Prior to the unification of Germany in 1871 the region had been a ‘hotch potch’ of small states, duchies, principalities, city states and ecclesiastical enclaves which had developed over hundreds of years. Prior to this we know that the Romans attempted to conquer the Germanic tribes but following their defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. they never really tried again.
In 800 A.D. the Germans were briefly unified under the rule of Charlemagne who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. But the Holy Roman Empire, as it became known under Otto the Great in 962 A.D, had shrunk and become more fiction than fact by the time Francis II dissolved the Empire in 1806.
In between, the region we know today saw the Habsburg Dynasty monopolise the crown of the Holy Roman Empire and bring some semblance of order during the many wars, plagues and pogroms. Along Germany’s northern coasts the Hanseatic League embraced more than 200 member cities from the late 14th to early 17th centuries.
Religion had its part to play in shaping modern Germany; the Protestant Reformation divided the states between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists leading to the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648). It was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which left hundreds of states with two, Prussia and Austria, seeking to dominate. From the 1790s the German states were controlled by Napoleon’s France and it wasn’t until the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 that the French were driven back. In 1815, after the Congress of Vienna, a confederation of 35 states was created along with a Reichstag or legislative assembly.
The Reichstag was ineffective and although it tried to represent the most populous states it could not control the continued rivalry between Prussia and Austria. Meanwhile the industrial age was bringing a new urban force and in 1848 riots erupted across much of Germany. Austria finally broke away, developed its own constitution but ended up as an absolute monarchy. Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm IV developed a new constitution which further divided the region.
Unification of Germany finally came as the result of one man, Otto von Bismarck, a member of the former Reichstag and Prime Minister of Prussia. Through diplomacy and three highly successful military campaigns against Denmark and France Bismarck achieved his aim, without Austria, to unify Germany in 1871. Essentially the battles for dominance between the two old rival states of Prussia and Austria had been won and the smaller states had succumbed to Prussian dominance.
On 18th January 1871 the Prussian King was crowned Kaiser of the Reich and Bismarck became the ‘Iron Chancellor’.
Although the new Germany had a Reichstag elected by universal male suffrage, the emperor and his ministers were the real power in the new state. In 1888 Wilhelm II became the new Kaiser and wanted to extend social reform whilst Bismarck wanted to dampen the growth of socialism. By 1890 the Kaiser had won and the ‘Iron Chancellor’ was removed from power leaving a weakened and incompetent leadership.
The Reichstag was soon split between those who supported the emperor including the nobility, landowners and the business elites as well as the Protestant clergy. On the other side were the Roman Catholic Centre Party and the Socialist Party; and they grew in strength until, by 1912 they dominated the Reichstag.
The First World War (1914 – 1918) pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey against Britain, France, Italy and Russia. The forces were evenly matched until the arrival of America late in the war (1917) and Germany accepted defeat.
Tragically the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 deliberately humiliated Germany and imposed punitive penalties which included loss of territory, financial reparations and an emasculated military. In 1919 a mutiny by sailors in Kiel spread nationwide and on 9th November the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.
On 30th December 1918, the Communist Party of Germany was founded by the Spartacus League and by 1920 had become a mass member party with a following of about 10% of the electorate.
Elsewhere, in Weimar, the politicians, when not warring amongst themselves, brought together a constituent assembly which adopted a federalist constitution for a new democratic republic. On 11th August 1919 the Weimar constitution came into effect, with Friedrich Ebert as its first President.
Governed by a coalition of left and centre-parties the Republic failed to please anyone, on the left or the right. By 1923 hyperinflation hit the republic (one reason why modern day Germany remains so fiscally cautious). That same year Adolph Hitler launched the Munich Putsch with members of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSPAD). Hitler ended up in prison and for the next two years assembled his thoughts into Mein Kampf.
In the 1930 Federal election Hitler’s NSPAD won 18.25% of the vote and 107 of the 577 seats in the Reichstag, second only to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) on 142 seats. Two years later, in 1932, Hitler took 36.8% of the vote in the presidential election and a year later President Paul von Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor of a coalition government. In March 1933 Hitler sized power and a year later created the Third Reich upon Hindenburg’s death.
The rise of Nazi Germany is well documented and the expansionist policies of Hitler ultimately led to the Second World War (1939 – 1945) and the destruction of Germany as a single state. The Second World War is estimated to have cost the lives of some 75 million people.
The Potsdam Conference, which was held from 17th July to 2nd August 1945 divided Germany into four zones of occupation. The Russian zone subsequently split to become the new German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949 whilst the three zones controlled by the British, French and Americans became the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) also in 1949.
Konrad Adenauer became the first Chancellor of post-war West Germany and founded the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which led the country until 1969.
Although part of a right/left coalition that had developed after the 1965 federal election (in 1966), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under the leadership of Willie Brandt formed the first centre-left government since World War Two in 1969 with the support of the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Germany had grown quickly in the intervening years, had joined NATO and was one of the leading nations pushing for the European Economic Community (the EEC was formed in 1957) to expand.
Brandt’s ‘Neue Ostpolitik’ which attempted to normalise relations with the GDR led to a number of defections, especially from the FDP and a snap election was called in 1972. Brandt won with the SPD taking 230 of 496 seats in the Bundestag and forming a coalition with the FDP once more. Two years later, on 7th May 1974 Brandt was forced to resign after one of his staff was discovered to be a Stasi (East German Security Service) agent. The coalition continued under the leadership of Helmut Schmidt.
Schmidt went on to win the 1976 federal election and again in 1980, but in 1982 the coalition broke up and the FDP joined forces with the CDU-CSU under the leadership of Helmut Kohl.
From 1949 onwards East Germany had found itself more deeply in the grips of the communists. The country was led by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) until the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the Iron Curtain across Europe in 1989. With the fall of the communists in East Germany the way was left free for reunification of the two Germanys which eventually took place on 3rd October 1990.
The SED reinvented itself into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) which won 17 of the 662 seats in the reunited Bundestag. The SED went on to become the modern day The Left (Die Linke).
Meanwhile Helmut Kohl soldiered on as Chancellor, leading successive CDU-CSU and FDP coalition governments until 1998. After 18 years of Kohl the German people had become weary of the CDU and with rising unemployment they switched to the SPD and a Green Alliance which had been growing in strength since 1983. The new Chancellor was Gerhard Schröder with a Green Alliance Vice-Chancellor in Joschka Fischer who was also Foreign Minister. The Red/Green coalition government ended in 2005 when the CDU and SPD negotiated the first Right/Left Grand Coalition with the CDU leader, Angela Merkel as Chancellor.
Merkel remained on as Chancellor after the 2009 election but with her more traditional allies, the FDP. Nevertheless the Grand Coalition had been a measured success and tempered the political debate in the lead up to the 2013 federal election as the FDP appeared to implode.
The eight years from 2005 to 2013 had not been easy but Merkel had steered Germany through the economic crisis of 2009 and the subsequent Euro Crisis leaving her country economically as one of the strongest in the world.
The President is elected for a five year term by a Federal Convention including all members of the Federal Assembly and an equal number of delegates elected by the state parliaments.
The bicameral parliament consists of the Federal Council or Bundesrat with 69 seats. State governments sit in the Council each has three to six votes in proportion to the population and are required to vote as a block. The Federal Assembly or Bundestag has around 622 members (it can change each election) elected by popular vote for a four-year term under a system of personalized proportional representation.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Germany at joint 10th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 81 (where 100 is least corrupt).