In its history, Germany has rarely been united. For most of the two millennia the area now called Germany was divided into hundreds of states, including duchies, principalities, free cities, and ecclesiastical states. Even the Romans didn’t manage to unite the territory under one government, having occupied only its southern and western parts. In A.D.800 Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman emperor, ruled over a territory that encompassed the present-day Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but the unity was rather symbolic than real.
Medieval Germany was excruciated by never-ending wars among the local rulers. The Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg Dynasty’s provided only the semblance of German unity. The Protestant Reformation deprived Germany of even its religious unity, leaving its population Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran. These religious divisions gave military strife an added ferocity in the devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).
After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 the German-speaking Europe was divided into hundreds of states, with Prussia and Austria competing for dominance during the next two centuries.
From the mid-1790s much of the German territory was occupied by French troops, until Prussia, Austria, and Russia defeated Napoleon in 1813. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 German territory composed of only about 40 states.
Aspiration for German unity and freedom grew during the next half-century, laying the groundwork for revolution in 1848. However, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia opposed the idea of German unity seeing it as a threat to his power.
Nonetheless, after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was unified in 1871 under Emperor Wilhelm I, King of Prussia. This unification was much due to a Prussian aristocrat, Otto von Bismarck, who sought to preserve a feudal social order of Prussia in the long contest with Austria for dominance. Through a number of masterful diplomatic maneuvers and effective military campaigns, Bismarck succeeded in forming a united Germany without Austria.
The united Germany had a parliament, the Reichstag, however, supreme power belonged to the emperor. The emperor was supported by the nobility, large rural landowners, business and financial elites, the Protestant clergy, the civil service, and the military. These groups were opposed by the Roman Catholic Center Party, the Socialist Party, and a number of liberal and regional political groups confronting Prussian hegemony. In the end, Bismarck and his successors were not able to surmount this opposition. By 1912 the Socialists gained the majority in the Reichstag, which made the empire’s governing increasingly troublesome.
In World War I (1914–18) Germany’s annexationist strategy, involving a two-front war in France and Belgium in the west and Russia in the east, ultimately failed. Germany’s defeat in 1918 lead to the end of the German Empire. In the result of the Treaty of Versailles negotiated by Britain, France, and the United States in 1919, Germany sustained punitive measures, including the loss of territory and financial reparations. This set the conditions for World War II.
In 1919 the Weimar Republic was established with a constitution that provided for a parliamentary democracy. However, the new republic didn’t live up to the democratic expectations. The resentments of many Germans, who held the Weimar Republic responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war and humiliating peace, along with social and economic pressures, were exploited in mid-1933 by Adolf Hitler to gain political power.
After a brief economic recovery in 1924-1929, the Great Depression followed, bringing about severe social stress and antidemocratic attitude dominating in the Weimar Republic by 1932. In January 1933, a new conservative government with Hitler as chancellor was formed. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazis, intended to replace the republic with an authoritarian government, however, within a few months, Hitler established a totalitarian regime with the notorious Holocaust crimes.
After losing World War II (1939–45), Germany was divided by the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States into two states. In August, 1961 the Berlin Wall was built, dividing the country into East Germany governed by the Soviets and West Germany under the American cover.
East Germany was never viewed legitimate by its citizens and fell behind economically, with its population trying to flee to the prosperous West Germany. The latter soon became one of the world’s richest nations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany invited migrants from Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, and Turkey to work and rebuild the country, which ensued in the postwar economic boom.
Thus, during the Cold War period Germany sustained forty-five years of a tense international divide – the so-called Iron Curtain. Unification of West Germany and East Germany took place October 3rd, 1990, and swept away the infamous Berlin wall.
Such a jumbled history with tedious periods of Political and territorial fragmentation, as much as the country’s varied scenery, explains Germany’s cultural diversity.
Cultural highlights of Germany provide a wide range of experiences for travellers, from medieval towns, preserved in their authenticity, to carefully restored art nouveau ensembles, impressive brick Gothic and state-of-the-art architecture.
The course of history has predetermined the German cultural heritage. Traditions of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo − all have left a rich legacy of artistic and architectural treasures. In Germany, the past rests beside the present wherever you go. You can wander around a Roman amphitheatre, run into a medieval palace and walk along the remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Performance art lovers are attracted by Germany’s world-renowned theatres, orchestras, musicals, shows and festivals. German contribution to the world of classical music provides a powerful pretext for a visit to this country. Experience the glories of the Berlin Philharmonic, or follow in the footsteps of the great composers – Beethoven in Bonn and Bach in Leipzig.
German fine art is less acknowledged, yet from the pioneering realism of Albrecht Dürer to the aerial romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, it’s a significant tradition that is well worth discovering. Fine art connoisseurs can find interest in exhibitions of classic and avant garde works in German galleries, with Berlin and Cologne being the major hubs of the European contemporary art.
As a matter of fact, Germany’s reputation as the cradle of modernism is well deserved, and a visit to the Bauhaus in Dessau or the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart will undoubtedly please design fans.