history up to 1945
Up to the last century it was a widely held belief that German history began in
the year A. D. 9. That was when Arminius, a prince of a Germanic tribe called
the Cherusci, vanquished three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (south-east
of modern-day Bielefeld). Arminius, about whom not much else is known, was regarded
as the first German national hero and a huge memorial to him was built near Detmold
in the years 1838-75.
Nowadays a less simplistic view is taken. The fusing of
a German nation was a process which took hundreds of years. The word 'deutsch'
(German) probably began to be used in the 8th century and initially defined only
the language spoken in the eastern part of the Franconian realm. This empire,
which reached the zenith of its power under Charlemagne, incorporated peoples
speaking Germanic and Romance dialects. After Charlemagne's death (814) it soon
fell apart. In the course of various inheritance divisions, a west and an east
realm developed, whose political boundary approximately coincided with the boundary
between German and French speakers. Only gradually did a feeling of cohesion develop
among the inhabitants of the eastern realm. Then the term 'deutsch' was transferred
from the language to its speakers and ultimately to the region they lived in,
The German western frontier was fixed relatively early and
remained fairly stable. But the eastern frontier moved to and fro for hundreds
of years. Around 900 it ran approximately along the Elbe and Saale rivers. In
subsequent centuries German settlement, partly peaceful and partly by force, extended
far to the east. This expansion stopped only in the middle of the 14th century.
The ethnic boundary then made between Germans und Slavs remained until World War
High Middle Ages
The transition from the East
Franconian to the German 'Reich' is usually dated from 911, when, after the Carolingian
dynasty had died out, the Franconian duke Conrad I was elected king. He is regarded
as the first German king. (The official title was 'Frankish King', later 'Roman
King', from the 11th century the name of the realm was 'Roman Empire', from the
13th century 'Holy Roman Empire', in the 15th century the words 'of the German
Nation' were added.) It was an electoral monarchy, that is to say, the high nobility
chose the king. In addition, 'dynastic right' also applied and so the new king
had to be a blood relation of his predecessor. This principle was broken several
times. There were also a number of double elections. The medieval empire had no
capital city; the king ruled roving about from place to place. There were no imperial
taxes; the king drew his sustenance mainly from 'imperial estates' he administered
in trust. His authority was not always recognized by the powerful tribal dukes
unless he was militarily powerful and a skilful forger of alliances. Conrad's
successor, Henry I (919-936), was the first to succeed in this, and to an even
greater extent his son, Otto (936-973). Otto made himself the real ruler of the
realm. His great power found obvious expression when he was crowned Emperor in
962 in Rome.
From then on the German king could claim the title 'Emperor'.
The emperorship was conceived as universal and gave its incumbent control over
the entire east. However, this notion never became full political reality. In
order to be crowned emperor by the Pope the king had to make his way to Rome.
With that began the Italian policy of the German kings. For 300 years they were
able to retain control of upper and central Italy but because of this were diverted
from important tasks in Germany. And so Otto's successors inevitably suffered
big setbacks. However, under the succeeding Salian dynasty a new upswing occurred.
With Henry III (1039-1056) the German kingship and emperorship reached the zenith
of its power, maintaining above all a supremacy over the Papacy. Henry IV (1056-1106)
was not able to hold this position. In a quarrel with Pope Gregory VII over whether
bishops and other influential church officials should be appointed by the Pope
or the temporal ruler he was superficially successful. But Gregory retaliated
by excommunicating Henry, who thereupon surrendered his authority over the church
by doing penance to the Pope at Canossa (1077), an irretrievable loss of power
by the emperorship. (To this day Germans use the phrase 'A walk to Canossa' for
someone having to eat humble pie). From then on Emperor and Pope were equal-ranking
In 1138 the century of rule by the Staufer or Hohenstaufen
dynasty began. Frederick I Barbarossa (1115-1190), in wars with the Pope, the
upper Italian cities and his main German rival, the Saxon Duke Henry the Lion,
led the empire into a new golden age. But under him began a territorial fragmentation
which ultimately weakened the central power. This decline continued under Barbarossa's
successors, Henry VI (1190-1197) and Frederick II (1212-1250) despite the great
power vested in the emperorship. The religious and temporal princes became semi-sovereign
territorial rulers. The end of Hohenstaufen rule (1268) also meant the end of
the the Emperor's universal rule in the east as well. Internal disintegrative
forces prevented Germany from becoming a national state, a process just beginning
then in other west European countries. Here lies one of the reasons why the Germans
became a 'belated nation'.
Late Middle Ages to modern times
Rudolf I (1273-1291)
was the first Habsburg to take the throne. Now the material foundation of the
emperorship was no longer the lost imperial estates but the 'house estates' of
the dynasties and house power politics became every emperor's main preoccupation.
The 'Golden Bull' (imperial constitution) issued by Charles IV in 1356 regulated
the election of the German king by seven electors privileged with special rights.
These sovereign electors and the towns, because of their economic power, gradually
gained influence while that of the small counts, lords and knights declined. The
towns' power further increased when they linked up in leagues. The most important
of these, the Hanseatic League, became the leading Baltic power in the 14th century.
To this day the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen proudly call themselves 'Hanseatic
From 1438 the crown - although the empire nominally was
an electoral monarchy - practically became the property of the Habsburg dynasty
which had become the strongest territorial power. In the 15th century demands
for imperial reformed increased. Maximilian I (1483 to 1519), the first to accept
the imperial title without a papal coronation, tried to implement such a reform
but without much success. The institutions newly created or reshaped by him -
Reichstag (Imperial Diet), Reichskreise (Imperial Counties), Reichskammergericht
(Imperial Court) - lasted until the end of the Reich (1806), but were not able
to halt its continuing fragmentation. Consequently, a dualism of 'Emperor and
Reich' developed: the head of the Reich was offset by various institutions - electoral
princes, princes and municipalities. The power ot the emperors was curtailed and
increasingly eroded by 'capitulations', which they negotiated at their election
with the electoral princes. The princes, especially the powerful among them, greatly
expanded their rights at the expense of imperial power. But the Reich continued
to hold together, the glory of the imperial idea had remained alive and the small
and medium territories were protected in the Reich system from attack by powerful
The towns became centres of economic power, profiting above
all from growing trade. In the burgeoning textile and mining industries, forms
of economic activity grew which went beyond the guilds system of the craftsmen
and, like long-distance trading, were beginning to take on early capitalistic
traits. At the same time an intellectual change was taking place, marked by the
Renaissance and Humanism. The newly risen critical spirit turned above all on
Age of religious schism
The smouldering dissatisfaction
with the church broke out, mainly through the actions of Martin Luther from 1517,
in the Reformation, which quickly spread. Its consequences went far beyond the
religious sphere. Social unrest abounded. In 1522/23 the Reich knights rose up
and in 1525 the Peasants' Revolt broke out, the first larger revolutionary movement
in German history to strive for both political and social change. Both uprisings
failed or were bloodily quelled. The territorial princes profited most from the
Reformation. After the changing fortunes of war they were given the right to dictate
their subjects' religion by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. This accorded the Protestants
equal rights with those of the Catholics. The religious division of Germany was
On the imperial throne at the time of the Reformation was
Charles V (1519-56), heir to the biggest realm since the time of Charlemagne but
also the last Holy Roman Emperor to aspire to the medieval ideal of universal
empire. His international political interests were too demanding for him to be
able to assert himself within Germany. After his abdication the empire was split
up. The German territorial states and the west European national-states together
now formed the new European system of states.
At the time of the Peace of Augsburg, four fifths of Germany
were Protestant but the struggle between the faiths had not ended. In the following
decades the Catholic church was able to recapture many areas (Counter-Reformation).
The differences between the faiths sharpened, religious parties - the Protestant
Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609) - were formed. A local conflict in
Bohemia then triggered off the Thirty Years War which widened into a European
conflict over religious and political differences. Between 1618 and 1648 much
of Germany was devastated and depopulated. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia brought
the cession of territories to France and Sweden and confirmed the withdrawal of
Switzerland and the Netherlands from the Reich. The Reich institutions were accorded
all major sovereign rights in religious and temporal matters and the right to
enter alliances with foreign partners.
Age of absolutism
The almost sovereign principalities
took over the absolutist form of government modelled on the French. Absolutism
gave the ruler limitless power while at the same time allowing tight administrations
to be built up, an organized fiscal policy to be introduced and new armies to
be mobilized. Many princes aspired to making their residences cultural focal points.
Some of them, representatives of 'enlightened absolutism', encouraged learning
and philosophy, albeit within the confines of their power interests. The policy
of state control of all economic life also allowed the absolutistically ruled
states to gain in economic strength. Thus lands such as Bavaria, Brandenburg (the
later Prussia), Saxony and Hanover were able to develop into power centres in
their own right. Austria, which repelled the attacking Turks and acquired Hungary
as well as parts of the formerly Turkish Balkan countries, rose to a large power.
A rival to it developed in the 18th century in the form of Prussia which, under
Frederick the Great (1740-86), grew into a first-rank military power. Both states
sought to assert their authority in Europe.
Age of the French Revolution
The nudge which
brought the crumbling Reich crashing down came from the west. Revolution broke
out in France in 1789. Under pressure from the middle classes, the feudal social
order which had existed since the early Middle Ages was swept away; a divison
of powers and human rights were to assure the liberty and equality of all. The
attempt by Prussia and Austria to intervene by force in events in neighbouring
country failed ignominiously and triggered a counter-thrust by the revolutionary
armies. Under the stormy advances of the forces of Napoleon who had assumed the
revolutionary heritage in France the Reich finally collapsed. France took the
left bank of the Rhine. To compensate the former owners of these areas for their
losses, an enormous territorial reshuffling took place at the expense of the smaller
and particularly the religious principalities. By the 'Reichsdeputationshauptschluss'
of 1803 some four million subjects had changed rulers. The medium-sized states
were the beneficiaries. In 1806 most of them grouped together under French protection
in the 'Rheinbund' (Rhenish League). In the same year Emperor Franz II laid down
the crown and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ceased to exist.
The French revolution did not spread into Germany. Although
there, too, various individuals had over the years tried time and again to do
away with the barriers between the aristocracy and the common people and although
leading thinkers welcomed the overthrow in the west as the start of a new era,
one major reason why the spark could not catch easily was that, in contrast to
the centrally oriented France, the federalistic structure of the Reich hampered
the spread of new ideas. Another big reason was that France, the motherland of
the revolution, opposed the Germans as an enemy and an occupying power. Indeed,
the struggle against Napoleon forged a new national movement which culminated
in wars of liberation. But Germany did not remain unaffected by the forces of
social change. First in the 'Rheinbund' states and then in Prussia (in the latter
connected with names like Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, W. von Humboldt) reforms
were begun aimed at breaking down feudal barriers and creating a society of free,
responsible citizens. The objectives were abolition of serfdom, freedom of trade,
municipal self-administration, equality before the law, general conscription.
But many reform moves were pulled up short. Participation by the populace in legislation
was refused almost everywhere. Only hesitantly did some princes grant their states
constitutions, especially in southern Germany.
After the victory over Napoleon the Congress of
Vienna (September 1814 to June 1815) redrew the map of Europe. The hopes of many
Germans for a free, unitary nation-state were not fulfilled. The 'Deutscher Bund'
(German Confederation) which replaced the old Reich was a loose association of
the individual sovereign states. Its sole organ was the Bundestag' (Federal Diet)
in Frankfurt, not an elected but a delegated diet. It was able to act only if
the two great powers, Prussia and Austria, agreed. It saw its main task in the
ensuing decades in suppressing all aspirations and efforts aimed at unity and
freedom. Press and publishing were subject to rigid censorship, the universities
were under close supervision and political activity was virtually impossible.
Meanwhile a modern economic development which worked against these reactionary
tendencies had begun. In 1834 the 'German Customs Union' (Deutscher Zollverein)
was founded, creating a unitary inland market. In 1835 the first German railway
line went into operation. Industrialization began. With the factories there grew
the new class of factory workers. At first they found better incomes, but the
rapid growth of the population soon led to a labour surplus. And since there were
no social welfare provisions, the mass of factory workers lived in great misery.
Tensions exploded violently, for example in the 1844 uprising of the Silesian
weavers, which was harshly put down by the Prussian military. Very hesitantly
at first, a workers' movement began to form.
The 1848 revolution
In contrast to the revolution
of 1789, the French revolution of February 1848 found immediate response in Germany.
In March there were uprisings in all states, and these forced many concessions
from the stunned princes. In May the National Assembly (Nationalversammlung) convened
in Frankfurt's Paulskirche (St. Paul's Church). It elected Austrian Archduke Johann
Imperial Administrator (Reichsverweser) and set up a Reich Ministry which, however,
had no powers or authority. The tune was called in the National Assembly by the
Liberal centre, which strove for a constitutional monarchy with limited suffrage.
The splintering of the National Assembly from Conservatives to Radical Democrats
which already indicated the spectrum of parties to come made it difficult to draw
up a constitution.
But not even the Liberal centre could overcome the differences
between the protagonists of 'greater Germany' and 'smaller Germany' concepts,
that is, a German Reich with or without Austria. After hard bargaining a democratic
constitution was drawn up which attempted to combine old and new ideas and required
a government responsible to parliament. But when Austria insisted on bringing
into the future Reich its entire realm, encompassing more than a dozen different
peoples, the smaller Germany concept won the day and the National Assembly proffered
Friedrich Wilhelm IV (Frederick William) of Prussia the hereditary German imperial
The king turned it down, not wanting to owe imperial majesty
to a revolution. In May 1849 popular uprisings in Saxony, the Palatinate and Baden
which aimed at enforcing the constitution from below failed. That was the seal
on the failure of the whole revolution. Most of the achievements were rescinded,
the constitutions of the individual states revised along reactionary lines. In
1850 the German Confederation was newly founded.
rise of Prussia
The 1850s were years of great economic upswing. Germany
became an industrial country. Although its production output still lagged far
behind England's it was growing faster. Pacemakers were heavy industry and mechanical
engineering. Prussia also became the predominant economic power of Germany. Industrial
power strengthened the political self-confidence of the liberal middle class.
The German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), set up in 1861, became
the strongest party in the Prussian diet and denied the government the funds when
it wanted to make reactionary changes to the structure of the army. The newly
appointed Prime Minister (Ministerpr<\d>sident), Otto von Bismarck (1862), took
up the challenge and for some years governed without parliamentary approval of
the budget which was required by the constitution. The Progress Party dared offer
no further resistance than parliamentary opposition, however. Bismarck was able
to offset his precarious position on the domestic front by foreign policy successes.
In the German-Danish war (1864) Prussia and Austria forced the Danes to cede the
duchies of Schleswig-Holstein (now forming the Federal Republic's northernmost
state) which they initially administered jointly. But Bismarck had from the outset
pursued the annexation of the two duchies and steered for open conflict with Austria.
In the Austro-Prussian War (1866) Austria was defeated and had to leave the German
stage. The German Confederation was dissolved and replaced by the North German
Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) of states north of the River Main, with Bismarck
as Federal Chancellor (prime minister).
The Bismarck Reich
From then on Bismarck worked
towards smaller German unity. He broke France's resistance in the war of 1870/71,
triggered off by a diplomatic conflict over the succession to the Spanish throne.
Defeated France had to cede Alsace-Lorraine and pay huge reparations. In the patriotic
enthusiasm of the war, the southern German principalities joined up with the northern
confederation to form the German Empire (Deutsches Reich). At Versailles near
Paris, on the vanquished enemy's territory, King Wilhelm (William) I of Prussia
was proclaimed German Emperor on January 18, 1871.
German unity had not come about by popular decision 'from
below' but by a treaty between princes, 'from above'. Prussia's predominance was
stifling. To many the new Reich seemed like a 'Greater Prussia'. The Reichstag
(Imperial Diet) was elected by universal and equal suffrage. Although it had no
say in the formation of the cabinet, it could influence government by its participation
in lawmaking and its budgetary power. Although the Reich Chancellor (chief minister)
was accountable only to the Kaiser (emperor) and not to parliament, he did have
to try to get majorities for his policies in the Reichstag.
Suffrage in the Lander (states) still varied. In eleven
it was still class suffrage, dependent on tax paid; in four there was still the
old division into estates. The south German states, with their longer parliamentary
tradition, reformed their electora l laws after the turn of the century and Baden,
Wurttemberg and Bavaria made theirs the same as the Reich laws. Although Germany's
emergence as a modern industrial country strengthened the influence of the economically
successful middle class, the people who still called the tune in society were
the aristocrats, above all in the army officer corps where they predominated.
Bismarck ruled as Reich Chancellor 19 years. Through a consistent
peace and alliance policy he tried to give the Reich a secure position in the
new European balance of power. In contrast to this far-sighted foreign policy
was his home policy. He had no feeling for the democratic tendencies of his time.
To him, political opposition was 'hostility to the Reich'. Bitterly, but ultimately
vainly, he fought the left wing of the liberal middle class, political Catholicism,
and especially the organized labour movement which for 12 years (1878-1890) was
practically banned by an Anti-Socialists Act (Sozialistengesetz). Hence the vastly
growing working class, despite progressive social legislation, were alienated
from the state. Bismarck ultimately became a victim of his own system when he
was dismissed in 1890 by the young Emperor Wilhelm II.
Wilhelm wanted to rule himself but he lacked the knowledge
and staying power. More by speeches than by actions he created the impression
of a peace-threatening dictator. Under him there took place a transition to 'Weltpolitik'
(world policy), with Germany trying to shorten the lead of the great imperialist
powers and thereby becoming more isolated. In his home policies Wilhelm soon took
a reactionary course after his attempt to win the working class over to a 'social
emperorship' failed to bring the quick success he had hoped for. His chancellors
had to rely on changing coalitions of Conservatives and National Liberals. Social
Democrats, although one of the strongest parties, obtaining millions of votes,
continued to be excluded from any participation in government.