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Formal Name
Federal Republic of Germany

Local Name

Local Formal Name
Bundesrepublik Deutschland

Location: Europe

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Berlin

Main Cities: Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt

Population: 80,942,000    Area []: 356,910

Currency: 1 deutschemark = 100 pfennigs

Languages: German

Religions: Protestant (Lutheran), Roman Catholic

Germany, (German Bundesrepublick Deutschland), country in central Europe, bounded on the north by the North Sea, Denmark, and the Baltic Sea; on the east by Poland and the Czech Republic; on the south by Austria and Switzerland; and on the west by France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. For much of German history, Germany was a geographical term for an area occupied by many states. A unified nation for 74 years (1871-1945), it was divided after World War II (1939-1945) into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; commonly known as West Germany), a western-style republic, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR; commonly known as East Germany), a Communist nation under the influence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). On October 3, 1990, East Germany, or the GDR, became part of the FRG, and Germany once again became a unified nation, with a total area of 356,733 sq km (137,735 sq mi). Berlin is Germany's capital and largest city.

Land and Resources

Stretching from the Alps to the Baltic and North Seas, Germany encompasses a wide variety of landscapes. Mountains, forests, hills, plains, rivers, and seacoasts make up this large country that borders on nine European nations.

Physiographic Regions

Germany consists of three major geographical regions—lowland plain in the north, an area of uplands in the center, and a mountainous region in the south. The lowlands, called the North German Plain, have a varied topography that includes several river valleys and a large heath (the Lüneburger Heide). The lowest elevation point is sea level along the coast, where there are areas of sand dunes and marshland. Off the coast are several islands, including the North Frisian Islands and the East Frisian Islands and Helgoland, in the North Sea, and Fehmarn and Rügen, in the Baltic Sea. The eastern end of the plain provides particularly rich soil for agriculture. The central uplands region, the approximate boundaries of which are the latitude of Hannover, in the north, and the Main River, in the south, encompasses a complex terrain of low mountains, river valleys, and well-defined basins. The mountains include the Eifel and Hunsrück in the west, the Taunus and Spessart in the center, and the Fichtelgebirge in the east. Much of southwestern Germany is dominated by two branches of the Jura Mountains and a large forest, the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald. In the extreme south are the Bavarian Alps, which contain Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze (2962 m/9718 ft).

Rivers and Lakes

Most of Germany's major rivers lie in the west. The most important is the Rhine, which forms part of the borders with Switzerland and France before flowing into the Netherlands. Among the tributaries of the Rhine in western Germany are the Lahn, Lippe, Main, Mosel, Neckar, and Ruhr rivers. Other important rivers include the Elbe, which winds from the Czech border in the southeast up to the North Sea, and the Danube, which traverses much of the south before entering Austria. The Oder, along with the smaller Neisse River, forms most of eastern Germany's border with Poland. Germany has few large lakes. The largest is the Lake of Constance (German Bodensee), which lies partly in Austria and Switzerland.


Germany has a temperate climate, with an average annual temperature of 9° C (48° F). The northern region is influenced by marine weather systems, producing milder winters than in the remainder of the country but also a greater susceptibility to storms. Inland districts of the North German Plain are slightly colder in winter and warmer in summer than the coast; temperature ranges increase somewhat in the uplands of central and southern Germany. The warmest summer temperatures are found in the Rhine Valley and the coldest winter temperatures in the Alps of the far south. Average daily temperature range in Berlin on the northern plains is -3° to 2° C (26° to 35° F) in January and 14° to 24° C (57° to 75° F) in July. The range in Munich in the southern uplands is -5° to 1° C (23° to 35° F) in January and 13° to 23° C (55° to 74° F) in July. Precipitation is heaviest in the south, which gets about 1980 mm (about 78 in) of moisture per year, much of it in the form of snow. The central uplands receive a maximum of approximately 1500 mm (59 in) of precipitation per year, and the lowlands in the north get up to about 710 mm (about 28 in) of moisture per year.

Vegetation and Animal Life

About 30 percent of Germany is made up of woodland, most of which is in the southern half of the country. Approximately two-thirds of the woodland is composed of pines and other conifers, and the rest is made up of deciduous species such as beech, birch, oak, and walnut. Vineyards cover many of the hillsides along the southwest and the Rhine, Mosel, and Main rivers. Western Germany is noted for its orchards. A great variety of mosses and flowering plants also exists.

Germany has a small variety of wildlife. The more common mammals include deer, wild boars, hares, weasels, badgers, wolves, and foxes. Among the few reptiles is one species of poisonous snake, the adder. Finches, geese, and other migratory birds cross the country in great numbers. Herring, cod, flounder, and ocean perch are found in the coastal waters of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, while carp, catfish, and trout inhabit the country's rivers and streams.

Mineral Resources

Germany has large-scale deposits of several minerals. The most important is bituminous coal, which is found mainly in the Ruhr region and in the Saarland, although German industry has depleted much of the supply. The east produces large amounts of lignite, a low-quality coal. Potash is abundant in the southwest, around Freiburg, and petroleum and natural-gas deposits occur in the north, near the mouths of the Ems and Weser rivers and east of Kiel. Germany also has large deposits of rock salt, plus relatively small quantities of iron ore, uranium, mercury, silver, sulfur, as well as lead, copper, and zinc ores.


The people of Germany consist mostly of two groupings of the Caucasoid race. The predominant Alpine type is concentrated in the central and southern regions; persons of the Teutonic grouping live principally in the north.

Population Characteristics

Germany has a population (1995 estimate) of about 81,264,000. The population density is about 228 persons per sq km (about 590 per sq mi). Population densities in eastern Germany (the former East Germany) are generally lower than in western Germany. Before reunification, East Germany had a population (1990 estimate) of about 16,578,000 and a density of about 153 persons per sq km (about 397 per sq mi), while West Germany had a population of about 60,977,000 with a density of about 246 persons per sq km (about 636 per sq mi). The nation is highly urbanized, with 86 percent of the people living in communities of at least 2000 people.

Political Divisions

Germany is divided into 16 states called Länder. These include ten states of the former West Germany—Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein—and five East German states—Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and Saxony. Berlin, which was divided between East and West Germany from 1945 to 1990, also joined the federation as a unified city and its 16th state.

Principal Cities

 The capital of Germany is Berlin (population, 1992 estimate, 3,454,200). The government, however, still largely resides in the old capital of the former West Germany, Bonn (297,400), a university city on the Rhine River. Most governmental functions will move to Berlin by the year 2000, with select ministries and the Bundesrat (federal council) remaining in Bonn. Some of Germany's other major cities are Hamburg (1,675,200), a major seaport; Munich (1,241,300), a commercial and cultural center; Cologne (958,600), an industrial city with a famous cathedral; Frankfurt am Main (660,800), a commercial and manufacturing city; Essen (627,800), a steel-making center in the Ruhr; Dortmund (597,400), an industrial center with nearby coal mines; Stuttgart (596,900), a manufacturing and commercial city; Düsseldorf (577,400), a fashionable industrial and financial city; and Leipzig (500,000), also a manufacturing and commercial center.


German is the official language of Germany and is spoken by almost all citizens. Several regional dialects exist, some of which differ substantially from standard High German (see German Language). The only significant linguistic minority consists of about 110,000 Sorbs, descendants of the Slavic tribes called the Wends by the Germans in medieval times, who live in the Lusatia region (which includes the cities of Cottbus and Bautzen) and speak a Slavic language.


About 36 percent of Germans are Protestants, the great majority of whom are Lutherans. Most of the Protestants live in the north. About 35 percent of the people are Roman Catholics, concentrated in the Rhineland and Bavaria. About 2 percent are Muslim. More than 500,000 Jews lived in Germany in the early 1930s. By the end of World War II in 1945, most of the Jews had been killed by the Nazis or had fled the country. In the early 1990s about 40,000 Jews lived in Germany.

Education and Cultural Activities

Though the FRG (West Germany) and the GDR (East Germany) shared centuries of cultural history, the GDR was heavily influenced by Soviet values and social systems. Since reunification the educational system in eastern Germany has abandoned the Soviet polytechnic model of comprehensive education for all high school students, and returned to the specialized system of the western part of the country.


Schooling in Germany is compulsory and free for people between the ages of 6 and 18. Although education is controlled by the individual state governments, national coordinating groups ensure that school systems and requirements are roughly the same throughout the region. Almost all adults in Germany are literate.

Children begin their education with four years at a Grundschule (primary school). On completion of the Grundschule at about the age of ten, students are given extensive tests, the results of which largely determine their subsequent schooling. Almost half of the students go on to a Hauptschule (post-primary school) for five years. They then undertake a three-year vocational training program, which includes on-the-job experience plus classroom instruction at a Berufsschule (vocational school). Approximately one-fifth of the children who finish the Grundschule attend a Realschule (secondary modern school), where they take a six-year course emphasizing commercial and business subjects. After the Realschule these students may enter a two-year vocational college (Fachoberschule). About one in four students enters a Gymnasium (junior and senior school) after the Grundschule. The Gymnasium offers a rigorous nine-year program that culminates with examinations for the Abitur (diploma), which is necessary for university entrance. Under reforms introduced in the 1970s, the rigid distinctions between the three types of schooling were loosened, and some students were permitted to change from one kind of school to another during the course of their education. Such midcourse changes were easiest at the small but growing number of comprehensive schools, which offered all three programs—vocational, commercial, and academic. Schools of continuing education for adults, such as the many Volkshochschulen (people's universities), offer a variety of courses and have some programs leading to diplomas.

Germany has long been known for the quality of its institutions of higher learning, and one of its universities, the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg (1386), is among the oldest in Europe (see Heidelberg, University of). Other leading universities in Germany are in Berlin, Bonn, Erlangen, Frankfurt am Main, Freiburg, Göttingen, Hamburg, Leipzig, Marburg an der Lahn, Munich, and Tübingen. Germany also has numerous teacher-training institutions; schools of fine arts, music, and filmmaking; and schools of theology.

Cultural Institutions

Unlike English and French cultural life, which is centered in the capital cities, London and Paris, German cultural life has traditionally flourished in many cities. For centuries these cities were the capitals of the many independent German states, whose rulers encouraged art, music, theater, and scholarship as expressions of their power. Berlin was the cultural as well as the political capital of a united nation from 1871 to 1945 and became that again in 1990.

Germany has some 4000 museums, 15,000 libraries (including 9 national libraries), 60 opera houses, 300 other theaters, and more than 150 major orchestras. These institutions receive large subsidies from their respective cities or states, continuing the tradition of princely support for the arts. Government aid enables many people to find employment in the arts and brings the arts within geographic and economic reach of a large part of the region's population, but it does not imply government control. See also German Literature.

Museums and Libraries

World War II damaged or destroyed many museums, libraries, and historical buildings; however, many treasures were safely stored away and thus preserved. A revival of interest in German history prior to the 20th century has encouraged rebuilding and new building, revitalizing old cities such as Munich and Bonn.

The outstanding art collections of the kings of Prussia are found in Berlin. The city has the State Museum of Prussian Cultural Treasures, which houses Egyptian art and old-master paintings in the Dahlem complex, and 19th- and 20th-century paintings in the National Gallery. The collections of the Bavarian rulers form the Bavarian State Art Galleries in Munich: old masters in the world-famous Alte Pinakothek and modern works in the Neue Pinakothek. The Bavarian National Museum, also in Munich, includes collections of sculpture, decorative art, and folk art. The Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne displays Roman antiquities. A leading art museum in eastern Germany is the State Art Collection in Dresden, formerly owned by the rulers of Saxony. It includes a world-famous gallery of old masters and a fine collection of porcelain, both in the Zwinger, and decorative arts in the Green Vault. The Ancient, Far Eastern, and Islamic collections of the kings of Prussia are part of the State Museums of what was formerly East Berlin. Other art treasures are privately held by the church and by aristocratic families. Outstanding scientific collections are housed in the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, in the Technical Museum in Dresden, and in the State Scientific Collections of Natural History and the German Museum, one of the foremost technological museums of the world, in Munich. The City Museums of Frankfurt contain fine art and folk art as well as an assortment of archaeological and historical material.

Important research libraries include the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the State Library of Prussian Cultural Treasures in Berlin, and the German Library in Frankfurt. Records of the Nazi period are in the federal archives in Koblenz and in the Berlin Document Center, which houses 25 million Nazi party documents (see National Socialism). Excellent university libraries and many city and church lending libraries are found throughout the country.

Theaters, Music, and Festivals

 The theaters and concert halls of western Germany and the western sector of Berlin attract large audiences from all levels of society. Opera houses of the first rank are those of Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, and Stuttgart. Stuttgart also maintains a fine ballet company. Repertory, open-air, and cabaret theaters thrive in Berlin, Hamburg, Recklinghausen, Hannover, and other cities. The Berlin and Munich Philharmonic orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony are world famous, as are the radio orchestras of Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg. International visitors flock to special festivals and fairs such as the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, the Bach festivals at Ansbach and Leipzig, the "documenta" of visual arts at Kassel, the Berlin Film Festival, and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Folk culture is preserved in folk museums, pageants, and festivals.


Despite great damage to both East and West Germany during World War II, both nations had emerged as potent economies by the 1960s. West Germany became a leading economic world power in the 1970s and 1980s, and East Germany was a leader among Warsaw Pact economies. Reunification has brought some economic problems. Western Germany has had to shoulder high taxes to fund improvements in infrastructure, environment, and industry in the east, while many eastern enterprises have collapsed in the face of western competition. Still, Germany remains a powerhouse in the world economy, with a 1993 gross domestic product of $1.71 trillion.


The workforce in Germany in the early 1990s comprised about 39 million people. About 40 percent of the labor force was employed in manufacturing, mining, and other industries. Trade unions comprised about 13 million members, 11 million of whom belonged to a union affiliated with the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (German Federation of Trade Unions). Relatively few strikes occur in the country. Some enterprises, notably in the coal and steel industry, operate under a system of codetermination, in which workers and management have roughly equal say in establishing the major policies of their firm. In the past, West Germany has had very low unemployment, and East Germany had full employment under its Communist system. In the early 1990s, however, industrial restructuring in the east, declines in export orders brought about by recession in foreign economies, and monetary policies designed to curb inflation combined to increase unemployment. By the mid-1990s total unemployment in Germany was 10 percent; in the west the level was 9 percent and in the east it was nearly 15 percent.


Agriculture plays a minor role in the German economy, and the country imports about one-third of its food. Most farms in Germany are small—only about 2 percent are larger than 100 hectares (about 250 acres). The smaller farms, located mostly in the west, are often owned and operated by families who support themselves with other jobs. East Germany operated most farms as collectives, and as a legacy of that system most landholdings in the east are larger than in the west. Former state farms are being leased to farmers until 2004, when they will be sold. Collective farms have continued to operate as cooperatives or have been returned to former owners. Only about 1.7 million workers were employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing in the early 1990s, about 3.5 percent of the workforce in western Germany and 4.9 percent in the former East Germany.

Germany's best farmland is located in the southern end of the northern plains. The nation's principal crops, ranked by estimated value (with annual production in the early 1990s), are wheat (15.8 million metric tons), potatoes (12.3 million), sugar beets (28.6 million), and barley (11 million). The fruit industry, also important in Germany, produces annually about 1.4 million metric tons of grapes, some of which are used to make internationally famous wines; 931,000 metric tons of apples are also grown. Livestock includes 26.1 million pigs, 15.9 million cattle, 2.4 million sheep, and 104 million poultry.

Forestry and Fishing

Germany has substantial forestry and fishing industries. Most of the 37.3 million cu m (1.3 billion cu ft) of roundwood produced annually in the early 1990s came from the great forests of the southwest; nearly 88 percent was coniferous wood. In recent years coniferous forest growth has suffered from acid rain, a result of industrial pollution in the manufacturing centers.

The nation's leading fishing ports include Bremen, Bremerhaven, and Cuxhaven, on the North Sea, and Kiel, on the Baltic Sea. In the early 1990s the annual catch totaled some 304,800 metric tons, nearly all marine species, especially Atlantic herring, blue mussel, Atlantic mackerel, cod, and varieties of flatfishes. The principal freshwater catch is rainbow trout.


The mining industry plays a comparatively small role in the German economy. Several minerals, however, are produced in sizable quantities. Germany is a leading producer of lignite, a low-grade brown coal, with annual extraction totaling 221.7 million metric tons. Other minerals produced are bituminous coal (60.3 million metric tons), petroleum (22.1 million barrels), natural gas (16.1 million cu m/568 million cu ft), salt (6 million metric tons), and potash (2.7 million metric tons).


The economy of Germany is dominated by the manufacturing sector, which produces a great variety of goods. The leading branches of manufacturing in the early 1990s, in terms of value of production, were chemical products, transportation equipment (Germany is the world's third largest maker of automobiles), non-electrical machinery, metals and metal products, electrical machinery, and food products.

Large-scale manufacturing enterprises are concentrated in several areas. The most important industrial area encompasses the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which includes the steel-producing Ruhr region plus other large manufacturing centers, such as Aachen, Cologne, and Düsseldorf, where chemicals, metal goods, machinery, and motor vehicles are manufactured. Another major industrial region is located around the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers. Encompassing the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Wiesbaden, Mainz, and Offenbach, it has large factories producing metals, electronic equipment, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and motor vehicles. To the south, along the Rhine, is an important industrial area centered on the cities of Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, and Karlsruhe, where chemicals, machinery, and construction materials are manufactured. Stuttgart is the hub of a manufacturing region in which motor vehicles, electronic equipment, office machinery, textiles, and optical instruments are produced. Products of the Munich area include aircraft, motor vehicles, clothing, and beer. Several important industrial regions are located in northwestern Germany. These include the Hannover-Brunswick area, where steel, chemicals, and motor vehicles are produced. Another major manufacturing region includes such coastal port cities as Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel, and Wilhelmshaven. Among the products of this region are refined petroleum, processed food, beer, ships, office machinery, and printed materials. Berlin is also a major producer of electronic equipment.

About 8000 companies were operating in East Germany in 1990. Of these, however, fewer than one-fourth were expected to survive in the more competitive economy of a unified Germany. The territory of the former East Germany has a large iron and steel industry, with huge mills at Eisenhüttenstadt and near Berlin. Yearly production of crude steel in East Germany in the late 1980s was about 8.2 million metric tons; in unified Germany in the early 1990s it was 39.8 million metric tons. East Germany also produced great amounts of chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, caustic soda, and ammonia. Many chemical plants are located in and around Dessau, Halle, and Leipzig. A large petrochemical complex at Schwedt, in the northeast, processes petroleum piped in from Russia. Machinery is produced in numerous cities, especially in the southwest, and eastern Berlin has large factories making electronic equipment. Optical and precision instruments are manufactured in Jena and Görlitz. Rostock and Wismar were the former East Germany's chief centers of the shipbuilding industry. Textiles are produced in several cities, notably Cottbus, Chemnitz, and Leipzig, and motor vehicles are assembled in Dresden, Eisenach, and Zwickau.

Germany's industry-oriented economy has damaged the country's environment. Today Germany faces serious air and water pollution problems.


Coal was formerly the major source of electrical power in Germany, but its use decreased in the 1970s and 1980s, although it remains an important energy source in the east. Petroleum and nuclear power currently supply much of the country's electricity. In the south, hydroelectric dams draw power from the large rivers. Germany produces some natural gas and oil of its own, but must import most of what it uses. Although the West German government had previously encouraged the development of nuclear power facilities, in 1989 it reversed its position, partly in a delayed response to the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl' in Ukraine. The policy reversal has led to the closing of some facilities and abandonment of plans to build others. In the early 1990s 21 nuclear reactors produced about 30 percent of Germany's electricity. Total annual electricity production is about 580 billion kilowatt-hours from an installed generating capacity of 134 million kilowatts.

Currency and Banking

The basic unit of currency in Germany is the deutsche mark, or DM (1.41 marks equal U.S.$1; 1995). The mark is divided into 100 pfennige.

The bank of issue is the Deutsche Bundesbank, a nongovernmental, autonomous institution headquartered in Frankfurt. The largest of Germany's many private commercial banks include the Deutsche Bank A.G., the Dresdner Bank A.G., and the Commerzbank A.G. Many savings banks and credit institutions exist. Following reunification, the country's largest banks rapidly established a presence in the former East Germany.

The basic unit of currency in East Germany was the East German mark, or ostmark, subdivided into 100 pfennigs. In July 1990 the currencies of East and West Germany were merged. Most East Germans were allowed to redeem up to 4000 ostmarks for deutsche marks at par, and to exchange additional ostmarks for West German currency at a two-for-one ratio. Under the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty and related agreements, a new European Central Bank will be established by 1999, with headquarters in Frankfurt am Main.

Foreign Trade

Germany is a great trading nation. From the early 1950s through the 1980s West Germany generally received much more each year from foreign sales than it spent on purchases abroad. East Germany was a major trading nation within the Soviet bloc. After unification, however, Germany's trade surplus narrowed. Principal exports, with an annual value of $392 billion in the early 1990s, included machinery, transportation equipment (primarily road vehicles), chemicals (including pharmaceuticals and plastics), textile yarn and fabrics, iron and steel, power generating equipment, precision instruments, office machines and data processing equipment, and clothing. Imports, valued at $375 billion annually, included road vehicles, food products, clothing and accessories, petroleum and petroleum products, electrical machinery, and office machines and data processing equipment. Germany continues to be a leading trade partner both of western nations—including other members of the European Union, the United States, and Switzerland—and of eastern European countries. In addition to free trade within the European Union, most German industrial products are traded freely with member states of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).


 Germany has a highly developed transportation system that in the early 1990s included about 636,300 km (about 395,400 mi) of roads, with 10,955 km (6807 mi) of limited-access expressways (Autobahnen). In the mid-1990s some 39.2 million passenger cars and 2.2 million commercial vehicles were in use. There is no speed limit on the Autobahns, but traffic congestion often keeps speeds down. Germany has an excellent railroad system, the Deutsche Bahn A.G., which is run by the government, although legislation approved in 1993 prepares the company for eventual privatization. The railroad connects all parts of the country, and is used extensively for both freight and passenger service. Several high-speed intercity lines are in use or in the planning stages, including Hamburg to Munich, Frankfurt to Dresden, and Bremen to Hannover, with links to Berlin. Germany's large merchant fleet sails from Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Nordenham, and Emden to the North Sea, and from Lubeck, Wismar, Rostock, and Stralsund to the Baltic. Inland, ships travel the Rhine and other rivers and several canals, including the Mittelland Canal, through the middle of the country, and the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, or Kiel Canal, which links the North Sea and the Baltic. The leading inland port is Duisburg. The largest international airport in Europe is near Frankfurt. Germany's principal airline, Deutsche Lufthansa A.G., formerly operated by the government, offers extensive domestic and international service.


Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the German constitution, and nearly all the major newspapers in Germany are independent. Party-owned publications in the former East Germany were privatized after the fall of Communism. Most cities and towns in Germany have daily newspapers. In the early 1990s there were 355 daily newspapers in Germany, with a total circulation of over 26.4 million; 90 percent of these papers were published in the former West Germany. National periodicals such as the newsmagazine Der Spiegel are also widely read, and Germany has more than 2000 publishing houses. Electronic communication is dominated by public corporations organized regionally and funded primarily by licensing fees. There are 12 broadcasting regions, each with several radio stations, and these regions also produce programming for the main television channel in Germany. Two other television channels provide alternative programming, some of it supported by commercial underwriting.


Germany is governed under a Basic Law (Grundgesetz) promulgated on May 23, 1949, for the FRG (West Germany), and later amended several times. The Basic Law, which describes the country as a "democratic federal state based on social justice," resembles the constitution of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), but allows a greater range of authority to the governments of the states.

From 1968 through 1989 East Germany was governed under a constitution that defined the country as a sovereign socialist state in which all political power was exercised by the working people. In practice, power resided with the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED), a Marxist-Leninist (Communist) organization. The 1968 constitution guaranteed the SED a leading role in national affairs, and its general secretary, as head of the party's political bureau, was usually the most powerful person in the country. When East Germany and West Germany merged in 1990, West Germany's Basic Law was extended to cover the entire unified country.


Under the Basic Law the head of state of Germany is the federal president, who is elected to a five-year term by a Federal Convention made up of members of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) plus an equal number of people chosen by the state legislatures. The president designates the chancellor, the country's chief executive official, who must then be approved by an absolute majority of the Bundestag. The president also names the cabinet ministers, in accordance with the proposals of the chancellor. The chancellor is responsible to the Bundestag, which may vote the chancellor out of office by a simple majority. The Basic Law provides, however, that the Bundestag must be able simultaneously to elect a successor, so that the country is never without a chancellor.


The German parliament consists of two houses—the Bundestag, or Federal Assembly, and the Bundesrat, or Federal Council—both of which were expanded in 1990 to include representatives of eastern Germany. Members of the Bundestag are popularly elected to terms of up to four years by citizens of age 18 and over. One-half of the members are directly elected in single-member districts, and the rest are chosen under a system of proportional representation; political parties are entitled to representation only if they receive at least 5 percent of the vote in a given election. The Bundestag may be dissolved by the federal president. The Bundesrat is made up of delegates chosen by the state governments; the number of delegates sent by each state varies from three to six according to each state's population.

In general, legislation is passed by a simple majority vote of the Bundestag. Laws dealing with matters of specific interest to the states, however, must also be approved by the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat may veto legislation passed by the Bundestag. A veto can be overridden, however, if the Bundestag reapproves the legislation; for some types of laws it must override by the same proportionate majority by which the measure was vetoed in the Bundesrat. A two-thirds majority vote of both houses is necessary to amend the Basic Law; certain fundamental parts of the Basic Law may not be changed.

Local Government

The governments of the 16 states of Germany have broad powers, including rights to levy some taxes, formulate educational and cultural policies, and maintain police. Each state has a popularly elected assembly, which chooses a minister-president or (in Hamburg and Bremen) a first mayor to serve as chief executive. The states are subdivided into counties, municipalities, and communes.

Political Parties

The leading German political parties in the mid-1990s were the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Social Democratic party (SPD), Free Democratic party (FDP), Christian Social Union (CSU), Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and Green party. The CDU is a conservative party emphasizing the rights of individuals. It has no organization in Bavaria, where its close ally, the somewhat more conservative CSU, is active. Both parties were established in 1945. The SPD, founded in 1875, had a Marxist orientation until 1959. In the 1980s and 1990s it advocated a free-enterprise economy with sufficient public intervention to protect the general welfare.

The swing party in the Bundestag has often been the Free Democratic Party, founded in 1948, a liberal group supported mainly by the middle class. Represented in the Bundestag for the first time in 1983 was the Green party, a group concerned with environmental, anti-nuclear, and pacifist issues.

After the Communist government of East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Socialist Unity party, which had long dominated East Germany's political life, reconstituted itself as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and contested the elections of 1990 and 1994. In October 1994, the PDS won 30 seats in the Bundestag as part of the opposition group dominated by the Social Democrats.


The highest tribunal under the Basic Law is the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court), which sits in Karlsruhe. It is the final interpreter of the Basic Law in all disputes. Six other important national courts are maintained—the Federal Court of Justice, the Federal Administrative Court, the Federal Financial Court, the Federal Labor Court, the Federal Court on Social Affairs, and the Federal Patent Court. Each state has a series of courts headed by an Oberlandesgericht (high state court). The death penalty is forbidden by the Basic Law.

Health and Welfare

Germany has a comprehensive social-insurance system, which includes sickness, accident, old-age, disability, and unemployment coverage. The insurance program is funded by compulsory contributions by employees and employers plus federal subsidies. In the early 1990s there were about 665,565 hospital beds and 251,877 physicians.


The West German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, established in 1955, were fully integrated into the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the mid-1990s the German army had about 254,300 members, the air force (Luftwaffe) had about 82,900 members, and the navy had about 30,100 members. The international agreements that allowed the reunification of Germany in 1990 linked the gradual withdrawal of Soviet forces from eastern Germany with a pledge by NATO not to station forces in the east. The last Russian troops left Germany in August 1994. All men 18 years of age and older must serve a minimum of 12 months in the German military.

The reunification agreements also stipulated that Germany reduce its armed forces considerably in the early 1990s, down to about 370,000 troops. As part of this process, the army of the former East Germany was dissolved, and 50,000 of its members were assimilated into the Bundeswehr. Meanwhile, large numbers of foreign troops from NATO countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and France were being withdrawn from western Germany. Another significant change came as the German army began to take a role in conflicts outside the confines of NATO, including deployments to Somalia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, action that previously was interpreted as being against the Basic Law. A German high court decision in 1994 upheld the constitutionality of these "out-of-area" military endeavors, contingent on approval by the Bundestag. During this period, Germany also forged a military alliance with France, agreeing to develop a joint defense corps of 40,000 troops by 1995. Concerns of NATO members about this pact weakening the broader alliance were eased by the announcement in January 1993 that the "Eurocorps" could serve under NATO command during times of crisis.


This article surveys the history of Germany before 1949 and after 1990. For details on its history between 1949 and 1990, see Germany, East and Germany, West.

Origins of the Germans

Germany was inhabited from earliest times, but it took many millennia of migration, conquest, and intermingling to produce the Germans.

Stone Age Peoples

During the Old Stone Age, the German forests were thinly populated by wandering bands of hunters and gatherers. They belonged to the earliest forms of Homo sapiens, such as Heidelberg man, who lived about 400,000 years ago. Somewhat later more advanced forms of Homo sapiens appeared, as exemplified by skeletal finds near Steinheim, some 300,000 years old, and near Ehringsdorf, from about 100,000 years ago. Another human type was the Neandertal, found near Düsseldorf, who lived about 100,000 years ago. The most recent type, which appeared by 40,000 BC, was the Cro-Magnon, a member of Homo sapiens sapiens, essentially of the same group as modern Europeans.

During the New Stone Age, the indigenous hunters encountered farming peoples from the more advanced southwest Asia, who were migrating up the Danube Valley into central Germany about 4500 BC. These populations mixed and settled in villages to raise crops and breed livestock. Villagers of this Danubian culture lived with their animals in large, gabled wooden houses, made pottery, and traded with Mediterranean peoples for fine stone and flint axes and shells. As their hand-hoed fields wore out, they moved on, often returning years later.

Bronze Age Peoples

The Bronze Age began in central Germany, Bohemia, and Austria in about 2500 BC with the working of copper and tin deposits by prospectors from the eastern Mediterranean. In about 2300 BC new waves of migrating peoples arrived, probably from southern Russia. These battle-ax-wielding Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of the Germanic peoples that settled in northern and central Germany, the Baltic and Slavic peoples in the east, and the Celts in the south and west. The central and southern groups mixed with the so-called Bell-Beaker people, who moved east from Spain and Portugal about the year 2000 BC. The Bell-Beaker folk, probably Indo-Europeans, were skilled metalworkers. They developed a thriving Bronze Age culture in Germany and traded amber from the Baltic coast for bronze, pottery, and beads from the Mediterranean.

From 1800 to 400 BC, Celtic peoples in southern Germany and Austria developed a sequence of advanced metalworking cultures—Urnfield, Hallstatt, and La Tène—each of which spread throughout Europe. They introduced the use of iron for tools and weapons. The La Tène Celts did fine metalwork and used ox-drawn plows and wheeled vehicles. The Germanic tribes absorbed much Celtic culture and eventually displaced the Celts themselves.

Germans and Romans

From the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD the Germanic and Celtic tribes, constantly pressed by migrations from the north and east, were in contact with the Romans, who controlled southern and western Europe. Roman accounts by Julius Caesar and Cornelius Tacitus describe these encounters.

The Cimbri and Teutons, about to invade Italy, were defeated by the Roman general Gaius Marius in 101 and 102 BC. The Suevi and other tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), west of the Rhine, were subdued by Julius Caesar around 50 BC. The Romans tried unsuccessfully to extend their rule to the Elbe, and the emperors held the border at the Rhine and the Danube. Between the two rivers they erected a limes, a line of fortifications to keep out raiding tribes.

In the 2nd century AD the Romans prevented confederations of Franks, Alamanni, and Burgundians outside the empire from crossing the Rhine. But in the 4th and 5th centuries, the pressure proved too much for the weakened Romans. The Huns, sweeping in from Asia, set off waves of migration, during which the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and other Germanic tribes overran the empire.

Beginnings of a German State

In the late 5th century the Frankish chieftain Clovis defeated the Romans, and he established a kingdom that included most of Gaul and southwestern Germany. He converted his subjects, believers in a heretical offshoot of Christianity known as Arianism, to orthodox Christianity.

Carolingian Germany

Clovis's work was carried on in the 8th century by Charlemagne, who fought the Slavs south of the Danube, annexed southern Germany, and ferociously subdued and converted the pagan Saxons in the northwest. As champion of Christianity and supporter of the papacy against the restive people of Rome, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800. This milestone event revived the Roman imperial tradition in the west, but it also set a precedent for the dependence of the emperors on papal approval.

The Carolingian Empire was based on the social structure of the late Roman Empire. The official language of the court and the church was Latin, but Franks in Gaul adopted the Latinate vernacular that became French, and Franks and other Germanic tribes in the east spoke various languages that became German. The only relic of Old High German is the Hildebrandslied ("Lay of Hildebrand"), a fragmentary 8th-century poem, based on early pagan heroic tales, about the tragic duel between a father and son.

Carolingian rulers encouraged missionary work among the Germans. Saint Willibrord founded the monastery of Echternach, and Saint Boniface founded Reichenau and Fulda and reformed the Frankish church. Non-Frankish Germans, however, retained much pagan belief beneath their newly acquired faith. The Heliand, a 9th-century epic, depicts Jesus Christ as a Saxon warrior king.

East Francia

The Carolingian Empire, unwieldy and prey to tribal dissension, did not long survive Charlemagne's death in 814. By the Treaty of Verdun (843), the empire was divided among his three grandsons. One received West Francia (modern-day France). Another acquired the imperial title and an area running from the North Sea through Lotharingia (Lorraine) and Burgundy to Italy. The third, Louis the German, received East Francia (modern-day Germany). The Treaty of Mersen (870) divided the middle kingdom, with Lotharingia going to East Francia and the rest to West Francia. In 881 Charles the Fat of East Francia, heir of Louis the German, received the imperial title. Six years later he was deposed by Arnulf, the last Carolingian emperor.

The Tribal Duchies

By the 10th century East Francia was being buffeted by new waves of pagan Danes, Magyars (Hungarians), and Moravians from the north and east and was virtually torn apart by rival tribes. The Carolingians had granted tribal military leaders (dukes) and appointed officials (counts and margraves) lands as temporary fiefs for their services to the state, and many of the high clergy had also received fiefs. As royal authority declined, these feudal lords, or princes, provided local government and defense. The secular lords gradually made their fiefs hereditary. The greatest of them were the rulers of five stem (tribal) duchies—Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine. Lesser warriors joined princely retinues out of tribal loyalty and in exchange for smaller grants of land and other gifts. Common people lost the right to bear arms. They worked the fields of warriors and churchmen in return for protection and a share of the crops. Thus, the Carolingian governmental system blended with the German tradition of free tribesmen to form a society in which a military nobility was supported by an agricultural peasantry of freemen and serfs.

By ancient German tradition, the kings were elected. Because no noble family wanted to be subject to another family or to a strong king, weak kings were often chosen, and none could safely assume the loyalty of his nobles. These conditions delayed for centuries the consolidation of a strong German state.

Early Middle Ages

Medieval German kings had three major concerns. One was checking the rebellious princes—usually with the help of churchmen. The second was controlling Italy and being crowned emperor of the West by the pope, a policy considered an essential part of the Carolingian heritage. The third was expansion to the north and east.

The Saxon Kings

When the last Carolingian died without an heir, the Franks and Saxons elected Conrad, duke of Franconia, their king; he proved incompetent. After his death in 918 they chose the Saxon duke Henry I, the Fowler, a sober, practical soldier, who made peace with a rival king chosen by the Bavarians, defeated Magyars and Slavs, and regained Lorraine.

Otto I, the Great

At Henry's death in 936, the princes elected his son Otto I, who combined extraordinary forcefulness, dignity, and military prowess with great diplomatic skill and genuine religious faith. Determined to create a strong centralized monarchy, Otto gave the duchies to his relatives and then broke them up into nonhereditary fiefs granted to bishops and abbots. By nominating these churchmen and subjecting them to the royal court, he ensured their loyalty. This Ottonian system of government through alliance with the German state church was carried much further by his successors.

Otto also had to defend his realm from outside pressures. In the west he strengthened his hold on Lorraine and gained influence over Burgundy (Arles). In the north and east he defeated the Danes and Slavs, and he permanently broke the power of the Magyars at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955. Otto established the archbishopric of Magdeburg (968) and other sees as centers of civilization in the conquered lands. Germans settled these regions.

Wanting to emulate Charlemagne as the divinely sanctioned emperor of Christendom, Otto began the disastrous policy of German entanglement in Italy. The temptation was the greater because Italy was a rich land and a scene of feudal disorder and Saracen invasions. When Adelaide, widowed queen of the Lombards, asked Otto for help against her captor, Berengar, king of Italy, Otto invaded Italy in 951, married her, and took her dead husband's title.

The papacy at this time was struggling to hold its land against encroaching nobles from the north and Byzantine Greeks and Saracens from the south. When Pope John XII appealed to Otto for aid against Berengar, Otto invaded Italy a second time, defeated Berengar, and was crowned emperor by the pope in 962. By a treaty called the Ottonian Privilege, Otto guaranteed the pope's claim to papal lands, and all future papal candidates had to swear fealty to the emperor.

Later Saxon Kings

Otto's successors in the 10th and 11th centuries continued his German and Italian policies as best they could. Otto II established the Eastern March (Austria) under the Babenbergs as a military outpost but was defeated by the Saracens in his efforts to secure southern Italy. The pious Otto III supported the Benedictine reform movement originating in Cluny, Burgundy, which encouraged a more austere, disciplined life. The childless Henry II, gentle and devout, also encouraged the Cluniac movement and sent out missionaries from his court in the new bishopric of Bamberg.

Salian Kings

For 100 years (1024-1125) German kings were chosen from the Salian line, which was related to the Saxons. The Salians brought the empire to its height.

High Tide of Empire

Conrad II, a clever and ruthless ruler, reasserted royal authority over princely opposition by making the fiefs of lesser nobles hereditary and by appointing ministerials, lower-class men responsible directly to him, as officials and soldiers. He seized Burgundy, strengthened his hold on northern Italy, and became overlord of Poland.

Conrad's son Henry III, the Black, was the first undisputed king of Germany. A pious visionary, he introduced to a Germany torn by civil strife the Cluny-inspired Truce of God, a respite from war lasting from Wednesday night to Monday morning, and tried in vain to extend it to a permanent peace. He ended the payment by new bishops of tribute to the Crown—a practice called simony—although he still invested churchmen, who remained his vassals. During his reign he deposed three rival popes and created four new ones, notably the reform-minded Leo IX.

Henry IV

While still a child, Henry IV succeeded his father, Henry III, in 1056. During his mother's regency, long-restive princes annexed much royal land; cities, popes, and Normans controlled Italy; and the Lateran synod of 1059 declared that only cardinals could canonically elect the pope. Henry IV was wily, opportunistic, and headstrong in an era of violence and treachery, and as ruler he sought to recover lost imperial power. His efforts to retrieve crown lands aroused the Saxons, who resented the Salian kings. He crushed a Saxon rebellion in 1075 and proceeded to confiscate land, thus intensifying their enmity.

Henry's control of the clergy embroiled him with the militant reform pope Gregory VII, who wanted to free the church from secular bondage. When Gregory forbade lay investiture of churchmen, Henry had him deposed by the Synod of Worms in 1076. The pope promptly excommunicated Henry and released his subjects from their oath of loyalty to him. To keep his crown, Henry cleverly sought the pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077, where, after three days of humble penitence, he was forgiven. The princes, however, elected a rival king, Rudolf of Swabia. The result was nearly 20 years of civil war. In 1080 Gregory excommunicated Henry again and recognized Rudolf. Deposing Gregory, Henry marched on Rome, installed the antipope Clement III, and was crowned emperor in 1084. Henry returned to Germany to continue the civil war against a new rival king (Rudolf had died in 1080). Finally, betrayed and imprisoned by his son Henry, the emperor was forced to abdicate.


The treacherous, brutal, and greedy Henry V vainly continued his father's struggle for supremacy. Suffering military defeats, he lost control of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia. Despite the support of churchmen, ministerials, and the towns, he could not suppress the princes, who forced the weary emperor and Pope Callistus II to compromise on investiture. They accepted the Concordat of Worms (1122), which stipulated that clerical elections in Germany were to take place in the imperial presence without simony and that the emperor was to invest the candidate with the symbols of his temporal office before a bishop invested him with the spiritual ones. The pope, however, had the better of the bargain, and the rivalry between empire and papacy took on new dimensions.

Early Medieval Society

German kings had no fixed capital, but traveled unceasingly about their realm. They had no income beyond that from their family lands and gifts from churchmen. Feudalism was the rule. The great lords, theoretically vassals of the king, in fact usurped royal rights to build castles and administer justice. The vast majority of common people lived on country manors belonging to nobles or churchmen. The few cities, such as Trier and Cologne, were chiefly Roman foundations or imperial fortifications. There, merchants, artisans, and uprooted peasants settled as free citizens under the authority of a prince. The cities also sheltered Jews, who were not allowed to hold land.

The clergy, which included many nobles, spread the faith, provided education, and carried on the functions of government. Monasteries such as Reichenau, Regensburg, Fulda, Echternach, and Saint Gall became centers of scholarship. Monks wrote Latin works (such as the Walthariuslied, based on a German legend) and translated biblical and other Christian texts into Old High German. Their illuminated manuscripts with flat, dignified images imitated the art of classical antiquity and Byzantium. Churches, notably Saint Michael at Hildesheim and the cathedrals of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms, were massive, stone-vaulted basilicas with towers and small, round-arched windows. Their walls were adorned with painted murals and expressive sculpture in wood and bronze.

High Middle Ages

In the 12th and 13th centuries Germany and Italy were rent by rivalry between two princely families. The Hohenstaufen, or Waiblingen, of Swabia, known as Ghibellines in Italy, held the German and imperial crowns. The Welfs of Bavaria and Saxony, known as Guelphs in Italy, were allied with the papacy.

Henry V died childless in 1125. The princes, avoiding the principle of heredity, passed over his nephews, Frederick and Conrad Hohenstaufen, to choose Lothair, duke of Saxony. As emperor, Lothair II revived German efforts to convert and dominate the east. To assert his authority in Italy, he made two expeditions supporting the pope, who crowned him in 1133. In Germany he fought a civil war with the Hohenstaufen princes, who refused to accept him as emperor.

The Hohenstaufen Kings

At Lothair's death the princes avoided his powerful Welf son-in-law and heir, Henry the Proud, lord of Bavaria and Saxony. Instead, they chose Conrad Hohenstaufen. Civil war erupted again, this time between the weak but charming Conrad III and the Welf dukes Henry the Proud and his son Henry the Lion. It continued while Conrad led the ill-fated Second Crusade and was paralleled by the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict in Italy. The struggle in Germany was temporarily resolved at Conrad's death by the election of his nephew Frederick, a Hohenstaufen born of a Welf mother.

Frederick I, Barbarossa

Handsome and intelligent, warlike, just, and charming, Frederick I Barbarossa was the ideal medieval Christian king. Regarding himself as the successor of Augustus, Charlemagne, and Otto the Great, he took the title Holy Roman emperor and spent most of his reign shuttling between Germany and Italy trying to restore imperial glory in both.

In the north he joined Germany and Burgundy by marrying Beatrice, heiress to Burgundy. He declared an imperial peace; to ensure it, he placated the Welfs by recognizing Henry the Lion as duke of Saxony and Bavaria, and for balance he made Austria a duchy. But when Henry refused to contribute troops to a critical Italian campaign, Frederick and jealous princes exiled him as a traitor. Henry's duchies were split up, Bavaria going to the Wittelsbach family.

In the south, Frederick made six expeditions to Italy to assert full imperial authority over the Lombard city-states and the popes. In 1155, on his first trip, he was crowned emperor. On his second, he had the Diet of Roncaglia (1158) declare his rights, and he installed podestas (imperial representatives) in the cities. Some cities had Ghibelline sympathies, but most objected to being ruled and taxed by uncouth, greedy foreigners. The popes needed imperial support against a Roman rising, but they believed that their spiritual office gave them sovereignty over the emperors. Also, they wanted to maintain independent control of the Papal States. Consequently, some cities revolted against imperial authority and formed the Lombard League in alliance with Pope Alexander III. Frederick reacted by creating an antipope. On his next two trips, Ghibelline cities joined Guelph cities in a revived league and threw out the podestas. Alexander, who had excommunicated Frederick, fled to his Norman allies in Sicily, and Frederick captured Rome in 1166.

During his fifth invasion of Italy, lacking the support of Henry the Lion, Frederick was defeated by the league at the Battle of Legnano (1176). As a result, the Peace of Constance (1183) recognized the autonomy of the cities, which remained only nominally subject to the emperor. Stubbornly, Frederick made a last trip in which he gained new support among the quarrelsome cities. He died leading the Third Crusade.

Henry VI

More ambitious even than his father, Henry VI wanted to dominate the known world. To secure peace in Germany, he put down a rebellion by the returned exile Henry the Lion and then restored him to power. He forced the northern Italian cities to submit to him and seized Sicily from a usurping Norman king. Intending to create an empire in the Mediterranean, he exacted tribute from North Africa and the weak Byzantine emperor. Henry died suddenly in 1197 while planning a crusade to the Holy Land.

The empire immediately fell apart. Henry's infant son, Frederick II, inherited Sicily, but northern Italy reasserted its independence. The Germans refused to accept a child or make the crown hereditary in the Hohenstaufen line. Once more civil war raged as two elected kings—the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and the Welf Otto of Brunswick, son of Henry the Lion—struggled for the Crown. When Otto invaded Italy, Pope Innocent III secured the election of Frederick II on the promise that Frederick would give up Sicily so as not to surround the pope.

Frederick II, Stupor Mundi

Outstandingly accomplished in many fields, the new king was called Stupor Mundi ("wonder of the world"). He was gracious and amiable but also crafty and ruthless. Determined to keep Sicily as his base of operations, he revised his coronation promise, giving Germany rather than Sicily to his young son Henry. In Sicily he suppressed the barons, reformed the laws, founded the University of Naples, and kept a brilliant court, where he shone as scientist, artist, and poet. He was also an excellent soldier, diplomat, and administrator.

To gain German support for his campaigns in northern Italy, Frederick allowed the princes to usurp royal powers. The confirmation of their rights by the Privilege of Worms (1231) made them virtually kings in their own territories. Henry, when he came of age, objected to this policy and revolted but was quickly deposed and imprisoned by his father.

An aggressive emperor such as Frederick was regarded as dangerous by the popes. Angered by his claims to Lombardy, Pope Gregory IX excommunicated him for his delay in leading a promised crusade. Frederick finally went to Jerusalem in 1228, was crowned king, and gained the chief Christian sites in the Holy Land. His success did not mollify Gregory, however, who in his absence invaded Sicily. Frederick rushed home and made peace. But by 1237 he was battling in northern Italy against the second Lombard League of cities. The league was allied with the pope, who excommunicated Frederick again. Frederick then seized the Papal States. The new pope, Innocent IV, fled to Lyon and declared him deposed. Undaunted, Frederick was making headway against the league when he suddenly died.

Frederick's young son Conrad IV inherited Sicily and the imperial title, but Italy and Germany were never united again. The popes, allied with the French, ousted the Hohenstaufens from Sicily. Germany suffered the turmoil of the Great Interregnum (1254-1273), during which foreigners claimed the crown and the princes won a six-century ascendancy.

Society and Culture in the High Middle Ages

By the late 13th century the empire had lost Poland and Hungary and effective control of Burgundy and Italy. Within its borders the principalities were virtually autonomous. The ancient right of royal election was limited to seven princes, who purposely chose weak men unlikely to thwart their own dynastic ambitions.

The church continued to be a dominant force in society. Cistercian monks and Premonstratensian canons settled new lands in the east, and friars of the Dominicans and Franciscans preached and taught in the towns. The Teutonic Knights moved their headquarters to Marienburg in eastern Germany, where they led a crusade against the pagan Prussians. The knights opened the Baltic coast to the German church and to German merchants.

The struggle between emperors and princes benefited the towns, who paid taxes to the emperors in exchange for freedom from feudal obligations. Trade greatly increased. Cologne and Frankfurt gave access to the fairs of Champagne. Mainz lay on the route across the Alps to Italy. Lübeck and Hamburg dominated North Sea and Baltic trade, and Leipzig was in contact with Russia. Rhine towns and, later, north German towns began to form trade associations, the most powerful of which was the Hanseatic League. This trade association arranged advantageous commercial treaties, created new centers of trade and civilization, contributed to the development of agriculture and industrial arts, constructed canals and highways, and even declared war. Disintegration of the league began toward the end of the 15th century, and was complete in 1669.

At the height of the league, the rich burghers built city walls, cathedrals, and elaborate town halls and guildhalls as expressions of civic pride. By the mid-13th century, French Gothic influences were affecting German architecture. The lofty cathedrals of Bamberg, Strasbourg, Naumburg, and Cologne were richly decorated with sculpture, and they were filled with light from the stained glass in their large, pointed-arched windows.

French culture also affected German literature. Wandering nobles and knights, called Minnesinger, wrote and recited courtly love poems in the tradition of Provençal troubadours and French trouvères (see Troubadours and Trouvères). Foremost among them were Reinmar von Hagenau and Walther von der Vogelweide. Other poets, called Spielleute, composed epics. Gottfried von Strassburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach dealt with Christian themes from the French Arthurian cycle. Nonetheless, the two most important epics—the Niebelungenlied and the Gudrunlied—were based on pagan Germanic traditions.

Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance

By the late Middle Ages, the great stem duchies had been broken up and new principalities created. Three princely families—Habsburg, Wittelsbach, and Luxemburg—struggled for dynastic rights to the imperial crown.

Princely Rivalry

In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing Rudolf of Habsburg, a minor Swabian prince unable to repossess the lands they had usurped. Rudolf I concentrated on aggrandizing his family. Aided by the Wittelsbachs and others, he defeated the rebellious Ottokar II of Bohemia and took the lands Ottokar had usurped—Austria, Steiermark (Styria), Kärnten (Carinthia), and Carniola—for his two sons, thus making the Habsburgs one of the great powers in the empire.

On Rudolf's death the electors chose Adolf of Nassau but deposed him when he asserted his authority. They next chose Rudolf's son, Albert of Austria, but when he displayed appetite for additional territory, he was murdered. Still seeking a weak emperor, the electors voted for Henry, count of Luxemburg. Anxious to restore imperial claims to Italy, Henry VII crossed the Alps in 1310 and temporarily subdued Lombardy; he was crowned by the Roman people, because the popes had left Rome and were then living in Avignon, France—the so-called Babylonian Captivity. He died trying to conquer Naples from the French.

Civil war then raged until the Wittelsbach candidate for the throne, Louis the Bavarian, defeated his Habsburg rival at the Battle of Mühldorf in 1322. Louis IV obtained a secular coronation in Italy, but Pope John XXII, objecting to his interference in Italian politics, declared his title invalid and excommunicated him. Louis then called for a church council and installed an antipope in Rome. At Rhense in 1338 the electors made the momentous declaration that henceforth the king of the Germans would be the majority electoral choice, thus avoiding civil war, and that he would automatically be emperor without being crowned by the pope. This was reflected in the title, official in the 15th century, Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation.

The Luxemburg Line

The popes, of course, objected. Clement VI opened negotiations with Charles, king of Bohemia, grandson of Henry VII. In 1347 he was chosen by five of the seven electors, who had previously deposed Louis. Charles IV diplomatically ignored the question of papal assent. In the Golden Bull (1356) he specified the seven electors as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony (an old title for a new state in the east), the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia. Because the bull made their lands indivisible, granted them monopolies on mining and tolls, and secured them "gifts" from candidates, they were the strongest of all the princes.

Having ensured the power of the princes, the astute Charles entrenched his own dynasty in Bohemia. He bought Brandenburg and took Silesia from Poland to build a great state to the east. To obtain cash, he encouraged the silver, glass, and paper industries of Bohemia. He adorned Prague, his capital, with new buildings in the late Gothic style, founded a noted university, and kept a brilliant court.

Charles's son, Sigismund, forced the antipope John XXIII to call the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which ended the Great Schism in the papacy. But as the king of Bohemia he was chiefly concerned with his own dynastic lands. Bohemia was convulsed by the Hussite movement, which combined traditional Czech national feeling with desire for much-needed church reform. Sigismund invited the reformer John Huss (also spelled Jan Hus) to state his views, under imperial protection, at the Council of Constance, but failed to prevent the council from subsequently burning him as a heretic. This led to the Hussite Wars by which the moderate Calixtine Hussites won some concessions from the church and Sigismund in exchange for their reconciliation.

The Habsburg Line

When Sigismund died without an heir, the electors unanimously chose his Habsburg son-in-law Albert of Austria, who became emperor as Albert II. From that time on, the imperial crown became in practice, although not in theory, hereditary in the Habsburg line. Albert II died in the midst of civil war in Bohemia and an Ottoman invasion of Hungary. His cousin and successor, Frederick III, lost Hungary and Bohemia and sold Luxemburg to France, while he struggled with the German princes and the Turks on his borders. In 1486 the princes forced him to cede his authority to his son but he retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 1493.

Maximilian I, knight and art patron, enthusiastically laid many plans, which never materialized. His chief success was in arranging marriages to benefit his family. By his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy he acquired a rich territory that included the thriving Flemish towns. French-speaking Burgundy was the initial cause of the Habsburg-Valois feud that lasted for the next three centuries. By marrying his son, Philip the Handsome, to the heiress of Spain, Maximilian acquired Spain and its possessions in Italy and the Americas. By betrothing his grandson Ferdinand to the heiress of Hungary and Bohemia, he added those states to the inheritance.

15th-Century Society

In Germany as in the rest of Europe, the 15th century was a time of transition from the land economy of the Middle Ages to the money economy of modern times. The process created painful tensions among all classes of society.

The Nobility

The German nobility ranged from the great electors and other princes of the 240 states of the empire to the minor knights who held fiefs directly from the emperor. They had supreme jurisdiction in their own lands, checked only by diets representing nobles, clergy, and burghers, which alone could levy the taxes needed to pay for new arms and mercenary soldiers. As prices rose and income from land did not, all the nobility felt pressed for funds. Some squeezed more goods and services out of their peasants. Others resorted to raiding their peers or the cities, and still others sold their military services as mercenaries.

The Cities

As centers of commerce, the cities became increasingly important in a money economy. In the south, Nuremberg and Augsburg, home of the Fugger bank, thrived on mines and trade with Italy. In the north, Lübeck, Hamburg, and other cities of the Hanseatic League carried on brisk trade with Britain and Scandinavia. Within the cities the old merchant guilds and new craft guilds, both virtually hereditary, struggled for power. Common laborers had no say. As their trade grew, the cities' demand for freedom from attack and from local tolls levied on roads and rivers often led to war with the nobles.

The Peasants

Perhaps as many as one-third of the peasants, the same estimate as for the rest of the population, died during the plague known as the Black Death that swept Europe in the mid-14th century. Of the survivors, some peasants had lost their land through frequent subdivision among heirs. Many of these streamed to the cities, while others charged landlords more for their labor. Most small peasants, however, lost whatever rights and freedoms they had traditionally possessed, as lords strove to keep them on the land and make them as profitable as possible. The peasants, especially in southern Germany, finally resorted to violent protest.

The Church

Cries for church reform had been raised at least as early as the 11th-century Cluniac movement. During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance they became more insistent. On the political level, the church lost prestige as a result of the unedifying Babylonian Captivity and the ensuing Great Schism in the papacy.

On the economic level, the increasingly widespread need for cash led to criticism of the church's wealth. People objected that the church owned much land and bore heavily on its tenants but paid no taxes. Economic and political concerns came together in growing German resentment at sending money to maintain the pope in Rome.

The church was also attacked on the intellectual level by the humanist study of classical antiquity, which spread north from Italy. Nicholas of Cusa proposed a heliocentric theory of astronomy that undermined the accepted biblical view of creation. Literary humanists such as Conradus Celtes, Willibald Pirkheimer, Johann Reuchlin, and Erasmus of Rotterdam urged linguistic purity in the study of biblical and other texts and satirized abuses in the church. The invention of printing from movable type by Johann Gutenberg made it possible to produce Bibles, other books, and pamphlets in great quantity at low cost. As a result, the new learning could circulate widely, preparing the intellectual ground for the Reformation.

Age of Religious Strife

The spiritual concerns of Martin Luther combined with secular ambitions of the German princes to produce the Protestant Reformation. The movement for church reform created religious liberty at the cost of Western Christian unity. Religious strife intensified European political wars for 100 years.

The Protestant Reformation

Charles V succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519. He devoted his life to preserving a medieval empire united in faith, a fruitless effort in the pluralistic society created by religious reformers and secular forces.


A key figure of the new age was Martin Luther, a friar of the Augustinians who was disturbed by abuses within the church. He was particularly aroused by the unscrupulous campaign to sell indulgences, or remissions of punishment for sin. In 1517 Luther published a list of 95 theses attacking indulgences, and these stirred up much controversy.

In 1520 Luther published three pamphlets stating his beliefs in the liberty of the Christian conscience informed only by the Bible, the priesthood of all believers, and a state-supported church. Because these doctrines struck at the root of church authority, Pope Leo X issued a bull condemning Luther's works. Luther burned the bull and was then excommunicated. Charles V summoned him to defend himself at the Diet of Worms (1521) and, when Luther refused to recant, outlawed him. On his way home, however, Luther was rescued by Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony; installed in the Wartburg castle, he began to translate the Bible into German.

Lutheran ideas, partly a continuation of Hussite traditions, were sympathetically received by many. Matters of conscience, however, were often carried to extremes or mixed with socioeconomic grievances. The fanatical Karlstadt urged iconoclastic attacks on church painting, statuary, and stained glass. The mercenary knight Franz von Sickingen led impecunious south German knights against ecclesiastical lords in the hope of gaining church lands. Peasant groups, wanting a return to old ways, looted and burned castles and monasteries in the Peasants' War (1524-1526).

These revolutionaries looked to Luther for guidance in reordering the church and German society, but Luther did not want to mix religious with secular concerns. Emerging from the Wartburg to restore order, he checked Karlstadt and urged the princes to crush every rising, which they did. The peasants then lost all traditional rights, sense of initiative, and status, while the princes set up state churches supported by confiscated Catholic lands. In these new churches the service was in German, and the clergy were permitted to marry.

Conflict and Compromise

At this early stage, a break with Rome did not seem inevitable. Many Lutherans would have remained in the church if nonbiblical practices had been eliminated. Charles V, busy with foreign wars, wanted to make peace at home, but Luther was not conciliatory. Furthermore, Protestants, as the reformers came to be called, were themselves divided. In addition to Lutherans there were Reformed Christians, inspired by the Swiss theologian Huldreich Zwingli, who wanted to set up theocratic states based on the Bible, and radical Anabaptists, mostly poor people who wanted to form churches independent of the state.

At the Diet of Augsburg (1530) Lutherans and Reformed Christians presented separate confessions of faith, indicating that they could not compromise with the Catholics or each other. The Anabaptists were not represented at all. Both the princes and the pope blocked Charles's desire for a council to mediate the dispute. Despairing of peaceful means, Charles led his troops against the Protestant princes and cities of the Schmalkaldic League (1531), routing them at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. By this time, however, many nobles, who had acquired secularized Catholic lands, were staunch Protestants, and they forced on Charles the compromise Peace of Augsburg (1555). It recognized Lutheranism, but not the Reformed (Calvinist) faith, whose theocratic doctrines seemed revolutionary to the princes. Most significant, it gave the princes the right to choose the religion for their territory.

Luther died in 1546, his work done. Charles, who had failed at a hopeless task, abdicated in 1556. His vast empire was divided, with the Spanish and Burgundian lands going to his son Philip II and the imperial title and the German lands going to his brother Ferdinand.

The Catholic Reformation

While the emperors Ferdinand I and his son Maximilian II were occupied with the threat of Turkish invasion, Protestantism in Germany grew apace. Its progress was checked, however, by the Counter Reformation. The long-delayed Council of Trent (1545-1563), dominated by the Jesuits, abolished the sale of indulgences but also reformulated doctrine and worship so as to preclude reconciliation with Protestantism. The Jesuits established centers in German cities, where they won many Germans back to Catholicism. The rulers of Bavaria, Austria, Salzburg, Bamberg, and Würzburg restored Catholicism by force, creating a Catholic bloc in southern Germany.

Tension mounted between Protestants and Catholics. Protestant princes under Frederick IV formed the Protestant Union in 1608. In 1609 Maximilian I, duke of Bavaria, led the Catholic princes into the Catholic League. Emperor Rudolf II, a scholarly recluse in Prague, unable to govern, was forced to relinquish his authority to his brother Matthias, who proved no more effective.

Matthias was succeeded by his nephew, who ruled as Ferdinand II. The real power in Europe, however, was Philip II of Spain, with his well-armed troops highly paid in gold from the Americas. Catholic France was determined not to be overwhelmed by Habsburgs on either side. Protestant England and the Netherlands were also opposed to a strong Habsburg dynasty. Denmark and Sweden were lured by the desire to dominate the Baltic. Taking advantage of the quarreling German states, all these countries intervened to make Germany the scene of a devastating, four-phase European War.

The Thirty Years' War

The trouble began in Protestant Bohemia, which refused to accept the Catholic Ferdinand as king or future emperor. In 1618 the Czechs set up their own government, supported by the Evangelical Union. After the death of Matthias in 1619, they chose the Protestant elector Frederick V as their king. Ferdinand, however, crushed the Bohemian forces at the Battle of Weisserberg (1620); Frederick, called the Winter King, was exiled; and Catholicism was restored by force. The Bohemian nobles were killed, deprived of their lands, or fined. As a result of the war the population declined by more than one-half.

Protestant princes objected to Spanish troops in Germany. They supported Christian IV of Denmark, who, financed by the Dutch and English, invaded Germany in 1625. So began the second phase of the Thirty Years' War, which ended with Christian's defeat. The victorious Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution (1629), which ordered the return of all Catholic church property seized by Protestants since 1552.

The third phase of the war began when Gustav II Adolph of Sweden, who had long wanted to extend Swedish control of the Baltic, invaded Pomerania as the champion of the Protestant princes. The Swedish army won a brilliant victory at Breitenfeld in 1631 and took Mainz and Prague, but the war dragged on for years, the two opposing armies devastating the countryside and accomplishing little. In 1635 a truce was declared, and the Edict of Restitution was revoked.

The Swedish, however, were still land-hungry, and the French, led by Cardinal Richelieu, were determined to subdue the Habsburgs. Accordingly, in the fourth phase of the war, the French paid subsidies to the Swedish army to keep it fighting, and French troops crossed the Rhine. After another 13 years of struggle, Emperor Ferdinand III and the princes were ready for peace.

The Peace of Westphalia

The long war ended in a draw, finalized by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By the terms of the treaty, the sovereignty and independence of each state of the Holy Roman Empire was fully recognized, making the Holy Roman emperor virtually powerless. In addition, the religion of each German state was to be determined by its prince. The religious status quo of 1624 was accepted, meaning that the Habsburg lands and the south and west were Catholic, the Reformed faith was recognized, and Protestants could retain acquired lands.

Politically, the Holy Roman Empire, or First Reich, continued in name, but it had lost all claim to universality or effective centralized government. Economically and socially, Germany had lost about one-third of its people to war, famine, and plague and much of its livestock, capital, and trade. Bands of refugees and mercenaries roamed the countryside, seizing what they could.

Cultural Life in the Renaissance and Reformation

Renaissance classicism and the Protestant Reformation deeply affected the arts of the 16th century and transformed education.

The Visual Arts

In painting and sculpture the late Gothic style, characterized by religious devotion and love of fine detail, lingered on. Great effort was expended on stained-glass windows and altarpieces by such masters as the painters Matthias Grünewald and Stefan Lochner and the sculptors Veit Stoss, Peter Vischer the Elder, Adam Kraft, and Tilman Riemenschneider. The Renaissance style, marked by classical motifs and interest in the natural world, was introduced from Italy by Albrecht Dürer, who brought German painting to heights previously unknown. Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein the Younger expressed the humanist emphasis on the individual in portraits. Dürer and Martin Schongauer combined Gothic and Renaissance elements in the new arts of woodcut and copper engraving, used for printed book illustration.

Architecture was late Gothic until the Reformation, when church building virtually stopped. Protestants frowned on church art, but they spent lavishly on the steep-roofed, half-timbered, decoratively painted houses of the burghers and on imposing palaces and guildhalls in the Renaissance style.

Literature and Scholarship

Medieval tradition continued in popular German literature in the form of folk songs, anecdotes about folk heroes, and religious and secular folk plays. Folk and classical themes provided source material for the Meistersinger, lyric poets who wrote according to the strict forms of the earlier Minnesingers. Foremost among them was Hans Sachs, a cobbler of Nuremberg.

The most important development in literature was Luther's translation of the Bible into a vigorous vernacular that helped give the German people a unified literary language. It became the basis for standardized High German. Luther and others wrote German hymns for Protestant congregations, a liturgical innovation that laid the foundation for German church music and influenced worship throughout the Protestant world. Melanchthon, a professor at the University of Wittenberg, lucidly presented Protestant doctrines in Latin to the non-German world. He and other humanists introduced classical scholarship to universities in Cologne, Leipzig, Vienna, and other cities, and he helped found new universities in Königsberg, Jena, and Marburg.


Medieval German education had been limited chiefly to schools and universities run by religious orders to train churchmen and a few government officials. Even the new humanist learning was at first intended for a small, scholarly elite. But Luther, consistent with his belief in the priesthood of all believers and individual study of the Bible, thought that state schools should be open to children of every class. In the Protestant states, primary schools were set up to teach German and religion. Latin was the principal subject in the secondary schools (Gymnasien) founded by Melanchthon, which presented for the first time a graded course of study. Saxony and other Protestant states gradually opened Gymnasien, which influenced German education into the 20th century. In the Catholic states similar but highly centralized schools were established. All these schools were attended chiefly by boys whose families could afford the fees.

Rise of Austria and Prussia

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the empire was overshadowed by France and England. Its creaking framework was supported by lesser German princes, who wanted its protection, and undermined by greater princes, who wanted freedom to develop on their own. The Wettins of Saxony, expanding eastward, became kings of Poland. The Welfs of Brunswick-Lüneburg became electors of Hannover and gained great influence when Elector George inherited Great Britain in 1714. The Wittelsbachs of Bavaria intrigued for a crown in the Spanish Netherlands. Dominating the other princes were the Habsburgs of Austria, who also held Bohemia and Hungary, and the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg, who became kings of Prussia.

Foreign Wars

Scarcely had they recovered from the Thirty Years' War when the princes and the emperor plunged into a variety of new dynastic struggles.

French Wars

In the west the princes were involved in four wars by which Louis XIV strove to extend French territory to the Rhine. In the War of the Devolution (1667-1668), Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg accepted a pension from Louis in return for political support. In the Dutch War (1672-1678), however, Frederick William turned against Louis and lost his conquests in Pomerania. But he later benefited Brandenburg by offering refuge to Huguenots (French Calvinists), whom Louis had exiled by revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Some 20,000 Huguenots migrated east, bringing with them weaving skills and French culture. Louis's invasion of the Palatinate led to the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), which won him Strasbourg and Alsace.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was fought over the right of Louis XIV's grandson, Philip V, to inherit the Spanish throne. Bavaria sided with France, because Louis promised the elector the crown of the Spanish Netherlands. Brandenburg supported the successive emperors Leopold I and Joseph I in return for imperial recognition of Prussia as a kingdom. The other European states also allied with the empire to block unification of France and Spain. Large, well-trained, well-equipped armies fought in Bavaria and western Germany, wreaking havoc and ruin. When both sides were exhausted, they accepted the Peace of Utrecht.

Northern Wars

Encroached on from the west, the German princes turned to the north and east, where they came into conflict with Sweden in the Baltic. In the First Northern War (1655-1660) the emperor and the elector of Brandenburg supported Poland and Denmark against Charles X Gustav of Sweden. The outcome did not effect much change.

In the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which paralleled the War of the Spanish Succession, Saxony, Poland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Hannover, Denmark, and Russia joined forces against Sweden. At the end of it, the treaties of Stockholm and Nystadt restored Poland to Augustus, transferred Stettin and West Pomerania from Sweden to Brandenburg-Prussia, and gave Sweden's eastern Baltic lands to Russia.

Turkish Wars

The Germans also had to reckon with the Ottoman Turks, who, after a period of quiescence, were vigorously expanding in southeastern Europe. When the Turks invaded Hungary in 1663, imperial troops managed to defeat them and win a 20-year truce. More eager to check the Catholic Habsburgs than the Muslim Turks, Louis XIV and the Hungarians encouraged Turkish aggression. When the truce was up, the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1683. In this emergency imperial troops, combined with those of John III Sobieski of Poland, rescued the city. The Turks were driven beyond the Danube, and Hungary was compelled to recognize the Habsburg right to inherit the Hungarian crown. The Turkish wars continued, however, until the brilliant general Prince Eugene of Savoy led imperial troops to victory at Senta (1697). By the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) the Habsburgs regained most of Hungary. The depopulated country was resettled with German veterans, and imperial authority centralized in Vienna was imposed.

Austro-Prussian Rivalry

By 1740 the other German states had fallen behind, leaving Austria and Prussia as rivals for dominance in central Europe.

Growth of Prussia

The family of Hohenzollern, which had been granted Brandenburg in the 15th century, had acquired a number of additional, geographically unconnected territories in the west. Outside the empire to the east was the most important area, Prussia, which they had inherited as a Polish duchy in 1618 and converted into an independent kingdom in 1701. Gradually, all the Hohenzollern lands came to be known as the kingdom of Prussia.

Frederick William I of Prussia was a sturdy, hardheaded soldier determined to unite his disparate possessions into a modern military state. Crushing local customs and interests, he created an honest, efficient bureaucracy, which filled the treasury and ran the country for the benefit of a large standing army. He tried to convert his intellectual and artistic son Frederick into an image of himself.

Frederick II, the Great, an unhappy genius, was equally at home on the battlefield and enjoying French literature and music in his Sans Souci (French for "carefree") Palace near Berlin. He spent most of his life, however, aggrandizing Prussia at the expense of Austria and Poland, and refining and reorganizing the Prussian government and economy to better serve the army.

War of the Austrian Succession

Emperor Charles VI, anxious to keep Habsburg lands unified, issued the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, declaring that his only child, Maria Theresa, should succeed him. When he died in 1740, the electors of Bavaria and Saxony rejected the Pragmatic Sanction on the grounds that they had prior claims through their wives. Frederick II offered his support to Maria Theresa in exchange for the rich province of Silesia. Convinced of the justice of her cause, she indignantly refused. Frederick promptly invaded Silesia, precipitating the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The Bavarians, Saxons, and French invaded Austria and Bohemia, while Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Russia came to the aid of Austria.

Alarmed by Frederick's military victories, Maria Theresa made peace with him in 1742, ceding him Silesia. Austria and its allies succeeded, however, in driving the French from Bohemia and conquering Bavaria to replace the lost Silesia. By the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, duke of Lorraine, was recognized as emperor, although it was she who actually ruled. In return, Maria Theresa gave up Bavaria and allowed Prussia to keep Silesia.

Seven Years' War

The emergence of Prussia as a major power led to a radical shift of alliances and to new hostilities. Maria Theresa, determined to reconquer Silesia, made an alliance with Elizabeth of Russia. George II of Britain, fearing possible French attack on Hannover, made a treaty of neutrality with Frederick. The old Habsburg-Valois rivalry was forgotten as the Austrian minister, Prince Kaunitz, maneuvered Louis XV, fearful of Prussia, into an alliance with Maria Theresa. Frederick, anticipating encirclement, struck first by invading Saxony and Bohemia, beginning the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).

Violence spread as the Austrians invaded Silesia, the Russians marched into Prussia, and the French attacked Hannover. Despite good leadership, Frederick soon found himself hard pressed by many enemies. He was conveniently rescued by the death of Elizabeth of Russia and the succession of Peter III, who admired Frederick and at once made peace. The exhausted French also wanted peace. The Treaty of Hubertusburg restored the status quo, with Frederick keeping Silesia.

Bitterly disappointed, Maria Theresa devoted herself to internal affairs. She gradually reorganized the government and established uniform taxes, a customs union, and state-supported elementary schools. She encouraged nobles and commoners to take government and army posts. Wise, warmhearted, and tactful, she was loved by all her subjects. She did not always agree, however, with her idealistic son, Joseph. Joseph II was an enlightened monarch who impatiently tried to create an efficient, modern Germanic bureaucracy without regard for the strong local prejudices.

Eastward Expansion

Prussia was anxious to annex Polish territory separating Brandenburg and Prussia. Austria, still regretting Silesia, looked to the east for compensation. Both countries feared the new Russian presence. A weak Poland seemed ample excuse for intervention, and in 1772 Austria, Prussia, and Russia agreed to the first partition of Poland.

When the Bavarian throne became vacant, Joseph tried to annex Bavaria. Frederick objected and formed the League of Princes against the emperor. Blocked by Frederick in the short War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779), Joseph turned east again. A Turkish war (1788-1791) proved fruitless, and he was left out of the second partition of Poland (1793). Not to be overlooked, he insisted that Austria share in the third partition (1795), in which Poland entirely disappeared.

The Baroque Age and the Enlightenment

The end of religious strife and of the Turkish threat gave Germans new confidence. In the 18th century, German culture, nourished by French, English, and Italian developments, reached a brilliant flowering.

The Princely Courts

The princes, resisting imperial control and overriding local diets, made themselves absolute monarchs on the model of Louis XIV. They centralized their governments and established mercantile economies. Engaging the foremost artists, they made their capitals artistic and intellectual centers, resplendent with palaces, churches, museums, theaters, gardens, and universities.

Social and cultural life centered in the courts, which were the chief source of status. Courtiers scorned burghers and peasants as uncouth citizens, useful only to pay taxes to support court life. Princes maintained their courts also by accepting foreign subsidies and selling peasant boys as mercenary soldiers. To escape war and taxes, many Germans migrated to North America.

Art and Music

 In the Catholic south, great numbers of churches and monasteries were built or rebuilt. They borrowed the dramatic baroque style that had developed out of the Italian and French Renaissance, transforming it into a graceful, playfully exuberant, rococo style that was uniquely German. Outstanding are the church at Vierzehnheiligen by Balthasar Neumann; the Karlskirche, Vienna, by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach; and the churches of the brothers Cosmas Damian Asam and Egid Quirin Asam. The baroque-rococo style was also used for palaces, such as Schönbrunn, outside Vienna, and the Zwinger in Dresden.

In the baroque period, instrumental music, mostly for chamber groups or keyboard, took the form of complex, highly structured polyphonic suites, preludes, and fugues by such masters as Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. In the preclassical and classical periods, after 1720, orchestral music became more dominant and the compositions themselves longer and more abstract, with the development of sonata form and symphonic structure. Experimentation with orchestral forces and textures by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and others culminated in the great achievements of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Instrumental and vocal music were combined in the religious chorales and oratorios of J. S. Bach and George Frideric Handel and in the Italian-inspired operas of Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann. Opera truly came of age in the hands of Christoph Willibald Gluck and was carried to greater refinement by the versatile Mozart.

Literature and Thought

In reaction against the religious concerns of the tumultuous 16th and early 17th centuries was the growth of rationalism and the scientific spirit, which produced the European Enlightenment. Absorbing the works of British and French thinkers, German professors discarded the theology of a world in which sinful men and women needed divine grace. They adopted the optimistic, secular philosophy of a world ordered by natural law in which all humans, innately rational and good, could, through education, aim at perfection.

The first major German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, posited a universe ruled by a natural, preestablished harmony. The idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant analyzed the power of reason and asserted a rational basis for ethics. The playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing returned to the structure of classical drama and introduced to German theater the English principle of toleration and an interest in ordinary middle-class life.

Rationalism was soon opposed by a current stressing intuition and feeling. In religion it took the form of an evangelical revival, known as Pietism. Many middle- and lower-class Germans became followers of the Lutheran pastors Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke, who urged individual Bible study and personal experience of spiritual regeneration expressed in ethical conduct. The University of Halle (1694) became a center of Pietist education, charity, and training of missionaries. Pietism had a lasting influence on Lutheranism and on many German thinkers.

In literature the antirationalist tendency led to the late 18th-century Sturm und Drang (literally, storm and stress) movement. Writers in this revolutionary spirit viewed nature as a constantly changing force and valued humans for their individual passions rather than universal reason. Contributing to this spirit was the insistence of Johann Gottfried von Herder on the influence of history on literature, especially the importance of medieval folk songs and tales. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789-1799), antirationalism broadened into early romanticism, primarily concerned with the will and feelings of the unique, creative individual. The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte saw the universe as based on the moral will of God. August von Schlegel translated Shakespeare's plays, which emphasize history and individual character. Novalis wrote mystical Christian lyric poetry.

These contrasting and yet complementary streams came together in the work of three German literary masters: Friedrich von Schiller, who wrote classical dramas in historical settings, infused with moral conviction and the struggle for freedom; Friedrich Hölderlin, who wrote lyrical poems of profound spiritual anguish modeled on classical Greek forms; and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the sage of Weimar, a giant of European literature. Goethe's early autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; translated 1779), was in the romantic spirit. The more disciplined dramas Egmont (1788) and Torquato Tasso (1790), inspired by his Italian travels, were in the classical vein. He harmoniously combined both romantic and classical outlooks in the dramatic masterpiece Faust (1832).

Age of Nationalism

Enlightenment theories of representative government, combined with romantic stress on freedom and the distinctive history of a people, inspired Germans and other ethnic groups with a desire for national unification and liberal reform. The conquests of Napoleon subsequently aroused their sense of national identity.

Napoleonic Wars

For 18 years the German states variously engaged in five wars of defense against the well-trained, unified armies of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In the first two wars the French took the left bank of the Rhine. In the third, Napoleon conquered Vienna and Berlin. In 1806 he reorganized the western German states, to compensate for their left-bank losses, into the Confederation of the Rhine. Austria and Prussia were excluded and lost much territory. In 1809 Austria led a fourth war against France, while Napoleon was occupied in Spain, but in the process it lost more land.

In 1812, Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow, pursued by the Russians, encouraged the allies to make another effort. Frederick William III of Prussia, joined by Austria and Russia, led a War of Liberation, in which Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig (1813). After much bloodshed the allies took Paris in 1814.

At the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) the allies redrew the map of Europe. Austria, which gave up the Austrian Netherlands and its Swabian lands in the west, was compensated in the south and east by Salzburg, the Tirol (Tyrol), Lombardy and Venetia in Italy, and Illyria and Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea. Prussia lost most of its Polish territory but gained much of Saxony and Swedish Pomerania as well as land in the Rhineland and Westphalia, including the undeveloped iron and coal resources of the Ruhr and Saar.

The German Confederation

The Congress of Vienna replaced the Holy Roman Empire of more than 240 states with the German Confederation of 39 states represented by a powerless diet (assembly). Opinions differed on what the character of the new confederation should be. Many Germans wanted to fashion a liberal government on British and French models according to a constitution guaranteeing popular representation, trial by jury, and free speech. They also hoped for national unification. Such ideas were especially popular among journalists, lawyers, and professors and with impatient university students, who formed secret societies for rapid action. These aims also appealed to the various restive peoples within the Austrian Empire.

Liberalism and nationalism were bitterly opposed by the rulers of Prussia and Austria and by the recently crowned kings of Bavaria, Hannover, Württemberg, and Saxony, who dreaded any encroachment on their individual sovereignty. Accordingly, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Britain formed the Quadruple Alliance to suppress—by force if necessary—any threat to the Vienna settlement. The German rulers supported the repressive system instituted by the Austrian foreign minister Prince Klemens von Metternich. Frederick William III blocked reforms planned by his ministers. Prussia outmaneuvered Austria by instituting a customs union of most German states except Austria.

The July Revolution in Paris in 1830 set off liberal risings in many German states. Metternich had the confederation forbid public meetings and ban petitions. Nevertheless, in 1848 another wave of revolutions, beginning in Paris, washed over Europe. Nationalist groups revolted in Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, and Lombardy. Metternich resigned and Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated in favor of his young nephew Francis Joseph I. Uprisings also took place in Bavaria, Prussia, and southwestern Germany. The frightened rulers agreed to send delegates to an assembly in Frankfurt.

The rebellions were soon crushed, however. In Austria a liberal constitutional assembly was dissolved, and a constitution providing highly centralized, although representative, government was imposed. Hungary, which had declared itself a republic, was forcibly subdued. In Prussia Frederick William IV imposed an authoritarian constitution.

Meanwhile, the Frankfurt Assembly wrote a liberal constitution for a united Germany under a hereditary emperor. Austria refused to allow its German lands to be included, so the assembly regretfully decided that Germany should consist of the German states without Austria. For lack of an alternative, they offered the crown to Frederick William, who refused it. The assembly dispersed in failure; unity was to be achieved with Prussian military might.

The German Empire

After the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly, both Prussia and Austria put forth conflicting plans for union. On the brink, Prussia backed down, but only temporarily. William I was determined that neither Austria nor a newly aggressive France should thwart Prussian ambitions. He and his chief minister, Otto von Bismarck, decided that Prussia must become unassailable. Bismarck, a Prussian Junker (aristocrat) of forceful intellect, overbearing manner, and deep loyalty to the crown, used unification as a means to that end.


Bismarck planned a realpolitik (politics of reality) that astutely combined diplomacy with "blood-and-iron" militarism in order to eliminate Austrian influence and bring about unification on Prussian terms. As a preliminary he bought the neutrality of Russia, Italy, and France with friendly treaties. His first step was to invite Austria in 1864 to join an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein. These two duchies were ruled by Denmark. The Austrians and Prussians quickly defeated the Danes but soon fell out over control of the conquered duchies.

On that excuse Bismarck took a second step by launching the Seven Weeks' War against Austria in 1866. Skillfully coordinating three armies, General Helmuth von Moltke quickly defeated the Austrians at Königgrätz. Bismarck, however, did not want to alienate Austria irrevocably; he made an easy peace. Austria gave up Venetia to Italian nationalists. Prussia annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Hannover, and other states and organized the North German Confederation (1867) without Austria.

To overcome southern German fears of an enlarged Prussia, Bismarck took a third step, the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870 the aggressive French emperor Napoleon III unwisely pressed William I to promise that a Hohenzollern would never take the vacant Spanish throne. Bismarck distorted William's account of the incident to make it seem as if the French had been insulted and then published the account. The outraged French declared war. Stirred by national loyalty, the southern German states joined forces behind Prussia, whose seasoned armies conquered the disorganized French at Sedan and, after a long siege, took Paris in 1871. With these events Bismarck convinced the southern German states that Prussian control was inevitable. At Versailles in 1871 he persuaded a reluctant William to take a new title as head of the German Empire, the Second Reich.

The Age of Bismarck

Having sufficiently aggrandized Prussia, the Iron Chancellor, as Bismarck was called, worked for peace. He constructed a series of alliances designed to protect Germany from aggression. At the Congress of Berlin (1878) Bismarck mediated a settlement in the Balkans, where various Slavic groups kept rising against the decaying Ottoman Empire. Largely to please the merchant class, he consented to Germany's acquiring colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Germany found its colonies valuable chiefly for prestige, however.

At home, Bismarck encouraged the Industrial Revolution, which developed rapidly after 1850 as Germans applied advanced industrial technology to the iron and coal resources of the Ruhr and Saar. The population rose by a third, and factories boomed, transforming rural farmers into urban producers of steel for machinery, railways, and ships. This enlarged city population demanded a share in the government.

The empire, however, did not function democratically. The 25 nominally sovereign states (plus Alsace-Lorraine) of the North German Confederation were ruled by a Bundesrat of princes dominated by Prussia and a powerless Reichstag of elected deputies, while the chancellor was responsible only to the emperor. Bismarck's scorn for the ordinary citizen and his distrust of the Roman Catholic Center party and the workers' Social Democratic party further discouraged parliamentary government.

Mindful of old papal-imperial rivalry, Bismarck believed that the Catholic church, which had declared the infallibility of the pope in 1870, threatened the supremacy of the German state. He therefore initiated the Kulturkampf ("culture struggle") during which he suppressed many religious orders and dismissed, imprisoned, or exiled disobedient priests. Church-state strife cooled in 1879, chiefly because Bismarck needed the Center party's support against the Liberals to obtain high tariffs that would protect German agriculture and industry from cheap imports.

Bismarck next turned his wrath on the Socialist party, forerunner of the Social Democratic party. Blaming on it two attempts by non-Socialists to assassinate William, he had a new Reichstag elected, which supported tariffs and outlawed the Socialists. To forestall workers' demands and to ensure healthy army recruits, he provided state insurance for sickness, accidents, and old age. When the outlawed Socialist party won a large number of seats in the election of 1890, Bismarck prepared to abolish the constitution. Suddenly, however, he was dismissed by the new emperor, William II, who wanted to rule the empire in his own right.