German history at a glance

Until 1871, Europe’s German speaking peoples were divided into many small principalities, a few moderate-sized kingdoms, and two large yet divided major powers: Austria in the southeast and Prussia in the north. The German Reich , proclaimed in 1871, was a Prussian-dominated structure that did not include Austria. Nonetheless, it was by far the most successful unification effort in German history. This empire was largely the work of Otto von Bismarck. Under Bismarck Prussia became one of the world’s great powers and industrialization and urbanization advanced rapidly, as did the Reich’s military power. The empire was an authoritarian political structure with some democratic features. Germany had become a modern society ruled by a pre-modern, traditional elite.

By the turn of the century the expansionist foreign policies of the Reich had provoked Britain, France, and Russia to ally against the Reich. The empire carefully constructed by Bismarck thus did not survive World War I and great areas were lost after defeat in 1918. The many tensions and contradictions in the socio-economic and social structures of the empire eventually became apparent.

In January 1919 Germany adopted a model democratic constitution that contained an extensive catalogue of human rights and provided numerous opportunities for popular participation. "The Weimar Republic" did however meet considerable resistance in the divided working class and polarization between left and right was fierce. The 1929 worldwide depression dealt the republic a blow from which it could not recover. By 1932, over a third of the workforce was unemployed, and the Nazis became the largest party in the parliament as they were regarded determined to reverse the trend, unlike the leaders of the democratic parties.  

The Nazi Party (or National Socialist German Workers Party) was one of many nationalist and völkisch (racialist) movements that had emerged after WWI, however, Hitler’s leadership abilities set it apart from the others. Hitler was able to appeal to a wide variety of voters and interests and proclaimed a restoration of national pride through denouncing the Versailles treaty. In January 1933 Hitler was asked by President von Hindenburg to form a government. Two months later the Nazis pushed an Enabling Act through the parliament that essentially gave Hitler total powers; the parliament, constitution and civil liberties were suspended. From the beginning of the Nazi movement, the Jews were regarded as the prime cause of all the misfortune, unhappiness and disappointments endured by the German people, and from 1933 on the Nazis began a systematic process that denied Jews their dignity, economic livelihood, humanity and which ended in a focused extermination effort of European Jews. 

The end of World War II meant the suspension of Germany as a political entity. The victorious allies returned the conquered territory to its pre-war owners and divided Germany into zones of military occupation. By the late 1940s, the onset of the Cold War dashed any hopes that the wartime coalition could agree on a single post-war German state. By 1949 Germany was formally divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Between 1949 and 1990 the two German republics followed very distinct patterns of development.

In the Federal Republic the period between 1949 and 1961 was characterized by emphasis on economic reconstruction and stabilization of the new political system both internally and externally through participation in the EU and NATO. Politics were dominated by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the country’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. The construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 marked the end of this period. During the rest of the 1960s, domestic policy areas dominated the political agenda. In 1969 a social-liberal coalition entered government and a process of modernization and liberalization was initiated. The coalition only collapsed in 1982 when the CDU resumed power. The party leader Helmut Kohl formed a coalition administration with the Free Democrats (FDP) and would dominate Western-German politics for the next 15 years, overseeing the country’s unification in 1990 after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall.   

Throughout the 40 years between 1949 and 1989 relations between the two German states were characterized by the Cold War and although gradually improving, the states denied formal diplomatic recognition of each other. The collapse of the East-German communist regime in 1989-90 came after popular demands for democracy and formed a part of the larger disintegration of communism in Europe and the former Soviet Union. The East German leader Erich Honnecker was forced to resign in November 1989. In a desperate attempt to gain some support, the new leadership opened the country’s border to West Germany, including the Berlin Wall and millions of East Germans started to flood into the West. The country’s first (and only) free elections were held in March 1990 and about 80 per cent of the voters supported parties advocating a speedy unification with the West. On 3 of October 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany ceased to exist and, reconstituted as five states (Länder) and joined the Federal Republic.

Politics in the new era

Germany is a federal republic consisting of 16 Länder. At the national level there are three major decision-making structures:  Bundestag (the lower house of parliament), Bundesrat  (the Federal Council, which represents the states and corresponds to an upper house), and the federal government,or executive (chancellor and cabinet).

Helmut Kohl was formally re-elected federal chancellor in the united Germany in January 1991. The federal government included 20 members, but only three from the former East. The ruling CDU/CSU-FDP coalition was re-elected in 1994. Several social challenges confronted the government following unification, especially in the former East: escalating unemployment as a result of the introduction of market-oriented reforms to the East, a substantial increase in crime, as well as the resurgence of extreme-right wing and neo-Nazi groups.

At the general election of 1998 the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition was decisively defeated by the Social Democratic Party (SDP). A new coalition was negotiated with the Greens and later that year Gerhard Schröder of the SDP was elected chancellor by a large majority of the Bundestag.

Germany joined the other NATO allies in the military conflict in Kosovo in 1999. Before the Kosovo crisis, Germans had not participated in an armed conflict since World War II. Germany also agreed to take 40,000 Kosovar refugees, the most of any NATO country. In December 1999, former chancellor Helmut Kohl and other high officials in the Christian Democrat Party (CDU) admitted accepting tens of millions of dollars in illegal donations during the 1980s and 1990s. The scandal led to the virtual dismemberment of the CDU in early 2000, a party that had long been a stable conservative force in German politics.

Schröder was narrowly re-elected in September 2002, defeating the conservative Edmund Stoiber. Schröder's Social Democrats and the coalition partner, the Greens, won a razor-thin majority in parliament. In the local elections in May 2005 SPD suffered a devastating defeat. The election was seen as a referendum on Schröder's economic reform programmes, which had done little to rejuvenate the economy and had angered many Germans accustomed to their country's generous social welfare programmes. Schröder engineered early elections, for September 2005 instead of a year later, and seemed to be taking a gamble that when given the choice between the SPD and the conservative CDU and its leader, Angela Merkel, the electorate would continue to support him. The September 18 elections ended in a deadlock: Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU received 35.2% and Schröder’s SPD received 34.3%. After weeks of wrangling and deal-making to form a governing coalition, Merkel emerged as Germany's chancellor-designate. But plans for a “grand coalition” between the CSU and SPD were upset when two key SPD members backed out in late October. Finally, the first left-right coalition in Germany in 36 years was cobbled together, and on November 22, Merkel became Germany's first female chancellor.


Hancock, M.D., D.P. Conradt, B.G. Peters, W. Safran, R. Zarinski (1998).

Politics in Western Europe. Basingstoke: Ma0cmillan Press LTD.

Recent History (Germany), in Europa World online. London, Routledge. Retrieved 09 /2006 from