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A Brief History of Germany

Germany has a long and storied history, and its people, like most Europeans, can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire.  More than 2 millennia ago, the northern and western regions of Europe were occupied by a wide variety of early Germanic tribes, and although Julius Caesar pushed the boundaries of the Roman Empire east to the Rhine River, the Romans were never successful in subduing the region east of the Rhine and north of the Danube—the very heart of what is now Germany1.

The Franks and Charlemagne

Near the end of the Roman Empire, the Franks assumed a leading position among the many German tribes.  During the Merovingian dynasty, which began with the leader Clovis in 466 AD, the Frankish kingdom was expanded to include most of present-day France and the southwestern half of what is now Germany.  However, towards the end of 8th century the power and authority of the Merovingian Dynasty began to wane and the kingdom split into several small warring factions, all jockeying for power.2

Charles Martel, a talented military leader of the era, conquered much of the Frankish kingdom, and his son Pepin, also known as Pepin the Short, is credited with deposing the last of the Merovingian kings and beginning the new Carolingian dynasty.  Pepin was later succeeded by his two sons, Carloman (who assumed the throne first) and Charlemagne.
Upon Carloman’s death in 771, Charlemagne assumed the throne and widened the kingdom to include much of Western Europe.  He gained favor with the Catholic Church by protecting the papal holdings from the Lombards, and in 800 was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome.  Charlemagne remained emperor through the lifetime of his son, and upon his own death the empire was divided among his three grandsons, as outlined in the Treaty of Verdun in 843.3  The first grandson, Charles the Bald, ruled the west portion of the kingdom, which eventually became France.  Louis (Louis the German) took the east portion, which later became Germany, and Lothair was awarded the large strip between these two areas, calling it Lothairingia.  Later this strip would be claimed by both France and Germany and would become a lasting source of conflict between the two countries.

The Saxons

Louis the German—and his heirs who later assumed the throne—could not control the new German kingdom.  Norsemen and Magyars (Hungarians) constantly harassed the borders, and tribal chieftains were forced to fight off the invaders.  Eventually the German kingdom was split into five tribal duchies:  Franconia, Saxony, Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria.
Upon the death of Charlemagne’s last heir in 911, the leaders (dukes) of the five duchies elected Conrad, duke of Franconia, as the German king.  However, when Conrad died eight years later, the vote for the new king went to duke of Saxony, Henry I, who founded the Saxon dynasty.  Among other accomplishments, King Henry relinquished some of the power of the feudal lords and added Bohemia to the German kingdom.4

The Saxon dynasty’s most well known king was Henry’s son Otto, or Otto the Great, who ruled the German kingdom from 936-973.  In 955, Otto successfully staved off uprisings by the Magyars and returned the East March (Austria) to Germany.  He restored papal authority and was crowned Roman emperor in 962, marking the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. 5

The House of Hohenstaufen

Berlin Brandenburg GateIn 1125, the noble electors chose Lothair, duke of Saxony, as the next monarch.  Next in line to the throne was his son-in-law Henry Guelph, duke of Bavaria, but upon Lothair’s death in 1138 the electors instead chose Conrad III of the House of Hohenstaufen as their new leader. During the reign of Conrad III, the German boundaries were pushed east along the Baltic coast with the conquest of Mecklenburg. 

Frederick I, known as Barbarossa, succeeded his uncle Conrad in 1152 and is generally considered the most outstanding Hohenstaufen leader.  He ruled Germany with firmness and wisdom, encouraging learning, trade, the colonizing of Eastern Germany, and the founding of towns. He made a duchy of Austria and added western Pomerania to his empire. When Henry the Lion failed to support him in his Italian wars, Barbarossa expelled the Guelphs from the duchies of Saxony and Bavaria.  Despite his successes, however, Barbarossa failed to achieve one of his prime objectives:  establishing authority over northern Italy.6  Barbarossa was succeeded by his son Henry VI in 1190, who gave way to his son Frederick II in 1212.

Imperial Power Declines in Germany

Upon the death of Frederick’s son, Conrad IV (reigned 1240-54), the Hohenstaufen rule came to an end and Germany’s efforts to rule Italy caused a struggle for power among the nobles.  A 19-year period of chaos, known as the Great Interregnum, ensued in Germany.  Finally, in 1273, the nobles chose Rudolph I of Hapsburg as both king and emperor.  Rudolph restored royal power in Germany, and made Austria a domain of the Hapsburg family.7

When Rudolph I died in 1291, the nobles opted to go with a prince from another house as ruler, and during the next seven reigns civil war and unrest became the norm in Germany.  Peace finally came when Charles IV, of the Luxemburg family, ascended to the throne, becoming one of Germany’s most capable rulers of the time.  He was followed by his two sons, the younger being Sigismund (reigned 1411-37), who permitted the execution of John Huss, the Bohemian religious reformer.  Sigmund was ultimately succeeded by Albert II of the Hapsburg family, the first of a dynasty that held the title of emperor from then until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.8

The Protestant Reformation and Thirty Years War

As the Hapsburg domain grew in both size and power, they failed to take into account the growing independence of the German princes.  Thus, the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, benefited from their absence and the revolt against the Roman Catholic Church spread quickly.

Heavy taxation and oppression from both the church and state angered the peasants in what is now Germany, causing them to take up arms against their feudal lords in the Peasant’s War of 1524-1526.  Martin Luther, who was heavily supported by the nobility, condemned the uprising and helped lead the movement that would crush the revolt with heavy force.  In the end, more than 100,000 peasants were killed and serfdom was legally established soon afterwards.9

Because of his assistance, Lutheranism, a religion outlined in Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” became popular and gained strength among the nobles.  The threat of Protestantism to the future of the Holy Roman Empire did not go unnoticed by the Emperor, Charles V, who at the time served as the king of Spain under the name Carlos I.  Charles, the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, spent much of his reign fighting off the growing threat of Protestantism and struggling to keep the Holy Roman Empire intact.10  Throughout his time as Emperor, he endured a series of threats from the growing opposition, held various meetings and forged several truces.   The Schmalkaldic League, composed of German Protestant states, was defeated by the Hapsburgs in 1547, but some armed resistance to imperial authority continued. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg gave each prince the power to choose the religion for his domain.  Meanwhile, the Catholic Church of Rome had undertaken the Counter Reformation, and by 1600 most of southern Germany had been won back to Catholicism.11  Because of his efforts, Charles V is generally considered one of the greatest European leaders in history.

In 1618, Protestant nobles in the German state of Bohemia revolted against their Hapsburg (Catholic) ruler.  Soon after that a conflict, which would later become known as the Thirty Years War, spread throughout Europe, although Germany remained the prime battleground.  The war raged for three decades until 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the war and to the emperor’s authority of Germany outside the Hapsburg domain.  Germany lay in ruin after the war, with thousands slain and a commerce and economy that were devastated.12

Prussia Emerges

Once a duchy in Poland, Prussia was joined in 1618 with the German state of Brandenburg, of which Berlin was the capital.  The “Great Elector,” or Frederick William of Brandenburg, acquired in the Peace of Westphalia some of the area between Brandenburg and Prussia. He later gained Prussia's freedom from Poland and asserted his title to two small states in western Germany. From this patchwork of possessions came the emergence of the future Germany. Upon his death, the Great Elector left Brandenburg economically and militarily strong.13

In 1686, the French King, Louis XIV, had planned to expand France into Germany.  To oppose this move, several German states joined together to form the League of Augsburg, which later became the Grand Alliance.  Together these states warred with France in the War of the Grand Alliance from 1689-97.  They fought to a stalemate, but the Grand Alliance did manage to prevent the French expansion.14

Frederick, the son and heir of Frederick William, was one of Prussia’s most outstanding leaders.  He aided the Holy Roman Emperor in wars against France and the Turks, and in return, the Holy Roman Emperor made the Hohenzollern domain the kingdom of Prussia in 1701.  Frederick himself assumed the crown as Frederick I, and his son, Frederick William ruled the country from 1713-1740.  The latter ruler is famous for defeating the Swedes in the Northern War (1700-20), which ultimately gained for Prussia new land along the Baltic Sea.15

Frederick William I gave way to his son, Frederick II, in 1740.  Frederick the Great, as he was called, seized the Austrian province of Silesia, an action that led to the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48).  After the war, Silesia was retained by Frederick and Prussia.

Coming to fear the power of a growing Prussia, Austria formed an alliance with Russia, France, Sweden and Saxony.  Frederick the Great entered into a treaty with Great Britain, and together in 1756 they invaded Saxony, leading to the Seven Year’s War of 1756-1763.  Prussia was facing a certain defeat, but when Russia pulled out it allowed Frederick to sign a peace treaty in which Prussia would neither add nor lose land.16 In 1772, he joined Austria and Russia in executing the first partition of Poland, gaining a strip of territory along the Baltic that effectively united the two parts of Prussia.
While both Prussia and Austria were increasing in size and power, the western part of Germany was splintering into even smaller factions.  In fact, by the late 18th century there were more than 1800 independent sovereign territories in Western Europe—300 states and 1,500 princely estates.17

Germany and Napoleon

Frightened by the French Revolution (1789-99), both Frederick William II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria declared their support of the French monarchy.  This move was seen as a threat by the French revolutionary government, and war began the next year.  Prussia made peace with France in 1795, while Austria made peace via a treaty in 1797.  Meanwhile, Poland had been further partitioned, and the two kingdoms—Prussia and Austria—grew even larger.

In the next ten years, war with Napoleon broke out three times in the Germanies, and each time France was victorious.   Napoleon reorganized Germany into 30 sovereign states known as the Confederation of the Rhine, abolished the Holy Roman Empire and forced egregious treaties upon both Prussia and Austria.18

Prussia ultimately allied with Britain, Russia and Sweden in an effort to liberate Europe from the French.  Austria and other German states joined the alliance, and Napoleon was finally forced to surrender at Waterloo.  At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Prussia received Rhineland and part of Saxony, while Austria gained Lombardy-Venetia and part of Poland.

The German Empire

Soviet Soliders Memorial Monument Berlin In 1861, William I of Prussia assumed the throne and appointed Otto von Bismarck as foreign minister.  Under Bismarck, the Prussian army was modernized and made larger, as he planned to unify Germany under Prussian rule.  The first test for this new army came in 1864 with the war over Schleswig and Holstein, two duchies which had been held by Denmark for hundreds of years.  Prussia and Austria seized the duchies as a dual venture, but in 1866 Bismarck provoked the Seven Weeks’ War with Austria and ultimately annexed both of the duchies for Prussia.  In 1867, he formed the North German Confederation, which excluded Austria.19

The victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) helped to unify Germany.  National pride swelled, and the German Empire, consisting of Prussia and the North and South German states, was formed.  William I was crowned the first Kaiser (Emperor) of the new German Empire and Otto von Bismarck was appointed as chancellor for all of Germany.  As the new chancellor, Bismarck led the German Empire into the Triple Alliance with Austria, Hungary and Italy in 1882.  Germany began colonizing territory in Africa, and at home, industrialization was booming.20

Upon his death in 1888, William I was succeeded by his son Frederick III, who subsequently died three months later.  Frederick’s son, William II, ascended to the throne, and conflicts between he and Bismarck ultimately led to the chancellor’s resignation.  Nonetheless, Germany continued on with its colonial efforts in both Africa and the South Pacific.  By 1900, the German Empire rivaled both Britain and the United States in industrial output.  Kaiser William developed a strong navy in Germany.  Because of this, Great Britain joined France and Russia in 1907 to form the Triple Entente, a move meant to counter the increasing strength of the Triple Alliance.21

Germany and World War I

As World War I broke out in 1914, Italy withdrew from the Triple Alliance.  Germany and Austria-Hungary were joined by Turkey and Bulgaria to form the Central Powers—a force opposed by the 24 Allied Powers. The War was won by the Allies, and in 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was stripped of its colonies, its military force and a good portion of their industrial power.  The country was also forced to pay war reparations to countries in the Alliance.22

The defeat in World War I meant the collapse of the Germany monarchy, and a new German Republic was formed in its place.  In August of 1919, a new constitution, prepared at Weimar, went into effect, and Friedrich Ebert was elected the new president of Germany.

During the Weimar Republic, as this period is familiarly known, the people of Germany became increasingly angry and resentful of the peace terms of the Versailles Treaty.  They believed victory was still in their reach during the First World War, and that Germany had ceded too much in defeat.  Military officers supported a burgeoning faction led by Adolf Hitler in his unsuccessful Munich revolt, which followed the French occupation of the Ruhr.23

World War II and the Nazi Party

As the leader of the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) party, Adolf Hitler built a following promising Germans a return to past glory and by blaming the problems of Germany on Jews and other non-Aryans.  Soon the Nazi party held a majority in the German parliament, and in 1933, President von Hindenburg named Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany.  One year later, upon Hindenburg’s death, Hitler proclaimed himself the Fuhrer (leader) of Germany.

Adolf Hitler believed that the Nazi party was the natural successor to both the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire.  Because of this, he named his empire the “Third Reich,” or Third Empire.  Hitler built a one-party state, a dictatorship in which opponents of his regime were imprisoned in concentration camps and laws were passed limiting the rights of Jews and other minorities.  He denounced the Treaty of Versailles and ordered compulsory military service and training for all capable men.  In 1936, he formed an alliance with Italy known as the Rome-Berlin Axis, an alliance later joined by Japan.  As his power grew, millions of Jews, Gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to concentration camps to be worked to death or gassed.24

In 1938, Hitler unified Germany and Austria.  Later that year, British and French leaders tried to “appease Hitler by permitting Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia.”25  However, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, World War II broke out. 
A very powerful force at the time, Germany successfully conquered much of Europe and parts of Africa during the war.  However, Allied forces liberated the conquered lands and invaded Germany.  With no strategy for moving forward, the German ultimately surrendered unconditionally in 1945.

As the hundreds of concentration camps were being discovered in the final months of the war and soon after, the Allies determined that about six million Jews and millions of other minorities were put to death at the hands of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Following the War, Germany was stripped of all its conquests and was partitioned into four distinct zones.  The eastern zone was occupied by the Soviet Union, while the three western zones were occupied respectively by the United States, Great Britain and France. Thousands of Nazis and other war criminals were tried and convicted by the World Court for their despicable crimes against humanity.26

Post World War II Germany

Remains of the Berlin WallFollowing World War II, tensions grew between the Soviet Union and the western world, and Germany became a key focal point in this era known as the Cold War.  The eastern bloc, or Soviet zone of Germany, was renamed the German Democratic Republic, with Berlin as its capital.  West Germany, which was more than twice the size of East Germany, became known as the Federal Republic of Germany, with Bonn as its capital.

Recovery came rapidly in West Germany following the war.  Under the leadership of its first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, West Germany became a member of the Western European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and what is now the European Union.  East Germany, on the other hand, did not recover as quickly.  West Berlin reflected the prosperity of the new republic, a fact that angered the communists.  As such, in 1948 the Soviets tried to force the Western powers out of Berlin by closing all the land entries into the city.  Supplies continued to be airlifted, however, and thousands of East Germans fled to West Germany through Berlin.27

When Adenauer passed away in 1963, his party, the Christian Democratic Union, remained in power, first under Ludwig Erhard (163-66) and then under Kurt Kiesinger (1966-69).  Prosperity continued in West Germany and many new jobs were created, so many, in fact, that West Germany had to augment its workforce with millions of temporary workers.
In the 1960s, the economy of East Germany improved dramatically, although it continued to lag behind the West.  In 1961, the East German regime built a wall between East and West Berlin to put an end to refuges flocking to the latter.  In 1968 Germany adopted a new constitution that formally recognized the division of Germany into two separate nations.28

Germany Reunited

In the autumn of 1990, the western powers of France, Great Britain and the United States formally relinquished all of their post-war occupation rights—rights they had attained as part of Germany’s surrender in World War II.  On October 3, 1990, after more than 40 years of division, the “wall came down” and Germany was finally reunited as a single nation.29  In December of the same year, Helmet Kohl’s coalition government was elected in the first united-Germany elections since 1932.

After Germany was reunited, many economic and social problems arose, particularly in the Eastern states.  High employment and increasing crime plagued the country for a number of years, and the costs of the reunification process set the economy back greatly throughout the 1990s.­­­
References
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