Germany’s long and tumultuous history remains clouded by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. How a civilized European nation slipped into the state of barbaric inhumanity that existed during the Nazi era is a question that continues to haunt survivors, occupy historians, and shadow the Germans themselves. Memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are scattered throughout Germany, perhaps most poignantly at the sites of the Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps.
As a result of that harrowing chapter in its modern history, which resulted in the devastation of its cities, the disarmament of its military machine, and the deaths of millions of people, Germany became a strongly pacifist country, and the use of military force in world conflicts always arouses controversy amongst its citizens.
The other big political issue that has affected Germany’s contemporary consciousness is the separation of the country into two opposing regimes: capitalist West, communist East–from 1961 to 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, signaled an enormous shift in German life. Though most East Germans embraced the democratic changes that came with reunification, there were many who resented what they saw as a wholesale takeover of their country and who were suddenly exposed to the uncertainties and economic ruthlessness of a free-market economic system. By the time the Wall came down, East Germany was in many respects a broken country, a corrupt police-state with dwindling resources, decaying infrastructure, and a legacy of environmental pollution that will be a long-term challenge to clean up. The cost of reunification was far higher than predicted and took a toll on people’s economic and emotional lives. Outdated, state-controlled industries that could not compete in a free market economy were scrapped, jobs were lost, crime–most troublingly, neo-Nazi hate crimes–rose. Yet Germany moved forward.
Today, it’s one of the most prosperous country in Europe and has been for many years. A nation of savers, it never gave in to the easy-credit credo and had stronger regulations and more oversight in its banking industry. Germany is a country where labor unions remain strong despite attempts to whittle away their power.
And when it comes to sponsoring and supporting arts and culture, Germany is right there at the top. The generous subsidies that once helped every town and city to operate its own opera house and theatre have been reduced, in some cases eliminated, but the arts scene remains vigorous, part of a long tradition the Germans regard as essential.
A.D. 1st century: The Roman sphere of influence extends well into the borders of present-day Germany (Germania to the Romans), with garrisons established at Cologne, Koblenz, Mainz, and Trier.
A.D. 400: The Romans withdraw from Germany; in the following centuries, the empire of the Franks represents the transition from a loose conglomeration of German tribes into what eventually would become the German Empire.
ca. 800: Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse; 768–814) is responsible for the earliest large-scale attempt to unite the lands of Germany under one ruler.
ca. 900–1500: The power struggles and invasions of the Middle Ages continually disrupt the unity hammered out by Charlemagne. Until the demise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Germany remains a collection of small principalities and free cities. An upswing in international commerce from the 11th to 13th centuries leads to the foundation of “Free Imperial Cities” like Hamburg and Lübeck. The Gothic architectural style is imported from France and used for building Cologne cathedral.
1500–1700: A time of social unrest and religious upheaval throughout Germany. Martin Luther (1483–1546) battles against the excesses of the Catholic Church and his work has far-reaching implications. As the Protestant Reformation spreads, the Catholic Church launches a Counter-Reformation that culminates in the bloody Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), pitting the Protestant north against the Catholic south and affecting the whole of Europe. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) are among the artists who spark an artistic Renaissance in Germany.
1700–1800: Under Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse; 1740–86), Prussia gains status as a great European power. During this period, the works of German artists, writers, composers, and philosophers usher in the Age of Enlightenment.
Early 1800s: After defeating the Austrian and Prussian armies, Napoleon occupies several German cities and abolishes the Holy Roman Empire. In 1813, Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies fight the French emperor in Leipzig, which is followed by the decisive Battle of Waterloo.
Mid- to late 1800s: Following Napoleon’s defeat, the country’s military and political rulers are determined to return to a system of absolute monarchy. The question of independence and national unity comes to a head in the 1848 revolution. When that effort fails, the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy reimposes its sovereignty over Prussia and other parts of Germany. Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815–98) advocates consolidation of the German people under Prussian leadership. After triumphs in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), Bismarck succeeds in winning over southern German states and, in 1871, becomes first chancellor of the German Empire (Reich).
1914–1918: For many observers, the Great War represented a German attempt to dominate Europe. Military conflict on the eastern front results in the defeat of Russia, while fighting on the western front ultimately leads to German defeat and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although the war isn’t fought on German soil, it results in severe food shortages throughout the country and intensifies political unrest.
1919–1932: In its attempt to establish a democratic and republican government, the so-called Weimar government represents a break in dominant traditions of German history. Residual issues from World War I and hostility from conservative groups conflict with reformist and radical impulses of the left and with the cultural avant-garde. During the “Golden Twenties,” Berlin — capital of the Weimar Republic — blossoms into Germany’s economic and cultural center.
1933–1945: Economic crisis in Germany is a major factor in the rise of the Nazi movement, but old authoritarian, nationalistic, and imperialistic attitudes also provide a ripe environment for the National Socialist Party to take control. As the brutal anti-Semitic political agenda of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) becomes apparent, thousands of German Jews, including many prominent artists, scientists, and politicians, flee the country to escape persecution. Millions of Jews and other “undesirable” minorities throughout Germany and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe are systematically exterminated in one of the most horrifying chapters in world history. At the end of the war, with its major cities in smoldering ruins, Germany ceases to exist as an independent state.
1948: West German recovery gets underway with U.S. assistance in the form of the Marshall Plan. The Soviet blockade of West Berlin results in the Anglo-American Berlin airlift, which continues until 1949.
1949–1961: Intending at first to govern conquered Germany as one unit, the war’s victors divide it into two states as the Cold War intensifies. The Federal Republic of Germany in the western half of the country has its capital in Bonn, and the Soviet-ruled German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the eastern half has its capital in East Berlin. Two Germanys develop with highly different political, economic, and social systems.
1961: The Berlin Wall is constructed, sealing off East Berlin from West Berlin and, on a larger scale, East Germany from West Germany.
1989: The opening of the Berlin Wall marks for East Germany the culmination of a wave of previously suppressed revolutionary sentiment across central and eastern Europe. Reforms by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and underground, grassroots communication between citizens in East Germany lead to massive demonstrations against the repressive, Stalinist government of the GDR.
1991: East and West Germany unite under one government. Berlin is made the new capital of a reunified Germany.
2006: Angela Merkel, who grew up in the GDR, becomes Germany’s first female chancellor.
2013: Angela Merkel is re-elected for a third term as chancellor and is the most politically powerful leader in Europe.
2014: Germany, and especially Berlin, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.