History of Germany

Historical Setting: Early History to 1945

PEOPLE HAVE DWELLED for thousands of years in the territory now occupied by the Federal Republic of Germany. The first significant written account of this area's inhabitants is Germania, written about A.D. 98 by the Roman historian Tacitus. The Germanic tribes he describes are believed to have come from Scandinavia to Germany about 100 B.C., perhaps induced to migrate by overpopulation. The Germanic tribes living to the west of the Rhine River and south of the Main River were soon subdued by the Romans and incorporated into the Roman Empire. Tribes living to the east and north of these rivers remained free but had more or less friendly relations with the Romans for several centuries. Beginning in the fourth century A.D., new westward migrations of eastern peoples caused the Germanic tribes to move into the Roman Empire, which by the late fifth century ceased to exist.

One of the largest Germanic tribes, the Franks, came to control the territory that was to become France and much of what is now western Germany and Italy. In A.D. 800 their ruler, Charlemagne, was crowned in Rome by the pope as emperor of all of this territory. Because of its vastness, Charlemagne's empire split into three kingdoms within two generations, the inhabitants of the West Frankish Kingdom speaking an early form of French and those in the East Frankish Kingdom speaking an early form of German. The tribes of the eastern kingdom--Franconians, Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, and several others--were ruled by descendants of Charlemagne until 911, when they elected a Franconian, Conrad I, to be their king. Some historians regard Conrad's election as the beginning of what can properly be considered German history.

German kings soon added the Middle Kingdom to their realm and adjudged themselves rulers of what would later be called the Holy Roman Empire. In 962 Otto I became the first of the German kings crowned emperor in Rome. By the middle of the next century, the German lands ruled by the emperors were the richest and most politically powerful part of Europe. German princes stopped the westward advances of the Magyar tribe, and Germans began moving eastward to begin a long process of colonization. During the next few centuries, however, the great expense of the wars to maintain the empire against its enemies, chiefly other German princes and the wealthy and powerful papacy and its allies, depleted Germany's wealth and slowed its development. Unlike France or England, where a central royal power was slowly established over regional princes, Germany remained divided into a multitude of smaller entities often warring with one another or in combinations against the emperors. None of the local princes, or any of the emperors, were strong enough to control Germany for a sustained period.

Germany's so-called particularism, that is, the existence within it of many states of various sizes and kinds, such as principalities, electorates, ecclesiastical territories, and free cities, became characteristic by the early Middle Ages and persisted until 1871, when the country was finally united. This disunity was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which ended Germany's religious unity by converting many Germans to Lutheranism and Calvinism. For several centuries, adherents to these two varieties of Protestantism viewed each other with as much hostility and suspicion as they did Roman Catholics. For their part, Catholics frequently resorted to force to defend themselves against Protestants or to convert them. As a result, Germans were divided not only by territory but also by religion.

The terrible destruction of the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48, a war partially religious in nature, reduced German particularism, as did the reforms enacted during the age of enlightened absolutism (1648-1789) and later the growth of nationalism and industrialism in the nineteenth century. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna stipulated that the several hundred states existing in Germany before the French Revolution be replaced with thirty-eight states, some of them quite small. In subsequent decades, the two largest of these states, Austria and Prussia, vied for primacy in a Germany that was gradually unifying under a variety of social and economic pressures. The politician responsible for German unification was Otto von Bismarck, whose brilliant diplomacy and ruthless practice of statecraft secured Prussian hegemony in a united Germany in 1871. The new state, proclaimed the German Empire, did not include Austria and its extensive empire of many non-German territories and peoples.

Imperial Germany prospered. Its economy grew rapidly, and by the turn of the century it rivaled Britain's in size. Although the empire's constitution did not provide for a political system in which the government was responsible to parliament, political parties were founded that represented the main social groups. Roman Catholic and socialist parties contended with conservative and progressive parties and with a conservative monarchy to determine how Germany should be governed.

After Bismarck's dismissal in 1890 by the young emperor Wilhelm II, Germany stepped up its competition with other European states for colonies and for what it considered its proper place among the great states. An aggressive program of military expansion instilled fear of Germany in its neighbors. Several decades of military and colonial competition and a number of diplomatic crises made for a tense international atmosphere by 1914. In the early summer of that year, Germany's rulers acted on the belief that their country's survival depended on a successful war against Russia and France. German strategists felt that a war against these countries had to be waged by 1916 if it were to be won because after that year Russian and French military reforms would be complete, making German victory doubtful. This logic led Germany to get drawn into a war between its ally Austria-Hungary and Russia. Within weeks, a complicated system of alliances escalated that regional conflict into World War I, which ended with Germany's defeat in November 1918.

The Weimar Republic, established at war's end, was the first attempt to institute parliamentary democracy in Germany. The republic never enjoyed the wholehearted support of many Germans, however, and from the start it was under savage attack from elements of the left and, more important, from the right. Moreover, it was burdened during its fifteen-year existence with serious economic problems. During the second half of the 1920s, when foreign loans fed German prosperity, parliamentary politics functioned better, yet many of the established elites remained hostile to it. With the onset of the Great Depression, parliamentary politics became impossible, and the government ruled by decree. Economic crisis favored extremist politicians, and Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party became the strongest party after the summer elections of 1932. In January 1933, the republic's elected president, Paul von Hindenburg, the World War I army commander, named a government headed by Hitler.

Within a few months, Hitler accomplished the "legal revolution" that removed his opponents. By 1935 his regime had transformed Germany into a totalitarian state. Hitler achieved notable economic and diplomatic successes during the first five years of his rule. However, in September 1939 he made a fatal gamble by invading Poland and starting World War II. The eventual defeat of Hitler's Third Reich in 1945 occurred only after the loss of tens of millions of lives, many from military causes, many from sickness and starvation, and many from what has come to be called the Holocaust.

Germany History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress