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Germany: 1871 - 1990

Whether you're studying at GCSE or A Level, if you're studying Germany it helps to know the big picture. 

Before 1871, Germany did not exist. The various states and principalities that occupied the territory instead moved steadily towards unification as a means to economic and diplomatic security. The new nation was led by Prussian royalty and adopted a hereditary and autocratic system under the Kaiser.

The newly formed Germany quickly adopted an aggressively nationalist stance as it sought to establish its own empire to rival that of Britain and France. By 1914, Germany had begun to carve out its “place in the sun” but was nervous about the strength of its neighbours and the possibility of invasion.

Germany of course lost World War One. In defeat, it was humiliated and financially crippled by the Treaty of Versailles (one of a number of treaties that redrew the borders of Europe after the war). The years immediately after the conflict were a disaster: a new democratic government struggled to maintain control as extremist groups attempted violent insurrection, their currency collapsed and the rest of the world treated them as a pariah nation.

Under the guidance of Gustav Stresemann, things settled and for a brief period during the 1920s the Weimar Republic appeared to have stabilised. But the spell was broken by The Wall Street Crash which quickly unravelled any progress that had been made, leaving the Republic vulnerable to extremism once more.

Throughout the twenties the Nazi Party had been building strength, from the abortive Munich Putsch they had developed a following that grew even during the lean years of imprisonment and censorship. By the beginning of the 1930s Hitler was a widely recognised figure who was growing in popularity as he positioned himself as the strong leader Germany needed, in stark contrast with the stagnant ineffective coalitions that formed the government.

By January 1933 Hitler had bullied his way into the position of Chancellor and, by the end of 1934 had established total personal control of Germany. His rule quickly became one personified by repression and fear although the promise of a greater Germany helped many Germans get on board with the new regime. Persecution of Jews was a hall-mark from the very beginning and by 1938 it became clear that it was not safe to be Jewish in Germany any more.

Throughout the 1930s Hitler pursued an aggressive foreign policy that took the rest of the world by surprise. As he unravelled the terms of the Treaty of Versailles the rest of Europe hurriedly reconsidered their military planning and attempted to appease him in the mean time.

After a pact with the Soviets, Hitler moved on Poland and the Second World War began. For the first couple of years the Nazis were dominant, taking control of vast swathes of Europe and beginning the mechanisation of the Holocaust, but arrogance and the arrival of the US into the war ultimately resulted in their defeat.

As the allies liberated Europe, Germany was at first split in four and then, as tensions developed between East and West, the Western powers brought their zones together leaving East Germany isolated. Berlin itself – sat in the heart of East Germany – was also split down the middle,  split that would be cemented with the building of a wall in 1961.

As East Germany suffered the vengeance of the Soviet Union who (at first at least) did all they could to plunder and punish the zone under their control; West Germany flourished with what was referred to as its “economic miracle”. As Europe began to rebuild internal relations, East Germany remained the outsider while West Germany began to dominate. By the end of the 1980s the cold war had thawed and the wall was pulled down in an exuberant and good natured protest. Now Germany dominates Europe both economically and politically.

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