Albert Einstein, Martin Luther, Charlemagne, Beethoven, Goethe. Airbags, aspirin, the Christmas tree, MP3, book printing—Germany’s contributions to the world are manifold and influential, yet to many Americans its long history remains overshadowed by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. How a civilized European nation slipped into the barbaric inhumanity of 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, including the former concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen.
The other seminal 20th-century event that affected Germany’s contemporary consciousness was the separation of the country into two opposing regimes—capitalist West and communist East—from 1945 to 1989. 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. 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 struggled to cope with being thrust into the uncertainties of a free-market economic system.
The cost of reunification was far higher than predicted and took a toll on people’s economic and emotional lives. In the east, outdated state-controlled industries that could not compete in a free market economy were scrapped, jobs were lost, and crime–most troublingly, neo-Nazi hate crimes–rose. Yet Germany moved forward.
Today, it’s the most prosperous country in Europe and has been for many years. A nation of savers, Germany never gave in to the easy-credit credo, maintained strong regulations and oversight in its banking industry, and therefore weathered the financial crisis of 2008/9 better than most countries.
Politically too, Germany has begun to assert a leadership role within Europe and the world. The effort was led by Angela Merkel, who began serving as chancellor in 2005; she even earned the honor of being Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2015. Diplomacy, not military might, was her weapon of choice, as she ably demonstrated that year in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and, even more so, during the Greek financial crisis, when she was at the forefront of brokering a bailout deal. But the main reason for Time’s accolade was Merkel’s decision to throw open the doors for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the war zones of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Around a million people arrived in 2015 alone, with another million or more expected in the coming years. “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it) was Merkel’s mantra.
Not everyone is quite as optimistic, as the rising popularity of right-wing movements and parties shows. The challenges in integrating such a massive number of newcomers of different and diverse cultural and religious backgrounds will be enormous, even for a country as prosperous and well-organized as Germany.
a.d. 1st century: The Roman sphere of influence extends well into the borders of present-day Germany (Germania to the Romans), subduing local Teutonic tribes and planting garrisons at Cologne, Koblenz, Mainz, and Trier.
a.d. 400: The Romans withdraw from Germany; in the next few centuries, the Franks gradually forge an empire, turning a loose conglomeration of German tribes into what eventually will become the Holy Roman 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: In 962, the pope names Otto I the first Holy Roman Emperor. Nevertheless, throughout the Middle Ages, power struggles and invasions Ages continually disrupt the unity hammered out by Charlemagne, and Germany remains a collection of small principalities and “Free Imperial Cities” like Hamburg and Lübeck. An upswing in international commerce from the 11th to 13th centuries leads several trading cities of the northeast to band together as the Hanseatic League.
1500–1700: Social unrest and religious upheaval surge 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), affecting the whole of Europe.
1700–1800: Under Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse; 1740–86), Prussia grows into a European power. 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 causes the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. In 1813, Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies defeat the French emperor in Leipzig, which is followed by the decisive Battle of Waterloo.
Mid- to late 1800s: Following Napoleon’s defeat, Germany’s military and political rulers revert to a system of absolute monarchy. Questions of independence and national unity come to a head in the 1848 revolution. When that fails, the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy reimposes sovereignty over Prussia and other parts of Germany. Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815–98) pushes to consolidate the German people under Prussian leadership. After triumphs in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), Bismarck wins over southern German states and, in 1871, becomes first chancellor of the German Empire (Reich).
1914–1918: World War I pits Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey against Britain, France, Italy, and Russia and leaves more 15 million people dead. It ends with Germany’s defeat and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
1919–1932: The end of the war and the monarchy creates political and social turmoil in Germany. The founding of the Weimar Republic marks Germany’s first attempt to establish a democratic and republican government. Stiff war reparations, however, cripple the economy and lead to hyperinflation and hunger until the introduction of a new currency (Rentenmark). Berlin experiences a cultural heyday during the “Golden Twenties”.
1933–1945: The U.S. stock market crash in 1929 plunges Germany into an economic crisis that gives fodder to the Nazi movement. In January 1933 Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) becomes chancellor. As his anti-Semitic agenda becomes apparent, thousands of German Jews flee the country before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Millions of Jews and other “undesirable” minorities throughout Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe are systematically exterminated in the Holocaust. The war ends on May 8, 1945 with Germany’s capitulation.
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: The Cold War intensifies as Germany is split into two states. Bonn becomes the capital of the democratic Federal Republic of Germany, while the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) make East Berlin its capital. The two Germanys develop with highly different political, economic, and social systems.
1961: In order to stop large-scale migration from East Germany to economically flourishing West Germany, the East German government constructs the Berlin Wall and fortifications along the inner German border.
1989: The collapse of the Berlin Wall marks for East Germany the culmination of long-suppressed revolutionary sentiment across central and eastern Europe.
1990: East and West Germany unite under one government with Berlin as its capital.
2005: Angela Merkel, who grew up in the GDR, is elected Germany’s first female chancellor.
2013: Angela Merkel is re-elected for a third term as chancellor and is the most powerful leader in Europe.
2015: Germany welcomes a million refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The far-right populist party AfD, which opposes Merkel’s open-door policy, gains in strength.
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