History of Germany

Germany is Younger Than You Think

The nation that we informally call Germany (full name: Federal Republic of Germany, Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is much younger than the United States of America! Even if we go back to Prussia (Preussen) and the first German unification of 1871, that makes Germany as a nation almost a century younger than the US (Constitution ratified in 1789). But let’s start at the beginning.

The Germanic Tribes

The first people to inhabit the region we now call Germany were Celts. Gradually they were displaced by Germanic tribes moving down from the north, but their exact origins are unknown. Beginning around the first century BC, there were clashes between the Germanic tribes and the Romans who had moved northward into Germanic territiory. Control of the region switched back and forth until 9 AD when the Germanic warrior Arminius (Hermann) and his troops defeated the Romans in the famous battle of the Teutoburger Wald (Teutoberg forest). The Romans were forced to remain south of the Elbe River for a time, but they eventually colonized much of northern Europe. Roman influences can be seen to this day in many German cities, most of which take their names from Latin: Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Koblenz and Augsburg. The German word Kaiser (emperor) comes from Caesar.

Karl der Große (Charlemagne)

By the fifth century the Franks on the western side of the Rhine had developed an empire that covered present-day France, Germany, the Netherlands and even northern Italy. The Merovingian king, Clovis (482-511), converted to Christianity and ruled over the Franks. By the 600s the Merovingians had been replaced by the Carolingians, and the best known of these, Karl der Große (Charlemagne, 768-814), conquered even more land, and was crowned Kaiser by the pope in 800. He made Aachen the Frankish capital. His Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was the “First Reich.” The Frankish Reich would later split into what we now know as Germany, to the east of the Rhine, and France to the west.

Following his death in 814, Charlemagne’s successors (his sons) were unfortunately far less capable rulers, and his empire began to crumble. Over the next few centuries the territory that is now Germany was divided up into many separate duchies, kingdoms and principalities.

Bismarck and German Unification

After Napoleon had humiliated Brandenburg-Prussia with conquering French troops, Prussia was spurred to become stronger. The French were driven out in 1813. Two years later at the Congress of Vienna, Germany was organized into 35 confederated states. But this fragmented situation would change as the industrial revolution brought about change all across Europe. After the failure of the French and German liberal revolutions of 1848, Otto von Bismarck took the stage in Prussia. The “Iron Chancellor” was no liberal. He was an old-guard military man whose goal was to unify Germany, with Prussia in the lead.

Bismarck began by waging war against Denmark and Austria to gain Schleswig-Holstein in 1864. (To be continued… )

Germany Since 1945

The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the current German government and constitution (das Grundgesetz), was established on May 23, 1949. (Konrad Adenauer became the new nation’s first chancellor, serving for 14 years.) But from the very beginning, in the aftermath of World War II, Germany was divided into eastern and western halves. The Soviet occupation zone in eastern Germany became the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) on October 7, 1949. East Germany had a much more centralized, communist government.

Until the infamous Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, Germans could travel freely back and forth between East and West Germany. The Wall would become a stark symbol of both the Cold War and a divided Germany until its amazing collapse in November 1989. Berlin (East and West) was a hotbed for espionage and Cold War intrigue.

Although most Germans believed it would never happen, German reunification arrived with little warning in 1990. The collapse of the Soviet Union and other historical events led to rapid changes in the world map and the political landscape. West German chancellor Helmut Kohl presided over the quick return of East Germany back into the fold, rejecting claims by some that it was too much, too soon.

Today reunited Germany is the EU’s strongest economy and largest country by population. Germany has somewhat reluctantly assumed a leadership role within the EU, along with France and the United Kingdom. The ongoing euro crisis has forced Germany into an even more dominant position that makes her uncomfortable, but can’t be avoided because of her leading economy.

Next | Germany: Facts and Figures

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