Germany (History)

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The History of Germany

The most actual change in German history took place in 1989/1990: The Germen Democratic Republic collapsed, followed by the strong wish of its inhabitants to become citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was the second time this nation constituted itself – this time thoroughly democratic.

A land of changing principalities and forces

Germany, a nation founded by Bismarck 1871 on the base of many principalities, with their roots deep in history. These principalities (Fürstenstaaten) are still partly visible on today’s federal structure of the federal states (Bundesländer). Even the re-establishing of the new federal states on the former territory of the German Democratic Republic followed these principals.

So, today’s structure reaches back into the high medieval times of regional tribes and forces. On the other hand, the late foundation of a German Nation has its explanation in this old, but long lasting and grown structure, that grew even stronger under the idea of a kingdom, based rather on the principal of influence than of a “Nation” under the Kaiser (Emperor) Otto der Große (936 – 973).

If one wants to reach further back in history, there is Karl der Große, who managed to unite tribes of Saxonia, Frisia, Alemania, Bavaria and Franconia, until the treaties of Verdun (843), Meersen (870) and Ribemont (880) broke off the East Franconian Empire.

And even before that, these tribes were recognized by the Roman Emperor Caesar in his efforts of conquering the wild lands east of the river Rhine: he named them altogether the Germanen and their lands Germania. On the long run he was not very successful and three legions were severely defeated (the battle of Varus, close to where you find Osnabrück today) in the year 9 A.D. forcing him back behind the river Rhine.

Even later in the 13th century there was no strong central power like in France - princes and sovereigns ruled their territories and the entire time span between 1254 and 1517 shows, that only those kings could succeed, who had the necessary territorial influence. Earl Rudolf von Habsburg (1273 –1291) founded his influence by capture and strategic marriage and with Albrecht II this line of Habsburg kings continued until the end of the empire. Within the empire, territorial forces with rights of sovereignty developed.

Reformation – Central Europe in turmoil

The time of Reformation and Counter-Reformation then led to severe religious fights and new alliances in central Europe. (Martin Luther’s proclamation of his thesis in Wittenberg triggered in fact the only “Revolution” that took place in Germany!) The Reformation was accompanied by inner tumults, leading to civil wars: the Ritterkrieg (1522/23) and the bloody “Bauernkrieg” 1524/25), that was the biggest revolutionary mass movement that ever happened in Germany. The Religious peace treaty (Augsburger Religionsfrieden) of 1555 settled the tumults by determining that all vassals should have the same religious faith as the sovereign. That drew a diverting line right through the German people (which still exists: the North and East is in its majority of protestant faith, the South and West are Catholics.)

But that was not the last severe confessional conflict that struck Central Europe: the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) brought up these conflicts again, besides first international interests (France building up its power and Influence). Denmark was involved (1625) and the Swedish King Gustav Adolf helped the Protestants in Pommern not to be defeated. The peace treaty of Münster and Osnabrück finally determined 300 (!) territorial authorities in Germany and concessions to foreign powers: Sweden got the territories of the Elbe-, Weser- and Oder-estuaries and Switzerland and the northern part of the Netherlands became independent – and the power of the Kaiser was cut back.

The first international policy

The time between 1648 and 1789 (Absolutism) brought Germany absolutistic organized sovereign states and the uprise of Brandenburg to a major force in Europe: Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg, the Große Kurfürst (1640 – 1688) created a centralized, strongly militarised state, ignoring the interests of the Emperor, just following own strategic interests (interfering in a fight of Poland against Sweden and defeating the Swedish in Ferbellin (1675)) and even occupying Swedish territory in Pommern and making treaties with the French King , but later changing sides again (1686) and making secret agreements with the Emperor.

After 1701 we had Prussia-Brandenburg, the Kurfürst Friedrich III called himself the “King in Prussia” and he stayed out of European wars (Spain 1701 – 1714 and the Nordic War 1700 – 1721). Under Friedrich Wilhelm I , the Military-state Prussia gained strength and following Friedrich II had all ways and means to actively participate in the big European Policy, what he did with occupying Silesia and participating in the Seven Year War (1757 – 1763). But inside Prussia he was a representative of Enlightenment, now called Friedrich the Great (he built the Castle Sanssouci, his summer residence in Potsdam, near Berlin).

As the influence of France (Napoleon) got stronger, the end of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation begun. The Napoleon wars created a wide national movement and caused reforms in Prussia – but that not yet meant democratic structures or a Constitution, but it brought the self governing of the people in the cities. A compulsory military service was introduced in 1814 and the war against Napoleon was seen as a Volkskrieg by most Germans. In this time Reichsfreiherr vom und zum Stein wrote a memorandum on a German constitution of federal Confederacy, but he did not succeed: On the Vienna Congress (1814/1815) the Reaction won.

Longing for democracy and freedom of mind

The once big Reich vanished, only a loose connection of 37 sovereigns and free cities remained… under Austrian leadership and the resolutions of Karsbad (1819) suppressed all democratic developments and freedom of thought. But German university student did not accept this suppression: especially a student’s association of the university of Jena longed for a German unification and a national solution of the German question. Their colours were black, red and gold, the colours of todays German national flag. And the Hambacher Fest was an impressive mass movement for Liberalism in southern Germany. The French Revolution (1830) had a growing impact on Germany and finally the French February Revolution of 1848 brought the movement to Germany: Citizen united, rebellions in Vienna and Berlin, King Ludwig I of Bavaria resigned, leading into the election of a national assembly in Frankfurt. But this parliament did not succeed: it was still not possible to establish a strong central executive and the assembly split into many different groups. A German National Constitution was created, but it was never coming into force, even though a national movement tried to enforce it (Mairevolution 1849) and it came to armed up rises, but without success. Sovereigns regained power.

But some regional territorial states enforced constitutions, like Prussia (1859) one with a right of vote, that distinguished between common people, bourgeois and aristocracy (Dreiklassenwahlrecht). With that the striving for unity did not end – it found its continuity in unifications like the German National union (Deutscher Nationalverein) and Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia since 1862 ended these efforts successfully, but out of a Prussian-monarchic position and by use of force. And with the unification of Prussia after skilful negotiations with the south German sovereigns it came to the acclamation of King Wilhelm II as the German emperor. His state was a federal state with a strong position of the sovereigns.

It was the time of industrialisation with the uprising of the working class in Germany. Even though Bismarck prohibited the formation of the Social Democratic Party and socialist interest groups, he enforced progressive social laws (insurance for working people, health insurance, accident insurance). But in 1890 Bismarck was dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. That ended a time of a so far cooperative foreign policy (treaties with Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia) and Germany entered a time of imperialistic decisions and military uprising. Building up its Navy left Great Britain as an enemy and in the First World War Germany had to fight the Alliance of France, Russia and even against Italy and since 1917 against the United States of America. Under the superior strength of the allied forces it came to mutinies on the ships of the German Fleet (Matrosenaufstand in Kiel on Nov. 7th and 8th 1918) and in Bavaria to a politically left counter-government that let to the dethronement or the last Emperor on November 9th 1918. In Berlin the Social-Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic that same day.

The first truly democratic republic (Weimarer Republik 1919-1933) was established, but the Treaty of Versailles (Reparations to the allies, loss of the overseas territories, and the loss of own territory to France and especially in the east) strengthened the conservative and radical right forces in Germany. Democratic leaders, who had to sign the treaty were threatened and the minister of finance (Erzberger) and of foreign affairs (Rathenau) were murdered by right wing radicals. The young republic also suffered under a great economic pressure in a time of high inflation (1923) and under the occupation of the industrialized area along the river Rhine (Ruhrgebiet) through France - a reaction of not incoming reparation payments.

Nazi-Dictatorship , World War Two and the Holocaust cover Europe and the world

That was the hour of the radical right and Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Together with the military General Ludendorff he organized an armed uprising in Munich on November 8th 1923, but police and army shot it down. Then accused of high treason, he only had to face a mild sentence: one year arrest. A time, Hitler used to write his book “Mein Kampf”. This book showed his terrible ideology of race and his ill philosophy of living space for the Germanic race in the East, that had to yield in war.

Despite the success of the Weimarer Republik in international policy (treaty with the Soviet-Union, a balance with France and other neighbouring countries and the acceptance of Germany in the League of Nations (1926), the Republic of Weimar was at its end, worn out between Right and Left forces and a weak political center. On the first Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert (social democrat) followed Paul von Hindenburg as candidate of the Right, who did not really oppose against the new uprising of Hitler. After 1930 Emergency Power Acts ruled the country and 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, even though in free elections Hitler and his party never reached a majority. The darkest part of German History begun…

A time of terror started, many German citizen did not (want to) acknowledge. The first Concentration Camps were established in 1933, in the same year the parliament (Reichstag) burnt down, and members of parliament of the Social Democrat Party and Communists were imprisoned. Civil Rights were abolished. Finally Hitler gained unlimited authorities through the Ermächtigungsgesetz (24th of March 1933). After 1933, no other political party was allowed and all aspects of life were adjusted to his terrible ideology (Gleichschaltung) – the state was totalitarian in every aspect, national socialistic organizations reached deep into every bodies life (SA –Sturmabteilung; SS – Schutzstaffel; Gestapo – geheime Staatspolizei).

The biggest program of militarization started and some success in international policy helped to consolidate the dictatorship: The former French Saar-Area came “back into the Reich” (1935), a naval treaty with Great Britain was agreed on and the cooperation with the fascist Italy was intensified. Austria was annexed and after the Munich Treaty (1939) between Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, the annexations of further areas in the east continued, but eventually the policy of appeasement was run aground.

With the attacking of Poland (even though “agreed” on between Hitler and Stalin) on September 1st 1939 Hitler started the Second World War, the most terrible war in worlds history. Parallel to occupations of neighbouring countries like e.g. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and France, the world saw a brutal outreach to the East. Behind its front lines brutally managed Concentration Camps (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek, Theresienstadt,…)were established and here another for civilized manhood unthinkable terror took place: the brutal and systematic industrialized destruction of jewish life in gas chambers, the Holocaust (not to forget the destruction of all other “unworthy” life of Sinti and Roma, of handicapped and disabled and of course of people, who tried to withstand the terror system).

It found its first peak in the Reichskristallnacht (9th of November 1938), when the Rechspropaganda-Minister Göbbels initiated the public destruction of practically all Synagogues by burning them down.

The world’s reaction had to come: the bombing of almost all bigger German cities by the Allies with many civilian victims, the banishment of millions of Germans from their living grounds in the (occupied) East, and the total suppression of Germany. In the Potsdam Conference the Allies(17th of July – 2nd of August 1954) came together to decide about the future of Germany resulting in the Potsdam Treaty (1945) with its regulations about Occupation, Demilitarisation, Democratisation, transfer of territories (especially in Poland and other regions in the east, about 11 Million Germans had to leave), Reparations, Control-systems, peace treaties and the Punishment of the war-criminals, which was done by the Nuremberg war-criminal trials (starting end of 1945), an international court.

The time between 1945 and 1949 was a time of occupation and privations – but they were harder in the Soviet territory (due to long ongoing Reparations towards the Soviet-Union) then in the three western occupation zones, where soon the economic help out of the Marshall-Plan (USA) brought relief to the people.

The two Political Systems' influence on the after-war-Germany

The three allied territories of Great Britain, France and the United States of America working close together (creating the so called Tri-Zone) yielded in the monetary reform (Währungsreform) which brought an instant economic rise ( the German Wirtschaftswunder – connected closely to the minister of economy, Ludwig Erhard of the Christian Democratic Party – CDU) in the west. In 1949 the new Constitution (Grundgesetz) was coming into force, showing many changes to the one out of the Weimarer Republik: Major articles can never be changed, most need a majority of 2/3, political parties need to gather at least 5% of the votes to get seats in the parliaments, the executive-, legislative- and judicative forces are decentralized.

The young Federal Republic of Germany found its way into the western economic and political system (led by the first German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer – CDU) and with signing the Paris-treaties on the 5th of May 1949 Germany gained back its sovereignty and became member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – the former occupants troops became allies against the opposing system (Warsaw- pact) in the east.

With the monetary reform in the western occupation zones, the Soviet-Union decided to do an own monetary reform in its territory and literally cut off Berlin (Berlin-Blockade 1948-1949), hoping, that the western allies will draw out of the city. But the reaction was the gigantic Berlin-air-lift by the western allies (227000 flights, 2,2 Mio tons of goods) between west German cities and Berlin, bringing in everything that was necessary to keep Berlin alive, by air.

As West-Germany economically and politically became a member of the western world, the development of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was bound into the block of eastern socialistic States: The Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party were forced to merge into the Socialist Unity Party (SED), that ruled the DDR for 40 Years. In 1949 the GDR was founded and in 1950 the GDR joined the eastern economic union (COMECON).

Expropriation and collectivisation of the farming sector and of private production followed and the decree of raising the economic output (Arbeitsnormerhöhung) led to the uprisings on June 17th 1953, that were prutally shot down with help of soviet troops. As the economic discrepancies between East and West deepened, the DDR-government started to build the Berlin Wall (starting 13th of August 1961) and a heavily secured fence around the German Democratic Republic to hinder its citizen to escape to the west. The order to use weapons against escapers was given out. The border between the two Germanys was practically closed.

A time of endless negotiations followed, especially under Social Democratic Governments (Willi Brandt, 1970, 1971), that opened the wall a little: Agreements on transit to Berlin were made and Permission of Travel was granted to retired citizen of the GDR and after signing the Grundlagenvertrag, the GDR was even diplomatically recognized by other western States. The statesmen Helmut Schmidt (SPD, 1974 - 1982) and Helmut Kohl (CDU, 1982 - 1998) continued the policy of understanding.

But it was not so much the German Endeavour of Reunification that led to the 9th of November 1989, the downfall of the wall. It was more the change in world politics, a new politic of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Michail Gorbachew (good friend with Chancellor Helmut Kohl) that led to an end of the cold war times and gave other eastern States the freedom for changes. But the GDR kept to the old politics and rejected any reforms. It was Hungary, that tore down its fences to Austria and with that opened a way into the west for the citizen of the GDR. This finally led to the peaceful mass demonstrations in all bigger cities in the GDR, especially in the city of Leipzig. It was on the 18th of October 1989 that the General Secretary Erich Honecker was dismissed from his duties and that his successor Egon Krenz opened the wall on the 9th of November 1989 – the happiest moment of so many German people in east and west.

The way of re-unification was chosen – the first free elections in the GDR took place in March 1990 (a coalition led by Lothar de Maiziére- CDU). And finally, after the Two – plus – Four – talks (re-assurance with the former allies) the GDR became part or the Federal Republic of Germany.

Germany – a seafaring nation?

Nordic trading in the lands between North Sea and Baltic

Other nations have discovered the New World and the sea routes towards the Far East. But Sea faring activities involved regions that is now Germany. The Vikings used the trading post Haithabu (End of 9th Century), situated at the upper end of the Schleswig-Fjord, close to todays city of Schleswig. This trading post, founded possibly around 750 was first mentioned around 804 (as Sliesthorp, later as Sliaswich). Frisian traders used it as a trading place between the Baltic Sea and the lower Rhine area – it developed to the most importand place of trading in Northern Europe. In 983/84 it became Danish, and it was finally destroyed in 1050.

Since 1900 extensive escarvations took place and many items dating back to the Vikings were discovered. This is now presented in the Viking-Museum in Haithabu, also showing a Viking ship that was found 1979 at the historic harbour. Besides the Oseberg-boat (850) in Olso (Norway) and and the boats fom Roskilde (Denmark) there is another splended example of an ancient Nordic boat that can be seen in the Gottorf-Castle, the historic regional museum in Schleswig: the Nydam-Boat, a seagoing nordic 66ft-rowboat for 40 men (4th. Century).

Thriving trades under the Hanse in medieval times

Later in medieval times seafaring activities developed with the growing of the Hanse, a trading union in the region of today's Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Poland and the Baltic States, including the Swedish region around the city of Klamar. Their “shipping lines” were covering the European coast lines between Cádiz (Spain), Bergen (Norway) and Nowgorod (Russia) and even down on inland water ways to the Black Sea. With the Kogge, characteristic wooden sailing ships were used. Initially equipped with one mast, they carried later two. Their rudder was situated at the stern in the center - that was new at that time. They carried 100 to 300 tons of goods and were armed.

The trading posts of the Hanse developed rapidly to flourishing cities, starting in the second half of the 12th century, yielding into a formal alliance under the city of Lübeck in 1356. That led to conflicts with the nordic neighbours, but with the peace treaty of Strahlsund (defeating the danish King Waldemar IV) the Hanse developed rapidly and almost all cities of importance in northeren Central Europe were participating: besides Lübeck leading medieval cities of the Hanse along today's German coast lines were Hamburg and Bremen, but also Cologne and Magdeburg, situated at the rivers Rhine and Elbe and Gdansk (Poland). Importand Hanse-cities were Wismar and Braunschweig (Germany), Krakow and Wroclaw (Poland) and in the central Baltic region Visby (Gotland/Sweden), Kaliningrad(Russia) and Klaipeda(Lithuania). And many other European cities had “agencies” of the Hanse, like Brugge and Antwerp (Belgium), London and York in England, Bergen in Norway and Reval (Estonia). With luck you will find a sailing replica of a Kogge somewehere along the German coast – most likely in connection with bigger sailing- or waterfront festivities.

Local shipping along German shorelines and estuaries

In the following centuries shipping activities were reduced to the own coast lines and the river estuaries. Here special types of boats were developed. As the Noth Sea and its river estuaries are tidal, shallow waters, small one- or two-masted gaff-rigged sailing crafts were common. These Ewer was vessel of shallow draught, but with great beam and lee boards on both sides. For centuries these crafts carried all goods in the marshy areas of Northern Germany and the big cities like Hamburg were totally dependant on these boats, as they brought all necessary goods from the surrounding farmlands to the market places.

The Zeesenboot is another characteristic wooden boat from the protected waters in the area of the island of Rügen (Baltic Sea). These fishing vessels originated in the 15th century and the technical development of the 19th led to today's appearance. It carries a gaff-rigg on two masts and has a centerboard (formerly two lee boards), that makes them perfect for the shallow waters in the Bodden-regions behind the islands around Rügen. In the GDR they were used until the 1970ies as fishing boats and some of them were equipped with engines. As some examples survived (due to the lack of modernization during GDR times), they are now nicely restored and even new Zeesenboats were built and are now actively used as yachts.

The naval activities of the uprising German nation

In the 20th century more German ships were sailing the oceans – but in the time of military uprising, imperial intentions and the beginning First World War not in good intend: These activities reached far into the Pacific Ocean, when the warship “Emden” (1909) brought great losses to the English, French and Russian merchant marine. The Australian warship “Sydney” finally sunk the “Emden”.

Or the East Asian Squadron (with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) that was finally seized by English war ships at Coronel (Chile). In a first attack they sank the English ships “Good Hope” and “Monmouth” and continued their way into the Southern Atlantic. But the English sent a stronger squadron, which met the German ships at the Falklands and both, the “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” were sunk.

With their submarines Germany introduced a new dimension into naval warfare to the world: attacing merchant ships in the eastern North Atlantic, even attacing passenger ships (“Lusitania” on June 5th 1915, and the steamers “Arabic” und “Sussex”), which upset the world. This submarine warfare (U-Boot-Krieg) was planned and executed in great dimensions. German shipyards build 811 submarines, 338 boats were brought into action against civil- and warships of the Allies even in far away regions like the Arctic. Until the end of World War Two Germany lost 198 submarines, 178 of them were sunk on high sees.

During the Second World War again German war ships were present in intenational waters. After the fall of France, Great Britain was the only power left to fight the German (and Italian) Navy. They seized the “Bismarck” and “Prinz Eugen” in the Strait of Denmark and after a first fight (with the loss of the English “Hood”), the “Bismarck” was again attacked two days later (May 24th 1941), resulting in tha damage of the rudder. Finally the English ships “Rodney”, “King George” and “Dorsetshire” sunk the “Bismarck”.

Submarines played again an important stategic role in naval warfare under Hitler Germany. The German Author Lothar-Günther Buchheim has described in great detail the crew's life in a submarine under assignment in his shaking book Das Boot (1973). It describes moments of heroism and pride, but also moments of unbearable pressure when being attacked and the terrible guilt they had to cope with, when drowning leaving victims behind. All together with the tragic end of this story it is describing the sencelessness of war. The book has been translated into 30 languages. The impressive movie (6 Oscar Nominations and other awards) with same title and closely following the book has been produced 1981. And to get an own first hand impression of what the life in a cramped submarine was like, it is possible to visit a Second World War submarine, the U995 in Kiel-Laboe, which is situated on the beach of Laboe right next to the marine-war-memorial.

Shipbuilding Made in Germany

After both wars Germany was without ships. They were destroyed or confiscated by the Allies. And the building of new ships was prohibited for some time.

Between the wars there was even a short time when Germany built a few great civilian ships. The possibly most successful story of Germany going to sea was created by the F.-Laeisz-Shipping Company with their Flying P-Liners. Four-masted full rigged ships, sailing world wide since the beginning of the 20th century. All ships had names starting with “P” - a tradition that goes back to the wife's nickname of the companie's owner: it was “Pudel”.

They were safe ships at that time: the yearly loss was at about 0,9% in 1908 (comparing to 3% as average). But there were losses: the last tragic loss took place close to the Azores in September 1957, when the “Pamir” sank in a severe storm, on her way back from Chile. That was then the decision to take the then still active sister ship “Passat” out of service – she is now a museum ship in Lübeck-Travemünde. Other Flying-P-Liners can be seen elswere: the Russian “Kruzenshtern“ (1928, former “Padua”) is still actively sailing as a training ship, the “Pommern” is permanently moored in Mariehamn (Aland-Islands, Baltic Sea) as the “Peking” in the harbour of New York.

The time between the wars was also the time of fast and comfortable Trans-Atlantic-crossings. The shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen put the “Columbus” into service and built the passenger ship “Bremen” (1928, Length:281m), which instantly won the Blue Ribbon (for the fastest Atlantic crossing) from the English ship “Mauretania” on her maiden voyage.

The situation today shows a country that takes part in the world wide cruise ship business and container shipping with the port of Hamburg as the second biggest port in Europe and some highly specialized ship builders in Kiel (submarines, high standard double-shell tankers and container ships), Rendsburg (Navy), Hamburg (high standard repair and maintenance, mega-yacht-building)and Papenburg (near Emden on the river Ems) specializing on cruise ships. And finally German Yacht builders, as the biggest yacht builder Bavaria Yachts, working out of Giebelstadt / Bavaria – way inland but right in the middle between den Mediterranean and northern European cruising grounds and finally the Hanse Yachtbuilders, established in Greifswald (Baltic Sea) in 1993.

And a littly curiosity at the end: Germans love the “Queen Mary II”! Every time her port of call is Hamburg, and that happens quite often, she is greeted by thousands of people standing along the river Elbe.

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