Germany, (officially: the Federal Republic of Germany; German: Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is the largest country in Central Europe. It is bordered to the north by Denmark, to the east by Poland and the Czech Republic, to the south by Austria and Switzerland, and to the west by France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Germany is a federation of 16 states, roughly corresponding to regions with their own distinct and unique cultures.
Germany is one of the most influential European nations culturally, and one of the world’s main economic powers. Known around the world for its precision engineering and high-tech products, it is equally admired by visitors for its old-world charm and “Gemütlichkeit” (coziness). If you have perceptions of Germany as simply homogeneous, it will surprise you with its many historical regions and local diversity.
Eisenhardt Castle in Belzig (Brandenburg)
From the Holy Roman Empire to Imperial Germany
The roots of German history and culture date back to the Germanic tribes and after that to the Holy Roman Empire. Since the early middle ages Germany started to split into hundreds of small states. It was the Napoleonic wars that started the process of unification, which ended in 1871, when a large number of previously independent German kingdoms united under Prussian leadership to form the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich). This incarnation of Germany reached eastward all the way to modern day Klaipeda (Memel) in Lithuania and also encompassed the regions of Alsace and Lorraine of today’s France, a small portion of eastern Belgium (Eupen-Malmedy), a small border region in southern Denmark and over 40% of contemporary Poland. The empire ended in 1918 when Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate the throne at the time of Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I (1914-1918) and was followed by the short-lived and ill fated so called Weimar Republic, which tried in vain to completely establish a liberal and democratic regime. Because the young republic was plagued with massive economic problems stemming from the war (such as hyperinflation) and disgrace for a humiliating defeat in World War I, strong anti-democratic forces took advantage of the inherent organizational problems of the Weimar Constitution and the Nazis were able to seize power in 1933.
Hitler and Nazi Germany
The year 1933 witnessed the rise to power of the nationalistic and racist National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party and its Führer, Adolf Hitler. Under the Nazi dictatorship, democratic institutions were dismantled and a police state was installed. Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, gays, handicapped people, socialists, communists, unionists and other groups not fitting into the Nazis’ vision of a Greater Germany faced persecution, while the Jews and Gypsies were marked for total extermination. Hitler’s militaristic ambitions to create a new German Empire in Central and Eastern Europe led to war, successively, with Poland, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – despite initial dazzling successes, Germany was unable to withstand the attacks of the Allies and Soviets on two fronts in addition to a smaller third front to the south of the Alps in Italy.
It was “Stunde Null” or zero hour. Germany and much of Europe was destroyed. By April of 1945 Germany was in ruins with most major cities bombed to the ground. The reputation of Germany as an intellectual land of freedom and high culture (Land der Dichter und Denker) had been decimated and tarnished for decades to come. At the end of the war, by losing 25% of its territory, east of the newly Allied imposed Oder-Neisse frontier with Poland the occupied country was faced with a major refugee crisis with well over 10 million Germans flooding westward into what remained of Germany. Following the end of the war at the Potsdam conference the Allies decided the future of Germany’s borders and taking a Soviet lead stripped her of the traditional eastern Prussian lands. Therefore, German provinces east of the rivers Oder and Neisse like Silesia and Pomerania were entirely cleared of its original population by the Soviets and Polish in the largest ethnic cleansing ever – most of it an area where there had not been any sizable Polish or even Russian minorities at all. Even more refugees came with the massive numbers of ethnic Germans expelled from their ancient eastern European homelands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.
Post-World War II
After the devastating defeat in World War II (1939-1945), Germany was divided into four sectors, controlled by the French, British, US and Soviet forces. United Kingdom and the US decided to merge their sectors, followed by the French. Silesia, Pomerania and the southern part of East Prussia came under Polish administration according to the international agreement of the allies. With the beginning of the Cold War, the remaining central and western parts of the country were divided into an eastern part under Soviet control, and a western part which was controlled directly by the Western Allies. The western part was transformed into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), a democratic nation with Bonn as the provisional capital city, while the Soviet-controlled zone became the communist/authoritarian Soviet style German Democratic Republic (GDR). Berlin had a special status as it was divided among the Soviets and the West, with the eastern part featuring as the capital of the GDR. The western sectors of Berlin (West Berlin), was de facto an exclave of the FRG, but formally governed by the Western Allies. On August 13, 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected as part of a heavily guarded frontier system of border fortifications. As a result, between 100 and 200 Germans trying to escape from the communist dictatorship were murdered here in the following years.
In the late 1960’s a sincere and strong desire to confront the Nazi past came into being. Students’ protests beginning in 1968 successfully clamoured for a new Germany. The society became much more liberal, and the totalitarian past was dealt with more unconcealed than ever before since the foundation of the FRG in 1949. Post-war education had helped put Germany among countries in Europe with the least number of people subscribing to Nazi or fascist/authoritarian ideas. Willy Brandt became chancellor in 1969. He made an important contribution towards reconciliation between Germany and the communist states including important peace gestures toward Poland.
Reunification and the Berlin Republic
Germany was reunited peacefully in 1990, a year after the fall and collapse of the GDR’s Communist regime and the opening of the iron curtain that separated German families by the barrel of a gun for decades. The re-established eastern states joined the Federal Republic of Germany on the 3rd of October 1990, a day which is since celebrated as the national holiday, German Unification Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). Together with the reunification, the last post-war limitations to Germany’s sovereignty were removed and the US, UK, France and most importantly, the Soviet Union gave their approval. The German parliament, the Bundestag, after much controversial debate, finally agreed to comply with the eastern border of the former GDR, also known as the “Oder-Neisse-Line”, thus shaping FRG the way it can be found on Europe’s map today.
Germany is an economic powerhouse boasting the largest economy of Europe, and is in spite of its relatively small population the second largest country of the world in terms of exports.
The financial centre of Germany and continental Europe is Frankfurt am Main, and it can also be considered one of the most important air traffic hubs in Europe, with Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa known for being not just a carrier, but rather a prestigious brand, though its glamour has faded somewhat during recent years. Frankfurt features an impressive skyline with many high-rise buildings, quite unusual for Central Europe; this circumstance has led to the city being nicknamed “Mainhattan”. It is also the home of the European Central Bank (ECB), making it the centre of the Euro, the supra-national currency used throughout the European Union. Frankfurt Rhein-Main International Airport is the largest airport of the country, while the Frankfurt Stock Exchange (FSE) is the most important stock exchange in Germany.
Reichstag-building in Berlin-Tiergarten
Germany is a federal republic, consisting of 16 states or German Federal Lands (Bundesländer). The federal parliament (Bundestag) is elected every four years in a fairly complicated system, involving both direct and proportional representation. A party will be represented in Parliament if it can gather at least 5% of all votes or at least 3 directly won seats. The parliament elects the Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler, currently Angela Merkel) in its first session, who serves as the head of the government. There is no restriction regarding re-election. The ‘Bundesländer’ are represented at the federal level through the Federal Council (Bundesrat). Many federal laws have to be approved by the council. This can lead to situations where Council and Parliament are blocking each other if they are dominated by different parties. On the other hand, if both are dominated by the same party with strong party discipline (which is usually the case), its leader has the opportunity to rule rather heavy handedly, the only federal power being allowed to intervene being the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht).
The formal head of state is the Federal President (Bundespräsident), who is not involved in day-to-day politics and has mainly ceremonial and representative duties. He can also suspend the parliament, but all executive power is vested with the chancellor and the Federal Cabinet (Bundesregierung). The President of Germany is elected every 5 years by a specially convened national assembly, and is restricted to serving a maximum of two five year terms.
The two largest parties are centre right CDU (‘Christlich Demokratische Union’, Christian Democratic Party) and centre-left SPD (‘Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands’, Social Democratic Party). Due to the proportional voting system, smaller parties are also represented in parliament. Medium-sized parties of importance are centre-right CSU (‘Christlich Soziale Union’, Christian Social Party, the most important party in Bavaria which collaborates at the federal level with the CDU), liberal FDP (‘Freie Demokratische Partei’, Free Democratic Party; currently not represented in the Bundestag), the Green party (‘Bündnis 90/Die Grünen’), the Left Party (‘Die Linke’, a socialist party with significant strength in East Germany), and the Alternative for Germany (‘Alternative für Deutschland’, AfD; not represented in the Bundestag). There have been some attempts by right-wing parties (NPD – National Democratic Party / REP – Republicans) to get into parliament, but so far they have failed the 5% requirement (except in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania); other extreme left-wing parties (MLPD – Marxist-Leninist Party / DKP – German Communist Party) virtually only have minimal influence on administrative levels below state parliaments.
Being a federal republic, Germany is very much a decentralised country, which embraces the cultural differences between the regions. Some travellers will perhaps only think of beer, Lederhosen and Oktoberfest when Germany comes to mind, but Germany’s famous alpine and beer culture is mostly centered around Bavaria and Munich. Here the beer is traditionally served in 1 litre mugs (normally not in pubs and restaurants, though). The annual Oktoberfest is Europe’s most visited festival and the world’s largest fair. Germany’s south-western regions, however, are well known for their wine growing areas (e.g. Rheinhessen and Palatinate) and Bad Dürkheim on the ‘German Wine Route’ (Deutsche Weinstraße) organises the biggest wine festival worldwide with over 600,000 visitors annually.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent German Reunification are the main events of recent German history. Today most Germans as well as their neighbours support the idea of a peaceful reunified Germany and while the eastern regions still suffer from higher unemployment and of brain drain, the reunification process is overall seen as a success. October 3rd is celebrated as “German Unification Day”.
Cars are a symbol of national pride and social status. Certainly manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen (VW) are world famous for their quality, safety and style. This quality is matched by Germany’s excellent network of roadways including the renowned Autobahn network, which has many sections without speed limits that attract speed hungry drivers. There are actually speed tourists who come to Germany just to rent an exotic sports car and fly down the autobahn. Amazingly for its size Germany is home to the sixth largest freeway/motorway network in the world. Germany also features an extensive network of high speed trains – the InterCityExpress (ICE).
Most cities have a vibrant gay and lesbian scene, especially Berlin and Cologne. The Berlin tourism agency and other tourism organisations have started campaigns to attract gay and lesbian travellers to their cities. In fact, some politicians (e.g. a former governing mayor of Berlin and the former German federal foreign minister) and stars in Germany are homo- or bisexuals.
Germans are generally friendly, although the stereotype that they can be stern and cold is sometimes true. Just be polite and proper and you’ll be fine.
Germany was the host of the FIFA World Cup 2006.
The power supply runs at 230V/50Hz. Almost all outlets use the Schuko plug, most appliances have a thinner but compatible Europlug. Adapters for other plugs are widely available in electronics stores.
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