Various aspects of the early, medieval, and early modern history of Germany are covered in the articles Germans; Germanic laws; Germanic religion; Holy Roman Empire; Austria; and in the articles on the major historic German states (Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, Thuringia, Hesse, Mecklenburg (see under Mecklenburg–West Pomerania, Oldenburg, Brunswick, Anhalt, Lippe, Schaumburg-Lippe) and on the free cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck. The survey that follows is a very general outline of the complex history of Germany.

At the end of the 2d cent. BC, the German tribes began to expand at the expense of the Celts, but they were confined by Roman conquests (1st cent. BC–1st cent. AD) to the region E of the Rhine and N of the Danube. The Romans penetrated briefly (12 BC–AD 9) as far east as the Elbe River (see Teutoburg Forest), and from the late 1st cent. AD to the 3d cent. they held the Agri Decumates, protected against Germanic inroads by a fortified line from Cologne to Regensburg. In a series of great migrations (4th–5th cent.) the German tribes (who did not all come from present-day Germany) overran most of the Roman Empire, while Slavic tribes occupied Germany E of the Elbe.

By the 6th cent., the Anglo-Saxons had established themselves in Britain, and the Franks had taken over nearly all of present-day France, W and S Germany, and Thuringia. Clovis I, who first united the Franks late in the 5th cent., accepted Christianity, and St. Boniface in the 8th cent. spread the gospel in the areas acquired by Clovis's successors. In 751, Pepin the Short deposed the dynasty of the Merovingians and established his own, that of the Carolingians. His son Charlemagne conquered the Saxons and extended the Frankish domain in Germany to the Elbe. He was crowned emperor at Rome in 800.

In the first division (843) of Charlemagne's empire (see Verdun, Treaty of) the kingdom of the Eastern Franks, under Louis the German, emerged as the nucleus of the German state. The Treaty of Mersen (870) enlarged it by the addition of part of Lotharingia (Lorraine), but after the death (876) of Louis it was divided among his sons Carloman, Louis the Younger, and Charles III (Charles the Fat). Emperor Arnulf reunited the kingdom, but during his reign (887–99) and that of his son Louis the Child (900–911), last of the Carolingian kings of Germany, the Norsemen, Slavs, and Magyars began to make devastating inroads. These contributed to economic breakdown and localization, manifest in the manorial system.

Political localization was evident in the emergence of powerful duchies and in the growth of feudalism. The dukes of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Upper and Lower Lorraine emerged as the most powerful magnates of Germany. On the death (911) of Louis the Child, they elected the Franconian duke Conrad I as king. Conrad's reign was spent in struggles against the Magyars and against the rebellious dukes, one of whom (Henry the Fowler of Saxony) succeeded him in 918 as Henry I, beginning a century of Saxon rule. Henry restored some of the royal authority, took territory from the Slavs, and secured the election in 936 of his son, Otto I, as his successor.

The Holy Roman Empire came into existence with the imperial coronation (962) of Otto I. (A list of Otto's successors until 1806 accompanies the article on the Holy Roman Empire.) As a result of their difficult dual role as emperors and German kings, and especially because of their interests in Italy, Otto's successors could not prevent the German dukes and their vassals from increasing their power at the expense of the central authority. Imperial power was further undermined by the conflict between emperors and popes, manifest in the struggle over investiture.

Emperor Frederick I (reigned 1152–90; also known as Frederick Barbarossa) of the Hohenstaufen line was one of the most energetic medieval German rulers. He unsuccessfully challenged the power of the pope (see Guelphs and Ghibellines), being defeated by the Lombard League in 1176. However, Frederick did succeed in partitioning (1180) the domains of Henry the Lion of Saxony and Bavaria, thus destroying the last great independent German duchy. Until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Germany remained a patchwork of numerous small temporal and ecclesiastical principalities and free cities.

The campaigns of the 12th and 13th cent. against the Slavs (see Wends) resulted in tremendous eastward expansion and the establishment of the margraviate of Brandenburg and the domain of the Teutonic Knights. The turbulent reign (1212–50) of Emperor Frederick II, who was active in Sicily, and who engaged in a major conflict with the papacy, left Germany in a state of anarchy. Several rival kings appeared, but none held wide authority, and lawlessness prevailed. The dark period of the Great Interregnum (1254–73) ended with the election of Rudolf I, count of Hapsburg (see Hapsburg), as German king, but neither he nor his successors could create a centralized monarchy. Germany thus diverged from the great kingdoms of Western Europe—France, England, and Spain—where the trend was toward increasing centralization.

To offset the tendency toward independence of the nobles, the emperors relied chiefly on the prosperous cities, many of which formed into leagues for their common defense and interests—e.g., the Hanseatic League and the Swabian League. German commerce and banking prospered in the late 15th and early 16th cent., the heyday of such merchant princes as those of the Fugger and Welser families of Augsburg. With the help of these capitalists, Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–58) financed his many campaigns.

The weakness of the imperial position was evident when, in the Protestant Reformation (16th cent.), the Catholic emperor was unable to enforce his religious policies or to prevent the conversion to Protestantism of many powerful princes. Links between religious and economic unrest were reflected in the Peasants' War (1524–26) and in the unsuccessful attempt of the Imperial Knights under Franz von Sickingen to secularize ecclesiastical domains.

Continued unrest and Protestant gains helped stimulate the Counter Reformation, which hardened the religious and political divisions in Germany. A religious settlement was reached only after the devastating Thirty Years War (1618–48), which was a crushing setback to the cause of German unity. The chief theater of the war, Germany was reduced to misery and starvation, lost a large part of its population, and became, as a result of the Peace of Westphalia (1648; see Westphalia, Peace of), a loose confederation of petty principalities under the nominal suzerainty of the emperor. Depopulation brought increased competition for peasant labor and helped to perpetuate the institution of serfdom, which was declining in other parts of Western Europe.

The most powerful German state to emerge from the wars of the 17th and 18th cent. was Prussia, which under Frederick II (reigned 1740–86) successfully challenged the military might of Austria and became a European power. The French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon I brought the demise (1806) of the moribund Holy Roman Empire and also forced the German states, notably Prussia, to accept long-needed social, political, and administrative reforms.

Germany's military humiliation by Napoleon stimulated nationalist fervor for a strong and unified state. By the Congress of Vienna (see Vienna, Congress of) the German map was redrawn in 1814–15, eliminating many petty states and expanding Prussia and Bavaria. The German states were loosely linked in the German Confederation, set up by the congress. Conservative Austria obtained control of the confederation, and Metternich, who also dominated the Holy Alliance, frustrated nationalist ambitions. In ensuing decades, nationalist sentiment was furthered by German romanticism, a noteworthy exponent of which was the poet Ernst Moritz Arndt, and by persons like Friedrich Jahn, the educator and gymnast.

German nationalism, linked with liberalism, emerged in the revolutions of 1848, which shook the German states. However, the revolutionists were soon defeated, and the Frankfurt Parliament, having failed to obtain the unification of Germany under Frederick William IV, disbanded. Prussia was humiliated by Austria in the Treaty of Olomouc (1850) but used the Zollverein, a customs union from which Austria was excluded, to consolidate Prussian hegemony in N Germany.

Otto von Bismarck, who in 1862 took charge of Prussian policy, resolved on the course of creating a Little Germany (a Germany without Austria) under Prussian leadership. In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Prussia triumphed over its rival, and Austria was excluded from the newly created North German Confederation. As a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 Bismarck attained his goal: William I of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor by the assembled German princes in the Palace of Versailles (1871). The peace treaty with France awarded Alsace and Lorraine to Germany and stamped it as the chief power of continental Europe.

The new German empire was consolidated under Bismarck's autocratic rule and a constitution that favored conservative interests. The Reichstag (the lower house of parliament) had some power over money bills but only slight influence in military matters or foreign policy; autocratic Prussia dominated the Bundesrat (the upper house of parliament). Bismarck's rule was complicated by far-reaching internal changes. The Industrial Revolution, which came late in Germany, transformed the country into Europe's foremost manufacturing nation and also accelerated the pace of urbanization.

Economic factors in turn affected politics. The National Liberal party and the Progressives, both representing the middle class, became important, as did German socialism and the Social Democrats, guided by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. The strong Center party represented Roman Catholic interests.

Bismarck's only certain ally was the Conservative party, a Protestant faction particularly strong in agrarian and semifeudal Prussia. Bismarck ruled chiefly through force of will, prestige, and the steadfast support of the emperor. He attempted to vitiate German Catholicism in the Kulturkampf (1872–79). Both paternalism and an effort to lessen the appeal of the Socialists and the Liberals motivated his social security laws, which became models of welfare legislation throughout the world.

A master of foreign policy, Bismarck secured Germany against France by maintaining alliances in the east. Reconciliation with Austria led to an alliance (1879), joined in 1882 by Italy (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente). Simultaneously, Bismarck kept alive the Three Emperors' League of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. He weathered the Liberal opposition and retained his chancellorship during the brief reign (1888) of Frederick III, but he was dismissed in 1890 by William II. Bismarck was succeeded as chancellor by von Caprivi, Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (1894), and Bernhard von Bülow (1900).

By the mid-1880s, Germans had acquired some African territories, but it was only under William II that German colonial expansion began to collide seriously with British and French interests. (For a list of former German colonies, see mandates.) Equally serious threats to peace were Germany's increasing commercial rivalry with England, heightened by the naval expansion under Tirpitz, German influence in Ottoman affairs (e.g., in the construction of the Baghdad Railway), and German support of Austria's Balkan policy, which clashed with Russian interests (see Eastern Question). Two crises (1905–6 and 1911) over Morocco helped to create and strengthen the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and England, which faced Germany and its allies (see Central Powers) in World War I (1914–18). In 1909, von Bethmann-Hollweg had replaced von Bülow as chancellor of Germany; Bethmann was overthrown (1917) by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff, who together controlled Germany until late 1918.

Exhausted to the point of collapse but with no enemy troops on its soil, Germany was obliged to accept the Allied armistice terms (Nov., 1918) and, in 1919, the harsh peace terms of Versailles (see Versailles, Treaty of). William abdicated and fled (Nov., 1918) after national and international demands for his abdication (led by Chancellor Maximilian, prince of Baden) and after the outbreak of a left-wing revolution, started at Kiel, which swept the rulers of the German states from their thrones.

A democratic and more centralized federal constitution was adopted at Weimar in 1919, and Germany became known as the Weimar Republic. Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat, became the first president. His middle-of-the-road government suppressed attempts by the radical left (see Spartacus party) and by the extreme right (see Kapp, Wolfgang) to seize power. However, the economic crisis of the postwar years, marked by mass unemployment and rampant currency inflation, strengthened the extremist parties and wiped out a large portion of the middle class. The assassinations of Matthias Erzberger (1921) and of Walther Rathenau (1922) were symptomatic of the terrorist tactics adopted by the extreme nationalists, many of whom later joined the National Socialist (Nazi) party of Adolf Hitler or the Nationalist (monarchist) party of Alfred Hugenberg.

The election (1925) of Hindenburg as president after the death of Ebert seemed a nationalist victory, but Hindenburg cooperated with the cabinets (1923–32) of Wilhelm Marx, Hans Luther, Hermann Müller, and Heinrich Brüning, in which coalitions drawn mainly from the Social Democrats, the Catholic Center party, and the conservative German People's party fulfilled moderate programs. Under Luther, Hjalmar Schacht helped stabilize the currency, and a remarkable return to economic prosperity began. Gustav Stresemann, as foreign minister from 1923 to 1929, secured an easing of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly with regard to German reparations payments, and the admission (1926) of Germany into the League of Nations.

Germany had apparently recovered economically and politically by 1929, but soon afterward the world economic depression brought about mass unemployment and business failure, and political and social tensions mounted. As the Nazi and Communist parties gained strength in the Reichstag, Brüning and his successors, Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher, failed in their efforts to mold parliamentary majorities without Hitler's support. Government came to a standstill. Rather than accept Schleicher's alternative of a military dictatorship, Hindenburg, by then old and exhausted, accepted von Papen's assurance that Hitler could be held in check. In Jan., 1933, Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor. In the elections of Mar., 1933, Hitler played upon the electorate's fear of the Communists (especially after the Reichstag building was largely destroyed by fire in Feb., 1933) to win a bare majority of seats in the Reichstag for the National Socialists and the Nationalists. On Mar. 23, the Enabling Act, opposed only by the Social Democrats and the disbarred Communist party, gave Hitler full dictatorial powers.

Hitler had promised to build a Third Reich, successor to the Holy Roman and Hohenzollern empires, which would last a thousand years. As chancellor, he began the coordination (Gleichschaltung) of every aspect of German life. Young persons were organized in semimilitary groups (the Hitlerjugend) and were indoctrinated with the Nazi creed. The powers of the state governments were abolished, and the adherents of National Socialism from 1934 made up the sole legal party. Hitler's opponents within the party (including Ernst Roehm) were eliminated in the Blood Purge of June, 1934.

The Gestapo (see secret police) quashed open discontent among the German people. Many scientists, artists, educators, and scholars followed the Nazi doctrines without much protest, and some Germans welcomed what they considered the rebirth of German strength. After the death of Hindenburg (1934), the offices of president and chancellor were combined in the person of the Führer [leader] of the Nazi party. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of citizenship, forbade marriage between Jews and non-Jewish Germans, and barred Jews from the liberal professions. In order to coordinate cultural affairs, the radio, press, cinema, and theater came under the control of propaganda minister Goebbels, who raised Hitler to the status of a quasi-divinity. Jews and others (especially those holding liberal or leftist political beliefs) made outcasts by the Nazi regime were harassed, and some were placed in concentration camps.

Hitler attempted to make Germany economically self-sufficient, and industry, commerce, and foreign trade were strictly supervised by the government. Labor unions were dissolved, and workers were organized in a state-controlled labor front. In order to ease unemployment and to prepare for war, Hitler expanded the armaments industry, increased the size of the armed forces, and sponsored large-scale public works (e.g., the construction of a network of superhighways, the Autobahnen). Hermann Goering was a leading protagonist of German rearmament and preparations for war. Albert Speer was at first Hitler's official architect; during World War II he assumed important posts as minister for armaments and later as chief planner of the war economy.

In Oct., 1933, Hitler withdrew from the Geneva Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations. In Mar., 1936, Germany remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact. Hitler followed this by concluding an alliance with Fascist Italy (see Axis), by interfering in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) in support of the Insurgents led by Franco, and by annexing Austria (Mar., 1938). Outside Germany, fifth columns were used to undermine the governments of nations that Hitler sought to annex in order to increase the Lebensraum [living space] of the Germans. The Munich Pact (Sept., 1938) marked the culmination of British and French attempts to appease Germany in the hope that Hitler had limited aims.

In Mar., 1939, Germany marched into Czechoslovakia, thus violating the Munich agreements, and also annexed Memel, on the Baltic coast. On Aug. 23, 1939, in a surprise move, Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact and other agreements. On Sept. 1, 1939, cutting short negotiations on the status of Danzig (Gdaısk) and the Polish Corridor, Hitler invaded Poland, thus precipitating World War II.

In the early years of the war Germany had great success; its conquests included Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, the Balkan states, and Greece. Great Britain, particularly London and other industrial areas, was subjected to massive German air attacks (the Battle of Britain), as a prelude to invasion, but the island successfully withstood the onslaught and was not invaded. In June, 1941, Hitler launched a vast offensive against the USSR, his former ally. In Dec., 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States.

In 1942, the tide of the war began to turn against Germany; the Allies scored successes in North Africa, the USSR stopped the German army at Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and British and U.S. airplanes began the massive terror bombing of German cities. As its fortunes waned, Germany treated its remaining conquered territories more harshly. Millions of Jews and many other civilians were sent to concentration camps and exterminated, vast slave-labor systems were organized, and many thousands were deported to Germany for forced labor. By early 1945, Germany was being invaded from the west and the east, and most of its cities lay in ruins. On Apr. 30, 1945, with the total collapse of Germany imminent, Hitler committed suicide.

Hitler's successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz, signed (May 7–8, 1945) an unconditional surrender to the Allies, whose military commanders assumed the functions of government in Germany. The agreements of the Yalta Conference (Feb., 1945) were implemented at the Potsdam Conference (July–Aug., 1945). These agreements were to be tentative, pending a peace conference, but as no peace conference was held, they tended to shape the course of German history after 1945.

A line formed mostly by the Oder and Neisse rivers was made the eastern boundary of Germany, as East Prussia and Upper and Lower Silesia were placed under Polish administration (except N East Prussia, which was awarded to the USSR). In the west, the Saarland was occupied by French military forces. What remained of Germany was divided into four zones, occupied separately by the armies of Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR. Berlin, similarly divided although situated well within the Soviet zone, was made the seat of the four-power Allied Control Council, authorized to make economic and administrative decisions for Germany as a whole. However, the council failed to agree on how to implement the often imprecise Potsdam decisions, and separate governments were soon established in each of the four zones.

The National Socialist party and affiliated organizations were outlawed, and many leading Nazis were tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes; other leaders, including von Papen and Schacht, were acquitted. Some Germans (including the philosopher Karl Jaspers and the historian Friedrich Meinecke) called for moral regeneration, but as Germany became a battleground of the cold war, concern with the guilt for the past receded.

During 1945–47 there was a serious shortage of food, caused by the crippled state of the German economy and by poor harvests; this situation was intensified in W Germany by the arrival of about 10 million ethnic German refugees from the Soviet zone and the former German territories of E central Europe. In the Soviet zone, a military administration under Zhukov was established in June, 1945. In 1946, politics there were brought under the control of the Communist-dominated Socialist Unity party (SED), led by Wilhelm Pieck, Otto Grotewohl, and Walter Ulbricht. At the same time, a major program of nationalization and collectivization was carried out. As reparations, the Soviets took much of E Germany's industrial equipment for use in rebuilding their own industry.

The Western Allies rejected a plan by Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to center the German economy around agriculture. Industrial machinery was restored to use, restrictions against the German cartels went largely unenforced, and West Germany's remarkable recovery and reindustrialization soon began. The rebuilding process was facilitated by the Marshall Plan. By 1947, the Western occupation zones were increasingly coordinating their policies (especially in economics), whereas the Soviet zone followed an increasingly divergent policy. The split between the three Western Allies and the USSR became complete in 1948. After the Western powers had planned steps toward establishing a West German constitution and had instituted a currency reform, the Soviet authorities unsuccessfully blockaded (1948–49) West Berlin as part of the cold war (see Berlin airlift). In 1949, Germany was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The precise legal status of West Berlin remained unclear; however, West Berlin was intimately tied to West Germany in many ways (see Berlin).

East Germany, 41,610 sq mi (107,771 sq km), consisted of the area included in the present states of Mecklenburg–West Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt, Thüringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg. East Berlin was the capital of the country. Originally divided into five states, East Germany was reorganized into 15 districts (Bezirke) in 1952. A congress organized by the Socialist Unity party (SED) in May, 1949, adopted a constitution establishing the German Democratic Republic. The initial constitution, superseded by one adopted in 1968, provided for a president and a bicameral parliament. Wilhelm Pieck became the country's first president and Otto Grotewohl its first prime minister, with Walter Ulbricht as first deputy prime minister.

The government was controlled by the SED and was much more centralized than that of West Germany. In 1950, a treaty was signed with Poland recognizing the Oder-Neisse line as East Germany's permanent eastern boundary. A drive to collectivize the remaining privately held farmland was started in 1952. In the same year, a 3-mi-wide (4.8-km) zone, guarded by police, was established along the border with West Germany (but not with West Berlin) in order to reduce emigration to the West.

Agitated by the forced changes in the country and by food shortages and other economic hardships, workers in East Berlin began on June 17, 1953, a rising that soon spread to much of the country; the revolt was suppressed only after the intervention of Soviet forces. Following the rising, the USSR attempted to improve East German economic conditions, especially the availability of consumer goods, and in 1954 it ceased to collect reparations for German actions in World War II. Also in 1954, the USSR recognized the sovereignty of East Germany, which in 1955 became a charter member of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. East German armed forces were established in 1956; Soviet troops, however, remained stationed in the country.

During the 1950s, Ulbricht, who was first secretary of the SED from 1950, emerged as the leader of East Germany. Under Ulbricht, the country was closely aligned with the USSR, and the liberalizing policies introduced in some of the other East European Communist nations were avoided. After the death of Pieck in 1960, the office of president was replaced by a council of state, with Ulbricht as its chairman. In order to reduce the large flow of persons leaving East Germany (about 4 million during 1945–61), many of whom crossed from East to West Berlin, a wall was erected (Aug., 12–13, 1961) between the two parts of the city; it was later reinforced and enlarged. In the ensuing years dozens of those who tried to scale the wall were shot by East German border guards. The wall drastically cut the number of emigrants, and gradually this had the effect of solidifying East Germany as an independent country.

In 1963, a New Economic System, calling for more efficient and decentralized economic planning, was adopted. Partly as a result of the new system, East Germany's economy expanded considerably in the 1960s. Also, large-scale building programs were undertaken in the cities. In 1964, a treaty of friendship and cooperation—in effect a peace treaty—was signed with the USSR; similar treaties with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria followed in 1967. Grotewohl died in 1964 and was succeeded as prime minister by Willi Stoph, who had served as de facto prime minister since the onset (1960) of Grotewohl's terminal illness.

In 1968, East German forces actively participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Under a new constitution promulgated in 1968, the 500-member people's chamber became the sole legislative body. In the late 1960s, diplomatic contacts with West Germany were initiated; these culminated in 1973 with the signing of a treaty between the two states. At the same time, East Germany for the first time was accorded diplomatic recognition by a number of non-Communist countries, including the United States (1974).

In 1971, Ulbricht resigned as first secretary of the SED and was replaced by Erich Honecker. Under Honecker, most of the few remaining private enterprises were taken over by the state. Checks on intellectual and cultural activities were relaxed somewhat. After being granted permanent observer status in 1972, East Germany was made a full member of the United Nations in 1973. Later in 1973, Stoph was elected chairman of the council of state and was replaced as prime minister by Horst Sindermann; Stoph returned as prime minister from 1976 to 1989. In the 1970s, trade between the Germanys increased, spurred by large-scale West German credits. Travel restrictions were eased so that West Germans could visit the East, and later, in the 1980s, East Germans were allowed to travel to West Germany. In 1981, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made an official visit to East Germany, and in 1987 Honecker was officially received in West Germany by Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In the latter half of the 1980s, tensions developed with Moscow as the hardline SED reacted coolly to the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. For a description of the events leading up to East Germany's reunification with West Germany, see subheading Reunification of Germany.

West Germany, 95,742 sq mi (247,973 sq km), consisted of the ten states that had been included in the U.S., British, and French occupation zones after the war. Bonn was the seat of government. The country adopted a constitution in May, 1949, to establish the Federal Republic of Germany.

The new republic was similar in structure to the Weimar Republic, except that the individual states had somewhat more power, and the president's powers were much reduced. In the first elections (Aug., 1949), the Christian Democratic party (CDU), along with its close ally, the Bavarian-centered Christian Social Union (CSU), gained a small plurality of seats in the Bundestag (Federal Diet). The CDU leader Konrad Adenauer formed a coalition government and became the first chancellor of West Germany; he remained in office until 1963. The Social Democratic party (SPD), led successively by Kurt Schumacher, Erich Ollenauer, and Willy Brandt, was the main opposition party until 1969, when it came to power. The middle-class-oriented Free Democratic party (FDP) was influential, although small, and it participated in coalition governments with both the CDU (1949–53; 1961–66, 1982–98) and the SPD (1969–82). The first president of West Germany was Theodor Heuss; he was succeeded by Heinrich Lübke (1959), Gustav Heinemann (1969), Walter Scheel (1974), Karl Carstens (1979), and Richard von Weizsäcker (1984).

The occupying powers allowed West Germany considerable autonomy from the start, except in foreign affairs. The three resident High Commissioners could review actions taken by the Bonn government, but in practice they rarely intervened. In 1951, West Germany was given the right to conduct its own foreign relations. In 1952, West Germany, the United States, France, and Great Britain signed the Bonn Convention, in effect a peace treaty, which granted West Germany most of the attributes of national sovereignty. The Paris agreements of 1954, which came into force in 1955, gave West Germany full independence, except that the former occupying powers reserved the right to negotiate with the USSR on matters relating to Berlin and to Germany as a whole. Also, the powers continued to maintain troops in the country. In 1955, West Germany was recognized as an independent country by numerous nations, including the USSR, and it became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, thus solidifying its ties with the West. In the same year, legislation was passed providing for the creation of West German armed forces.

In postwar West Germany, there were occasional, mostly minor, recurrences of anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism (e.g., the temporary growth of the nationalistic National Democratic Party in the mid-1960s); more important, however, the country tried to make up in part for the Nazi atrocities by granting considerable aid to Israel and by paying reparations to individuals who suffered loss or injury at the hands of the Nazi regime. During the 1950s, the West German economy grew dramatically; in 1958, the country became a charter member of the European Economic Community, or Common Market (now the European Union). It also gave much economic and technical assistance to the developing nations of Asia and Africa. In 1957, the Saarland was assigned to West Germany by France, after a plebiscite.

National politics in the 1950s and early 1960s were stable and were dominated by Adenauer. The CDU-CSU held firmly to the position that Germany should be reunited on the basis of democratic elections; it followed the Hallstein doctrine (named for Walter Hallstein, an official in the ministry of foreign affairs), under which West Germany refused to have diplomatic relations with any nation (except the USSR) that recognized East Germany. Until the 1970s, East and West Germany had virtually no contact on an official level, but there was considerable trade between them.

Later in 1963, Adenauer retired and was replaced as chancellor by Ludwig Erhard, also a Christian Democrat and an expert on economics. Erhard's government was shaken by a downturn in the economic boom and by controversy over foreign policy. In 1966, Erhard resigned and was replaced by Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a Christian Democrat, who headed a grand coalition of the CDU-CSU and the SPD; SPD leader Willy Brandt assumed the posts of vice chancellor and foreign minister. Under Kiesinger, economic conditions improved, ties with France were strengthened, and talks with the nations of Eastern Europe (with whom West Germany did not have diplomatic relations) were initiated.

The general election of 1969 resulted in a small plurality for the CDU-CSU, but Brandt was able to become chancellor at the head of an SPD-FDP coalition government. In the 1972 general election the coalition was returned to power with a substantial majority. Brandt launched a major program, called the Ostpolitik [eastern policy], to improve relations with Eastern Europe. Important milestones in the Ostpolitik were the signing (1970) of treaties of nonaggression and cooperation with the Soviet Union and Poland (ratified in 1972); the signing (1972) of an agreement among the four former occupying powers improving access to West Berlin and permitting West Berliners to visit East Berlin and East Germany more often; and a treaty (1973) between East and West Germany that called for increased cooperation between the two states and prepared the groundwork for the establishment of full diplomatic relations. West Germany was admitted to the United Nations in 1973, after having held permanent observer status since 1953.

Brandt resigned in May, 1974, after it was revealed that an East German spy had been on his personal staff. He was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt, the finance minister. A deteriorating economic situation caused a decline in the popularity of the government and increasing tension between the coalition partners. The emergence in 1980 of the new ecology party, the Greens, significantly changed West Germany's politics. Schmidt's support of NATO policies of European rearmament brought him into conflict with the left wing of his own party. In local elections in 1981 and 1982, the SPD-FDP coalition suffered severe setbacks. Disputes over nuclear power, defense policy, and economic measures continued to divide the parties, and in 1982, the FDP withdrew from the coalition.

On Oct. 1, 1982, Schmidt was replaced as chancellor by the CDU leader Helmut Kohl, and the FDP agreed to form a coalition with the CDU-CSU. The Kohl government brought about a rightward swing in support of the policies of the NATO alliance and toward more conservative economic principles. Kohl supported the continued presence of NATO forces and nuclear weapons on German soil. He also, however, consistently tried to broaden political relations between the West and the Soviet bloc. In 1983 and 1984 the government experienced a series of domestic crises, including labor strikes and massive demonstrations by the country's antinuclear movement. The governing coalition retained power by a slim majority in the 1987 general elections.

Although German reunification was seen as a principal goal in West Germany's relations with East Germany, it seemed a remote likelihood until the dramatic political upheavals that took place in East Germany in late 1989 and 1990. In the latter half of 1989, thousands of East German citizens emigrated illegally to West Germany via Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Popular dissent in East Germany gave rise to an independent citizen's action group, New Forum. Following the suppression of demonstrations in East Berlin by the police, civil unrest spread across the country; the demonstrators attracted an increasing number of people, and intervention by the police eventually ceased. In Oct., 1989, Erich Honecker resigned his posts and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who legalized and initiated dialogue with the New Forum. Media constraints were partially lifted, and an amnesty was announced for all persons who had attempted to leave the country illegally, as well as for arrested demonstrators.

Large-scale demonstrations continued, including a November rally in East Berlin of 500,000 people. On Nov. 7 the entire membership of the council of ministers resigned, and Hans Modrow was elected chairman of the council (prime minister). The SED politburo also resigned and was reorganized. The new government promised to introduce political and economic reforms, to hold free elections in 1990, and to abolish restrictions on foreign travel. All border crossings to West Germany were opened, and the East German government began to dismantle sections of the Berlin Wall.

In Dec., 1989, the East German legislature voted to delete from the constitution the provisions guaranteeing the SED's leading role in society. A special commission was established to investigate cases of corruption by members of the former leadership. Honecker and Willi Stoph, former chairman of the council of ministers, along with other senior leaders, were expelled from the SED and placed under house arrest. Honecker, who was ill, escaped to Moscow. The hated state security police (Stasi) was also disbanded. Mass demonstrations continued as instances of governmental corruption became public. As the atmosphere in the country grew increasingly volatile, the politburo and the central committee of the SED, including Krenz, resigned.

Gregor Gysi, a prominent lawyer, was elected chairman of the SED (renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS). The first free elections in East Germany were held on Mar. 19, 1990, with the participation of more than 90% of the electorate. The East German CDU unexpectedly received about 40% of the votes, while the East German SPD received 21.8%, and the PDS only 16.4%. A grand coalition government, chaired by Lothar de Maiziére, the leader of the CDU, was formed in early April.

With the abolition of travel restrictions between the two Germanies, the possibility of reunification was openly discussed. In Nov., 1989, Kohl presented a ten-point unification plan to the Bundestag, where it was overwhelmingly approved. In December he made his first official visit to East Germany, where he agreed to establish joint economic, cultural, and environmental commissions. Four rounds of two-plus-four talks were held in mid-1990 involving the two Germanies and the four powers that occupied Germany after World War II. In May the legislative bodies of East and West Germany ratified a treaty establishing a monetary, economic, and social union, which took effect July 1.

In July, 1990, Kohl and Gorbachev agreed that the USSR would withdraw its forces from East German soil within four years (between then and Aug., 1994, when the withdrawal was completed, more than a half million troops were pulled out); it was also agreed that the united Germany would reduce its armed force strength to 370,000 within the same period. Also in July, East Germany reestablished five states in place of its 15 districts. In August, East and West Berlin were joined to form the state of Berlin. On Oct. 3, 1990, the two German states were formally unified, and it was officially declared that the united Germany would be a full member of NATO. In November, Germany signed a treaty with Poland recognizing Poland's western boundary and renouncing German claims to territory lost because of World War II.

The first all-German elections since 1933 were held on Dec. 2, 1990. The CDU coalition, led by Kohl, won strong support, and he was elected chancellor of all Germany. The Kohl government faced serious problems, including escalating unemployment in E Germany, rising public debt, and a resurgence, especially in E Germany, of extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi groups that made brutal attacks on foreign workers and immigrants. In 1991 the Bundestag voted in favor of Berlin as the seat of government; by 1999 most of the government had moved there, although some administrative functions remained in Bonn.

In new elections held in 1994, the governing coaliton suffered losses but held onto a small majority. Roman Herzog became president the same year. The country was required to adopt cost-cutting measures to reduce its budget deficit in order to qualify for the European Union's single currency, which was inaugurated in 1999. Many of Germany's generous social benefits were cut, as unemployment rose to its highest postwar levels and workers reacted with strikes and protests. In 1998, Gerhard Schröder led the SPD to victory and was elected chancellor as head of a center-left coalition government that included the Greens. Johannes Rau was elected president in 1999, and that same year Germany adopted a new immigration law making it easier for its many foreign residents to become citizens. In late 1999 and early 2000 the CDU was rocked by disclosures that former chancellor and party leader Kohl and the party had accepted millions of dollars in illegal donations in the 1980s and 90s.

The new century opened with Germany continuing to retain its dominant economic position in the European Union, where it used its financial policies to fight inflation and high interest rates. In 2001, Schröder's support for the United States in Afghanistan strained relations with the Greens. The governing coalition narrowly retained power after the 2002 Bundestag elections, which left the Social Democrats more dependent on Green support. Although Schröder was hurt by the poor economic situation in Germany, his insistence that his government would not participate in an American operation against Iraq struck a responsive chord with many Germans.

The weakness in the German economy resulted in 2002 in government deficits that exceeded EU standards, leading to censure from the EU. In 2003, Germany's economic problems and deficits continued, and late in the year the chancellor secured the passage of a package of tax cuts and labor and social law changes intended to help the economy revive. Voter unhappiness with the economy and Schröder's policies led to several SPD setbacks in state elections in 2003 and 2004. Horst Köhler, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and the CDU candidate, was elected to succeed Rau as president in 2004; he was reelected in 2009. Sluggish economic growth during 2004 led to increases in German unemployment.

Following SPD losses (2005) in North Rhine–Westphalia, a party stronghold, Schröder called for early national elections, and engineered a no-confidence vote. In the Sept., 2005, elections, the CDU-CSU won, as had been expected, but it secured only a slight plurality of the seats when Schröder led the SPD to a strong finish. Negotiations led to an agreement to form a CDU-CSU-SPD coalition with Christian Democrat Angela Merkel as chancellor. Merkel became the first woman—as well as the first East German after reunification—to hold the post. The awkwardness of her broad coalition, however, was highlighted by a 2006 compromise agreement on health care reform that proved difficult to negotiate and was regarded by many as inadequate.

Late in 2008 the global financial and economic crisis began having significant effects in Germany, forcing the government to rescue one of Germany's largest banks from collapse, and sending the economy into recession. In Feb., 2009, the German parliament passed a sizable economic stimulus package. The parliamentary elections of Sept., 2009, resulted in a significant victory for Merkel and the CDU-CSU, who increased their plurality in the Bundestag. The CDU-CSU formed a center-right coalition with the Free Democrats, who finished third; Merkel remained chancellor.

In 2010, Merkel's government strongly opposed a European-only rescue of Greece if the budgetary crisis there required one, insisting on International Monetary Fund involvement as well. The disagreement between Germany and France on the issue was the first significant monetary-policy conflict between the two since the establishment of the euro, and resulted at times in an unclear European response that also magnified the crisis. Subsequently, Germany adopted a more assertive position with respect to a eurozone rescue fund, seeking changes on fiscal, social, business, and labor policies in eurozone member nations as the price for its support, but new German support for eurozone financial stability measures was necessary in 2011 and that continued to create divisions in the coalition and cost it public support.

President Köhler resigned in May, 2010, after he made controversial remarks that suggested that the deployment of German forces in Afghanistan was necessary to protect German economic interests. Christian Wulff, a deputy leader of the CDU, was elected president in June, 2010, but the fact that it took three ballots for him to win was seen as a sign of displeasure within the governing coalition over government policies. In 2011, parties in the governing coalition in general suffered losses in a series of state elections. Wulff resigned in Feb., 2012, because of accusations that he may have improperly accepted favors from a businessman. In March, Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran minister and human-rights activist from E Germany, was elected to succeed Wulff. The Sept., 2013, parliamentary elections resulted in a significant plurality for the CDU-CSU, but its coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed to win any seats. Subsequently, the Social Democrats agreed to join the government in return for a number of concessions, including the establishment of a minimum wage, and a new government, again with Merkel as chancellor, was formed in December.

In the eurozone negotiations with Greece in 2015, Germany insisted on imposing new conditions for aid, and forced significant concessions on Greece. Germany's relatively liberal asylum policies made it the preferred destination for most of the more than a million refugees and migrants who flooded into the European Union from Syria and other nations in 2015. The huge influx of foreigners created tensions in the government (Merkel had been initially welcoming toward refugees), strained the country's resources, and led to societal tensions. Merkel's CDU suffered losses in several state elections in 2016, and the populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) made significant gains. Some 280,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Germany in 2016, and the influx eased further in the following years.

In Feb., 2017, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat and former foreign minister, was elected president. In 2017, Germany under Merkel, who regarded the United States under the Trump presidency as less reliable, called for Europeans to be more self-reliant and less dependent on the United States. In the Sept., 2017, elections both the CDU-CSU and Social Democrats suffered significant losses and the AfD entered the Bundestag for the first time, finishing third. The Social Democrats went into opposition, forcing Merkel to seek a coalition with the Free Democrats and Greens. Those talks failed, and she ultimately formed (Mar., 2018) a government with the Social Democrats. The new coalition, however, was marked by tensions, especially with the CDU-CSU alliance, and subsequent losses by conservatives and Social Democrats in state elections led Merkel to announce (October) she would not run again for the CDU leadership. In 2020, Germany weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than other large Western European nations, but it still experienced a recession and increased unemployment.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: German Political Geography