Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany is a country in Europe home to around 83 million people.
The German political system today is one that mirrors many of the institutions across European democracies; a distinctly multi-party electoral system with frequent governing coalitions (government through multiple different parties), although since 1949 the nation has been dominated by two parties, The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
The German system is a Federal Parliamentary Republic, meaning that the power is vested in the people and that there is a significant degree of power devolved to the different German states. In this sense (being a Federal Republic) Germany is similar to the United States, however, unlike the US, Germany has a Parliament from which the leader of the government is drawn.
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Although modern Germany can trace its roots back through hundreds of years of history, the late 19th century saw significant developments that lead to the German nation as it is today, under the guidance of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. From 1862-1890, Bismarck guided the German Empire, as it was then, towards the modern state that Germany became in the 20th century.
In the 1860s Bismarck served as the Prussian minister-president (Prussia being the most prominent state within what became the German Empire) and secured military victories during a series of Central European wars that allowed the proclamation of the German Empire as a unified state in 1871, under the leadership of Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I, who appointed Bismarck as the first chancellor of this new empire. Bismarck significantly expanded the territory of the German Empire during this time, with Alsace-Lorraine ceded from France to this new German Empire.
The German Empire was made up of 25 Federal States, with the state of Prussia being dominant, representing two thirds of the total land area and population of the empire. Prussia made up much of what is considered to be the current German state today and dominated much of central Europe during this period at the end of the 19th century.
Bismarck became known for his foreign policy whilst chancellor of Germany, aiming to isolate France from the other nations of Europe, particularly avoiding an alliance between France on the western border and Russia on the eastern border. The aim was to prevent a two-front war – the failure of which in the early 20th century twice brought Germany to its knees – with Bismarck perhaps the most skilled diplomat of the 19th century, maintaining strong alliances with the Austria-Hungarian Empire and a strong relationship with the Russian Empire.
Upon Kaiser Wilhelm’s death his son Frederick became Kaiser, but lasted only 99 days before succumbing to throat cancer, being replaced by his son, Wilhelm II. The 29-year-old attempted to install an extremely conservative regime, ousting Bismarck as Chancellor two years into his reign as Kaiser. After nearly four decades of the nation being led by the skilled diplomat, the empire followed an increasingly erratic and undiplomatic path that saw the breakdown of many of the alliances that Bismarck had worked on for the protection of the young state.
Germany became increasingly isolated as a series of chancellors failed to exact an effective foreign policy, under the erratic guidance of Wilhelm II and the nation was increasingly threatened from the war on two fronts that Bismarck was so keen to avoid. It was this erratic foreign policy that contributed to the beginning of World War One, with tense international relations in Central Europe boiling over following the assassination of Austria-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand.
Following German defeat in the First World War the Treaty of Versailles – signed in the same palace that German unification was originally declared – the nation was given heavy sanctions, including reparations of $400 billion in today’s money. Following the war, the political system was also replaced, with the Weimar Republic being formed.
The Weimar Republic was unpopular with the German people, seen as being forced on them by the western powers of France, United Kingdom and United States and was underlined by a series of attempted revolutions against the government, the most notable being the Munich Putsch in 1923, led by the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, Adolf Hitler – his actions landed him in prison.
Following a period of hyperinflation that saw German’s burning money for warmth, the repayment of reparations was restructured and Germany received loans from the United States to prop up their economy, resulting in a period of growth that saw industrial production above 1913 levels by 1928. However, the Wall Street Crash in 1929 caused a period of economic turmoil.
This led to political unrest which saw the National Socialist German Workers Party receive a significantly increased vote share, winning 37% of the vote in July 1932. Although they lost seats at a snap election in November 1932, just one year later they secured 44% of the vote and later that year Adolf Hitler would become the German chancellor. His power was consolidated following the Reichstag fire (allegedly an arson by the Nazi’s as a precursor to him taking full control and in 1934 he became Fuhrer.
During his time in power (1933-45), Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust; one of the worst human tragedies of human history, resulting in the death of approximately 6 million Jews and a further 6 million disabled, gay, Romani, Soviet and other prisoners of war.
Following the end of the Second World War, Germany was occupied in the west by the allies – the western was divided into three separate zones occupied by each of the allied powers, France, United Kingdom and United States – and in the east by the Soviet Union. In 1949, the three allied zones, which had been merged in 1946, officially became the Federal Republic of Germany, whilst the Soviet occupied zone became the German Democratic Republic.
Although these two halves of one country were significant throughout the Cold War, with Berlin (the German capital) being in the eastern zone – but with a western half of the city – the political system that we see in Germany today is almost entirely that of the western half. West Germany relocated their capital to Bonn, with the FRG being known as the Bonn Republic.
During the Cold War, Berlin became a microcosm for the proxy conflict between the east and the west, with the flight of many east Berliners into the western zone being a source of angst for the Soviet propaganda machine. This led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, to prevent anyone from crossing into the western zone. There were still several infamous attempts, with some managing to cross into the west, although many did not make it, with armed guards patrolling the wall day and night. Throughout the Cold War, the Berlin Wall became the enduring image of the divide between east and west, capitalism and communism, and for some, good and evil.
Following the divide between the nation, East and West Germany took extremely different paths, with the West experiencing an ‘economic miracle’ that saw them become one of the wealthiest nations in the world, a legacy that has carried over into reunification. East Germany, even 30 years after reunification, is significantly less economically powerful than the west, suffering significantly from economic hardship during their time within the Soviet sphere of influence.
With the Soviet Union becoming weakened during the late 1980s, East Germans were becoming increasingly hungry for change, with ‘peaceful revolution’ or ‘die Wende’ resulting in reforms that eventually led to reunification. With growing unrest in East Germany, Eric Honecker, the East German leader was forced to resign and the government allowed East Germans to cross into the west for the first time in nearly 30 years. On 9th June 1989, East Germans flooded into the west, with citizens of both countries coming out onto the streets of Berlin to pull down the wall, in what became the enduring image of the fight against communism for many in the western world. Less than a year later, the states of East Germany would be absorbed into the FRG and the reunification of Germany, under the political system it has today, was born.