in 1534. Few issues so united the Protestant and Catholic princes of Germany, who raised a huge siege against the city, breaking through in 1535 and executing hundreds. From this period on, the Anabaptist movement remained exclusively pacifistic, as is evident in the followers of Menno Simons, founder in the 16th century of the Mennonites, and in the 17th-century Amish.

Conflict and Compromise

In 1529, at a meeting of the diet in Speyer, Ferdinand, Charles V’s brother, attempted to reinstate the ban on Luther and his followers that Charles V had suspended to gain the princes’ support for a campaign against the Ottomans. Several of the delegates protested, and the term Protestant came to be associated with the movement. The next year, led by Luther’s associate Melanchthon, the Protestant delegation presented a conciliatory statement or creed, which has come to be known as the Augsburg Confession. This concise summary of Lutheran beliefs was rejected by the Catholic princes, leading Protestants to form the defensive Schmalkaldic League in 1531. Eventually the league included seven princes and 16 cities.

During the 1530s and early 1540s Charles was mostly preoccupied with the Ottoman threat. In 1545, however, he turned his attention to the Schmalkaldic League. In 1547 his troops soundly defeated a Saxon army at Mühlberg, and the emperor’s ascendancy was assured. In 1548, at the peak of his power, Charles issued the Augsburg Interim, an attempt to end religious division within the empire by some minor concessions to Lutherans. This interim settlement failed to appease Protestant princes and threatened to provoke a much more destructive civil war within the empire.

A compromise was reached in the Peace of Augsburg, which Charles reluctantly accepted in 1555. This treaty became the foundation for religious coexistence in Germany for the next three centuries. Most importantly, it granted the princes and cities full sovereignty regarding religion. Each ruler could choose either Lutheranism or Catholicism as the official religion of his territory (the Reformed and Calvinist creeds, while not prohibited, were not recognized by the Peace of Augsburg). He was free to treat nonconformist subjects as he wanted, sometimes forcing them to migrate or convert. Religious segregation, rather than toleration, seemed the only solution, and for the rest of the century at least, it seemed to work.

The Confessional Age

When Charles abdicated in 1556, his vast empire was divided, with the Spanish and Burgundian lands going to his son Philip II and the imperial title and German lands going to his brother Ferdinand I. Within the German cities and territories, however, religious tensions continued to mount as governments attempted to establish confessions of faith among their respective populaces, mostly along Lutheran lines. By the 1540s, several newly converted princes had joined the attempt, simultaneously creating new courts and officials to oversee the process. The Protestant Reformation continued to spread.

Meanwhile, a Catholic reform council met for three extended sessions between 1545 and 1563 in the north Italian city of Trent (see Council of Trent), assessing which teachings and practices required changes and to what degree. In general, the council reaffirmed almost all Catholic doctrine on salvation and the sacraments, while also laying a blueprint for extensive clerical and lay reform at the diocesan level. When Catholic bishops turned to the task of implementing reforms and even attempting to win back Protestant converts, one of their greatest assets was a new religious order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. The Jesuits relied heavily on education, setting up schools and universities in Germany and throughout Europe. With the backing of rulers such as the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, the Habsburgs of Austria, and the archbishops of Salzburg, Bamberg, and Würzburg, the Jesuits helped create a Catholic bloc in the southern part of the empire, which has remained predominantly Catholic to this day. In more mixed or predominantly Protestant areas, though, the Jesuits often escalated religious tensions. See also Counter Reformation.

Emperor Ferdinand I was more savvy in politics than Charles had been. For most of his reign, Ferdinand attempted to reconcile the two religious camps within the empire; at the same time, he built up the centralized bureaucracy of his Austrian territories. At his death in 1564, his lands were divided equally among his three sons, and Maximilian II assumed the throne. Both Maximilian II and his successor, Rudolf II, were intensely preoccupied with the Ottoman threat. As in other times of increased military spending, the emperors generally deferred to the princes and cities on a variety of issues in exchange for new taxes. Meanwhile, several small and medium-sized Calvinist states that had developed in spite of the Peace of Augsburg formed close political ties with one another.

The combination of weak imperial rule and intense religious differences increased political tensions within the empire. In 1608 Protestant delegates walked out of the imperial diet, protesting that the empire favored Catholics. German Lutheran and Calvinist states then formed the Protestant Union, a defensive league that was answered by the formation of the German Catholic League. During the reign of the exceptionally weak emperor Matthias, from 1612 to 1619, the empire narrowly averted several crises. Finally, in 1618, the anticipated war came, setting into motion a series of conflicts that have come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

The Thirty Years’ War

The trouble began in Protestant Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic). In 1619 the Czechs refused to accept the Catholic Ferdinand II as king or future emperor. In 1618 they had set up their own government, supported by several Protestant states. After the death of Matthias, they chose the Protestant elector Frederick V of the Rhineland-Palatinate as their king. Ferdinand, however, crushed the Bohemian forces at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Frederick was exiled, and Catholicism was restored by force. The rebelling Bohemian nobles were fined, deprived of their lands, or killed.

The second phase of the Thirty Years’ War began in 1625. After the Battle of White Mountain, Spanish troops under Philip III had occupied part of the Palatinate in support of Ferdinand. German Protestant princes objected to the presence of these Spanish troops on German lands. The princes supported an invasion of Germany by the Protestant king Christian IV of Denmark, who was financed largely by the Dutch and the English. Christian was defeated, and in 1629 the victorious Ferdinand issued the heavy-handed Edict of Restitution, which ordered the return of all Catholic Church property seized by Protestants since 1552.

The third phase of the war began when the Lutheran king Gustav II Adolph of Sweden, who had long wanted to extend Swedish control over the Baltic, invaded Pomerania as the champion of the Protestant princes. The Swedish army won a brilliant victory at Breitenfeld in 1631 and swept down to take Mainz and Prague. Following Gustav’s death on the battlefield in 1632 the war dragged on, accomplishing little but the devastation of the German countryside. In 1635 a truce was declared, and Ferdinand’s unpopular Edict of Restitution was revoked.

In the fourth phase, the Catholic French, who wanted to undermine the Habsburgs, paid subsidies to the Protestant Swedish army to continue fighting. French troops also crossed the Rhine into German territories. After another 13 years of destruction, Emperor Ferdinand III and the princes were ready for peace.

The Peace of Westphalia

The long war ended in a draw, finalized by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By the terms of the treaty, the sovereignty and independence of each of the almost 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire were fully recognized, leaving the emperor virtually powerless. In addition, as in the Peace of Augsburg, the religion of each German state was to be determined by its prince; this time, however, Calvinist Christianity was included with the Lutheran and Catholic faiths as an option. The religious status quo of 1624 was accepted, meaning that the Habsburg lands, the south, and the west remained predominantly Catholic, while Protestants were permitted to retain previously acquired lands.

The war had several devastating effects on Germany. Politically, the Holy Roman Empire continued in name, but it had lost all claim to effective governing power. Economically and socially, Germany lost about one-third of its people to war, famine, and emigration as well as much of its livestock, capital, and trade. Many towns, especially in the north, were destroyed or bankrupt, and manufacturing and middle-class investment were extremely low. Bands of refugees and mercenaries roamed the countryside, seizing what they could. In the midst of poverty and social unrest, many states became even more authoritarian, further weakening what little popular political autonomy remained.

Life in Germany During the 16th and 17th Centuries


In 1500 Germany had a population of about 14 million. This number climbed to about 18 million by 1600. However, over the next 50 years the population dropped dramatically. This drop is usually attributed to the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, but serious famines, plague outbreaks, and emigration had a large effect as well. Some areas, notably Bohemia and Franconia, lost more than three-fourths of their people. Although the casualties of war and the spread of typhoid and venereal diseases (see Sexually Transmitted Infections) by soldiers certainly affected the population, the war alone cannot account for all of the demographic decline.

There were about 4,000 towns in Germany by 1500, still mostly small. Only Nürnberg, Strasbourg, Augsburg, Vienna, Lübeck, and Magdeburg had more than 30,000 inhabitants. In most German cities, citizenship became even more restricted. Usually ownership of property was required in order to be a citizen, and eligibility to serve on the council was monopolized by a few local wealthy families. Many municipal governments became much more active in their regulation of urban life. Sporadic pogroms against Jews and Roma (Gypsies) continued in German cities.

Economic Developments

From the late 15th century on, several German cities, particularly Augsburg and Nürnberg, experienced significant economic growth. In addition to various local guild industries and regional trade, some German merchants and bankers became involved with larger, more wide-reaching ventures. The most famous of these family firms was the Fugger company of Augsburg, which had become the largest financial organization in Europe by the early 16th century. The Fuggers’ virtual monopoly on all gold, silver, and copper mining in central Europe endowed its leaders with great political influence. By the time of the Thirty Years’ War, however, these family firms were losing their power, being replaced by even larger royal and international enterprises.

Low crop yields made German farmers susceptible to misfortunes. Large-scale droughts and famines invariably led to widespread disease, migration, and starvation. Urban workers faced rampant price inflation and falling wages. While some peasants and small property holders expanded their real estate during this period, the majority of urban and rural poor moved closer to destitution and homelessness.


The introduction of Christian pluralism into German society had profound results. Religious conversions of political rulers were common and had widespread implications for subjects and foreigners alike. Religious segregation, rather than toleration, was the rule until the 19th century. Several regions in the north and east developed almost exclusively Lutheran populations, and many localities in the south became overwhelmingly Catholic. Mixed populations, particularly in imperial cities such as Augsburg, did exist, but they were rigidly segregated by religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, despite the efforts of both Protestant and Catholic reformers, many people continued beliefs and practices with pre-Christian origins. The common belief in magic helped fuel a widespread fear of witches. Throughout Europe, as many as 100,000 individuals were executed as witches, mostly between 1550 and 1650. Of these, perhaps three-quarters of the prosecutions took place within the Holy Roman Empire. Most accusations in Germany quickly developed into local panics and large-scale purges. Prosecutions were common in Protestant and Catholic lands alike. See also Witchcraft: Diabolical Witchcraft.

Intellectual Developments

Intellectual life in Germany was deeply affected by both the Protestant Reformation and by the Renaissance. Renaissance learning came to Germany from Italy through the writings of Conradus Celtes, Willibald Pirkheimer, Sebastian Brant, Johann Reuchlin, and Ulrich von Hutten. The Renaissance emphasized the importance of classical studies and looked to ancient Greece and Rome as models. Several writers, including von Hutten and Pirkheimer, became important proponents of Luther’s early reforms, as did the poet-shoemaker Hans Sachs. This combination of classical learning and Reformation thinking was also apparent in the arts. Among painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Albrecht Dürer lent their talents to the Reformation, providing extremely effective visual representations of religious and church themes.

The link between German Protestantism and education was especially strong. Almost all of the early leaders of the Reformation had a university education and were strong advocates of education as a tool for moral and social reform. Luther urged parents to send their children to school and established a new genre of religious literature with his catechisms for children. Luther’s colleague Melanchthon aided several German rulers and city councils in establishing public grammar schools and high schools. Melanchthon’s model stressed a humanist curriculum of Greek and Latin combined with religious instruction. Catholic reformers, particularly the Jesuits, also established educational institutions in Germany during the second half of the 16th century.

In the natural sciences, physician Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy on the internal origin of all illness, paving the way for pathology. On the death of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler inherited both his teacher’s astronomical charts and his position as director of Emperor Rudolf II’s observatory in Prague. Using complex mathematical calculations, Kepler developed three laws of planetary motion—most importantly, that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical rather than circular fashion.

Germany During the Baroque Age (1648-1792)

The art historians’ term baroque is often applied to the segment of German history from 1648 to 1792, especially to the institutions, devotional practices, and ornate art forms associated with the declining Habsburg empire. The baroque age in Germany did not witness any dramatic changes in the social, political, or religious order. The period did see, however, the traditional rituals and prerogatives of the old regime increasingly challenged by such developments as the rising state of Prussia, the Enlightenment, neoclassicism, and naturalism. These forces would ultimately transform Germany.

Dynastic Wars of Expansion

The Treaty of Westphalia curbed but hardly ended the expansionist ambitions of German dynasties such as the Austrian Habsburgs. Scarcely had they recovered from the Thirty Years’ War when the princes and the emperor plunged into new dynastic struggles. In the west, German princes were involved in several wars as French king Louis XIV strove to extend his territory past the Rhine. In the War of the Devolution (1667-1668), Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg accepted a large sum of money from Louis in return for political support. In the Dutch War (1672-1678) Frederick William turned against Louis and the French, who were allied with Sweden. He fought off a Swedish invasion and conquered western Pomerania, but was forced to give up these conquests at the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1679. He later benefited Brandenburg by offering refuge to Huguenots (French Calvinists), whom Louis had exiled. About 20,000 Huguenots migrated east, bringing French culture and skills such as weaving. Louis’s invasion of the Rhineland-Palatinate led to the war of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), in which he won Strasbourg and Alsace.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was fought over the right of Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou (see Philip V), to inherit the Spanish throne. Bavaria sided with France, because Louis promised the Bavarian elector the crown of the Spanish Netherlands (roughly modern-day Belgium). Brandenburg supported the successive emperors Leopold I and Joseph I in return for imperial recognition of Prussia as a kingdom. Other European states also allied with the empire to block unification of France and Spain. Battles waged in Bavaria and western Germany brought havoc and ruin. When both sides were exhausted, they accepted the Peace of Utrecht (1714), in which Austria gained the Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Milan, and Sardinia.

Meanwhile the German princes turned their own expansionist ambitions toward the north and east. In the First Northern War (1655-1660), the emperor and the elector of Brandenburg supported Poland and Denmark against Charles X Gustav of Sweden. In the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which paralleled the War of the Spanish Succession, Saxony, Poland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Hannover, Denmark, and Russia all joined forces against Sweden. At the war’s end, the treaties of Stockholm and Nystadt restored Poland to Augustus II, transferred Stettin and West Pomerania from Sweden to Brandenburg-Prussia, and gave Sweden’s eastern Baltic lands to Russia.

Wars with the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman threat from the east had been effectively checked since the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. By the middle of the 17th century, however, the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War had made the empire’s eastern frontiers again vulnerable. Ottoman forces invaded Hungary in 1663, but imperial troops managed to defeat them and win a 20-year truce. France’s Louis XIV and the Hungarians, both eager to check the Habsburgs, encouraged Ottoman aggression against them. When the truce expired, the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1683. Imperial troops, combined with those of Jan III Sobieski of Poland, rescued the city, and the Ottomans were driven beyond the Danube. As a result, Austria compelled Hungary to recognize the Habsburg right to inherit the Hungarian crown. The Ottoman wars continued until the brilliant general Prince Eugene of Savoy led imperial troops to victory at Senta in northern Serbia in 1697. By the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the Habsburgs regained most of Hungary from the Ottomans. The country, ravaged and greatly depopulated due to the conflict, was resettled with German veterans, and imperial authority from Vienna was imposed.

Austrian-Prussian Rivalry

By 1740 the German states of Austria and Prussia had emerged as the chief rivals for dominance in central Europe. Austria had been the core territory of the Habsburg family since the 13th century. The Habsburgs had built their power and land by acquiring territory through diplomacy and dynastic marriages and had become one of the most powerful states in Europe by the beginning of the Reformation. However, religious and dynastic wars, Ottoman invasions in the 17th century, and growing conflict with Prussia had weakened the state by the early 1700s.

Growth of Prussia

The Hohenzollern family, which had been granted Brandenburg in the 15th century, also held a number of other territories in the west. Outside the empire to the east, the Hohenzollerns had inherited Prussia as a Polish duchy in 1618 and converted it into an independent kingdom in 1701. Gradually, all the Hohenzollern lands came to be known as the kingdom of Prussia.

Unlike many other European dynasties, the Hohenzollerns enjoyed an unbroken (and therefore uncontested) series of male heirs from 1640 to 1786. These rulers were thus able to focus their efforts on building an efficient centralized state, a task that most of them successfully pushed forward. Frederick William of Prussia, known as the Great Elector, reigned from 1640 to 1688. He was a sturdy, hardheaded soldier determined to unite his disparate possessions into a modern military state. He created an efficient, honest bureaucracy that filled the treasury and ran the country for the benefit of a large standing army. By 1678 he had established a military force of 40,000 that absorbed more than 50 percent of the state’s revenue. His intellectual and artistic son Frederick paid more attention to building palaces and promoting the arts than to the army. He did, however, obtain the title king of Prussia from the emperor.

Frederick’s son, Frederick William I, developed a centralized financial system and a standing army of 90,000 by the time of his death in 1740. Frederick II, the Great, was equally at home on the battlefield and enjoying French literature and music in his palace near Berlin. He refined and reorganized the Prussian government, economy, and army.

War of the Austrian Succession

Emperor Charles VI, anxious to keep Habsburg lands unified, issued the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, declaring that his only child, Maria Theresa, should succeed him. When he died in 1740, the electors of Bavaria and Saxony rejected the Pragmatic Sanction on the grounds that they themselves had prior claims through their wives. Frederick II of Prussia offered his support to Maria Theresa in exchange for the rich province of Silesia. When she refused, Frederick promptly invaded Silesia, precipitating the War of the Austrian Succession. The Bavarians, Saxons, and French invaded Austria and Bohemia, while Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Russia came to the aid of Austria. Alarmed by Frederick’s military victories, Maria Theresa made peace with him in 1742, ceding Silesia. Austria and its allies then succeeded in driving the French from Bohemia and conquering Bavaria. By the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1745), Maria Theresa’s husband, Franz, Duke of Lorraine, was recognized as emperor, although it was she who actually ruled. In exchange, Maria Theresa returned Bavaria to the Wittelsbachs and allowed Prussia to keep Silesia.

The Seven Years’ War

The emergence of Prussia as a major power led to a radical shift of alliances and to new hostilities. Austria, determined to reconquer Silesia, made an alliance with Russia as well as its old rival France. Prussia, anticipating encirclement, struck first in 1756 by invading Saxony and Bohemia, thus beginning the Seven Years’ War. Despite good leadership, Frederick II found himself pressed by many enemies. He was conveniently rescued by the death of Elizabeth of Russia in 1761 and the succession of Peter III, who admired Frederick and immediately made peace with him. The exhausted French also wanted peace, and hostilities ended in 1763 with all territories restored to prewar status.

Bitterly disappointed, Maria Theresa devoted herself to internal affairs. She gradually reorganized the government and established uniform taxes, a customs union, and state-supported elementary schools. She encouraged commoners as well as nobles to take government and army positions. Pious, warmhearted, and tactful, she was an extremely popular monarch. Her idealistic son, Joseph, with whom she did not always agree, succeeded her in 1780. Joseph II strove impatiently to create an efficient, modern bureaucracy without regard for local customs or prejudices.

Both Prussia and Austria looked to the east for territorial expansion. Prussia had long been anxious to annex the Polish territory separating Brandenburg and Prussia. Austria, ever regretting the lost Silesia, also looked to Poland for compensation. Both countries feared the Russians, who were exercising greater and greater control over Poland, and who had deposed the Polish king in 1764. A weak Poland seemed ample excuse for intervention, and in 1772 Austria, Prussia, and Russia agreed to the first partition of Poland. This partition reduced Poland’s area by about one-quarter. In 1792 the Russians secretly organized a revolt within Poland that gave Russian and Prussian forces an excuse to occupy the country and further reduce Polish territory by about two-thirds. After another Polish attempt to regain territory in 1794, the remainder of the country was divided between Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1795.

Life in Germany During the Baroque Age

Social Changes

Almost a century passed before Germany’s population recovered to a level near that of before the Thirty Years’ War, reaching about 20 million in 1750. Frequent harvest failures, disease, and unemployment left about a quarter of the population destitute, leading to widespread migration within the empire and the growth of a criminal underclass in many cities. Emigration was another option, and more than 200,000 Germans had left for the Americas by the end of the 18th century. Urban populations continued to grow, most dramatically in the Prussian capital of Berlin, which grew from 6,000 in 1640 to 55,000 in 1700, and to 150,000 in 1800. The much older and more cosmopolitan Austrian capital of Vienna had a population of 210,000 by 1800.

The social order of the Middle Ages remained strikingly unchanged. Serfdom was abolished in 1773 in Prussia but was still widely practiced. In Austria it was abolished in 1781 but restored at Joseph’s death in 1791. West of the Elbe, free peasant farmers continued to constitute the largest social group, with domestic servitude the single largest occupational category (10 to 15 percent of the general population). Landed aristocrats often intermarried with wealthy merchant families. The new political identity of citizen became more common in the mid-18th century but was still often used interchangeably with the designation subject. Some princely states, most notably the archbishoprics of Salzburg and Würzburg, developed elaborate court cultures and patronized the arts. In Prussia, many members of the nobility were drawn into the newly professionalized army.

Technological and Economic Developments

The period from 1650 to 1800 was one of general economic stagnation in German lands, with most enterprises remaining small. The majority of manufacturing was performed by local guilds and cottage industry. Economically, guilds continued to be powerful, but politically their authority as well as that of the free cities declined precipitously beginning in 1650. Prussia during the 1670s was typical. Its rulers eliminated most self-government in the towns and dominated all secular and ecclesiastical appointments. Prussian rulers also attempted to improve commerce by building new canals and improving roads as well as by introducing standard weights and measures throughout German lands. However, great economic obstacles resulted from the multitude of German states. For example, a voyage on the Rhine from Basel to Rotterdam involved 38 separate tolls.

Agricultural production also remained relatively low. Some high-grade fodder crops were introduced in Prussia, and potatoes from the Americas became a common crop in western German lands, particularly in the Rhineland. The eastern nobility operated large personal estates whose produce provided them with most of their income. German landowners in the west derived most of their agricultural income from the rents paid by tenants.

Religion and Philosophy

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries Germany experienced a variety of religious and intellectual developments, from Lutheran Pietism and Baroque Catholicism to Enlightenment philosophy and the beginnings of empirical science.

Although official state religions remained largely unchanged in the years following the Peace of Westphalia, cultural expressions of faith by German Protestants and Catholics accelerated at an unprecedented pace. In the predominantly Catholic south, this was evident in a revival of public processions, pilgrimages, shrines, and highly ornate church decoration. Meanwhile, in the largely Lutheran north, Philipp Jakob Spener, the former court chaplain at Saxony, called for a revival of evangelical preaching and lay fervor in his influential work Pia Desideria (1675; Pious Desires, 1964). The resulting movement, known as Pietism, spread rapidly throughout Lutheran Germany.

Religious segregation was the rule, with most states maintaining an official religion. An exception was Prussia, whose rulers were among the first to appreciate the economic benefits of religious toleration. They gladly accepted not only tens of thousands of fellow Calvinists who had been expelled from France and Salzburg, but also welcomed Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews. Joseph II of Austria issued an edict of toleration for all non-Catholic Christians in 1781 and a similar decree for Jews the next year. Assimilation was especially important to the emperor, however, and he attempted to put loyalty to the state above particular religious devotions. He tried to force all Jewish subjects except rabbis to abandon their traditional clothing; he also halted all synagogue construction and required Jews to pay a toleration tax. These Austrian and Prussian examples of toleration were followed reluctantly by Bavaria and Württemberg in 1803, Baden in 1818, Hesse in 1831, and Saxony in 1841.

During the Age of Enlightenment, the writings of the French philosophes were undeniably influential in Germany. The belief in representative government, or government by all people instead of merely the nobility, began to gain popularity. The philosophes also placed great importance on the discovery of truth by the use of individual human reason and through the observation of nature, instead of by the study of authoritative sources such as Aristotle and the Bible.

The spirit of critical and objective inquiry, universal in literate Europe in the 18th century, produced several remarkable German philosophers, including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. Educational reforms led to the establishment of mandatory grammar schools for girls and boys. By the end of the century at least half of the population had some formal schooling. The number of German newspapers increased from 57 in 1700 to almost 200 in 1800.

Nationalism and Unification (1792-1871)

In the 18th century, Enlightenment theories of representative government inspired a desire for national unification and liberal reform among some Germans. In the 19th century, France’s expansion after the French Revolution (1789-1799) and especially under Napoleon I had the unintended effect of pushing Austria and Prussia together and arousing a sense of German national identity.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars

The success of the French Revolution greatly alarmed Austria and Prussia. Fearing that revolutionary ideas would spread and jeopardize their own governments, the two countries signed the Pillnitz Declaration in 1791, which offered to intervene militarily on behalf of the French king. This declaration only served to anger the French, and in April 1792 France declared war on Austria and Prussia, defeating them soundly at Valmy in September. For the next 20 years, the German states engaged in five wars of defense against the well-trained and unified armies of revolutionary and Napoleonic France (see Napoleonic Wars). The first war resulted in the French occupying all German territory west of the Rhineland by 1794, an event that would have profound consequences for all Franco-German relations thereafter. A second war from 1799 to 1802 also ended in German defeat.

In 1806, to compensate the western German states for their losses, Napoleon reorganized them into the Confederation of the Rhine, at the same time greatly reducing their number. The 17 members of the confederation broke away from the Austrian Holy Roman Empire, effectively dissolving it. Prussia then declared war on France. On October 14, 1806, a combined Prussian-Austrian army was decisively routed by Napoleon at the Battle of Jena. The next year, Napoleon conquered Prussia, and in the crushing Treaty of Tilsit, he forced it to cede all land west of the Elbe and to pay enormous war indemnities. In 1809 Austria led a fourth German war against France while Napoleon was occupied in Spain, but in the process lost even more land. In all, almost two-thirds of the German population changed rulers during this period.

Finally, Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 retreat from Moscow encouraged the allies to make another effort. Frederick William III of Prussia, joined by Austria and Russia, led the so-called War of Liberation, in which Napoleon was ultimately defeated at Leipzig in 1813. All French territory in Germany was “liberated” and the Confederation of the Rhine was dissolved. After much bloodshed, the allies took Paris in April 1814.

At the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the victors redrew the map of Europe. Austria gave up the Austrian Netherlands and its Swabian lands in the west, but was compensated by receiving Salzburg, Tirol, Lombardy, Venice, and Illyria and Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea. Prussia lost most of its Polish territory but gained much of Saxony and Swedish Pomerania, as well as land in the Rhineland and Westphalia, including the undeveloped iron and coal resources of the Ruhr and Saar areas.

Liberalism and Early Nationalism

The Congress of Vienna formally recognized replacement of the Holy Roman Empire and its more than 240 states with the German Confederation of 39 states, including four free cities. The confederation was represented by a powerless assembly. Opinions differed on what the new confederation should be. Many Germans wanted to fashion a liberal, progressive government on British and French models, with a constitution guaranteeing popular representation, trial by jury, and free speech. They also hoped for national unification. Such ideas were especially popular among middle-class professionals and university students. These aims also appealed to the various restive peoples within the Austrian empire.

Liberalism and nationalism were bitterly opposed by the rulers of Prussia and Austria, as well as by the recently crowned kings of Bavaria, Hannover, Württemberg, and Saxony, who begrudgingly granted constitutions and dreaded any encroachment on their individual power. Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Britain formed the Quadruple Alliance to suppress—by force if necessary—any threat to the Vienna settlement. At an 1819 conference of German rulers in Karlsbad, Austrian foreign minister Prince Klemens von Metternich proposed governmental action to prevent any potential revolutionary activity in the German Confederation. This was supported by the German rulers, who pushed it through the confederation’s assembly. Frederick William III of Prussia blocked reforms planned by his ministers.

In 1834 Prussia organized a customs union of 18 German states, which Austria refused to join. While this organization facilitated economic growth throughout Germany, its political significance as an early German union was minor.

Revolution and Reaction

The July Revolution in Paris in 1830 set off liberal uprisings in many German states. At Metternich’s urging, the confederation forbade public meetings and banned petitions. Nevertheless, in early 1848, another wave of revolutions, again beginning in Paris, washed over Europe. Nationalist groups revolted in Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, and Lombardy. Metternich resigned under pressure, and Austrian emperor Ferdinand I resigned in favor of his young nephew Francis Joseph I. Violent uprisings also took place in Bavaria, Prussia, and southwestern Germany. The frightened rulers agreed to send delegates to an assembly in Frankfurt, promising a constitution and improved civil rights.

By October 1848, however, the rebellions were crushed. In Austria, a liberal constitutional assembly was dissolved, and a constitution providing highly centralized, although representative, government was imposed. Hungary, which had declared itself a republic, was forcibly subdued. In Prussia, Frederick William IV imposed an authoritarian constitution.

Meanwhile, the Frankfurt Assembly wrote a liberal constitution for a united Germany under a hereditary emperor. Austria refused to allow its German lands to be included, so the assembly regretfully decided that Germany should consist of the German states without Austria. For lack of an alternative, they offered the crown to Frederick William, who refused it. The assembly dispersed in failure. By 1850 the authoritarian German Confederation was restored and most of the revolutionaries and liberals had been exiled or imprisoned.

Prussia and German Unification

After the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly, both Prussia and Austria put forth conflicting plans for German union. William I of Prussia was determined that neither Austria nor a newly aggressive France should thwart Prussian ambitions. He and his chief minister, Prince Otto von Bismarck, decided that Prussia must become unassailable and that unification must occur on Prussian terms.

Bismarck was a Prussian Junker (landless aristocrat) of forceful intellect, overbearing manner, and deep loyalty to the crown. Drawing on three decades of diplomatic experience, he astutely combined shrewd diplomacy with militarism in order to eliminate Austrian influence.

As a preliminary, Bismarck bought the neutrality of Russia, Italy, and France with friendly treaties. He then invited Austria in 1864 to join an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein, two Danish duchies. The Austrians and Prussians quickly defeated the Danes but soon fell out over control of the conquered duchies. On that excuse, Bismarck launched the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria in 1866. Skillfully coordinating three armies, Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke quickly defeated the Austrians at Königgrätz. Bismarck, however, did not want to alienate Austria irrevocably and therefore made an easy peace. Austria gave up Venice to Italian nationalists, while Prussia annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Hannover, and other states. In 1867 Bismarck organized the North German Confederation of 22 states without Austria; that year Austria became the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Bismarck next maneuvered a war with France, partly to overcome southern German fears of an enlarged Prussia by gaining their support in military action. In 1870 the aggressive French emperor Napoleon III unwisely pressed William I to promise that a Hohenzollern would never take the vacant Spanish throne. Bismarck distorted William’s account of the incident to make it seem as if the French had been insulted and then published the account. The outraged French declared war. Stirred by new national loyalty, the southern German states joined forces behind Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. Prussia’s seasoned armies conquered the disorganized French at Sedan and, after a long siege, took Paris in 1871. With these events, Bismarck convinced the southern German states that Prussian control was inevitable. At Versailles on January 18, 1871, he persuaded a reluctant William to become head of a restored German Empire, the Second Reich. See also German Unification (1871).

Life in Germany During the 19th Century

Society and Population

The population of German lands grew from about 20 million in 1750 to 33 million in 1816, and up to 52 million by 1865. Increased social and geographic mobility contributed to the growth of urban centers. By the end of the century, some cities had exploded in population—for example, Hamburg grew from 132,000 to 768,000 people and Munich went from 45,000 to 422,000. Housing in most of these cities unfortunately lagged far behind population growth, spawning dreadful urban slums. For most of the period, though, almost three-quarters of the population continued to live in communities of under 2,000 people. Infant and child mortality rates remained appallingly high, and illegitimate births rose from 15 percent in the early 19th century to 25 percent by mid-century.

Not until the Napoleonic Wars did the social structure of German states show some sign of change. Prussia had freed its peasantry in 1807, but had then given much of the land to landowners to compensate them for lost labor, leaving many peasants without the means to sustain themselves. Although serfdom was threatened by political liberalism and growing urban centers, it only collapsed fully following the revolutions of 1848. During the 1850s Metternich and rulers in other German states were working to strengthen the politically conservative arrangements of the Congress of Vienna, but their efforts were undermined by an economic boom of massive proportions that was quickly making factory workers the largest occupational category. This boom also increased the influence of middle-class business people and wealthy industrialists and weakened the political and economic authority of nobles and guilds. German aristocrats turned their attention to the government and the military.

Economic and Technological Developments

This boom was the result in part of the Industrial Revolution, which hit Germany with full force in the 1850s. In the next two decades, economic and technological growth exploded. Coal production in German lands went from 3.8 million metric tons to 21.5 million metric tons and the annual industrial growth rate of 10.2 percent was the highest in the world. By 1862 a massive network of roads and railway lines connected all German cities. The boom in industrial manufacturing was the final death knoll for the guilds. In Austria they were officially abolished in 1859; elsewhere in Germany, they ceased during the next decades. By the time of unification, the new German empire had become one of the major industrial powers of the world.

Intellectual Developments

The dominant literary spirit at the beginning of the 19th century is generally called Romantic, referring to an emphasis on sensation, natural beauty, and folk culture. Although many of its proponents were clearly reacting against the Enlightenment elevation of reason over the senses, it is an oversimplification to view the two movements as opposites or as incompatible. Already in his 1781 publication, Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant was seeking to find a middle way between reason and faith. Another child of the Enlightenment, Johann Gottfried von Herder, sought to combine the rational and irrational to find truth. Herder thought of nationality in linguistic rather than political terms; his emphasis on the common social experience and culture of a relatively diverse population, however, in many ways paved the way for later political unification. See also Romanticism.

Under Wilhelm von Humboldt, the education system of Prussia was reorganized to stress the individuality of the student and the moral duty of the state to educate its citizens. Elementary schools emphasized experience rather than memorization. Secondary schools, or Gymnasien, combined classical, Christian, and patriotic values to prepare middle-class students for the university. The University of Berlin, founded by Humboldt in 1809, became an outstanding center of humanistic, historical, and, especially, scientific studies. German research universities in turn produced some of the greatest scientific minds and discoveries of the century: natural scientist Baron Alexander von Humboldt; chemist Justus Baron von Liebig; Robert Koch, founder of modern bacteriology; psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Max Wundt; and medical researcher and mathematician Hermann von Helmholtz.

Modern Germany (1871-present)

The history of the prosperous nation of modern Germany includes two devastating wars and the country’s subsequent recoveries. The recent unification of East and West Germany is in many ways another triumph, but it also brought new problems and challenges.

The Second Empire

During the years between unification of the German states and World War I, Germany enjoyed a period of peace and relative prosperity, the latter closely tied to rapid industrialization and increased production. By the eve of the war, the empire’s economic and demographic growth had made it one of the three major powers of Europe. A series of imperialist conflicts and political misjudgments led Germany into a disaster in World War I.

Bismarck’s Foreign Policies

Having sufficiently enlarged Prussia with the Franco-Prussian War, the Iron Chancellor, as Bismarck was called, worked for peace. He constructed a series of alliances with Austria, Italy, and Russia designed to protect Germany from aggression. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Bismarck mediated a settlement in the Balkans, where various Slavic groups kept rebelling against the decaying Ottoman Empire. Largely to please the merchant class, he consented to Germany’s acquiring colonies in Africa and the Pacific, most notably in Cameroon, South-West Africa (Namibia), East Africa (Tanzania), part of New Guinea, and the Marshall Islands. Unlike Britain and France, however, Germany found its colonies valuable chiefly for prestige.

Bismarck’s Domestic Policies

The first years of the new empire saw a rapid economic growth in a variety of enterprises. Bismarck encouraged industrialization, using the iron and coal resources of the Ruhr and Saar areas, and promoted free trade. This liberalizing of the economy and the resulting economic boom led to the expansion of German industry, especially the railroads, and also the growth of many small, private companies. Following an economic crash in 1873, though, the German government began to shift away from these liberal free-trade policies, with few restrictions on imports, toward protectionist measures that introduced tariffs on imports to protect German manufacturers. While these policies gradually stabilized the economy, they also encouraged the concentration of industries into large conglomerates that were protected from foreign competition by the government.

The political structure of the Second Empire reflected Bismarck’s fundamental distrust of democratic rule in general and of various parties and groups in particular. The empire’s 25 relatively sovereign states had various forms of government. They were ruled by a Bundesrat (federal council) of princes dominated by Prussia and a Reichstag (imperial assembly) of elected deputies. The executive leader of the government, the chancellor, was responsible only to the emperor. The emperor in turn dictated all foreign policy and possessed the exclusive right to interpret the constitution. Bismarck’s autocratic scorn for parliamentary government was matched only by his anxiety over two growing political factions within the Reichstag: the Roman Catholic Center Party and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Bismarck, a Protestant, shared many German Protestants’ fears about the political power of the pope and the Catholic Church. After 1870, when the First Vatican Council enhanced papal authority by declaring the pope infallible on matters of dogma, Bismarck initiated the so-called Kulturkampf (culture struggle). This movement suggested that Catholic allegiances were not only intellectually backward but were also dangerous to German security. For most of the decade, many religious orders (especially the Jesuits) were suppressed, and disobedient priests were dismissed, imprisoned, or exiled. Ironically, the legal persecution only consolidated support for the Catholic Center Party, which doubled its popular vote in 1874. Finally, in 1879, the Kulturkampf eased, chiefly because Bismarck needed to gain the Center Party’s support against the liberals in order to pass high protective tariffs on imports.

The chancellor next turned his wrath on another powerful group with international ties, the SPD, founded in 1875. Blaming the SPD for two attempts by non-Socialists to assassinate the emperor, he had a new Reichstag elected that supported his desired tariffs and outlawed the Socialists. To forestall workers’ demands and to ensure healthy army recruits, Bismarck provided state insurance for sickness, accidents, and old age. Once again, however, Bismarck’s attempts at political suppression failed, and the outlawed SPD won a large number of seats in the election of 1890. Stunned, Bismarck prepared to abolish the constitution. However, he was suddenly dismissed by the new emperor, William II, who wished to rule in his own right and to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy.

William II’s Policies

William’s foreign policy focused on expanding Germany’s colonial empire and building a massive navy. Both policies led to increased political tensions with Britain and Russia. As tensions grew, the major European countries formed opposing alliances. Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary formed the Triple Alliance in 1882. Germany considered the Triple Alliance an indispensable counterbalance to the alliances made by France, Russia, and Britain. By 1907 France, Russia, and Britain had formed the Triple Entente. In the name of the preservation of peace, Europe was now divided into two armed camps.

In contrast to his reckless foreign policy, which by its provocative military buildup increased tensions in Europe and risked war, William pursued an extremely conservative domestic policy. He allowed a few extensions of social insurance programs and trade union laws, but overall he strongly favored industrialists and large landowners. Many of these wealthy capitalists actively supported the naval buildup, as did other imperialist groups intent on an arms race with France and Britain. At the same time, the SPD continued to gain support, garnering one-third of the Reichstag vote in 1903 and becoming the largest party in the assembly in 1912. However, the nationalist parties, which disagreed with the Socialists’ opposition to the military buildup and imperial expansion, refused to work with the Socialists (see Socialism). Consequently, parliament was deadlocked, which enhanced the power of the aggressive emperor.

Antagonisms between the two armed camps in Europe intensified with crises in Morocco and the Balkans. In 1905 and again in 1911, William intervened in Morocco, which France claimed, in order to protect German colonial interests in Africa. Austria’s 1908 annexation of the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina spoiled Serbia’s hopes of gaining them.

But the spark that set off World War I was the assassination, with Serbian knowledge, of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Following the assassination, in June 1914, Germany rashly assured Austria of full support, and the Austrians sent Serbia an ultimatum that Serbia could not accept. All the major powers then acted with headlong speed, believing that military advantage depended on rapid mobilization of their armies. Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia, an ally of Serbia, then mobilized its troops against Austria and Germany. On August 1, Germany gave Russia 12 hours to demobilize and then, receiving no answer, declared war on Russia and its ally France. Soon France and eventually Britain followed, and within days all of the major European powers were at war.

World War I

The outbreak of war aroused in Germany—as in England and France—enthusiastic and naive outbursts of patriotism and dreams of romantic adventure. Devastating death tolls soon brought home the ugly reality of modern warfare to all participants. Patriotic fervor remained strong, however, even in the darkest moments of death and deprivation. Conservative members of the German military refused all efforts at a negotiated peace, extending the bloodiest war in history for a total of four years at a cost of more than 6 million German lives.

Course of the War

The German high command hoped that a quick conquest of France would secure the western front and release forces to fight in the east. Avoiding the fortified French frontier, German armies moved through neutral Belgium, hoping to take Paris by surprise, but the Germans encountered greater resistance in Belgium than expected. Their violation of international law by invading Belgium brought Britain to the aid of France and destroyed all sympathy for Germany and its allies.

German forces nearly reached Paris before they were turned back at the extremely bloody Battle of the Marne in September 1914. The two sides then dug trenches for a ferocious four-year war of attrition. Meanwhile, the Russians attacked on the east, plunging Germany into a two-front war.

The Germans defeated the ill-equipped Russians several times, but they could make no headway on the western front. The Allies—as the countries fighting against Germany were called—blockaded Germany to cut off food and raw materials, causing extensive hardship and rationing of supplies. In 1916 some antiwar socialists broke from the SPD to form the Independent Social Democratic Party, but military leaders, particularly General Erich Ludendorff, dominated the government and prevented any compromise for peace. Desperate to break the blockade, the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare. After several American ships were sunk, the United States entered the war in April 1917. The next year, Russia, in the throes of political revolution, sued for peace, which was concluded by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Freed in the east, the German army launched a final, all-out offensive in the west, but the Allies slowly turned the tide.

Recognizing the situation as hopeless, the German high command urged William to let a new civil government sue for peace, particularly since U.S. president Woodrow Wilson insisted on dealing with civilians. William grudgingly appointed Prince Max of Baden chancellor. While Prince Max negotiated with Wilson, fighting continued, sailors mutinied, socialists staged strikes, workers and members of the military formed Communist councils, and revolution broke out in Bavaria. On November 9, 1918, Prince Max announced the abdication of William II and his own resignation as chancellor. Prince Max handed over the government to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD. That same day, Philip Scheidemann, a member of the new government, proclaimed a new republic. Germany agreed to an armistice taking effect on November 11.

Treaty of Versailles

Having surrendered and changed governments, Germans expected a negotiated peace. But the Allies were determined to receive reparation for their losses and to see that their enemy was never again in a position to endanger them. Accordingly, they imposed the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany in 1919. Germany was forced to surrender Alsace-Lorraine to France and West Prussia to Poland, creating a Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia. Germany also lost its colonies and had to give up most of its coal, trains, merchant ships, and navy. It had to limit its army and submit to occupation of the Rhineland for 15 years. Worst of all, Germany had to accept full responsibility for causing the war and, consequently, pay its total cost—more than $30 billion in gold. These last provisions particularly rankled, since Germans did not consider themselves any more guilty than anyone else and could not possibly pay all that was demanded.

The Treaty of Versailles, justifiable from the Allies’ immediate point of view, did not ensure lasting peace. Germany was neither crushed completely—as some of the victors had demanded—nor encouraged to return to the European community. Instead, by accepting the treaty, the new German government gained a bad name among it citizens and crippled its chances of success, while fueling feelings of bitterness later exploited by the Nazis (see National Socialism).

On February 16, 1919, a national assembly, led by the SPD, met in Weimar, Thuringia, to write a new constitution. The constitution adopted on July 31, 1919, transformed the German Empire into a democratic republic, known as the Weimar Republic.

The Weimar Republic (1919-1933)

The short-lived Weimar Republic has become a symbol of many things to subsequent observers. To Nazis, it embodied the humiliation of an imposed settlement and an “un-German” cosmopolitanism that they considered decadent. To post-Nazi Germans, it was a beacon of pre-Hitler democracy. Finally, to many cultural scholars, the period of the Weimar Republic was a fascinating time when the old and the new in German society collided and blended, often producing enduring works of art and literature.

Politics and Government

The Weimar constitution provided all of the basic civil rights common to other democratic countries: universal suffrage and freedom of speech, of press, of movement, and of association. Although the right to private property was recognized, plans were made to nationalize several key industries. The reform-minded Friedrich Ebert of the SPD was the Republic’s first president, from 1919 to 1925. He was succeeded by the elderly war hero Paul von Hindenburg, who was president until his death in 1934.

For most Germans, the Weimar government bore the stigma of defeat. In addition, as a parliamentary government, it was opposed on principle by both conservative militarists and revolutionary socialists. Both sides, using private armies, frequently tried to overthrow the government. In 1919 the Communist Spartacists under Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg tried unsuccessfully to overturn the government, and in 1920 a much more dangerous rightist military revolt, the Kapp Putsch, was put down.

Economic and Political Crises

The economic situation of Germany during the first five postwar years made the political situation even more precarious. Because Germany could not meet reparations requirements, France invaded the industrial center of the Ruhr in 1923, seizing control of all its coal deposits. The German government encouraged the workers to resist passively, and it printed vast amounts of devalued money to pay them. Before July 1922, the value of the Reichsmark had already dropped from about 4 to 493 to the dollar, but during the next 16 months it plummeted to 4.2 trillion to the dollar. The resulting inflation wiped out the savings, pensions, insurance, and other forms of fixed income of most middle-class and working-class Germans.

In 1924 the Dawes Plan was implemented to ease the German reparations burden and provide for foreign loans. The brilliant chancellor and foreign minister Gustav Stresemann reorganized the monetary system and encouraged industrial growth. For the next five years, Germany enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, gradually fulfilling its obligations under the Versailles treaty. In 1925 England, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Treaties of Locarno, which finally established the western borders of Germany and began the withdrawal of occupation forces along the Rhine. In 1926 Germany was admitted to the League of Nations.

The worldwide depression of the 1930s, however, plunged the country once more into disaster. Millions of unemployed Germans, disillusioned by capitalist democracy, turned either to the Communist Party or to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), the party of National Socialism, or Nazism. By 1930 the Nazis were the second largest party in the Reichstag.

The Third Reich (1933-1945)

Probably no regime in the 20th century or any other has been so closely identified with institutionalized terror and evil as that of the Third Reich under the control of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Its rise and demise had worldwide consequences, and its legacy continued to shape the identity of Germans long afterward.

Hitler and National Socialism

A failed artist and former army corporal in World War I, Adolf Hitler hated aristocrats, capitalists, Bolsheviks (Communists), and liberals, as well as Jews and other so-called non-Aryans. He had already tried to topple the government in the ill-fated “beer hall putsch” of 1923. This early abortive attempt at revolution occurred when Hitler (then chairman of the NSDAP), the right-wing general Ludendorff, and several Nazi supporters stormed a Munich beer hall and forced local political leaders to declare their support for the “national revolution.” Nazi attempts to take over the Bavarian War Ministry were quickly defeated, however, and Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for treason.

Released after serving less than one year, Hitler immediately rejoined the NSDAP, and in 1926 again became its leader. Hitler used his public speaking gifts to win supporters for the Nazi cause, seizing every opportunity to denounce the unpopular Weimar government as weak and decadent. He also proposed giving the jobs of Jews—whom he painted as parasitical and villainous—to deserving Germans. In return for restoring Germany’s former glory and honor, he asked for the unconditional loyalty and obedience of all patriotic Germans. To reinforce his message, his followers, brown-shirted storm troopers, sporadically harassed and attacked Communists, Jews, and other enemies of the National Socialists.

In 1927 the entire Nazi membership was only 40,000. Yet by the depths of the depression of 1932, the Nazis were the most successful party in the country, although still garnering only 38 percent of the vote. Many right-wing military and civilian leaders thought that Hitler could be effectively manipulated and so, with the backing of several prominent businessmen, they succeeded in having him named chancellor on January 30, 1933.

Their belief that Hitler would be a Nazi figurehead was soon shattered, however. To secure supreme power for himself as the nation’s Führer (leader), Hitler blamed a fire in the Reichstag building on the Communists, banned the Communist Party, and called new elections. Even in this highly coercive atmosphere, the Nazis still did not obtain an absolute majority in the new Reichstag. Nevertheless, together with their political allies, they succeeded in passing the revolutionary Enabling Act, which granted the government dictatorial powers over all aspects of German life.

Totalitarian Germany

Armed with this power, Hitler set out to create a new totalitarian, nationalist empire, the Third Reich. The groundwork had been laid in the old Prussian militarist tradition and in World War I, when the military ran the government. From that foundation, Hitler proceeded with formidable efficiency. He consolidated legislative, executive, judicial, and military authority and then assumed that authority himself. He also became head of state after the death of President Hindenburg in 1934. The Nazis combined extreme nationalism and political authoritarianism to produce a fascist state, akin to the states created in Italy by Benito Mussolini and in Spain by Francisco Franco. See also Fascism.

All political parties except the Nazis were banned. Strikes were forbidden and the unemployed were enrolled in labor camps or the army as Germany strove to be economically self-sufficient. Unemployment plummeted from 6 million to less than 2 million by July 1935. A professional army, enlarged by conscription, was established to carry out Hitler’s plan for conquest. Hermann Wilhelm Göring oversaw the buildup of the new German air force, or Luftwaffe. Paul Joseph Goebbels directed a sophisticated system of propaganda employing the mass media of publishing, film, and radio. Children were thoroughly indoctrinated at every turn, especially in groups such as the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Spectacular rallies were staged to galvanize the German public into support for Hitler’s agenda.

Backing up the propaganda were various bureaus of organized brutality, most notoriously the secret police, or Gestapo, and Hitler’s elite bodyguard, known as the SS (Schutzstaffel), both eventually under Heinrich Himmler. Together with other military and civilian departments, these groups had virtually free rein to arrest, torture, imprison, and execute anyone who challenged the government.

The Holocaust

Already in 1933, the Nazi government had begun construction of concentration camps to imprison enemies of the regime, including political opponents, as well as Jews, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Communists, religious dissenters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, professional criminals, and prostitutes. Many people fled the country as Nazi repression became increasingly severe, particularly after the 1935 enactment of the Nürnberg Laws, which deprived German Jews of citizenship and various civil rights. Once the international attention of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 had passed, Jewish firms were systematically liquidated or purchased for a fraction of their actual value. Sporadic attacks on Jewish individuals and property were also common. The most dramatic was Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) on November 9, 1938, when Nazis and their sympathizers randomly killed more than 90 Jews, set fire to synagogues, and smashed the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned stores. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the country to escape persecution, but many more could not or would not leave.

When Germany occupied Poland in September 1939, Polish Jews were killed or forced into walled ghettos, where many died of starvation and illness. The conquests of France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Yugoslavia, and Greece brought hundreds of thousands more Jews under German rule. Following its invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in June 1941, the German army sent in death squads to execute nearly 1 million Jews in Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

In the growing number of concentration camps throughout the expanded German empire, Jews and other inmates were exploited as forced laborers; when no longer able to work, they were killed by gassing, shooting, or fatal injections. Inmates were also used for medical experiments. By January 1942 Hitler’s staff had formulated a “final solution” to what they called “the Jewish problem.” Extermination centers were built to kill entire populations in the most efficient manner possible; at full operation, the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz and Birkenau could kill up to 9,000 people within 24 hours. By the end of the war, Jewish dead numbered between 5.6 million and 5.9 million, an unprecedented act of genocide later known as the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of other “inferior” or “treasonous” individuals also perished in German camps during the 12 years of the Third Reich.

Opposition and Resistance

Although many people in the countries occupied by Germany collaborated with Germany’s extermination of Jews and others, there was also substantial resistance. Before invasion, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, and Italy refused to deport Jews to Germany. Widespread partisan resistance also existed in the occupied territories. Jews resisted with armed uprisings in Tarnow, Radom, Bedzin, and Białystok, as well as in the camp at Sobibór. For three weeks in 1943, the 65,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw ghetto battled German police attempting a final roundup of Jews.

Within Germany, opposition to Hitler came from two different groups. The first comprised those individuals who felt a moral or philosophical repugnance to the Nazi state and thus defied it openly or passively. Many members of the German Evangelical Church formed a splinter institution known as the Confessing Church that openly opposed Nazi racism and brutality. Its leaders were imprisoned, exiled, or—as in the case of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—executed. A number of Catholic clerics and lay people also resisted without official church support. Some students and teachers at the University of Munich formed an underground resistance movement (“The White Rose”) but were eventually apprehended and executed in April 1943. Socialists and Communists who had escaped Nazi roundups also fought the fascist government, although with negligible results.

The second type of German resistance to Hitler came from highly placed individuals who believed that Hitler’s leadership and methods had grown erratic and thus threatened Germany. This group, which included civil servants, military staff officers of various ranks, and members of the East Prussian aristocracy, engaged in a conspiracy to remove him. Their very late—and unsuccessful—attempt to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944, led to a bloodthirsty purge and a series of especially brutal public executions.

World War II

Prelude to World War II

The massive destruction of World War I did not resolve the international tensions within Europe and in many ways the Treaty of Versailles made the situation worse. Germany’s revived militarism and expansionism under the Nazis were met with concern by other Europeans, but the painful memory of World War I led them to make concessions in order to avoid another violent conflict. Hitler manipulated such war weariness to Germany’s advantage as long as possible and then launched the very war that Europeans had feared.

Hitler threatened and bluffed the European powers into allowing him gradually to revise Germany’s boundaries. His goal, to unite all ethnic Germans and give them Lebensraum (living space), did not seem unreasonable to some foreign statesmen, who recognized that the Versailles treaty had been unjust. At the time, no single demand of Hitler’s seemed worth risking war to protest. In 1933 Germany left the League of Nations, and in 1935 it began to rearm—virtually unopposed—occupying the Rhineland the next year. It then signed an anti-Communist pact with Japan and made an alliance with Fascist Italy, agreements which led to the creation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis in 1940. In 1938 Germany declared an Anschluss (union) with Austria, with little resistance from other powers or the Austrians themselves. In Munich later that year, Britain, France, and Italy signed the Munich Pact. This pact permitted Hitler to occupy the German-populated Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in exchange for his promise that Germany would then be satisfied. The Munich Pact later became the symbol of the disastrous consequences of appeasing an aggressor.

In March 1939 Hitler broke his word and occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia. In August, dramatically reversing his anti-Communist policy, he made a surprising nonaggression pact with the USSR (see German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact); this pact contained a secret promise to split Poland between Germany and the USSR. His repeated demands for Danzig (Gdańsk) in the so-called Polish Corridor led to a Polish-British pact and Polish mobilization. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France promptly declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

Course of the War

In a few weeks of Blitzkrieg (lightning war), mechanized German divisions easily overwhelmed the ill-equipped Poles, taking western Poland. The Soviets seized the eastern part. In 1940 Germany swallowed Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries and invaded France, which rapidly collapsed. With relish, Hitler forced the French to sign an armistice in the same train car where the Treaty of Versailles had been imposed on Germany 20 years earlier. Hitler then blockaded Britain and launched air raids and bomb attacks (see London Blitz). In 1941, to aid faltering Italian forces, he sent troops to North Africa, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Then he suddenly turned toward the east and invaded the USSR, breaking his nonaggression pact. As the Soviets retreated eastward, German armies engulfed the agriculturally rich Ukraine.

At this point, Hitler was master of continental Europe, although Britain was still resisting. In 1942 the United States entered the war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and dramatically increased its shipments of supplies and personnel to Britain and the USSR. Hitler then ordered total mobilization of people and resources. Throughout Europe, conquered peoples, especially Slavs and Jews, were executed or enslaved in German war factories, while occupied countries were drained of food and raw materials.

By 1943 the tide had begun to turn. The German army’s supply lines in the USSR were overextended, and following Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad (modern Volgograd), the Germans were forced to retreat westward. The Allies defeated Axis forces in North Africa and invaded Italy. Meanwhile, from 1942 on, German cities and factories were systematically bombed from air bases in England, resulting in huge civilian casualties. The single-night fire bombings of Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945 caused 60,000 and 135,000 fatalities respectively. Although defeat appeared inevitable, Hitler refused to surrender. The war dragged on as British and U.S. forces invaded Normandy (Normandie) in June 1944 (see D-Day Invasion) and swept inexorably east, while the Soviets closed in from the other front. Just before Soviet tanks rolled into Berlin in April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. Germany surrendered the following month.

Life in Germany During the 20th Century


The most significant demographic change of the early 20th century in Germany was increased urbanization. In 1871 only 36.1 percent of the population lived in cities; by the onset of World War I, the figure had risen to more than 60 percent, with the greatest population increase occurring in cities with more than 100,000 people. The overall population of Germany also grew considerably during this period, from 45 million in 1871 to 68 million in 1915; however, the toll of the two wars was heavy. In the postwar divided Germanys, West Germany experienced its biggest growth during the 1950s, increasing from 48 million to 54 million people, while the population of East Germany remained at about 17 million. At the time of reunification in 1990, the total German population was about 82 million.

Economic and Technological Developments

Germany’s massive industrial buildup during the mid-19th century continued in the 20th century. By 1914, for instance, German coal production equaled that of the world’s largest producer, Britain. Numerous German technological innovations and scientific discoveries contributed to the nation’s industrial growth. In the automobile industry, the invention by Gottlieb Daimler of the gasoline motor and power carriage were complemented by Rudolf Diesel’s invention of the engine that bears his name. Daimler’s partnership with Karl Benz eventually yielded the world-famous Mercedes Benz and other car lines (see DaimlerChrysler AG), rivaled by models from Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) and Volkswagen. In 1900 a dirigible airship was devised by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. From 1901 to 1930 German scientists won 26 Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine. Although most known for giants in quantum physics such as Albert Einstein and Max Planck, Germany’s scientific community has made numerous contributions in every area of the natural and social sciences.

Two German States

On May 7, 1945, Germany presented its unconditional surrender. At the Yalta Conference the preceding February, the Allies had agreed to divide the soon-to-be-defeated Germany into four military occupation zones—French in the southwest, British in the northwest, American in the south, and Soviet in the east. Berlin, in the Soviet sector, was also divided into four zones. Territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers were administered either by Poland or by the Soviet Union and were eventually absorbed by those countries. In 1947 the Saar region was put under separate French administration. In 1945 and 1946 an international tribunal was held at Nürnberg to try Nazi leaders. Almost all were executed or imprisoned for war crimes and crimes against humanity (Nürnberg Trials).

The years from 1945 to 1947 were economically desperate times for all Germans. During this period, more than 10 million refugees fled or were expelled from the Soviet zone and elsewhere in the East. The refugees posed a grave problem in the Western zones, where food and housing were already scarce, but once economic activity revived they provided valuable labor and skills.

Economic Rivalry

Britain, the United States, and eventually France distrusted the USSR, which they saw as expansionist. To counter the USSR, they sought to rebuild Germany into a major Western European power. In 1947 the U.S. and British zones were combined into one administrative unit, called Bizonia, and the French zone was later added to form Trizonia. In the Western zone, the former German currency was abolished in 1948, and a new, stable currency, the deutsche mark, was introduced. United States aid under the Marshall Plan (see European Recovery Program) helped revive the private economy. This was the start of the reconstruction that eventually transformed West Germany into the most prosperous country in Europe.

In the Soviet zone, a very different economic system developed. All landholdings of more than 100 hectares (250 acres) were broken up and distributed to small farmers and landless workers. Banks were nationalized. Many factories were dismantled and shipped to the Soviet Union as partial reparation for war damages. What industry remained was mostly nationalized.

Political Rivalry

The Soviet Union and the United States also built rival political regimes: In the East, the Communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) ruled; in the Western zones, the Communist Party was banned and the dominant party was the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In June 1948 the Soviet Union tried to force the Western powers out of Berlin by blocking all roads to the city. The United States organized an airlift that supplied West Berlin for 11 months, until the blockade was lifted in May 1949 (see Berlin Airlift).

The practical polarization of Germany was finally legalized by the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany, on September 21, 1949. Although Berlin was still occupied by all four allied powers, West Berlin (the American, French, and British zones) was administered as part of the republic. The Western powers granted the new state internal self-government, and it established a new provisional capital in Bonn. Konrad Adenauer, head of the CDU, was the first chancellor; Theodor Heuss was elected its first president. On October 7 the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, was formed in the Soviet zone. For a more complete discussion of the history of that country, See East Germany.

The Cold War Period

In 1952 the Western occupation powers and West Germany signed the Bonn Convention, officially ending military occupation, although Western troops remained in West Germany as allies. The Western powers also agreed to the rearmament of the country. In 1955 they granted West Germany full independence and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense system. However, the former occupation powers continued their presence in West Berlin and reserved the right to deal with the Soviet Union in matters concerning German reunification.

In 1956 the West German government reintroduced military conscription, which was vigorously opposed by the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 1958 the SPD also demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from both Germanys and the limitation of the German military to conventional weapons. A strong CDU showing in national elections later that year encouraged proponents of a rearmed West Germany and a strong NATO nuclear force. In 1957 the Saar returned by popular referendum to West Germany, and the country joined the European Economic Community.

Under Adenauer, West Germany was stable and prosperous. From 1951 to 1957 the gross national product rose 75 percent, with annual per capita income doubling during the same period. Industrial growth was aided by tax laws favoring business owners and by large private investment. The workforce was augmented first by a large influx of highly skilled immigrants, who were among the more than 3.5 million refugees from East Germany. Later, so-called guest workers came from Italy, Spain, and Turkey. The result was a period of rapid industrial expansion and prosperity known as the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). Funded by its growing industrial wealth, the government built an army and expanded the social welfare system.

The government continued to prosecute some Nazi war criminals and paid reparations to the new state of Israel, but by the 1950s some former Nazis began to return to high positions. Giant corporations with a Nazi past also continued to dominate the West German economy, particularly Krupp, Flicks, and I. G. Farben. By 1960 West Germany attained an export surplus of $1 billion. At the time of Adenauer’s retirement in 1963, West Germany was a leading political and economic force in Europe.

In East Germany the SED was in firm control, aided by the State Security Police, or Stasi. East Germany pursued a much more rigorous process of denazification than West Germany, prohibiting former Nazis from working in education, law, or the armed forces. High production quotas and food shortages led to worker revolts that were suppressed. Many dissatisfied East Germans, especially skilled workers, continued to flee to the West. In August 1961 East German authorities constructed a barrier around West Berlin, which they called an “anti-Fascist protection wall.” Within a year, barbed wire fences and ditches were replaced with the monumental stone cordon known as the Berlin Wall.

Adenauer was succeeded as West German chancellor by two other CDU leaders, Ludwig Erhard from 1963 to 1966 and Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who was supported by a CDU-SPD coalition, until October 1969. During this period, the West German government pursued a policy of constructive engagement with East Germany and the Soviet bloc known as Ostpolitik (eastern policies), aimed at improving political and trade relations. In 1968, though, a new East German constitution proclaimed the Democratic Republic a separate “socialist state of German nationality” and declared unification impossible until West Germany also became socialist. Ostpolitik was partly abandoned after East German and other Warsaw Pact forces overthrew the newly progressive government of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 (see Prague Spring). The government had been moving away from the Communist system and had loosened its ties with the USSR.

In 1969 the SPD won enough votes to form a ruling coalition with the small Free Democratic Party (FDP). The new chancellor, Willy Brandt, a former mayor of Berlin, revived Ostpolitik. In 1970 he concluded a treaty with the USSR recognizing Europe’s postwar boundaries. A four-power accord on Berlin was then signed, and in 1972 East and West Germany recognized each other’s sovereignty. The next year both countries were admitted to the United Nations. In 1974 Brandt resigned when it was discovered that a member of his personal staff was an East German spy.

By the early 1980s the ruling SPD-FDP coalition—in power since Brandt’s resignation under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt—was weakened by inflation and unemployment. In 1982 the FDP decided to switch its support to the CDU. As a result, Schmidt resigned and a new chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was elected. About this time, a new fourth party, the Greens, came to prominence in the Bundestag (the lower house of parliament) on an environmental and pacifist platform. However, the ruling coalition of the CDU, the FDP, and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) continued to hold power.

In the 1980s West Germany emerged as a leading economic power, along with Japan and the United States. West German leadership in the international arena became more prominent in the late 1980s, as it supported the birth of new democracies in Eastern Europe. Kohl’s political coalition was confirmed in elections in 1983 and 1987. The two German republics achieved better relations with new financial and travel accords in 1984, and East German president Erich Honecker paid his first official visit to West Germany in 1987.

Reunified Germany

In the late 1980s the Communist regimes and economies of Eastern Europe showed increasing signs of strain, and wide-ranging democratic reforms were instituted in many of these countries. Hungary and other Soviet-bloc countries began to ease travel restrictions to the West, prompting several thousand East Germans to emigrate to West Germany via these socialist nations. By October 1989 the East German government was in crisis; President Honecker resigned and his successor, Egon Krenz, promised reform. Finally, on November 9, the government wearily admitted that the Berlin Wall no longer served any function.

Jubilant East and West Germans attacked the wall, tearing much of it down, and more than 200,000 East Germans streamed into West Germany. The West German government provided aid to the new immigrants and a massive infusion of capital to the ailing East German economy. Interim governments in East Germany pressed for union with West Germany as a means of stabilizing the country’s disintegrating social and economic structures. In July 1990 West Germany and East Germany merged their financial systems.

In many ways, this introduction of the West German mark into East Germany was a prime example of the somewhat unbalanced relationship between the two Germanys during the course of unification. In every case where a decision was made on whether to follow the way of the East or the way of the West, the West was chosen. It came to seem as if East Germany had been defeated by its sister nation and was being systematically dismantled. This situation caused growing friction between East and West, both during and after the reunification process.

Actual reunification was achieved on October 3, 1990. East Germany officially dissolved, and all of its citizens became citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. The first all-German elections were held in December, with the coalition led by Helmut Kohl scoring a decisive victory. On June 20, 1991, the newly elected Bundestag, representing both East and West, named Berlin the new capital of Germany. The transfer of administration from Bonn was largely completed by the end of 1999, although some government offices remained in Bonn.

In October 1993 a unified Germany became the 12th and final nation to ratify the Treaty on European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty. This treaty created the European Union (EU) from what had been the European Community. The members of the EU were committed to a common economic and foreign policy. In 1993 Germany also renewed its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. A major roadblock to achieving this status was removed in July 1994, when a German constitutional court decided that the German military could participate in UN peacekeeping operations outside of NATO.

A historic moment occurred in August 1994 as the last Russian troops left Berlin, signaling the conclusion of a complete pullout from Eastern Europe by the former Soviet Union after almost 50 years of occupation. Eight days later, the final 200 Allied troops also left Berlin, marking the first time since World War II that the city had not been host to foreign troops.

Adaptations to Reunification

Economic and Social Problems

While Die Wende (the change) brought together long-separated families and friends, it also brought numerous economic and social problems to Germany. These included housing shortages, unemployment, and increases in crime and right-wing violence against foreigners, and led to strikes and demonstrations.

Initially, especially in the autumn of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, Germany experienced universal euphoria. But the practical aspects of integrating the two countries were complex. The policies of Kohl’s administration did not address the complexities; instead, they simply imposed West German practices onto the East. As a result, two large problems emerged.

The first major problem was the cost. Providing goods and services to the eastern part of the country proved a severe strain for western Germany. Western Germany lost more money than expected, while eastern Germany did not get appreciably richer. Large transfers of capital from the west to the east to improve the infrastructure of the former GDR led to budget deficits. These deficits were made worse by an economic recession, which the government fought by cutting social services, increasing taxes, and reducing government subsidies. The government also privatized industries in the east that were too costly to support.

Unification increased the market for consumer products, but it also significantly affected the strength and competitiveness of the German economy. Many of the industries in the east, used to being protected under the Communist system, were far too inefficient to be competitive in Western markets. To bring these industries up to speed required time and capital, which slowed the German economy overall. Public and private investment sought to bridge the gulf between the two Germanys in standards of living, industrial performance, and infrastructure, but the task remained immense.

The second large, overriding problem was the anger of the relatively poor eastern Germans whose way of life was being destroyed. As eastern state industries were closed and sold, hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Many also lost their homes under a new law permitting the repossession of land or property that could be proved to have been illegally confiscated by the Nazi or Communist governments. Salaries in the east remained lower than western salaries for exactly the same jobs, and state pensions were also lower. Eastern television and radio stations, periodicals, and familiar consumer products disappeared. Most important of all, the unemployment rate in the east was several times higher than the prevailing rate in the west. In the port city of Rostock, unemployment was particularly high. Rostock had been East Germany’s largest port; with unification, it could not compete with the major western ports of Hamburg and Kiel, and most of its workforce lost their jobs.

The political past of East Germany continued to trouble the unified nation. In 1991 each East German citizen won the right to see his or her complete file that had been compiled by the East German Stasi. Many people learned that they had been betrayed by close friends and associates; many others who had been informers were overcome with guilt. It also came out that the East German secret police had hired West Germans to track and kill defectors and critics of the East German government. Erich Honecker, who had found asylum in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, was returned to Berlin to face political charges in July 1992. The charges were later suspended due to Honecker’s poor health, and he died in 1994. In 1997 Egon Krenz and two codefendants were given prison terms for their roles in the deaths of East Germans who had attempted to flee to the West before 1989. The defendants were responsible for giving border guards shoot-to-kill orders, which led to nearly 600 deaths between 1961 and 1989.

Attacks on Foreigners

Enormous social changes and economic fears also contributed to problems of xenophobia and attacks on foreigners. Since the end of World War II, West Germany had addressed its often acute labor shortage by permitting immigrants to live and work there. Guest workers, many from Turkey and Italy, worked full-time and brought families to West Germany, but they were not allowed to become citizens. By the 1990s Germany had nearly 2 million guest workers. In addition, 440,000 people seeking political asylum entered the country in 1992, an increase of 71 percent from 1991. Of these, almost a third were from the former Yugoslavia.

These groups became the target of attacks, often by neo-Nazi and other illegal right-wing groups. In 1992 there were about 2,300 attacks on foreigners, and 17 people were killed. Although the number of attacks subsequently declined, the activities of right-wing groups continued. The German government responded with a strict crackdown on such groups, particularly in the eastern states, but it also revised its liberal asylum policy in 1993. Despite these measures, antiforeigner violence continued, with hundreds of attacks recorded annually throughout the 1990s. About half of all such attacks occurred in the east, which was home to just one-fifth of the nation’s population.

In the national elections of October 1994, Kohl’s coalition government of the CDU/CSU and FDP retained its majority in the Bundestag, but saw it sharply reduced from a margin of 134 seats to just 10. Kohl was reelected chancellor for his fourth consecutive term, and in 1996 he surpassed Adenauer as the longest-serving chancellor in postwar Germany.

Economic Restructuring

In early 1997 Germany’s unemployment rate reached 12.2 percent, its highest level since World War II. Among the reasons cited for the increase were an economic downturn, cold weather that hampered the construction industry, and high wages. These economic difficulties underlined the challenges Germany faced in meeting the strict economic criteria outlined in the Maastricht Treaty for adopting the euro, the new single currency of the European Union (EU). Many Germans worried that efforts to meet the qualifying criteria, which included low annual budget deficits and low rates of inflation, could further weaken the German economy. Facing a growing budget deficit, Chancellor Kohl announced plans to cut Germany’s welfare system by billions of dollars. His proposal, which called for reducing unemployment and sick-pay benefits, drew immediate protests from labor unions and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Despite austerity measures and cuts in spending, German unemployment continued to rise throughout 1997, and there were growing calls in Germany to postpone or even abandon the move to the euro in 1999. Kohl continued to firmly back the new single currency, however, even as his popularity declined over his seeming inability to end spiraling unemployment and growing inflation. In September, only a year before national elections, Kohl was faced with an 18.3 percent unemployment rate in the former East Germany. Although traditionally the east tended to support Kohl’s governing coalition, this high unemployment was seen as a potential disaster for Kohl in the coming 1998 election as dissatisfaction with his policies grew.

In February 1998 the German unemployment rate hit a new high of 12.6 percent for the nation as a whole and 21.1 percent in eastern Germany. This prompted large protests from unemployed workers throughout the country, many of whom called for Kohl’s replacement. In May 1998 Germany officially agreed to adopt the euro as a new single European currency. The euro was gradually phased in between 1999 and 2002, and the German deutsche mark, or DM, ceased to be legal tender.

After Kohl

In the September 1998 national elections the CDU/CSU and FDP coalition was swept from office by Gerhard Schröder and his SPD, ending 16 years of conservative government under Kohl. In October the SPD formed a coalition with the environmentalist Green Party, which had the third strongest showing in the elections. This Red-Green coalition, as it came to be called, marked the first time that the Green Party had entered Germany’s national government. The new government’s legislative program included measures against unemployment, reforms to ease the process by which immigrants become German citizens, and plans to close nuclear power plants in Germany.

In 1999 Germany joined the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a military campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (see Serbia and Montenegro) over its attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. It was the first time Germany participated in military strikes since the end of World War II. Also in 1999 Johannes Rau, a long-standing member of the SPD, succeeded Roman Herzog as Germany’s president.

At the end of 1999 representatives of German government and industry announced plans to establish a $5.2 billion compensation fund for people who worked as slave laborers and forced laborers in Nazi-era Germany. The announcement came after months of negotiations between German representatives, Jewish groups, and the United States government. More than 1 million people were expected to receive compensation from the fund.

Recent Events

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States by terrorists in 2001, Chancellor Schröder backed a bill to deploy nearly 4,000 German troops for use in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. To win the support of pacifists within the Green Party, Schröder linked the bill to a vote of confidence in his leadership, which he survived. The deployment of German army personnel in Afghanistan to support the campaign against terrorism marked the largest deployment of German troops outside Europe since World War II.

Germany’s struggling economy had entered recession by early 2002 in the wake of a global economic slowdown. In February 2002 Germany narrowly avoided an official warning from the European Union (EU) for running a budget deficit approaching 3 percent. Budget deficits exceeding 3 percent are not allowed under the rules established by the Maastricht Treaty for adoption of the euro, the currency of the EU.

In the 2002 national elections Chancellor Schröder’s SPD-led coalition retained power by a thin margin, despite the flagging economy and persistently high unemployment. Schröder defeated his conservative challenger, Bavarian leader Edmund Stoiber of the CDU/CSU, after a contentious campaign in which Schröder’s forceful opposition to a looming U.S.-led war against Iraq became a central issue. Schröder’s stance, which made him the first German leader since World War II to publicly oppose the United States, appeared to resonate with voters but invited strong criticism from the United States and some European members of the NATO alliance. Part of the credit for Schröder’s victory went to the Green Party, which received 8.6 percent of the vote, its best-ever showing.

During the U.S.-buildup to war in Iraq, Germany sided with France and Russia in requesting further time for weapons inspectors in Iraq to complete their jobs. Schröder declared that war should only be regarded as a matter of last resort. In March 2003 the three countries announced that they would withhold support for a United Nations (UN) resolution authorizing the U.S.-led war on Iraq; the war began later that month without UN authorization (see U.S.-Iraq War).

In late 2003 Schröder introduced Agenda 2010, a package of welfare reforms intended to boost economic growth. The package included measures to liberalize the labor market, restructure health services, and reduce unemployment benefits. A compromise deal with the CDU allowed Schröder to win parliamentary approval for the reforms, although they remained unpopular in Germany as a whole. In 2004 Schröder stepped down as leader of the SPD, saying he wanted to focus on his responsibilities as chancellor. Schröder’s move came amid sharp criticism within SPD ranks of his economic reforms. He was replaced as SPD leader by Franz Muentefering. CDU candidate Horst Köhler narrowly won election as Germany’s president, succeeding Johannes Rau of the SPD in 2004. Köhler had previously served as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In 2005 the SPD lost a key regional election to the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia, traditionally a stronghold of the SPD. Analysts attributed the defeat to the country’s soaring unemployment and Schröder’s controversial reforms. Schröder said the defeat left him no choice but to seek a voter mandate for his reforms. President Köhler agreed to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a general election in September, a year ahead of schedule.

In the fall 2005 elections the Christian Democrats won a narrow victory over the Social Democrats. The close result meant that neither party was able to form a majority government with their traditional allies, forcing the two sides to enter into a so-called grand coalition. Such a government, in which the country’s two major political parties share power, had last occurred in Germany from 1966 to 1969.

As part of the coalition agreement, Angela Merkel, a longtime leader of the CDU, became Germany’s new chancellor. Merkel was the first woman and first politician from the former East Germany to ascend to the position, signifying symbolic change for some Germans. Under the coalition agreement, however, Merkel appointed Social Democrats to half of the positions in her cabinet. Under the grand coalition, the economy began to rebound and unemployment dropped. However, Merkel followed a policy of budgetary restraint even as Germany headed into recession during the financial crisis of 2008.

In the 2009 elections, the CDU received almost 34 percent of the vote. However their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, suffered an embarrassing defeat by receiving only 23 percent of the vote, their worst showing since the end of World War II. As a result, the coalition between the CDU and the Social Democrats was dissolved and the CDU created a new coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FPD). Merkel remained in office as chancellor.

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