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A History Guide to Germany

Ancient Germany

Hundreds of years before Christ a group of people speaking similar languages emerged in northern Europe. They were the first Germanic peoples.About 55 BC Julius Caesar conquered the Roman province of Gaul. He made the Rhine the frontier of the new province. It was a natural defensive barrier. Later the Romans also chose the Danube as a frontier. They also created a ditch and earth bank with a wooden palisade on top from the Rhine to the Danube. In 9 AD the Germanic people beyond the Rhine inflicted a crushing defeat on the Roman army in a battle at the Teutoberg Forest. The Romans lost about 20,000 men and their leader committed suicide. The battle ensured that the Romans never conquered Germany beyond the Rhine. However the Romans occupied southern and western Germany. They founded a number of towns which still survive (Augsburg, Cologne, Mainz, Regensburg and Trier).

In the late 5th century a Germanic people called the Franks carved out an empire in what is now France. (They gave the country its name). In 496 Clovis, the leader of the Franks became a Christian and his people followed. In 771 Charlemagne became king of the Franks. In 772 he attacked the Saxons. After a battle in 782 more than 4,000 Saxon captives were beheaded. The survivors were ‘converted’ to Christianity by force. Charlemagne also annexed Bavaria. In 800 he was crowned emperor.However Charlemagne’s empire did not long survive his death. In 843 it was divided into three kingdoms, west, middle and east.In time the eastern kingdom, East Francia, was divided further into 5 duchies. In the early 10th century fierce Magyars from Eastern Europe attacked them.

Germany in the Middle Ages

Then in 911 Conrad, Duke of Franconia was elected king of Germany. He died in 918 and was replaced by Duke Henry of Saxony. In 933 Henry defeated the Magyars at the battle of Riade. Henry also fought the Slavs. When he died in 936 his son Otto became king of Germany. He is known as Otto the Great. In 955 Otto utterly defeated the Magyars at the battle of Lechfeld, ending the threat to Germany forever. In 962 the Pope crowned Otto emperor. He died in 973. The Christian thinker Augustine claimed that God created the Roman Empire to bring law and order to mankind. The idea was that there should be one church with the pope at its head and one secular empire. Otto and the following emperors claimed they were the successors to the ancient Roman Empire. So their Germanic empire was called the Roman Empire. In 1157 it was called the Holy Roman Empire. Not surprisingly other European nations were not enthusiastic about the idea and in any case the Holy Roman Empire was never a single united unit. In reality the power of the emperors over the different areas of the empire was limited.During the Middle Ages the original five duchies broke up and by 1500 the Holy Roman Empire was like a patchwork quilt of different units. It was made up of princely states, which were ruled by princes subordinate to the emperor. There were also bishoprics ruled by bishops and archbishops. They were called ecclesiastical princes. Imperial knights who answered directly to the emperor ruled some areas. There were also some independent cities like Augsburg. Meanwhile during the 10th and 11th centuries Germany became a feudal society led by military nobility. The nobles were very powerful and often rebelled against the king.

Under feudalism lords granted land to their vassals and in return the vassals swore to serve the lord. Most of the population were peasants. Some were free but many were serfs, halfway between freemen and slaves. The serfs had to work on their lord’s land for certain days of the week. Germany grew richer in the early middle ages and the population rose sharply (until the 14th century). Trade and commerce boomed and towns grew larger and more numerous. Yet life was still hard and rough for most people. They continued to live in small villages scattered across the forests. Moreover in the 11th century there was a conflict between the Pope and the emperor over who had the right to appoint bishops. It was important to the emperor to be able to appoint suitable bishops. In those days church and state were closely linked. Furthermore the church was rich and powerful and the emperor was keen to have the bishops on his side. The pope, naturally, resented this interference in church affairs. The argument was only settled by the concordat of Worms in 1122. From 1220 to 1250 Frederick II was emperor. He was known as stupor mundi (wonder of the world) because of his brilliant mind. However in 1254 central authority broke down completely. From 1254 to 1273 there was no emperor. This period was called the Great Interregnum. It ended when Rudolph of Hapsburg was elected emperor. In 1356 Karl IV issued a document called the ‘golden bull’, which lay down the rules for electing emperors.

In the early 14th century conditions in Germany deteriorated. The climate grew colder and there were several famines. Worse, the black death struck Germany in 1349 and it killed about one third of the population. Jews were treated as scapegoats and many were massacred at that time. In the late 14th and 15th centuries there were a series of peasant uprisings in Germany. Furthermore impoverished noblemen called robber barons roamed the countryside. However a number of universities were founded in Germany at that time. Heidelberg was founded in 1386. It was followed by Leipzig in 1409, Tubingen in 1477 and Wittenberg in 1502.

Germany in the 16th Century

In the Middle Ages divisions between nations were vague. In the 16th century they became more clearly defined. One sign of this came in 1512 when the empire’s title changed to the ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German nation’. Then in 1517 Martin Luther started the Reformation when he nailed his theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In 1521 the heads of the various German states met in an Imperial Diet at Worms. Martin Luther was called to account and he stood by his views. The Reformation split Germany, with some states accepting his views and others rejecting them. In 1531 the Protestant princes formed the alliance of Schmalkalden to defend the reformation by force if necessary. The emperor fought a war with them in 1546-47. Although he was victorious he could not turn the clock back and Protestantism could not be eradicated. Then in 1555 the Diet of Augsburg met. The peace of Augsburg declared that princes could decide the religion of their state. Anyone who disagreed with their ruler could emigrate. Meanwhile Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534. Furthermore in the early 16th century there were a series of peasant uprisings across Germany, as the peasants, dissatisfied with their lot, demanded economic and social change. The unrest culminated in the Peasants War of 1525. However the princes easily crushed the rebellion and tens of thousands of peasants were killed. However the late 16th century was a time of relative peace and stability in Germany.

Germany in the 17th Century

In the early 17th century the uneasy peace between Protestants andCatholics broke down. The Protestants formed a military alliance in 1608. In response the Catholics formed the Catholic League in 1609. At that time Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Protestant nobles in Bohemia had gained certain privileges. When Ferdinand II became king of Bohemia in 1617 he tried to undo them. In protest on 23 May 1618 Protestants threw royal officials out of a window in Prague. This event became known as the defenestration of Prague.

The Bohemians rebelled and appealed to German Protestants to help them. However the emperor led a force of Catholics and defeated the Protestants at the battle of White Mountain in 1620. Nevertheless a long series of wars between Catholic and Protestant states began. Other European powers became involved. The Swedes joined the Protestants in 1630 under their king Gustavus Adolphus (although he was killed at the battle of Lutzen in 1632). France joined the Protestant side in 1635. The wars dragged on until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Thirty Years War was a disaster for Germany. The population fell significantly and much of the country was devastated. Germany took decades to recover from the destruction. The war had another effect. It weakened the power of the emperor and increased the power of the princes and kings.

Germany in the 18th Century

The main development in Germany during the 18th century was the rise of Prussia. In the 17th century the Hohenzolleron family ruled both Brandenburg and East Prussia. In 1701 the ruler of both was Elector Frederick III. In that year he crowned himself King of Prussia. Soon the whole realm was called Prussia. However at first Prussia was an economically backward area. It only rose to greatness under Frederick II ‘The Great’, who became king in 1740. Frederick had a very large army and he was a capable general, which allowed him to fight successful wars. In 1740 Prussia invaded Silesia (an Austrian possession). On 10 April 1741 the Prussians defeated the Austrians at the battle of Mollwitz. At first the battle went well for the Austrians. Their cavalry defeated the Prussian cavalry and Frederick fled from the battle. However the Prussian infantry stood and fought. They overcame both the Austrian cavalry and the Austrian infantry. As a result Prussia won the battle. Austria made peace in 1742 but the peace did not last long. War began again in 1745. The Prussians won a series of battles at Hohenfriedberg on 4 June, at Soor on 30 September and at Hennersdorf on 23 November. Frederick II ended the war in December 1745 with his territory enlarged.

In 1756 Prussia went to war again when Frederick invaded Saxony. However this time Frederick II was faced with a powerful coalition of enemies. Nevertheless the Prussians won two victories at Rossback in November 1757 and at Leuthen in December 1757. The Prussians also defeated the Russians at the battle of Zorndorf in 1758. However the tide of war then turned against the Prussians and they were defeated at the battle of Minden in 1759. Fortunately in January 1762, one of Frederick’s most powerful enemies, Elizabeth of Russia, died and her son made peace with the Treaty of St Petersburg. The war ended in 1763. Then in 1772 Prussia, Austria and Russia agreed to carve up part of Poland between them. In 1792 Prussia and Austria went to war with Revolutionary France. However the French won victories and Prussia made peace in 1795. Meanwhile the Prussians and Russians divided up the remaining part of Poland in 1793. Austria made peace with France in 1797 but war began again in 1799.

Germany in the 19th Century

However Austria was defeated and was forced to make peace in 1801. France defeated Austria again in 1805. As a result some German states allied themselves with Napoleon. In July 1806 Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, which was made up of 16 German states. The Holy Roman Empire officially ceased to exist on 6 August 1806. Then in September 1806 Prussia went to war with France. However Napoleon crushed the Prussians at Jena on 14 October 1806. In 1812 the French were utterly defeated in Russia. In 1813 Prussia joined Russia in the war against the French. Austria also joined and in October 1813 the combined armies defeated the French at the battle of Leipzig. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 the Congress of Vienna met to decide the fate of Europe. A German confederation was formed to replace the old Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of 38 states. An assembly called the Bundestag, made up of delegates from the states was formed. Prussia was the biggest winner from the peace. It gained the Rhineland and Westphalia. The population of Prussia increased and it gained valuable mineral resources. Prussia became increasingly important in German affairs. In 1834 the Prussians and other German states formed a customs union called the Zollverein. Furthermore in the 1830s Germany began to industrialise. One sign of this was the opening of the first German railway in 1835 from Nuremberg and Furth. As Prussia industrialised it grew stronger and stronger while its rival, Austria remained an agricultural country and so grew relatively weaker. Meanwhile an Austrian minister named Metternich tried to prevent the ideas of the French Revolution spreading in Germany. In 1819 there were student bodies in German universities called Burschenshaften. On 23 March 1819 a member of one killed a writer called August von Kotzebue. Metternich used this as an excuse to introduce press censorship and strict supervision of universities. His measures were called the Karlsbad decrees. However it proved impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. In 1818 Baden and Bavaria introduced liberal constitutions. So did Wurttemberg in 1819 and Hessen-Darmstadt in 1820. Furthermore in 1830 a revolution in France triggered riots in parts of Germany and some German rulers were forced to make concessions. In 1831 Brunswick, Hesse and Saxony all introduced new constitutions. However in Prussia and Austria all liberal movements were repressed. Then, after 1845 there were a series of bad harvests. There was also a recession and high unemployment. Discontent erupted in revolution in 1848. In February 1848 another revolution in France triggered demonstrations and unrest across Europe, including Germany. At first the rulers were so alarmed they backed down and made concessions. However they soon regained their nerve. In Prussia on 18 March 1848 the king announced he was willing to make some reforms. However Prussian troops fired at some demonstrators in Berlin and in the ensuing fighting many people were killed. Afraid of further unrest the king decided to appease the demonstrators. On 19 March 1848 he ordered the troops to leave Berlin. On 21 March 1848 he rode through Berlin dressed in the revolutionary colours, red, gold and black. Then in May 1848 an elected assembly representing all Germany met in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt parliament discussed German unity. However the rulers soon regained their confidence and they began to crack down on the revolutionaries. On 2 April 1849 the Frankfurt parliament offered the King of Prussia the crown of Germany. However he rejected the offer. The Frankfurt parliament gradually dispersed and its members went home. Meanwhile, in 1849 European rulers began to use their armies to put down rebellions. Soon the old order returned.