Germany Through Time

Remains of the earliest people known to have lived in the area of present-­day Germany were found in the Neander Gorge near the city of Dusseldorf in 1856, thus they were called Neanderthals. They were cave dwellers who lived more than 30,000 years ago. Although a human species, Neanderthals were not entirely identical to present-­day humans, Homo sapiens. Rather, they represented a distinct branch of humans who prospered in Europe during the Pleistocene (1.6 million to 10,000 years ago), or the “Great Ice Age.” For some reason, they disappeared from the stage of history, perhaps because they interbred with more dominant Homo sapiens who became contemporary humans. Archaeologists have also found the remains of other Stone Age and Bronze Age people in Germany. The ancestors of the people we now consider Germans came from a variety of tribal groups that developed a common language as a subcategory of the Indo-­European family of languages. It is believed that the German language evolved sometime between 1700 B.C. and 300 B.C. in the central and eastern European lowlands.

About 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, present-­day France, and led the armies of the Roman Empire east to the Rhine River. The tribes who lived east of the Rhine were able to hold back the Romans, and the Rhine became the border of the Roman Empire. The tribes under Roman control, just west of the Rhine, began to call themselves Germani.

Over the next 300 years, tribes east of the Rhine continued to attack the Romans. As the power of Rome declined, the success of these tribes increased. During the fifth century A.D., these tribes were among those who were successful in advancing all the way to the city of Rome itself. In A.D. 476, the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, surrendered, and the western Roman Empire came to an end.

The Holy Roman Empire

Following the fall of Rome, for some three centuries, the Franks, who lived in present-­day France, grew in power.

Although originally a Germanic tribe, they had adopted much of the Romans’ cultural system. This is the reason why the French speak a romance language instead of Germanic. In A.D. 771, Charlemagne became king of the Franks. Charlemagne’s army expanded the boundaries of his kingdom to include western Germany and northern Italy. When he arrived in Rome in 800, he forced the pope to crown him Charles I, Emperor of the Roman Empire. After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his empire began to break up. In the west, the Franks unified to establish the country of France. In the east, the kingdoms of Germany, Burgundy, and Italy were created. The German kingdom included modern Austria and Switzerland. These three kingdoms formed a loose confederation headed by an emperor. Historians call this territory the Holy Roman Empire, although variations on this title were used during the thousand years it existed. In A.D. 911, the first German king took the title of Roman Emperor.

In the century that followed, Germany developed a feudal system. In this system, people were born into specific classes that determined what they would do. Those with wealth and power became noblemen. They obtained grants of land of various sizes and built castles that were often located on hills for defensive purposes. Many of these castles still dot the German countryside today, where they contribute greatly to the stereotypical image of the country’s scenic historical landscapes. The larger landholders could divide their property and give it to lesser nobles. To defend the castles, a class of knights in military service developed. As this system progressed, local power fell into the hands of the nobility, and the king began to lose his powers.

At the bottom of this social system were peasant farmers, called serfs. The serfs lived in small hamlets located on the land below the castle and surrounded by farmland. In return for giving an oath of allegiance to the nobleman and agreeing to fight in his army when needed, the serfs were offered the nobleman’s protection. Serfs lived in small huts and often suffered from hunger and illness. Many children died before they became adults, and the average adult only lived to be about 30 years old.

In addition to the serfs, there were a few peasants who owned their own land, whereas the less fortunate worked as wage earners. The noblemen were always fighting with each other and with the emperor. The 5 or 6 million people who lived in Germany at this time spoke Old High German, but the only people who could write were the priests and they used Latin.

By 1150, new techniques led to the expansion of agricultural production. Hamlets grew into villages and towns. Some towns grew larger because of their role in the production and trade of various crafts. Craftsmen joined together into guilds that controlled the terms and conditions for the production of particular goods. Businesses needed money, but Christians were not allowed to charge interest on borrowed money, so Jews became the moneylenders. Jews were not allowed to own land, so they had to live in the towns. Often, the Jews lived in one part of the town, and this neighborhood was called the ghetto. As the population of Germany grew to more than 7 million, people started to migrate to the east of the Elbe River. One of the first groups to do this was the Knights of the Teutonic Order, who established the state of Prussia in 1226.

A high stone wall for protection surrounded a typical German town in 1250. Inside the wall and near the center of the town there would be a castle, a church, a guild hall, and a town hall. These buildings represented the major powers of the time: the noblemen, the bishops, the tradesmen, and the wealthy businessmen who usually controlled the local government. The many small political units resulted in a large number of towns, but no single large city. As some towns grew larger, they broke away from the nobles and became independent communities.

In 1273, the Habsburg (also, although incorrectly, known as Hapsburg) family took control of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, as it was then known. After establishing a set of regulations for the election of future emperors, the Habsburgs were able to hold this position for most of the next 500 years. Primarily through a skillful policy of royal marriages, the family also controlled lands that were outside of the empire, in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Black Death and the Reformation

By 1300, the population of Germany had reached 14 million people, but then tragedy struck. Between 1348 and 1350, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, swept through Europe killing between 30 and 50 percent of the population. In rural areas, the residents of entire villages died and agricultural production declined, which caused a decrease in the amount of food available. In the cities, Jews were blamed for the plague and many were killed by mobs. Many Jews migrated to eastern Europe to escape this persecution. It is now known that knights returning from the Crusades, in Palestine, probably brought the plague to Europe. Rats traveling as unwanted passengers on their ships served as carriers of the fleas that spread the disease. Plague was a common occurrence in Asia, but was rare in Europe. Once it arrived, however, the impact was comparable to that of smallpox and other European-introduced diseases on American Indians, who had no natural resistance to them. The population quickly recovered, however, and by 1400, it had soared to 16 million.

The development of an educated class outside of the clergy led to the introduction of literature in German, the codifiction of laws, and the opening of universities. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe were the period of the Renaissance, as it was called, in which many such improvements occurred. Although its origins were in Italy, the Renaissance had a profound effect on Germany as well. At this time, the Church taught that people could be saved by performing good deeds, which included making substantial donations to the Church. Thus, the Church grew wealthy. In 1517, German scholar and theologian Martin Luther publicly opposed the idea that people could buy their way into heaven. This was the beginning of the Reformation, the splitting of Christianity into Protestants (the protesters who believed faith was the road to heaven) and Catholics (those who supported the pope’s view of good works). Martin Luther was not the earliest critic of the Catholic Church, yet his work led to the most significant changes in western Christianity.

In 1521, Luther translated the Bible into New High German, and with the movable type printing press becoming prevalent in Europe during the previous century, the book spread across the country becoming the standard form for the German language. During the following decade, many of the princes and independent towns, including the duchy of Prussia, converted to Lutheran ideals, in part to gain greater autonomy from papal taxes. Conflicts between Protestants and Catholics developed. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg allowed the nobility to choose which faith their region would follow. All citizens either had to accept the faith or leave. The independent towns could also choose an official faith; however, many towns did not require their citizens to belong to the chosen faith.

The discovery of the Americas shifted economic power from the Mediterranean realm toward the Atlantic Ocean. As Spain, France, and England grew in importance, overland trade through Germany declined. The economic depression, followed by a series of poor harvests, led to starvation in the rural areas and protests in the towns. This was once again expressed through violence against Jews, who seemed always to be the suspected cause of hard times; hence, the victims of oppression and often violence.

The Thirty Years’ War and the Rise of Prussia

The Thirty Years’ War was actually a series of conflicts fought between 1618 and 1648 for a variety of reasons. It was a religious war between the Catholic and Protestant states. It was also an internal war between the Holy Roman emperor and the princes of Germany who wanted more independence. In part it was an external war as France and Sweden tried to gain territory and power from the Habsburg Empire. As armies moved back and forth across Germany, it was the farmers who suffered most, as their fields were trampled and armies stole their crops and animals to feed themselves. Sometimes retreating armies burned crops and killed animals so that the advancing army would not have any food. For the farmers it often meant starvation and death. In addition, the armies often brought typhoid and other diseases with them. The population of Germany fell by 30 percent during this time period. Many farmers fled to the cities to seek protection. It took nearly a century to recover from the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War.

The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War. The power of the Habsburg family was reduced in a number of ways. The Spanish Habsburgs had to grant the Netherlands independence, while the Austrian Habsburgs granted Switzerland independence. More than 300 German princes were granted greater sovereignty over their lands; although they remained within the Habsburg-­controlled Holy Roman Empire. The treaty stated that the religious affiliations of the states would remain as they were before the war. This gave the Habsburgs, who were Catholic, greater control over Catholic Austria and less control over the Protestant parts of Germany. Perhaps the most significant result of this treaty was its influence on the creation of the nation-state in Europe, and later elsewhere in the world. The concept of nation-state (one nationality of people and the territory they occupy also being a self-­governing political territory, or state) remains dominant even in contemporary international relations.

In the years that followed, Prussia wanted to increase its power by developing more farmland. It needed more people to do this. In 1685, Prussia invited about 20,000 Protestants from France, called Huguenots, to settle in its territory. Later, in 1731, Prussia took in 20,000 Protestants from Austria. The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) ended with Prussia gaining territory along the Baltic coast from Poland, and Silesia from Austria.

The Napoleonic Era and Industrial Revolution

In 1792, France invaded the Holy Roman Empire and captured all of the land west of the Rhine River. The French legal system was imposed on this area. The feudal system, in which lords had serfs to work the land, was abolished in concert with the experience in the post-1789 Revolution. Two years later, the empire reorganized its remaining territory by joining many of the smaller units to create larger ones.

In 1799, Napoleon became the military dictator of France. The following year, French armies again marched against the empire. Many of the small German states decided it would be best to leave the empire and give their support to Napoleon. In 1806, Napoleon organized these states into the Confederation of the Rhine, marking the end of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1812, Napoleon was defeated in Russia and the folloing year in Prussia. His final defeat took place in 1814. The Congress of Vienna met to decide how to reorganize post-Napoleonic Europe. The German Federation was created to replace the Holy Roman Empire. This was a loose federation of 39 states. Prussia gained land in Rhineland and Westphalia and gave up some territory in Poland. This shift to the west brought the German Federation into an area with a larger population and stronger economy.

A long period of peace allowed for population and economic growth in Germany. The conversion of Germany into an industrial nation was the result of a number of factors. First, a growing surplus of farm laborers forced many poor people to migrate into the cities in search of work. Second, the creation of the German Customs Union in 1834 allowed the free movement of trade over a larger area. Third, the steam engine was perfected in the United Kingdom. This new source of power was the basis for new textile factories in the towns, thus providing jobs for migrants. Steamship transportation on the Rhine increased trade and led to the construction of canals. Further, the development of the steam train after 1837 not only improved transportation, but also created a large demand for iron and coal. These were the bases for further industrial growth. The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of cities such as Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen, Hanover, Leipzig, and Dresden.

The German Empire

In 1862, Otto von Bismarck was appointed prime minister of Prussia. He set to work enlarging the boundaries of Prussia through a war with Denmark in 1864, a war with Austria in 1866 that weakened its power over southern Germany, and a war with France in 1870 to regain Alsace and Lorraine. The North German Confederation replaced the German Federation. It converted the member states from a loose confederation into a federal state with the king of Prussia as president and Bismarck as chancellor, or leader of the government. In 1871, Bismarck converted the federation into the German Empire (sometimes referred to as the Second German Empire), with the king of Prussia given a hereditary position as emperor and Bismarck continuing as chancellor.

An economic depression led to renewed persecution of the Jews, and Bismarck also tried to remove Catholics and Socialists from political office. Once the German Empire was created, Bismarck worked hard to maintain peace in Europe by forming alliances with Russia, Austria, and Italy. Conflict between Austria and Russia led to the breakup of the alliance in 1887 and the resignation of Bismarck in 1890.

After Bismarck’s departure, the German Empire became more imperialistic. The industrialists wanted access to more raw materials and larger markets for their products. They also wanted an overseas empire like that of Great Britain. The sudden German urge for colonial possession was also politically motivated. Because of late unification, Germany was unable to expand its worldwide influence as did other powers, Great Britain and France in particular. At the end of the nineteenth century, it became obvious that the industrial development of Germany required the type of support other imperial forces enjoyed, thus antagonism between Germany and other countries began to grow. By 1907, Germany’s major rivals—France, Great Britain, and Russia—had formed an alliance that threatened Germany. The southeastern corner of Europe, sometimes referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, belonged to the Ottoman Empire, which was centered in modern-day Turkey. By 1912, the power of the Ottoman Empire was declining, and Austria and Russia fought to gain control of this region.

In June 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated while visiting Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former Ottoman Empire province recently annexed by the Habsburg Monarchy. Officials in Vienna accused the Balkan state of Serbia for the assassination and threatened to attack them. Russia agreed to mobilize its army in defense of Serbia. Because of its treaty with Austria, Germany mobilized its army in support of Austria. Germany planned to attack Russia’s ally, France, by going through Belgium. Great Britain had guaranteed to support Belgium if it were attacked. Thus all the countries of Europe became engaged in a bitter conflict called World War I, sometimes referred to as the Great War.

In April 1917, the United States entered the war against Germany because German submarines had attacked and sunk U.S. cargo ships in the Atlantic Ocean. On November 9, 1918, the German emperor abdicated his throne and a new republican government was established. On November 11, 1918, the German government surrendered. This event is still remembered each year in the United States as Veterans Day.

The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich

The countries involved in World War I signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, to officially end the war. France and Russia were both angry at Germany and wanted revenge. France reclaimed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and left occupation troops in that part of Germany west of the Rhine River. On the east side, an enlarged Poland was created by taking the provinces of West Prussia, Upper Silesia, and Posen away from Germany. This separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Although Germany only had a few colonies in Africa (Tanzania, Cameroon, Namibia, and Togo) and the Pacific (New Guinea, Carolina, Mariana, Marshall, and the Samoan islands), it had to turn all of these over to the League of Nations, which had only recently been formed in 1920. Finally, a large sum of money had to be paid in reparations.

The government of the newly formed Republic of Germany met in the city of Weimar, thus it was called the Weimar Republic. The German economy was in disarray. Food shortages led to riots in many places and inflation was so high that the currency became worthless. People could not afford to buy food when it was available. The new parliament had so many small parties that no one party could win a majority, or form a lasting alliance with other parties.

After 1924, the situation gradually began to improve. Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg was chosen as president and treaties were signed to stabilize Germany’s borders with France, Belgium, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. The economy began to show signs of vitality after the United States provided loans to cover the reparations and support growth. The government introduced unemployment insurance and improved social housing. Among the middle class, watching movies and listening to the radio became popular pastimes.

The economy was, however, dependent on the United States. When the stock market crash of October 1929 damaged the U.S. economy, it also crushed the German economy. Unemployment tripled in less than a year, and by 1933, almost a third of the workforce was unemployed. The government did not have enough money in the treasury to pay unemployment insurance. People once again were poor and angry.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party), was elected and appointed chancellor, even though he received only about one-third of the total vote. Road building and armaments projects created jobs and the economy actually improved during the next five years. The Nazi Party took control of all aspects of society, including unions, agriculture and trade organizations, and youth and women’s organizations. The press, radio, and schools were taken over and “un-German” books were burned. Hostility toward “non-­Aryans,” including Jews, gypsies, and Slavic peoples, began by depriving them of jobs. Conditions grew progressively worse to include property damage and violence. In 1934, the parliament was abolished, and later that year, when Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the posts of president and chancellor and began calling himself Der Fuhrer (the leader). The Third Reich (Empire) was born.

As early as 1925, Hitler had written down his plans for foreign policy in a book called Mein Kampf. Shortly after taking power, he began rebuilding the army, navy, and air force in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. When these violations were discovered, Great Britain agreed to allow the German Navy to increase to one-third the size of the British Navy.

In 1936, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland (the disputed region west of the Rhine River), in yet another violation of the treaty. However, France failed to react. The lack of serious response only encouraged the Nazis to become bolder in their attempt to resurrect German greatness (in their own mind-set, of course). Germany and Italy formed the Axis powers and Japan joined in 1938. After putting a pro-Nazi leader in power in Austria, Hitler moved his army into Austria without opposition. Austria became part of Germany, again violating the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler then demanded that the Sudetenland (in neighboring Czechoslovakia) be claimed, because of its sizable ethnic German population. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, disillusioned with Hitler’s assurances of peace, agreed to allow Germany to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia. This act immediately proved to be one of the greatest political blunders in history and only further encouraged the German leader.

In the spring of 1939, Hitler moved troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia, creating a protectorate. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a pact to divide Poland, but only days later, on September 1, Germany attacked Poland. Great Britain had guaranteed to defend Poland, so three days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. Germany overran Poland in less than three weeks. Meanwhile, violence toward Jews increased. At first, the plan was to deport them to Africa. Soon, however, they were being lined up and shot. In 1942, three extermination camps were constructed in Poland and a large complex was built in eastern Germany at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This death camp could kill 9,000 people a day. People were killed with poison gas and then their bodies were burned in large ovens. Over the next three years, an estimated 6 million Jews, and countless gypsies, Communists, and other “undesirables” were put to death in these camps in what came to be known as the Holocaust.

In April 1940, Germany occupied Denmark and parts of Norway. In May, Hitler moved quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium and occupied 60 percent of France by mid-June.

However, a French free state was set up in the south of France at Vichy. In August, air attacks on Great Britain were begun, but the British Air Force proved superior and no surface attack was attempted. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were persuaded to join the Axis before Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, taking them in less than a month. Finally, in the summer of 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. This was not as easy as the previous campaigns had been and the German troops were not prepared for the long, cold Russian winter. The advance came to a halt. Meanwhile, on December 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war as a member of the Allies. In support of Japan, Germany declared war on the United States.

After pushing Italian and German troops out of North Africa, the Allies invaded Italy in 1943. The Italian government surrendered and Italy joined the Allies, but German troops continued to fight in Italy until the end of the war. On June 6, 1944 ( D-­Day), the Allies landed on the French coast at Normandy. The Germans were slowly pushed back toward Germany. On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide, and a week later, on May 8 (V-­E, or Victory Day in Europe), the German Army surrendered.

The Division and Reunification of Germany

In 1945, Germany was an occupied country without a government. All of the territory east of the Oder and Neisse rivers was given to Poland. Within the remainder of the country, the Soviet Union occupied the east, whereas France, Great Britain, and the United States occupied the west. In 1949, new constitutions were approved creating the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Although surrounded by East Germany, the city of Berlin was also divided into eastern and western sections.

With U.S. aid through the Marshall Plan, the West German economy soon recovered. East Germany received aid from the Soviet Union and did not fare as well. Both countries obtained full sovereignty in 1955. Significant migration from east to west led to the closing of the border. Most people migrated by going to West Berlin. East Germany built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to stop people from leaving. The two governments signed a mutual recognition treaty in 1972, and both obtained United Nations membership in 1973. The possibility of reunification seemed unlikely.

Suddenly, in 1989, the Soviet Union loosened its grip on Eastern Europe. Hungary opened its border with Austria and thousands of East Germans used this route to escape. In November, the East German government removed restrictions on travel. Continuing protests led to the election of a democratic government in the East, and within a year the two countries were unified. The modern-­day Federal Republic of Germany was created on October 3, 1990.