Introducing Germany

A review of twentieth-­century history would be incomplete without reference to Germany. During the past century, Germany was involved in two world wars. Following its defeat in World War II, its division into East and West became a major symbol of the larger division of the postwar world, just as its reunification in 1990 served as a symbol of the cold war's end. Today, as the major power in the European Union, it is poised to be a leader in the twenty-first century. The United States, too, has powerful historical ties to Germany. Germans represent the nation's largest single ethnic group and many traits of American culture can be traced to German roots. The Protestant Reformation, for example, began in Germany, and many other “American” characteristics—from words in our vocabulary (angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut), to what and how we eat, to the idea that sparked the Interstate Highway System—have German origins.

Germany's population is the largest in Europe (excluding Russia) and its economy is the continent's most powerful. Roughly one of every seven Europeans is German. Economically, the country is Europe's leader in industry, trade, and services. The country was one of the first on mainland Europe to actively participate in the Industrial Revolution, after its spread from the United Kingdom in the early nineteenth century. Two centuries later, it also played a key role in the formation of the European Union (EU).

Germany is located in the heart of Europe. To the west it borders the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. To the south lie Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic, to the east is Poland, and to the north Denmark. The North European Plain, which includes the densely populated northern third of Germany, has been a route for human migration and a battlefield for roving armies since ancient times.

European countries are often thought of as being very old, but modern Germany is younger than the United States. The German Empire was created in 1871 as a union of more than 30 smaller states. Because each state had its own capital, Germany today has many large cities scattered throughout the country; although the current capital city, Berlin, is the country's largest urban center.

Twice during the twentieth century, Germany tried to expand outward from its central location to take control of its neighbors by force. World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945) were the greatest conflicts of the century. On both occasions, the late entry of the United States into these wars in 1917 and 1941 tipped the scales against Germany. Unable to fight a war on two fronts, Germany was pushed back, losing some of its original territory in both wars.

After World War II, in addition to losing territory, the remainder of the country was occupied by foreign troops and divided into occupation zones that eventually formed two separate countries, East Germany and West Germany. East Germany was the satellite state of the Soviet Union and one of the strongest economic powers in the East European Socialist block. West Germany joined the countries of Western Europe and became an even stronger economic power.

When North American and Western European countries organized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 to protect democracy, the Soviet Union countered in 1955 by unifying the countries of Eastern Europe into the Warsaw Pact. The two forces faced each other along the border between West and East Germany. This border became known as the Iron Curtain. This term, which became synonymous with the cold war in Europe, was first used in a 1946 speech delivered by British statesman Sir Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri.

The dream of German reunification grew dimmer and dimmer as the years passed. Then, quite suddenly, in 1990, East and West Germany were reunited. The removal of that border was instrumental in the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the creation of a new dynamic in Europe. NATO added three other former Warsaw Pact members: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

German reunification was seen as a major challenge, because there were great social, political, and economic differences between the East and West. Since unification, however, there has been a significant transformation in the East. It has become increasingly integrated with the West both economically and socially. The cost of reunification, however, has been high for the former West Germany in terms of the financial strain on the country. Under Soviet control, East Germany's economy lagged far behind that of the West.

Today the European Union has a population approximately equal to that of the United States, and it has become a global economic power with Germany as its strongest member. Some countries are concerned that Germany has the power to take over economically what it could not take by force. As of 2007, Germany is the world's largest exporter of goods (although China will likely surpass it in the next couple of years). In addition, it is an active member of the Group of Seven (G7) (and the Group of Eight, which includes Russia as the eighth member). German industry is well known for its high quality precision instruments and automobiles such as Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW.

The current geography of any area is the result of the interaction of many forces. This book begins with an outline of physical environmental conditions in the Federal Republic of Germany, as the reunited Germany is called today. Although modern Germany is a relatively new country, the area has been inhabited for a very long time. Chapter 3 introduces the political and social changes that shaped the unique history of the country. Chapter 4 presents the demographic characteristics of the current population and its relationship to the past.

Government policies have a significant influence on how natural resources are used and the economy develops. Chapter 5 discusses the government of modern Germany and its development since 1871. Chapters 6 and 7 are about the economy and how it relates to the living conditions of the people. Future prospects for Germany are considered in the final chapter. The interaction of demographic, political, cultural, social, technological, and economic change has formed the modern landscape of Germany and provides the basis for future developments. Look for these relationships throughout this book.