Germany, (officially: the Federal Republic of Germany; German: Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is the largest country in Central Europe. It is bordered to the north by Denmark, to the east by Poland and the Czech Republic, to the south by Austria and Switzerland, and to the west by France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Germany is a federation of 16 states, roughly corresponding to regions with their own distinct and unique cultures.
Germany is one of the most influential European nations culturally, and one of the world’s main economic powers. Known around the world for its precision engineering and high-tech products, it is equally admired by visitors for its old-world charm and “Gemütlichkeit” (coziness). If you have perceptions of Germany as simply homogeneous, it will surprise you with its many historical regions and local diversity.
Germany is an economic powerhouse, boasting the largest economy in Europe. In spite of its relatively small population it is the second largest exporter in the world.
The roots of German history and culture date back to the Germanic tribes and after that to the Holy Roman Empire. Since the early middle ages, Germany started to split into hundreds of small states. It was the Napoleonic wars that started the process of unification, which ended in 1871, when a large number of previously independent German kingdoms united under Prussian leadership to form the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich). This incarnation of Germany reached eastward all the way to modern day Klaipeda (Memel) in Lithuania and also encompassed the regions of Alsace and Lorraine in modern day-France, a small portion of eastern Belgium (Eupen-Malmedy), a small border region in southern Denmark and over 40% of contemporary Poland. The empire ended in 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate at the time of Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I (1914-1918) and was followed by the short-lived and ill-fated so called Weimar Republic, which tried in vain to completely establish a liberal, progressive and democratic nation. Due to the fact the young republic was plagued with massive economic problems stemming from the war, such as: the hyperinflation crisis from 1921-23, the reparations payments owed as a result of losing the war, along with the cultural disgrace of a humiliating defeat in World War I, political extremists from both the left and the right took advantage of the inherent organizational problems of the Weimar Constitution, leading to the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler seizing power in 1933.
Hitler and Nazi Germany
The year 1933 witnessed the rise to power of the far-right nationalistic National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party under the leadership of the Führer, Adolf Hitler. Under the Nazi dictatorship, democratic institutions were dismantled and a police state was installed. Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, socialists, Communists, unionists and other groups not fitting into the Nazis’ vision of a Greater Germany faced persecution, while the Jews and Gypsies were marked for total extermination. Hitler’s militaristic ambitions to create a new German Empire in Central and Eastern Europe led to war, successively, with Poland, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States – despite initial dazzling successes, Germany was unable to withstand the attacks of the Allies and Soviets on two fronts in addition to a smaller third front to the south of the Alps in Italy.
It was “Stunde Null” or zero hour. Germany and much of Europe was destroyed. By April of 1945, Germany was in ruins with most major cities bombed to the ground. The reputation of Germany as an intellectual land of freedom and high culture (Land der Dichter und Denker) had been decimated and tarnished for decades to come. At the end of the war, by losing 25% of its territory, east of the newly Allied imposed Oder-Neisse frontier with Poland the occupied country was faced with a major refugee crisis with well over 10,000,000 Germans flooding westward into what remained of Germany. Following the end of the war, at the Potsdam conference; the Allies decided the future of Germany’s borders and, taking a Soviet lead, stripped her of the traditional eastern Prussian lands. Therefore, Germans living east of the rivers Oder and Neisse were forcibly expelled into the truncated Germany by the Soviet and Polish Governments. In response to Hitler’s atrocities and those committed by Germans during the war, ethnic Germans were deported to Germany from the former eastern European territories and satellites of Nazi Germany in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.
Post-World War II
After the devastating defeat in World War II (1939-1945), Germany was divided into four sectors, controlled by the French, British, American and Soviet forces. The United Kingdom and the United States decided to merge their sectors, followed by the French. Silesia, Pomerania and the southern part of East Prussia came under Polish administration according to the international agreement of the allies. With the beginning of the Cold War, the remaining central and western parts of the country were divided into an eastern part under Soviet control, and a western part which was controlled directly by the Western Allies. The western part was transformed into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), also known as “West Germany”, a democratic nation with Bonn as the provisional capital city, while the Soviet-controlled zone became the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR); also known as “East Germany”. Berlin had a special status as it was divided among the Soviets and the West, with the eastern part featuring as the capital of the GDR. The western sectors of Berlin (West Berlin), was de facto an exclave of the FRG, but formally governed by the Western Allies. On 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected as part of a heavily guarded frontier system of border fortifications. As a result, between 100 and 200 Germans trying to escape from the Communist dictatorship were murdered here in the following years.
In the late-1960s, a sincere and strong desire to confront the Nazi past came into being. Students’ protests beginning in 1968 successfully clamoured for a new Germany. The society became much more liberal, and the totalitarian past was dealt with more unconcealed than ever before since the establishment of the FRG in 1949. Post-war education had helped put Germany among countries in Europe with less people pursuing fascist beliefs or ideals. Willy Brandt became Chancellor in 1969. He made an important contribution towards reconciliation between Germany and the communist states including important peace gestures toward Poland.