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Germany History
Germany History - TravelPuppy.com
From the fifth century AD onwards, the complex and rich history of what is now Germany is inseparable from that of Central and Western Europe as a whole. It is often said that the Germanic tribes destroyed the Roman Empire, but the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Franks who settled in Western Europe after the deposition of the Emperor Romulus in AD 476 were anxious to perpetuate some parts of a system which they both admired and found administratively convenient. Indeed, it was a Frank, Charlemagne, who revived the Roman Empire in the West in AD 800, uniting modern-day Germany with France and northern Italy, albeit only for the 40 years of his own reign and that of his son, Louis the Pious. The division of Charlemagne’s Empire was confirmed by the Treaty of Verdun (AD 843), as a result of which much of what is now Germany passed to Louis’ son, who was known as Louis the German.

During the next 80 years, Germany fragmented into 5 large duchies, Saxony, Bavaria, Franconia, Lorraine and Swabia, whose dukes managed to establish a de facto hereditary tenure over each of their respective fiefdoms. The 10th century witnessed a growth in the power of central authority under the leadership of the House of Saxony, while in the 11th and early 12th centuries, under the Salian Dynasty, the power of the crown was at its height. In 1152, following a disputed succession and a civil war, the dynamic Frederick Barbarossa acceded to the throne: he is one of the most significant figures in German history. Frederick, his son Henry VI and his grandson Frederick II, made prodigious attempts to revive the reality of royal power in Germany and Italy, but the task proved impossible and by the late 13th century the country was seething with civil war.

This period saw the emergence for the first time of the House of Habsburg. Temporarily deposed by other dynasties during the next 150 years, Albert V of Habsburg re-established his clan’s ascendancy in 1438. The Habsburgs were to rule the empire, with only a brief interruption, until 1806. By this time Germany had dissolved into a patchwork of over 300 states, some no more than a town or castle, and increasingly the Habsburg Emperors derived their power and influence from their extensive family lands.

In 1519, Charles V became Emperor, uniting by his dynastic connections Spain, the Low Countries, Naples, Sicily, Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire and all the Spanish possessions in the New World. Germany, in common with much of the rest of Europe, was divided by the Reformation at this time, despite Charles V’s attempts to impose a religious solution by force. The impossibility of holding together such a large empire was recognised by Charles himself, and on his abdication in 1556 the imperial office and the Habsburg lands passed to his brother Ferdinand I.

Sporadic warfare against the Turks continued, but a more serious catastrophe was the complex Thirty Years War (1618-48), during which many of Europe’s disputes were fought out on German soil. One of the results of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War, was the emergence of the previously minor state of Brandenburg-Prussia as a major power.

The territorial gains were built upon by a series of cunning and ruthless rulers and, by the early 18th century, the new kingdom was the scourge of other European states, not least the Habsburg Empire. Frederick the Great is the king most strongly associated with the growth of Prussian militarism. When the moribund Holy Roman Empire – not inaccurately described by a contemporary as ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire’ – was formally abolished by Napoleon in 1806 (by which time the Habsburgs had already assumed the title of Emperors of Austria), much of its northern and eastern parts had already been absorbed by Prussia.

After 1815 the German Confederation was established with 39 states. German unification continued apace throughout the century, the most influential figure in the process being Count Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor under Emperor Wilhelm I. Various wars, both offensive and defensive, were fought with other European states, of which the most notable was the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71).

In the following decades, an increasingly complex web of treaties, including the Dual and Triple Alliances of 1878 and 1892, and diplomatic liaisons evolved, which managed to contain temporarily the increasingly ambitious policies of the major European states and their empires. A revolt in Serbia finally shattered the illusion of European security, precipitating a complex chain of events which led to World War I.

The year after the end of World War I in 1919, Germany adopted a democratic constitution. This was the foundation of what became known as the Weimar Republic, named after the former capital of the Saxe-Weimar grand duchy and located in the modern Land of Thüringen. However, assailed by serious domestic political instability compounded by the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s, which hit Germany severely, Weimar paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialists who took power following the general election of 1933. Hitler sought to reverse the perceived humiliation imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles by initiating a major rearmament programme that no other European power seemed inclined to challenge. He next set about creating the Third Reich, first by merger (the Anschluss) with Austria, then annexation of the Czech Sudetenland, followed by Czechoslovakia itself. When Hitler threatened Poland, the UK and France drew the line: from there, it was a short route to World War II. After 6 years of global warfare, at an estimated cost of 60 million lives, the German army was defeated in 1945 by the allied armies of the USA, the USSR, the UK and others. This produced the post-war division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence.

Germany was divided into 2 parts: the eastern, Soviet-controlled portion became the German Democratic Republic (GDR); the western part emerged to become the Federal Republic of Germany. The city of Berlin, which lay within the GDR, was itself divided into allied and Soviet-controlled zones.

East Berlin became the capital of the GDR while the isolated West Berlin was attached to the Federal Republic. The Federal Republic was established in September 1949, under the supervision of the three Western allied powers, the USA, the UK and France.

Federal politics adopted the familiar pattern of Social Democratic (SPD) and centre-right Christian Democrat (CDU) parties typical of most of Western Europe. The dominant political figure of the era was Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor between 1949 and 1963. Adenauer and his Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard were the principal architects of the country’s phenomenal economic growth after 1945. A major foundation of this was the European Coal and Steel Community, under which the Federal Republic and France, together with several smaller neighbours, established a free trade area in these products. This was the basis of the European Economic Community, which was formally established by the 1960 Treaty of Rome. The Christian Democrats remained in power until 1972, at which point the SPD took control of the Bundestag (Parliament) under the leadership of Willi Brandt. Brandt resigned in 1974 and was replaced by Helmut Schmidt. Brandt initiated Ostpolitik under which peaceful co-operation became the centrepiece of relations with the GDR, it was conceived as an alternative to the sterility of the Cold War. The Soviets had sponsored the creation of the GDR in October 1949 and granted formal independence to the country 5 years later.

During the 1950s, the GDR embarked on a full-scale programme of socialist development complete with wholesale agricultural reform and breakneck industrial construction. Popular discontent with some of the policies culminated in a series of uprisings throughout the decade, notably in 1953, which were put down forcefully. Political power in the GDR was vested solely in the hands of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED – Socialist Unity Party), an amalgam of leftist and pre-war anti-fascist parties dominated by the Communist Party. Walter Ulbricht was succeeded as Party First Secretary in 1971 by Erich Honecker, who remained in the post almost until the end of the GDR. As with West Germany, relations with the ‘other’ Germany dominated the political agenda in the GDR. Ostpolitik was continued by Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, and by the Government which took office after the SPD lost its overall majority at the 1980 election. This was a coalition of the SPD and the small centrist Free Democrats, then led by Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who became West Germany’s Foreign Minister for the next 12 years.

The SPD-FPD coalition collapsed in 1982 after which the Free Democrats promptly switched sides and teamed up with the right-wing Christian Democrats (CDU) under Helmut Kohl. This provided the launch-pad for the most successful political career in post-war German history. Kohl won 4 consecutive polls before his eventual defeat in 1998, but more importantly, he presided over German reunification. This dramatic process began in 1985 with the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Communist party, and steadily gathered momentum until its climax at the end of 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German state. The first and the last , free election for a national GDR leadership was held in March 1990. Victory went to the Alliance for Germany coalition led by Lothar de Mazière and firmly backed by Chancellor Kohl and the CDU.

The final decision on unification was not, of course, exclusively one for the Germans and agreement of the wartime Allies was required. Washington was enthusiastic, while Paris, London and surprisingly Moscow, were lukewarm but not obstructive. Unified Germany, with nearly 80 million people and twice the GNP of the EU’s next largest member, dominates the Union economically. The first united German government was elected in December 1990. As expected, Chancellor Kohl’s CDU-controlled alliance won a comfortable majority in the Bundestag.

The opposition social-democratic SPD was in disarray at this point, awaiting a new leadership generation which would not emerge until the late 1990s. From 1995 onwards, a new leadership under would-be Chancellor Gerhard Schröder emerged to challenge a Kohl government now entering a stale twilight period. The SPD duly won the 1998 general election and, after 17 years as Chancellor and 25 years as party leader, Kohl stood down. Since then he has become embroiled in a number of political scandals which may yet have serious consequences for German politics. Kohl’s successor as CDU leader, Edward Stoiber, was widely expected to win the September 2002 general election. However, with a cleverly worked campaign which drew in part on widespread popular concern about a future Middle East war, Schröder out-manoeuvred the Christian Democrats and held on to power.

Schröder has sought to continue Helmut Kohl’s aim of a more activist German foreign policy. Along with French president Jacques Chirac, Schröder has opposed much Anglo-American policy in the Middle East. (Although not a permanent member, Germany currently sits on the UN Security Council). Germany has also been heavily involved in diplomatic and military activities in the Balkans, where it has been allied closely with Croatia. And the Franco-German alliance is still at the heart of the EU and its programmes of expansion, economic and political integration. As elsewhere in Europe, immigration and asylum have become major political issues, Germany hosts the largest number of immigrants of any EU nation, and the debate has coincided with the growth of violent neo-Nazism.