A Brief History of Germany

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Germany

About 55 BC Julius Caesar conquered the Roman province of Gaul. He made the Rhine the frontier of the new province. It was a natural defensive barrier. Later the Romans also chose the Danube as a frontier. They also created a ditch and earth bank with a wooden palisade on top from the Rhine to the Danube.

In 9 AD the people who lived beyond the Rhine inflicted a crushing defeat on the Roman army in a battle at the Teutoburg Forest. The Romans lost about 20,000 men and their leader committed suicide. The battle ensured that the Romans never conquered Germany beyond the Rhine.

However, the Romans occupied southern and western Germany. They founded several towns that still survive (Augsburg, Cologne, Mainz, Regensburg, and Trier).

In the late 5th century a Germanic people called the Franks carved out an empire in what is now France. (They gave the country its name). In 496 Clovis, the leader of the Franks became a Christian and his people followed. In 771 Charlemagne became king of the Franks. In 772 he attacked the Saxons. After a battle in 782 more than 4,000 Saxon captives were beheaded. Charlemagne also annexed Bavaria. In 800 he was crowned emperor.

However, Charlemagne’s empire did not long survive his death. In 843 it was divided into three kingdoms, west, middle, and east. In time the eastern kingdom, East Francia, was divided further into 5 duchies. In the early 10th century fierce Magyars from Eastern Europe attacked them.

Germany in the Middle Ages

Then in 911 Conrad, Duke of Franconia was elected king of Germany. He died in 918 and was replaced by Duke Henry of Saxony. In 933 Henry defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Riade. Henry also fought the Slavs. When he died in 936 his son Otto became king of Germany. He is known as Otto the Great. In 955 Otto utterly defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld, ending the threat to Germany forever. In 962 the Pope crowned Otto emperor. He died in 973.

The theologian Augustine claimed that God created the Roman Empire to bring law and order to mankind. The idea was that there should be one Church with the pope at its head and one secular empire. Otto and the following emperors claimed they were the successors of the ancient Roman Empire. So their Germanic empire was called the Roman Empire. In 1157 it was called the Holy Roman Empire.

Not surprisingly other European nations were not enthusiastic about the idea and in any case, the Holy Roman Empire was never a single united unit. In reality, the power of the emperors over the different areas of the empire was limited.

During the Middle Ages, the original five duchies broke up, and by 1500 the Holy Roman Empire was like a patchwork quilt of different units. It was made up of princely states, which were ruled by princes subordinate to the emperor. There were also bishoprics ruled by bishops and archbishops. They were called ecclesiastical princes. Imperial Knights who answered directly to the emperor ruled some areas. There were also some independent cities like Augsburg.

In Medieval Germany, lords granted land to their vassals, and in return, the vassals swore to serve the Lord. Most of the population were peasants. Some were free but many were serfs, halfway between freemen and slaves. The serfs had to work on their lord’s land for certain days of the week.

Germany grew richer in the early Middle Ages and the population rose sharply (until the 14th century). Trade and commerce boomed and towns grew larger and more numerous. Yet life was still hard and rough for most people. They continued to live in small villages scattered across the forests.

Moreover, in the 11th century, there was a conflict between the Pope and the emperor over who had the right to appoint bishops. It was important for the emperor to be able to appoint suitable bishops. In those days church and state were closely linked. Furthermore, the church was rich and powerful and the emperor was keen to have the bishops on his side. The pope, naturally, resented this interference in church affairs. The argument was only settled by the Concordat of Worms in 1122. From 1220 to 1250 Frederick II was emperor. He was known as Stupor Mundi (wonder of the world) because of his brilliant mind.

However, in 1254 central authority broke down completely. From 1254 to 1273 there was no emperor. This period was called the Great Interregnum. It ended when Rudolph of Habsburg was elected emperor. In 1356 Karl IV issued a document called the ‘Golden Bull’, which laid down the rules for electing emperors.

In the early 14th century conditions in Germany deteriorated. The climate grew colder and there were several famines. Worse, the black death struck Germany in 1349 and it killed about one-third of the population. Jews were treated as scapegoats and many were massacred at that time. In the late 14th and 15th centuries, there was a series of peasant uprisings in Germany. Furthermore, impoverished noblemen called robber barons roamed the countryside.

However, several universities were founded in Germany at that time. Heidelberg was founded in 1386. It was followed by Leipzig in 1409, Tubingen in 1477, and Wittenberg in 1502.

Germany in the 16th Century

In the Middle Ages divisions between nations were vague. In the 16th century, they became more clearly defined. One sign of this came in 1512 when the empire’s title changed to the ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German nation’. Then in 1517 the great Christian scholar Martin Luther started the Reformation when he wrote his theses in Wittenberg. In 1521 the heads of the various German states met in an Imperial Diet at Worms. Martin Luther was called to account and he stood by his views.

The Reformation split Germany, with some states accepting his teachings and others rejecting them. In 1531 the Protestant princes formed the alliance of Schmalkalden to defend the Reformation by force if necessary. The emperor fought a war with them in 1546-47. Although he was victorious he could not turn the clock back and Protestantism could not be eradicated. Then in 1555, the Diet of Augsburg met. The Peace of Augsburg declared that princes could decide the religion of their state. Anyone who disagreed with their ruler could emigrate.

Meanwhile, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534.

Furthermore, in the early 16th century, there was a series of peasant uprisings across Germany, as the peasants, dissatisfied with their lot, demanded economic and social change. The unrest culminated in the Peasants War of 1525. However, the princes easily crushed the rebellion, and tens of thousands of peasants were killed. However, the late 16th century was a time of relative peace and stability in Germany.

Germany in the 17th Century

In the early 17th century the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics broke down. The Protestants formed a military alliance in 1608. In response, the Catholics formed the Catholic League in 1609. At that time Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Protestant nobles in Bohemia had gained certain privileges. When Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia in 1617 he tried to undo them. In protest on 23 May 1618 Protestants threw royal officials out of a window in Prague. This event became known as the defenestration of Prague.

The Bohemians rebelled and appealed to German Protestants to help them. However, the emperor led a force of Catholics and defeated the Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Nevertheless, a long series of wars between Catholic and Protestant states began. Other European powers became involved. The Swedes joined the Protestants in 1630 under their king Gustavus Adolphus (although he was killed at the battle of Lutzen in 1632). France joined the Protestant side in 1635. The wars dragged on until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The Thirty Years War was a disaster for Germany. The population fell significantly and much of the country was devastated. Germany took decades to recover from the destruction. The war had another effect. It weakened the power of the emperor and increased the power of the princes and kings.

Germany in the 18th Century

The main development in Germany during the 18th century was the rise of Prussia. In the 17th century, the Hohenzollern family ruled both Brandenburg and East Prussia. In 1701 the ruler of both was Elector Frederick III. In that year he crowned himself King of Prussia. Soon the whole realm was called Prussia.

However, at first, Prussia was an economically backward area. It only rose to greatness under Frederick II ‘The Great’, who became king in 1740. Frederick had a very large army and he was a capable general, which allowed him to fight successful wars. In 1740 Prussia invaded Silesia (an Austrian possession).

On 10 April 1741, the Prussians defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Mollwitz. At first, the battle went well for the Austrians. Their cavalry defeated the Prussian cavalry and Frederick fled from the battle. However, the Prussian infantry stood and fought. They overcame both the Austrian cavalry and the Austrian infantry. As a result, Prussia won the battle. Austria made peace in 1742 but the peace did not last long.

War began again in 1745. The Prussians won a series of battles at Hohenfriedberg on 4 June, at Soor on 30 September, and at Hennersdorf on 23 November. Frederick II ended the war in December 1745 with his territory enlarged.

In 1756 Prussia went to war again when Frederick invaded Saxony. However, this time Frederick II was faced with a powerful coalition of enemies. Nevertheless, the Prussians won two victories at Rossbach in November 1757 and at Leuthen in December 1757. The Prussians also defeated the Russians at the Battle of Zorndorf in 1758.

However, the tide of war then turned against the Prussians and they were defeated at the Battle of Minden in 1759. Fortunately, in January 1762, one of Frederick’s most powerful enemies, Elizabeth of Russia, died and her son made peace with the Treaty of St Petersburg. The war ended in 1763. Then in 1772 Prussia, Austria, and Russia agreed to carve up part of Poland between them.

In 1792 Prussia and Austria went to war with Revolutionary France. However, the French won victories and Prussia made peace in 1795. Meanwhile, the Prussians and Russians divided up the remaining part of Poland in 1793. Austria made peace with France in 1797 but the war began again in 1799.

Germany in the 19th Century

However, Austria was defeated and forced to make peace in 1801. France defeated Austria again in 1805. As a result, some German states allied themselves with Napoleon. In July 1806 Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, which was made up of 16 German states. The Holy Roman Empire officially ceased to exist on 6 August 1806.

Then in September 1806, Prussia went to war with France. However, Napoleon crushed the Prussians at Jena on 14 October 1806. However, in 1812 the French were utterly defeated in Russia. In 1813 Prussia joined Russia in the war against the French. Austria also joined and in October 1813 the combined armies defeated the French at the Battle of Leipzig.

After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the Congress of Vienna met to decide the fate of Europe. A German Confederation was formed to replace the old Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of 38 states. An assembly called the Bundestag made up of delegates from the states was formed.

Prussia was the biggest winner of the peace. It gained the Rhineland and Westphalia. The population of Prussia increased and it gained valuable mineral resources. Prussia became increasingly important in German affairs. In 1834 the Prussians and other German states formed a customs union called the Zollverein. Furthermore, in the 1830s Germany began to industrialize. One sign of this was the opening of the first German railway in 1835 from Nuremberg and Furth. As Prussia industrialized, it grew stronger and stronger while its rival, Austria remained an agricultural country and so grew relatively weaker.

Meanwhile, an Austrian minister named Metternich tried to prevent the ideas of the French Revolution from spreading in Germany. In 1819 there were student bodies in German universities called Burschenschaften. On 23 March 1819, a member of one killed a writer called August von Kotzebue. Metternich used this as an excuse to introduce press censorship and strict supervision of universities. His measures were called the Karlsbad decrees.

However, it proved impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. In 1818 Baden and Bavaria introduced liberal constitutions. So did Wurttemberg in 1819 and Hessen-Darmstadt in 1820. Furthermore, in 1830 a revolution in France triggered riots in parts of Germany, and some German rulers were forced to make concessions. In 1831 Brunswick, Hesse, and Saxony all introduced new constitutions. However, in Prussia and Austria, all liberal movements were repressed.

Then, after 1845 there were a series of bad harvests. There was also a recession and high unemployment. Discontent erupted in a revolution in 1848. In February 1848 another revolution in France triggered demonstrations and unrest across Europe, including Germany. At first, the rulers were so alarmed they backed down and made concessions.

However, they soon regained their nerve. In Prussia on 18 March 1848, the king announced he was willing to make some reforms. However Prussian troops fired at some demonstrators in Berlin and in the ensuing fighting, many people were killed. Afraid of further unrest the king decided to appease the demonstrators. On 19 March 1848, he ordered the troops to leave Berlin. On 21 March 1848, he rode through Berlin dressed in revolutionary colors, red, gold, and black.

Then in May 1848, an elected assembly representing all of Germany met in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt parliament discussed German unity. However, the rulers soon regained their confidence and they began to crack down on the revolutionaries. On 2 April 1849, the Frankfurt parliament offered the King of Prussia the crown of Germany. However, he rejected the offer. The Frankfurt parliament gradually dispersed and its members went home. Meanwhile, in 1849 European rulers began to use their armies to put down rebellions. Soon the old order returned.

The Unification of Germany

Then, in 1863 the Danish king tried to annex the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Both Prussia and Austria fought a short war against Denmark in 1864. As a result, Prussia and Austria were given joint administration of the two duchies. Disagreements with Austria over the duchies gave Prussia a pretext to start a war in 1866. It was over within a short period. On 3 July 1866, Prussia won a great victory over the Austrians at Koniggratz. Afterward, a peace treaty created the North German Federation dominated by Prussia. Austria was expelled from German affairs.

Bismarck, the German chancellor, then quarreled with France over the issue of who was to succeed to the Spanish throne. The French declared war on 19 July 1870. However, the French were utterly defeated at the battle of Sedan on 2 September 1870 and they made peace in February 1871.

Meanwhile, the southern German states agreed to become part of a new German Empire with the Prussian king as emperor. William I was proclaimed emperor on 18 January 1871. In the late 19th century Germany industrialized rapidly. By the end of the century, it rivaled Britain as an industrial power. In 1879 Germany signed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. The two powers agreed to come to each other’s aid in the event of a war with Russia.

Bismarck, the German chancellor also campaigned against socialism. In the late 19th century it was a growing force in Germany. Bismarck tried to take the wind out of Socialism’s sails by introducing welfare measures. In 1883 he introduced sickness insurance. In 1884 he introduced accident insurance. Then in 1889, he introduced old-age pensions. However, socialism continued to grow in Germany and by 1914 the Social Democratic Party was the largest in the Reichstag. Finally, Bismarck resigned in 1890.

Germany in the 20th Century

Bismarck always pursued friendly relations with Britain but under his successors it was different. From 1898 under Admiral Tirpitz Germany began expanding its navy. Britain, the largest naval power, was alarmed. Furthermore, Europe became divided into two armed camps, with Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and Britain, France, and Russia on the other.

The spark that ignited war came on 28 June 1914 when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. In August 1914 the German army overran Belgium and marched on Paris. However, they were defeated at the Battle of the Marne in September. Both sides began a ‘race for the sea’. Both sides reached it at the same time. They then dug trenches and years of deadlock followed.

In the east Germany was more successful. They crushed the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg. Russia gradually weakened and finally made peace by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Meanwhile, in 1917 Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare, which meant that ships from any nation trying to trade with the Allies would be sunk. As a result, the USA declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

In March 1918 Germany launched a series of assaults on the British and French lines. However, they failed to break through, and on 8 August 1918, the British counter-attacked with tanks. Furthermore, in September, the Americans began an offensive against the Germans. Slowly the Allies advanced and on 29 September 1918, General Hindenburg advised the government that the war could not be won. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November and the Social Democrats formed a new government. On 11 November they were forced to sign an armistice with the Allies.

However although the Kaiser went the ‘pillars’ of the old regime, the generals, civil servants, and judges remained. A new constitution was drawn up but it had a fatal weakness. It used a system of complete proportional representation. So if a party won 2% of the vote it got 2% of the seats in the Reichstag. This meant there was a huge number of parties in the Reichstag, none of them ever had a majority of seats, and Germany was ruled by weak coalition governments. Worse, under Article 48 the President could ignore the Reichstag and pass laws of his choosing. This was called rule by decree.

In 1919 the German government was forced to sign the Versailles Treaty. However, the vast majority of Germans bitterly resented the Versailles Treaty. Firstly the Germans were not consulted on the treaty and they resented being dictated to. They also resented the ‘war guilt’ clause, which blamed Germany and its allies for causing the war.

Worse under the treaty, Germany lost a significant part of its territory and its population. A section of land called the Polish Corridor was given to Poland so East Prussia was cut off from the main part of Germany. Also, Memel was given to Lithuania. After a referendum, Eupen-Malmedy was given to Belgium. After another referendum, North Schleswig joined Denmark. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France.

Furthermore, the Rhineland was demilitarized (no German soldiers were allowed there). In any case, Germany was not allowed more than 100,000 soldiers. The Germans were not allowed submarines or battleships. They were not allowed an air force either. Worse still Germany was made to pay ‘reparations’ (a form of compensation for damage done by the war). The amount was set in 1921. It was the colossal figure of 6,600 million marks and Germany was forced to start paying.

From the start, there were attempts to overthrow the government. In January 1919 a group of Communists called Spartacists led a rebellion in Berlin. The government fled to Weimar. As a result, the new regime was called the Weimar Republic. (Even though it soon returned to Berlin). The Communist uprising in Berlin was crushed by the Freikorps (free corps). They were ex-soldiers bearing arms.

In April 1919 more communists seized power in Bavaria. Again the Freikorps crushed them. Then in March 1920 a group of Freikorps led by Dr. Kapp tried to take control of Berlin. The army refused to put down the rebellion but the trade unions in Berlin ordered a general strike. As a result, the Kapp putsch was defeated.

The early 1920s were years of hardship and near starvation for many people in Germany. Worse a myth began that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ in 1918. Some people said that Germany could have fought on and won the war. That was nonsense but it was a powerful myth. The people who agreed to the armistice in 1918 were called ‘November criminals’. Extreme right-wingers assassinated some of the so-called November criminals. Matthias Erzberger, who signed the armistice was shot in 1921. Walter Rathenau the foreign minister was shot in 1922.

Meanwhile, in January 1919 Anton Drexler formed the German Workers Party in Munich. In September 1919 an Austrian named Adolf Hitler joined. (He did not become a German citizen until 1932). The party believed the myth that Germany was stabbed in the back in 1918. They also wanted all Germans to live together in one Greater Germany. The party was also unashamedly racist and anti-Semitic.

In 1920 the party’s name was changed to the National Socialist German Workers Party or NAZI party. In 1921 Adolf Hitler became the leader. In 1921 Hitler formed a paramilitary organization called the Sturmabteilung or SA. They were also called brown shirts because of their brown uniforms.

In 1923 Hitler and his tiny party tried to take control of Germany. On 8 November a politician named Gustav von Kahr was the speaker at a beer hall in Bavaria. With him was General von Lossow. At 8.30 pm the SA surrounded the beer hall and Hitler entered with armed men. Kahr and the general were told they were under arrest.

However, Kahr agreed to lead Hitler’s attempt to take over Germany, and the two men were allowed to go. As soon as they went they took steps to stop Hitler. When Hitler and his supporters marched through Munich they were met by state troopers in the Odeonsplatz. In the skirmish that followed 4 troopers and 16 Nazis were killed. The Munich putsch promptly collapsed and Hitler fled the scene. He was arrested two days later.

The year 1923 was a very bad one for Weimar Germany. By then Germany had fallen behind with her reparations payments. In response in January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. German workers in the Ruhr went on strike. They also held huge demonstrations. The striking workers became heroes in Germany and the government printed money to pay them, which led to rapidly increasing inflation.

Furthermore, the production of goods in Germany fell drastically. As a result, the price of goods rose very quickly. These two factors printed money and the shortage of food caused inflation in Germany to go through the roof. Inflation became hyperinflation. In January 1923 a loaf of bread cost 250 marks but by September it cost 1.5 million marks.

Prices rose so fast that workers had to be paid twice a day and they had to bring baskets or suitcases to take their money home in. As a result of hyperinflation, people lost their life savings. The money they had in the bank became virtually worthless. On the other hand, anyone in debt saw their debts virtually disappear.

Finally, in August 1923 Gustav Stresemann became chancellor of Germany. He issued a new currency the Rentenmark to replace the mark, which had become almost worthless. Stresemann lost the post of Chancellor in November 1923 but he became foreign minister instead. Germany began paying reparations again and in 1924 Stresemann negotiated the Dawes plan. Germany’s annual repayments were reduced and the USA agreed to lend Germany a huge sum of money to rebuild its economy.

In 1925 the French and Belgian troops left the Ruhr and the years from 1925 to 1929 were ones of relative prosperity for Germany. In 1929 Stresemann negotiated the Strong Plan. The number of reparations was reduced to 1,850 million. Unfortunately, the good times in Germany ended with the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929.

The Depression of the early 1930s was a disaster for Germany. Unemployment was already high in Germany in the 1920s. Even in the peak year of 1928, it was 8.4%. However, it soared from the end of 1929. By 1933 unemployment in Germany had risen to 33%. One effect of the depression was that the democratic parties lost support. Instead, people turned to radical parties like the Communists or the Nazis.

In 1928 the Nazis only gained 2.6% of the vote. By September 1930 they gained 18.3% of the vote. By 1932 they were the largest party in the Reichstag. On 30 January 1933, President Hindenburg asked Hitler to become Chancellor of Germany.

Nazi Germany

On 27 February the Reichstag burned down. A Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and confessed to the crime. Hitler claimed that van der Lubbe did not act alone and that it was a Communist plot. The next day President Hindenburg was persuaded to sign a ‘Presidential Decree for the Protection of the People and the State’, which allowed arbitrary arrest. As a result, all the leading Communists were arrested. The last election in Weimar Germany was held on 5 March 1933. The Nazis still failed to gain a majority of the vote.

However, on 23 March 1933, Hitler persuaded the Reichstag to pass the enabling law. This would give Hitler the power to pass new laws without the consent of the Reichstag. The new law meant changing Germany’s constitution and that would require votes by two-thirds of the Reichstag members. Some 80% of the Reichstag voted in favor of the law, and only the Social Democrats voted against it.

Hitler wasted no time in introducing a tyrannical regime in Germany. After 1871 Germany was a federal state. It was made up of units called Lander, which had once been independent countries. A governor ruled each. However, in April 1933, Hitler replace them with Reich governors, all of who were loyal Nazis. This helped to bring the country even more under Hitler’s control.

In May Hitler banned trade unions. To replace them he created the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) under Robert Ley. It set levels of pay and hours of work. The Social Democratic Party was banned in June 1933. Later that summer other parties dissolved themselves, under pressure from the Nazis. On 14 July 1933, Hitler banned all parties except the Nazi party.

Finally, Hitler consolidated his grip on power with a purge called the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934. In 1934 the SA or brown shirts wanted to take over the army. The army was appalled by this idea and Hitler needed the army’s support.

Moreover, the SA had other enemies. In 1925 Hitler created the Schutzstaffel (protection squad) or SS as his bodyguard. Heinrich Himmler the head of the SS resented the fact that the SS was officially part of the SA. He wanted the SS to be a separate organization. He also wanted more power for himself. Himmler told Hitler that the SA was planning to overthrow him. Hitler himself arrested Rohm the leader of the SA. The SS arrested other important figures in the SA and other prominent critics of the regime. All of them were shot.

Then on 2 August 1934, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, the Chancellor took over the President’s powers and called himself Fuhrer (leader). The army was made to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. (Previously they swore an oath of loyalty to Germany).

Furthermore, any opponents of the regime (mostly communists and socialists) could be arrested and sent to a concentration camp without trial. (At first, although prisoners were beaten and tortured concentration camps were designed as prisons rather than extermination camps).

The Nazis managed to eliminate unemployment in Germany. Partly they did this by rearming (even though this meant breaking the Versailles Treaty). In 1935 Hitler announced that Germany had an air force. He also introduced conscription. In 1936 German troops entered the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. Britain and France did nothing. Hitler also built roads called autobahns across Germany and he built great public buildings such as the Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. All this helped to reduce unemployment.

Although there was full employment workers were paid low wages (to keep the German industrialists happy). They also worked long hours. In the 1930s they worked an average of 49 hours a week. During the Second World War, this was increased to 60 hours a week or more. To try and keep the workers happy an organization was formed called (Strength Through Joy). Some workers went on cheap holidays to places like Norway and Italy. However, more often they organized cheap concerts and trips to the theater.

Hitler’s attitude to women was simple. They were to be mothers and housewives. Their role was summed up in the phrase kinder, kuche, and kirche (children, kitchen, and church). In Nazi Germany, married women were encouraged to give up their jobs and they were encouraged to have children. Women who had four children were given a bronze medal. Women who had six were given a silver medal and women who had eight were given a gold medal. During the Second World War, other nations conscripted women to work in industry but Hitler refused to do that.

Hitler hated Jews. In April 1933 he ordered a boycott of Jewish shops. Also in 1933 a law called ‘The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ banned Jews from working in government jobs. Then in 1935, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor made it illegal for Jews to marry ‘Aryans’ (people of Germanic descent). The Reich Citizenship Law stated that Jews could not be German citizens.

Worse was to come. On 7 November 1938, a Polish Jew called Herschel Grynszpan shot a German official called Ernst vom Rath at the German embassy in Paris. In response, the Germans attacked Jews and Jewish property on 9 November 1938. Jewish homes and shops were attacked and so many windows were broken it was called Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. The Nazis also decided that the rest of the Jews must pay a fine of 1,000 million marks and they were not eligible for insurance payments.

The Nazis also detested Gypsies. In 1935 they were forbidden to marry ‘Aryans’. From 1939 onward German Gypsies were deported to Poland. Later, like the Jews, they were murdered in concentration camps.

In 1933 Josef Goebbels was made head of the ‘Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda’. Afterward, newspapers and books were strictly controlled. Nothing critical of the Nazis could be published. The Nazis also arranged for cheap radios to be made so as many people as possible could afford one. The Nazis realized that radio was an effective medium for propaganda. The Nazis also used the cinema. Many Nazi propaganda films were made.

The Nazis attacked modern art, which they called degenerate. They also banned music by Jewish composers. The Nazis also disliked jazz music, which they regarded as decadent. In 1933 the Nazis organized a book burning. They seized books in libraries they disapproved of and burned them on bonfires. Furthermore, many writers, artists, film directors, and musicians fled from Nazi Germany.

The Nazis also controlled education. Children were indoctrinated with Nazi ideas at school. The Nazi version of history was taught and children were taught Nazi racial theories. To further influence young people the Nazis created the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), which was an organization boys could join at the age of 14. They went camping and hiking but also learned Nazi ideas. In 1936 membership was effectively made compulsory. For girls, the Nazis created the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Girls).

However, not all German youth conformed to Nazi ideas. By the late 1930s, groups called Edelweiss Pirates emerged in western Germany (so-called because they wore an Edelweiss flower). They often beat up members of the Hitler Youth. There was also the Swing Jugend (Swing Youth). They liked jazz music (which the Nazis disapproved of).

On 1 September 1939, the German Army invaded Poland. On 3 September Britain and France declared war on Germany. However, Poland was soon overrun. On 17 September the Russians invaded Poland from the east and by early October Polish resistance was crushed.

Then in April 1940, the Germans occupied Denmark and invaded Norway. They captured Norway in early June. Meanwhile, in May 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The German army was astonishingly successful and France capitulated in late June. However, Britain fought on. In 1941 German troops were sent to fight the British in North Africa. Meanwhile, the German army conquered Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete. However in June 1941 Hitler in 1941 Hitler invaded Russia, a very stupid move. Worse on 11 December 1941, he declared war on the USA.

Then at the end of 1942, the British won the battle of El Alamein in Egypt. In November 1942 the Russian army surrounded the Germans at Stalingrad. Part of the German army there surrendered on 31 January 1943. The remaining part was surrendered on 2 February. After this disaster, Germany was losing the war. Also, British and American bombings began to destroy German cities and industries. The German troops in North Africa surrendered in May 1943. In July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily and in September they invaded Italy. On 6 June 1944, the Allies invaded Normandy and opened a second front.

That spelled Germany’s doom. By the autumn of 1944, they had liberated France and Belgium. The Germans counterattacked in December 1944 but failed. By January 1945 the Russians were poised to invade Germany. They had suffered terribly at the hands of the Germans and they wanted revenge. Civilians from East Prussia fled in terror. Then as the Russians entered Germany they committed terrible atrocities. Finally, on 2 May 1945, the Russians captured Berlin.

Meanwhile, in late March, the British and Americans crossed the Rhine. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. His tyranny did not long outlast him Germany surrendered unconditionally at 11.01 pm on 8 May 1945. The Nazis brought Germany to ruins, its cities reduced to rubble, and its industry mostly destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler’s cost millions of German lives. This was the legacy of Nazism.

The Nazis were, of course, responsible for murdering millions of innocent people. From 1940 Polish Jews were confined to ghettos. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 the mass murder of Jews in the east began. At first, they were shot. Then at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Nazi leaders decided to exterminate all Jews. So they were rounded up and deported to death camps. When they arrived some were selected for work (and worked to death), while others were gassed. Afterward, the bodies were burned. By the end of World War II, some 6 million Jews had been murdered.

Modern Germany

Following the surrender Germany was divided into four zones, American, British, French, and Russian. Berlin, although it was within the Russian area, was also divided into zones. Nazi war criminals were brought to trial at Nuremberg in November 1945.

Soon the Russians and the Western powers drifted apart and it became clear that Germany was not going to be reunited. The Russians stripped East Germany of its resources but the Americans gave aid to West Germany and the rest of Western Europe. This aid was called the Marshall Plan and it was paid from 1948 to 1952.

Meanwhile, in 1948 the three Western powers introduced a new currency into their zones. The Russians responded by blocking all land routes to West Berlin (which was occupied by the Western powers). The Western allies flew in supplies for the next 11 months until the Russians relented.

In the west, a new state called the Federal Republic of Germany was formed on 23 May 1949. At first, the new state had to cope with high unemployment. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany went through an ‘economic miracle’. The devastation caused by World War II was repaired and the economy boomed. However, by the mid-1970s the miracle had ended, and Germany was mired in recession. Meanwhile, in 1955, West Germany was allowed to join NATO and rearm. Then, in 1957, West Germany was one of the founding members of the EEC (forerunner of the EU).

However, in East Germany, things were very different. It was called the German Democratic Republic. Of course, it was anything but democratic, and soon a full communist regime was imposed. In 1953 there was a wave of strikes in East Germany. The Russians responded by sending in tanks and killing many civilians.

Not surprisingly many people in East Germany fled to a better life in the West. In 1961, alarmed at the number of skilled workers leaving East Germany, the government built the Berlin Wall. Afterward, anyone who tried to leave was shot.

However, the communist tyranny collapsed in 1989. On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened. Following the collapse of communism, Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990. Germany then faced the task of raising living standards in the East to the same level as those in the West.

Germany joined the euro in 1999.

A view of Berlin

Germany in the 21st Century

Today Germany is a wealthy country with a high standard of living. In 2005 Angela Merkel became the first woman Chancellor of Germany. In 2024 the population of Germany was 83 million.

Last revised 2024