A Brief History of Germany

Ancient Germany

What is now the country of Germany began as an empire of loosely aligned states. Situated in central Europe, without much of a natural sea border, it was easily invaded and occupied by many different tribes after the fall of Rome.

Medieval Germany Map

Medieval Germany

While France and England were evolving into united nation-states, Germany was racked by a series of unending wars among local rulers. The Habsburg Dynasty, with its long monopoly of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, managed to provde some stability and a sembalnce of unity. However, within the empire, German princes wwarred against each other as before. The Protestant Reformation split the divided country even further, giving military strife an added ferocity during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). The Peace of Westphalia ended the German phase of the Thirty Years' war, but left German-speaking Europe divided into hundreds of states, with the two largest -- Prussia and Austria -- vying for dominance.

Napoleon and Revolutions for Unification and Democracy

From the mid 1790s until Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, much of Germany was occupied by French troops. Napoleon's officials abolished numerous, small states. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, German territory consisted of only about 40 states. Pressures for German unification grew. The revolutions of 1848 seemed likely to bring about this dream of unity and freedom, but King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia opposed it, viewing it as a threat to his power. A little over two decades later, however, German unity was finally realized. Otto von Bismarck sought to use the power of nationalism for his own aims in seeing that his native Prussia triumphed over Austria for preeminence in Germany. Through a series of diplomatic maneuvers and three brief, successful military campaigns, Bismarck acheived a united Germany without Austria.

Bismarck's Germany

The World Wars

During World War I (1914-18), Germany was aiming for more territory. It saw itself expanding, taking over Belgium and Poland as vassal states, and having colonies in Africa. However, Germany's two-front war strategy ultimately failed. The Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement negotiated by the victors Britain, France, and the United States, imposed punitive conditions on Germany, including heavy financial reparations and a diminished military. The stage was set for World War II. The Weimar Republic (1919-33) emerged from post-war Germany, hoping to bring democracy to the country. But the republic's numerous small parties made forming a stable government difficult. Frequent elections added to instability while government policies failed to solve social and economic problems. The severe social conditions caused by the Great Depression swelled the vote received by antidemocratic parties in the 1930 and 1932 elections. The government led by emergency decree, until leading conservatives took control, forming a new government, and placing Adolph Hitler as chancellor. Within months, Hitler established a totalitarian regime responsible for the deaths of millions. In 1945, a military alliance of dozens of nations finally succeeded in deposing Hitler and his regime, thus ending the second World War in Europe.

Postwar Germany

Postwar Germany

Following World War II, Germany was occupied by the victorious powers: Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union. Germany soon divided into two states: the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). While West Germany saw success in western culture and adopting democracy, East Germany struggled to attain legitimacy outisde the realm of the Soviet Bloc. As Cold War policies began to ease, however, the idea of a re-united Germany grew stronger, until it was finally realized in 1990.