Europe's most populous state whose instability caused two World Wars, and whose stability since 1949 has greatly contributed to the solution of the German question and the success of European integration.
The German Empire (1871–1918)
Before 1900 the German Empire, unified by Bismarck in 1866/71, experienced a process of singularly rapid industrial transformation which created unusually large social and political tensions. In addition, in the federal nation-state created by Bismarck the constituent states, rather than the Empire, controlled most of the revenues. Without their consent, the Empire could not increase its own revenue substantially. As a result, Germany could not keep up with the arms race that developed, partly as a result of Germany's own imperialist ambitions and its consequent building of a large navy at the instigation of Admiral Tirpitz. This sense of crisis explains why Emperor Wilhelm II and his Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, felt compelled to incite World War I: they were convinced that if there had to be war, the chances of winning it would be higher the sooner it broke out.
World War I (1914–18)
The initial consensus in favour of supporting the war was relatively short-lived, and soon the political parties began to demand domestic reform, particularly in Prussia. In 1917, parliament passed a motion demanding peace negotiations. By then, however, the country was run in a virtual dictatorship by Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who instilled in most Germans a belief and confidence in ultimate victory. Defeat in World War I came as a complete shock to most Germans, as did the territorial losses and the reparation payments imposed upon them by the Versailles Treaty, under the humiliating charge that Germany had been the sole aggressor.
The Weimar Republic (1918–1933)
These factors became a great burden for the new democracy that began to form after the popular unrest of 1918 had forced the Emperor to abdicate. This democracy is known as the Weimar Republic, so named after the city of the German poets Goethe and Schiller in which the National Assembly convened to write the new Constitution. The Assembly established universal suffrage and unrestricted proportional representation. Given the social, cultural and political fragmentation of the population in subsequent years, this made it increasingly difficult to establish stable parliamentary majorities.
Another problem for the Weimar Republic was that it depended on the bureaucratic and military elites of the former Empire, neither of whom felt any commitment to the democracy. After years of crisis, marked by the decommissioning of millions of soldiers, the payments of reparations, the Kapp Putsch in 1920, the murder of Erzberger and Rathenau, and the events of 1923 (which saw the occupation of the Ruhr, hyperinflation, and the Hitler Putsch), the Republic gained some stability during the Stresemann era. However, after the world economic crisis caused by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, millions of disaffected people voted for Hitler's Nazi Party from 1930, and Germany became ungovernable, with Chancellors Brüning and von Papen governing against parliament, under emergency laws that made them responsible to the President only. In the end, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor in the misguided confidence that Hitler could be controlled by others in the Cabinet.
Table 10. German leaders since 1900
Presidents of the Weimar Republic
Paul von Hindenburg
Leader of the Third Reich
German Democratic Republic (East Germany)
communist party leaders:
Lothar de Maizière
Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany)
The Third Reich (1933–45)
Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 and his acquisition of dictatorial powers through the Enabling Law marked the beginning of the Third Reich. Hitler sustained and increased his popularity by ending record unemployment (largely through a massive programme of rearmament), and restoring order and security on the streets. Hitler realized a succession of major foreign policy triumphs such as the Saarland return to the Reich in 1935, the Anschluss with Austria (1938), and the annexation of the Sudetenland (1938) and of the Czech lands (1939). These successes led most Germans to overlook the fact that this sense of national unity was acquired at the expense of minorities such as gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, priests, the mentally ill, and especially Jews, who were officially degraded as second-class citizens by the Nuremberg Laws. Jews and other opponents of the regime were thrown into concentration camps, while the persecution of Jews reached new heights with the Kristallnacht of 1938.
Following the conclusion of the Hitler–Stalin Pact, Hitler started his pursuit of more ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which unleashed World War II. In 1941, Hitler started an all-out offensive against the Soviet Union, and in the wake of the initial Barbarossa campaign the Nazis embarked upon the Holocaust, the extermination of up to six million people, mainly Jews, in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Despite sporadic resistance to Hitler, most notably through the July Plot of 1944, the Third Reich could only be overcome by the subjection of Germany through the Allied invasion which forced German capitulation on 8 May 1945.
The division of Germany (1945–9)
Germany was divided into four zones, governed by the Soviet Union in the east, Britain in the north, France in the west and the US in the south. All German territories east of the Rivers Oder and Neisse were placed under Polish and Soviet administration. Despite initial endeavours at cooperation, which only succeeded in a few circumstances such as the Nuremberg Trials, the Soviet zone became administered increasingly separately from the other three.
East Germany (1949–90)
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded in the Soviet eastern zone on 7 October 1949, in response to the foundation of the FRG (see below). Led by Ulbricht, who transformed it into a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union, the GDR's economy suffered from its transformation into a centrally planned economy, and from the dismantling of industries by the Soviet Union. Disenchantment with the dictatorial regime and the slow economic recovery compared to West Germany sparked off an uprising of over 300,000 workers on 17 June 1953, which was crushed by Soviet tanks. However, the country's viability continued to be challenged by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of East Germans to West Berlin every year. To enable East Germany's continued existence, the Berlin Wall was built on 13 August 1961 as a complement to the existing impenetrable border between East and West Germany. In the following decades, authoritarian Communist rule, severe travel restrictions, the world's largest secret police apparatus (the Stasi), and economic prosperity relative to its eastern neighbours provided the GDR with a relative degree of stability.
The Soviet-style rule of Honecker, Ulbricht's successor, from 1971, became undermined by the advent of Gorbachev as Soviet leader, when the East German leadership became more orthodox than the Soviet original. Matters came to a head in the summer of 1989, when Hungary opened its borders with Austria, thus enabling thousands of East German tourists to escape to the West. Meanwhile, Gorbachev's visit to the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR sparked off weekly mass protests, first in Leipzig and Berlin, and then throughout East Germany. Honecker had to resign, and in the confusion that followed, the Berlin Wall was opened by the GDR authorities on 9 November 1989. As East Germans used the opportunity to flee to West Germany in droves, the continuance of the GDR as a separate state became untenable. On 22 July 1990 the East German parliament reintroduced the five states that had existed 1945–52, each of which acceded to West Germany. On 3 October 1990 the GDR ceased to exist and Germany was unified.
West Germany (since 1949)
The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded on 23 May 1949, and after a narrow election victory Adenauer became its first Chancellor. Aided by a rapid economic recovery masterminded by Erhard, the new democracy won general acceptance and support. This stability was further strengthened by Adenauer's policy of integration into the Western alliance, e.g. through European integration and the joining of NATO, which enabled the speedy gain of full sovereignty for the new state from the Western allies. Adenauer was succeeded by Erhard in 1963, but following disagreements with his coalition partner, the Liberal Party (FDP), he resigned in favour of Kiesinger, who headed a ‘grand coalition’ between the SPD and CDU.
After the 1969 elections the Liberals decided to support the SPD for the first time, which enabled its party leader, Brandt, to become Chancellor. He inaugurated a new, conciliatory approach towards East Germany of dialogue and compromise, which henceforth became the basis of German internal relations. This policy was even maintained by Kohl after he took over from Brandt's successor, Schmidt, in 1982, as a result of which relations with East Germany, though always fragile, improved markedly during those years. Indeed, Kohl recognized the opportunity presented by the disintegration of East Germany for German unification more clearly than most other West Germans, many of whom had abandoned the goal of reunification long before.
German political unification was completed by 1990. For the rest of the decade, the economic effects of unification continued to loom large. Transfer payments from western to eastern Germany augmented already high burdens of debt and taxation without achieving their goal of economic recovery in the eastern states. These factors contributed to sluggish economic growth and persistently high structural unemployment, especially in the eastern states. In 1998, Schröder was elected Chancellor to head the country's first coalition between Social Democrats and the Green Party.
Contemporary politics (since 1998)
Following the move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin, the red-green coalition epitomized a transformation of the FRG. It pursued social and cultural change, such as the legalization of same-sex unions. In foreign policy, the government committed troops to multinational military peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Kosovo (1999), and Afghanistan (2002). At the same time, Schröder's refusal to participate in any Iraq War soured relations with the US, but brought him great domestic popularity. Schröder presided over a flagging economy, and from 2003 carried out far-reaching social reforms. These split his own party, forcing him to call an early election in 2005, which he lost. The new government was formed by a grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD, under the Chancellorship of Merkel. The economy finally began to improve, with Merkel becoming a respected statesman in foreign policy and within the EU.