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German History

Two of Germany's most famous writers, Goethe and Schiller, identified the central aspect of most of Germany's history with their poetic lament, "Germany? But where is it? I cannot find that country." Until 1871, there was no "Germany." Instead, Europe's German-speaking territories were divided into several hundred kingdoms, principalities, duchies, bishoprics, fiefdoms and independent cities and towns.

Finding the answer to "the German question" -- what form of statehood for the German speaking lands would arise, and which form could provide central Europe with peace and stability -- has defined most of German history. This history of many independent polities has found continuity in the F.R.G.'s federal structure. It is also the basis for the decentralized nature of German political, economic, and cultural life that lasts to this day.

Between 962 and the beginning of the 19th Century, the German territories were loosely organized into the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The initially non-hereditary Emperor, elected by the many princes, dukes, and bishops of the constituent lands and confirmed by the Pope, nominally governed over a vast territory, but had very limited ability to intervene in the affairs of the hundreds of entities that made up the Empire, many of which would often wage war against each other. The Empire was never able to develop into a centralized state.

Beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, the German-speaking territories bore the brunt of the pan-European struggles unleashed by the Reformation. The leaders of the German kingdoms and principalities chose sides, leading to a split of the Empire into Protestant and Catholic regions, with the Protestant strongholds mostly in the North and East, the Catholic in the South and West. The split along confessional lines also laid the groundwork for the later development of the most powerful German states--Prussia and Austria--as the Prussian Hohenzollern line adopted Protestantism and the Hapsburgs remained Catholic.

The tension culminated in the 30 Years War (1618-1648), a combination of wars within the Empire and between outside European states that were fought on German land. These wars, which ended in a rough stalemate, devastated the German people and economy, definitively strengthened the rule of the various German rulers at the cost of the (Habsburg) Emperor (though Habsburg Austria remained the dominant single German entity within the Empire), and established the continued presence of both Catholics and Protestants in German territories.

The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by the rise of Prussia as the second powerful, dominant state in the German-speaking territories alongside Austria, and Austrian-Prussian rivalry became the dominant political factor in German affairs. Successive Prussian kings succeeded in modernizing, centralizing, and expanding the Prussian state, creating a modern bureaucracy and the Continent's strongest military. Despite Prussia's emphasis on militarism and authority, Prussia also became a center of the German Enlightenment and was known for its religious tolerance, with its western regions being predominantly Catholic and Jews being granted complete legal equality by 1812. After humiliating losses to Napoleon's armies, Prussia embarked on a series of administrative, military, economic, and education reforms that eventually succeeded in turning Prussia into the Continent's strongest state.

German nationalism developed into an important unifying and sometimes liberalizing force during this time, though it became increasingly marked by an exclusionary, racially-based definition of nationhood that included anti-Semitic tendencies. However, eventual unification of Germany was essentially the result of Prussian expansionism rather than the victory of nationalist sentiment. Prussia's economic growth outstripped Austria's during the latter half of the 19th century and Prussia-controlled Germany became one of Europe's industrial powerhouses. Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia defeated Austria (1866) and France (1870) in wars that paved the way for the formation of the German Empire under Emperor Wilhelm I in 1871.

Wilhelm II had global aspirations for Germany, including acquisition of overseas colonies. His dynamic expansion of military power and confrontational foreign policies contributed to tensions on the continent. The fragile European balance of power, which Bismarck had helped to create, broke down in 1914. World War I and its aftermath, including the Treaty of Versailles, ended the German Empire.

Following the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided up into four zones, as was the capital, Berlin. Following the Potsdam conference in 1945, the introduction of the Deutschmark in the Western zones in 1948 and the Berlin blockade, the Federal Republic of Germany FRG (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic GDR (East Germany) were founded in 1949. The Berlin wall was built in 1961, as the East German authorities fought to prevent the exodus of citizens fleeing to the West. The FRG became a member of NATO and a founding member of the EU, whilst the GDR became firmly entrenched in the Soviet pact. Political pressure and the increasing détente between East and West led to a lifting of travel restrictions from the GDR and to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. Following free elections in the GDR, the two countries were re-united on 3 October 1990.

Two decades after reunification, there are still differences in living standards between the eastern (or new) and western Länder and unemployment is still a key issue in the East. Germany has been at the forefront of EU economic union and since 1 January 2002, the Euro has been legal tender.

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Page last modified: 25-01-2017 16:48:37 ZULU