A Sort of Short History of Germany

The early history of what we now call Germany is the history of migrations. These began well before the advent of written history as wave after wave of people moved into and through Europe, generally from the East. Without getting into the cultural anthropology of the process, as a stronger group or tribe made the determination to move (possibly because they had over-populated their former region or possibly because they saw something they wanted in another area) into the area populated by a weaker area, the stronger tribe overcame the weaker one. The stronger tribe assimilated the weaker one incorporating its culture into their own, or destroyed the weaker culture, or drove the weaker one into less desirable territory. Then the process would begin anew with the now displaced tribe committing the same “offense” on yet another tribe.

When the Romans expanded from the city, conquering areas in the Italian peninsula and then expanding to the north and west, they realistically saw the defensive advantage of using the Rhine and Danube rivers as their frontiers. This worked for a few centuries.

Dark Ages

Major Germanic migrations began in the 4th to 6th centuries AD. Pushed by the Huns (who themselves began a major expansion from east of the Caspian Sea) from the East, the various German tribes, namely Vandals and Franks, were forced from eastern Europe west and south. They pushed other Germanics like the Franks, Saxons, Lombards, and Visigoths before them, eventually crossing both the Danube and the Rhine and compressing the Roman Empire. The Visigoths sacked Rome several times, finally collapsing the remnants of that empire in 476.

What followed was the Dark Ages when security and protection was almost non-existent. The Roman Empire was revived in the strategic port of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine and promoted Christianity. The Emperor Justinian from what was called the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) invaded the West in a last-ditch effort to salvage what it could. This effort was complicated by the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula that quickly began to grow in all directions.

Europe 1n 526
Europe in 526

These two movements spelled the demise of the various Germanic kingdoms that had been established in northern Italy, southern France, and northeastern Spain. The Germanic group that was able to pick up the pieces beginning in the Rhine area was the Franks so that by the end of the 8th century, the Franks had become the dominant power in western Europe. This was the case because the Germanic Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain were still warring among themselves and the Slavs of central Europe were totally disorganized.

Carolingian Revival

In 768, the most famous Frank was Karl der Gross (Carlos Magnus or Charlemagne) who continued the consolidation efforts of his father and grandfather. Charles Martel had defeated the Muslim spread into France at the Battle of Tours in 732 and his son, Pepin the Short was the first King of the Franks. Pepin had endeared himself to the Pope through what was called the Donation of Pepin. This gave the papacy the Papal States (control of the central part of Italy from Rome to the Adriatic Sea and up that coast to just south of Venice). When Pepin died in 768, the Kingdom passed to Charlemagne. Because his Latin name was Carolus, he began the Carolingian Dynasty. He became the protector of the Papacy, removing the Lombards from northern Italy, invaded Muslim Spain, and drove the Saxons out of their territory in what is now northern Germany while converting them forcibly to Christianity. On Christmas Day 800, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As an aside, this set the precedent of giving future popes the right to appoint the Emperor of the Romans – that eventually devolved into the Holy Roman Empire.

His legacy was the unification of much of western Europe until his death in 814 when his three sons split his empire up, but it did not survive their eventual deaths. Many historians consider this the first Renaissance because of the high encouragement of literacy with church schools and corrected many errors in the Bible that had crept in over many years. Charlemagne built the Palatine Chapel in the city of Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia (called Aix-la-Chapelle in France), his capital.

Charlemagne Throne in Palatine Chapel, Aachen



From the coronation of Otto I in 936 until the 16th century, more than 30 German emperors and kings were crowned at Aachen.

Feudal Period

It was after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, for self-preservation that the feudal period (Middle Ages) set in throughout western Europe, beginning in Normandy that was trying to protect the area from invading Vikings. Lawlessness was reduced by self-styled warlords who gave land away to what were called vassals in return for providing mutual protection. If a fiefdom (landholding) was attacked, the vassals (knights) were obligated to support their lord (dukes or counts) with a set number of their workers (serfs), horses, cattle for food, weapons. The serfs were part of the land – not quite slaves because they belonged to the land so could not be sold to others. There was also a close relationship between the feudal system and increased influence of the church.


Germans began to populate the territory between the Elbe and Oder rivers while the very organized Normans conquered England (1066) and also southern Italy and Sicily. In 962, a German king managed to get control of part of northern Italy and declared himself emperor. This was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire that would survive in one form or another until 1806. A continuing question was whether the Pope had authority over both appointing an emperor or removing him. (Those of you were with me on the cruise down the Rhône may well remember our day in Avignon when we learned of the so-called “Babylon Captivity” beginning in 1303 when the question of primacy of Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope created a conflict between the church and state and the creation of two rival popes at the same time.)

At the beginning of the 15th century, there was no nation of Germany on the west European continent. There was a growing France; the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily; the Papal States in northern Italy; a Kingdom of Hungary; Poland-Lithuania; the northern states of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; and three kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula. Centered in Vienna was the Holy Roman Empire, strongly Catholic. This amorphous territory in central Europe fought the centralizing powers of the various European kings. To the south and east, the Muslim Ottoman Turks had conquered the Balkan peninsula and the area from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

(go to https://germanculture.com.ua/history/ for a more detailed history.)

Obviously, the Protestant Reformation is something that was writ very large in German history. It divided the various governing units in the area (kingdoms, duchies, principalities, electorates, etc.) we now call Germany into Protestant or Catholic, a movement that affected most of the rest of western Europe. The religious wars that lasted for over a century – from the time that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the entrance to Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 — essentially ended the major part of the controversy. One history text labeled Westphalia as the Peace of Exhaustion.[1] As a result, the 16th and 17th centuries were a time of national consolidation in many European countries (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Sweden) but not all.

Nascent Nationalism

The concept of nationalism is one that is not held in common agreement by all historians. Here is my take on it. Nationalism

One consequence of Westphalia was the beginning of consolidation of power in what would later be called Germany. Prussia would be a force to reckon with. The Holy Roman Empire had lost territory to Prussia and Bavaria (they would become the largest components of a united Germany in the 19th century). While European nations were fighting for over a century in Europe, many of them sent ships in an Age of Exploration all over the world, although none of the German states were really involved – not until after unification.

Cultural Revival of the 18th Century and the Rise of Prussia

Without getting into the details of the literature of the late 17th and through the 18th century that was full of Romanticism (like the intellectuals whose writings inspired Goethe), the creation of a German Kulturnation that would lead to a modern national state. Such things as a national theater and the reinvigoration of the German language in literature laid the foundation influencing national pride that fought against Napoleon in the late 18th century in the name of “love of Fatherland.”

Map of Central Europe
Map of Central Europe 1815, from Passant, p. 11

Note that the Prussian territory is not contiguous and the normal reaction is to fill in the space between. (That is the reason I am carefully watching Putin in Russia because of the Russian exclave known as Kalinin with its excellent deep-water port of Kaliningrad (formerly known as Königsberg.)

[1] Stanley Chodorow, MacCgregor Knox, Conrad Schirokauer, Joseph R Strayer, Hans W Gatzke, The Mainstream Civilization Since 1500 (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994), p. 491.

By the early 19th century, there were only two major powers in central Europe – Austria and Prussia. The influence of the Hohenzollern dynasty, beginning with Frederick William (1640-88), known as the Great Elector, gave a definite pattern for the future Germany. His intentions to enlarge the territory controlled by Prussia through the development of his military made Protestantism (both Lutheranism and Calvinism) the strongest religion in the region, while Austria (in actuality the Holy Roman Empire under the Hapsburgs) remained the center of Catholicism. Several Hohenzollern successors, who were now called King of Prussia, led in 1740 to Frederick II (the Great). Not only a great administrator but an ambitious supporter of Prussian aggrandizement, in his 46 years of rule, recognized that Prussia had no natural defensible frontiers and seeing the inherent weakness of Austria, involved Prussia in both diplomacy and military expansion, mostly at the expense of Austria.. One contemporary, observed that Prussia was not a country that had an army, but an army that had a country.[1] Frederick was a firm adherent of Realpolitik, a policy based on reality, not vacuous ideals.

The early 19th century democratized Frederick’s enthusiasm in a popular awakening, as unitary power was expanded to the intellectuals and a growing middle class. In 1809, the National University in Berlin (the Prussian capital) was founded.

German Confederation

The Congress of Vienna (1815) that ended the Napoleonic Wars attempted, in part, to settle the growing controversy between Prussia and Austria for the leadership of “Germany.” At the Congress, Austria was given the permanent presidency of the German Confederation that replaced the Holy Roman Empire. Prussia consolidated its new landholdings. As some of these acquisitions were physically separated from Prussia, the Prussian state fully intended to fill the gaps to make all the territory contiguous. Because of the exceptional energy and industry of its people, the mineral wealth of the Ruhr soon would be developed, an efficient civil service system that was NOT corrupt, and a very competent army, Prussia would take the leadership to unify the German nation.

For the next half century, the two power houses, Austria and Prussia, competed for primacy. The Congress of Vienna reduced the number of units within the German Confederation to 41, including, besides part of the Austrian Empire and most of the Kingdom of Prussia, four other kingdoms, an electorate, seven grand duchies, twelve duchies, one margraviate, ten principalities, and four free towns.  Austria’s strength was in the South and East of the new German Confederation, while Prussia was in the North and West – with those territorial gaps, but also included a part of Poland as the Congress split that proud nation between Prussia and Russia. So Prussia was predominantly German while most of Austria was not German speaking. Whereas Prussia saw nationalism as the means to unify, Austria – still under the Hapsburgs – attempted to keep the various ethnic groups under its control in competition with each other, so that burgeoning nationalism could be controlled by Austria. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was an obstacle to German unity, so was Austria.

The Prussian Junkers — landholding nobility — were Prussian first and German second. They controlled the Prussian government and were far from democratic. As their governmental horizon was limited, they did not comprehend a German unity. So Germany continued as a “geographic expression.”

[1] E. J. Passant, A Short History of Germany, 1815-1945 (London: Cambridge Unversity Press, 1959), p. 4.

Austrian Leadership, 1815-58

But the middle class was increasing in numbers and in wealth, while three-fourths of the population lived in the countryside and had little voice. Attempts at reform, like in 1819, had led to the Carlsbad Decrees that kept the lid on change and Austria in charge for the next 30 years, even during the general European revolutionary wave of 1830. The Confederation handled the Revolution of The Confederation under the tight control of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1809.

The influence of Metternich was overwhelming as he was the brains that controlled the Austrian Emperors (remember that they were Hapsburgs, not the sharpest knives in the drawer). At the same time, the other potential leader, Prussia, was losing influence in the territory it controlled, as the Prussian king, Frederick William III, deferred to Austria and also made no attempt to introduce liberal institutions or parliamentary government into the Prussian monarchy. So by the time of Metternich’s death in 1840, Prussia had been almost totally eclipsed by Austria.

National Unity beginnings after 1840

In 1840, the aging King Frederick William III passed away and his son, FW IV, succeeded him. It was at this time that a growing enmity with France and a territorial dispute with Denmark over the control of Schleswig-Holstein  increased.

Schleswig-Holstein in Jutland Peninsula

Holstein was a member of the German Confederation and had an almost entirely German-speaking population; Schleswig had a majority German-speaking population. Both duchies wanted to keep out of Denmark’s clutches but each wanted to maintain its identity. On the accompanying map, the red areas are Denmark.




Let me complicate the situation by adding another factor: the Zollverein (Customs Union). This had been under Prussian control since 1834 and reminds me a lot of the European Union (primarily controlled by Germany) that is in place in much of Europe today. As the member states saw the advantages of improving their individual economies, but wanted to maintain individual identities, Prussia promised them that both could be accomplished and didn’t need Austria’s assistance. So the beginnings of a national government, called Kleindeutsch (Little German) that excluded Austria, as opposed to the Grossdeutsch (Great German) with a continuing knuckle-dragging Austrian presence. As Prussian-controlled territory had the greatest industrial development and Prussia had an extremely efficient civil service (that created and maintained the Zollverein), Prussia became the natural leader.

Revolutions of 1848 and the reaction

Austria was very negatively affected by the revolutions that spread throughout the Austrian-controlled territory. Traditionally, the Hapsburgs had maintained control of their very diverse populations by pitting one minority group against another – a practice that worked in the past but would eventually allow the internal vibrations to tear the entire structure apart. Yet, as a result of the revolutions and with international pressure – primarily from Czarist Russia – Austria was given a greater voice in the German Confederation. This very definitely would delay the unification of Germany.

The reaction of King Frederick William IV was truly reactionary, persecuting everything liberal. He allied himself with the Junkers, allowing them greater power to control local affairs, that increased feudal jurisdiction. In other words, they would oppose a truly German national movement that would include non-Prussian sharing of government. The Prussian representative at the Federal Diet, Otto Eduard Leopard, Prince of Bismarck and Duke of Lauenburg, (we know him as Otto von Bismarck) recommended that Prussia should work with the Czar as a counterweight against growing Austrian influence. He knew that eventually the growing enmity with Austria would come to blows and needed Russian insurance to safeguard Prussia’s eastern frontiers.

Reign of William I and the Victory of Prussia in Germany, 1858-71

The next few years are absolutely fascinating and I spent several years putting it all together, based on Bismarck’s concept of realpolitik.[1] In 1857, Frederick William became totally mentally handicapped and the Prussian throne passed to his brother, William. Frederick’s son, also a Frederick, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria, who wanted a path to national unification on a liberal pathway. But William saw how easily Austria had been defeated by the unifying Italian states in 1859. He also realized that Prussia’s military needed drastic reform. His greatest achievement, however, was to call in Bismarck to the new post of Minister-President.

Without going into the details, through diplomacy and conniving, Bismarck engineered a war with Austria in 1866 over the control of Schleswig-Holstein, the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. (See the Jutland map above) Remember that Schleswig has an almost entirely German-speaking population and Holstein had a predominately German-speaking population but was also a member of the German Confederation. Nominally under Denmark, there was a strong move by the Germans of both provinces to unify and pull Schleswig into the Confederation. Bismarck decided to intervene as Prussia and Austria declared war on Denmark in 1864. As the “spoils of war”, Prussia would administer the contiguous Holstein whereas Austria would administer Schleswig to the north. The feelings of the people of Schleswig were closer to Prussia than they were to Austria and the essentially land-locked Austrian representatives had to travel through Prussian territory and Prussian-controlled Holstein to get to Schleswig. You can imagine the logistic nightmare this created! Bismarck had done his diplomatic homework and had already ensured that other European powers would not intervene on Denmark’s behalf by having them declare their neutrality.

As Bismarck had ensured neutrality by the European powers (France, Great Britain, Russia, and the new Italy) during the Schleswig-Holstein Question, he also maneuvered the same nations to stand aside in 1866. For example, he met with Napoleon III in Biarritz in October 1865 and gave the impression (not a firm commitment, you will note) that Prussia would look the other way if France were to take Belgium and maybe even take some territory in German Rhineland (that we will be traveling through). He then maneuvered a frustrated Austria to declare war on Prussia and the members of the Confederation were forced to take sides. Several of the larger states sided with Austria, but Prussia had prepared its army and in one month, Austrian forces had been defeated! The Peace of Prague in August 1866 filled in the areas that were not contiguous, creating the North German Confederation.

[1] This is a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. The concept first appeared in the 1850s (and has a slightly different connatation in 2020.)

Bismarck was not done yet. He wanted to round out the borders by incorporating the French provinces of Alsaçe and Lorraine. These provinces had only been added to French control during the reign of Louis XIV and many in those provinces considered themselves German as many still speak a German dialect. Realizing that Napoleon III might be a competition to a united Germany, Bismarck “leaked” Napoleon’s territorial and governmental power ambitions to a French newspaper, getting him to back down. Bismarck also convinced the Italians that France was the major hold-out for final Italian unification. Russia was otherwise occupied in the Balkan Peninsula.

Six weeks is all that it took to get a French surrender. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and the French Second Empire came to a screeching halt. On 18 January 1871, King William of Prussia became Kaiser of all German states, without Austria, in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.[1] Not only did Bismarck placate all potential foreign adversaries prior to the war, but he also promised all the German states (remember that some had been opposed to him in the War against Austria) that their individual identity would be maintained, thus it was a German Empire that was created that also included Alsaçe and Lorraine.


Germany from 1871 to defeat in 1918

The first twenty years after unification were glory years for Germany. The nation had gained primacy in Europe diplomatically and was on the way to an economic explosion. Prussia, one of the states in the Empire (remember that Bismarck had promised all the states that their identity would be maintained), dominated everything. The King of Prussia became Kaiser William I of the Second Reich and was the Commander in Chief of the German Army; Bismarck as the Prussian Minister-President became Chancellor of the Empire and was responsible not to the popularly elected Reichstag but to the Kaiser. Also Prussia had an absolute veto in the new Federal Council (Bundesrat). The lesser states for the most part went along with this because they were an integral part of the Empire and as long as the empire remained strong, they were all safe.

Bismarck, although himself a member of the Junkers, correctly saw that his main opposition initially was from the Junkers and he countered this threat by gaining the support of the Liberals in the southern states. Fearing negativity from the Catholics, he launched the Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against the predominantly Catholic Center party. This party had a cultural affinity for the concept of Grossdeutsch that included Austria. This lasted until about 1878. One of its main tenets was the transfer of Catholic schools to state control. Keep in mind that this was not the situation in Germany because the Third Republic in France also considered the Catholic Church a threat because of the loyalty of the clergy to Rome and the religious support of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

The Iron Chancellor’s second attack was against the National-Liberal party, who demanded too much to maintain its support. When the Kaiser objected, Bismarck threatened to resign. William correctly saw that his power came from his Chancellor and deferred. The attack was on the issue of the tariff that divided the National-Liberals.

Bismarck’s third attack was on the Socialists. Because Social Democrats were internationalist and Bismarck thought that their national loyalty was suspect, in 1878, he pushed a very strong anti-Socialist law through the Reichstag that repressed public gatherings and the creation of trade unions.

[1] The Second Reich (first one was Charlemagne’s) began and ended in the Hall of Mirrors.

Note that I am not emphasizing the Kaiser (German word for “emperor” that comes from the same Indo-European word as Caesar and Czar), but about Bismarck – because there is no question that he was running the show.

German flag  This is the current flag of Germany

Germany Expands

Besides annexing Alsaçe-Lorraine that had a mixed French-German population (although from the time that Louis XIV had taken those provinces over in the late 17th century, France had treated the inhabitants like second-class citizens), Bismarck supported French declaration of a protectorate over Tunis in 1881 and British intervention in Egypt 1882. The partitioning of Africa was going on in full flight by Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy and German explorers, missionaries, and merchants wanted Germany to get her piece of the pie. So between 1882 and 1890, Germany acquired German Southwest Africa (today Namibia), Togoland (today part of Ghana), the Cameroons in Africa (today split between Federal Republic of Cameroon and Nigeria) and German East Africa (today is Tanganyika, the mainland part of Tanzania).

Germany in AfricaThey also acquired the Marshall islands (now independent) and some of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific(today a constitutional monarchy and queen is Elizabeth II, represented by a Governor-General). (I just know that when you are staring at a map of the southwest Pacific Ocean, you are wondering why there is a Bismarck Archipelago! and a Kaiser Wilhelmland?)




The End of Bismarck

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I passed away and his son took the Imperial throne as Wilhelm II. A vain, romantic, headstrong individual, it became very obvious that he no longer wanted the counsel of his Chancellor to slow down his ambitions both foreign and domestic; Bismarck reluctantly was forced to resign in 1890 and the tight nationalism that he had created as well as the careful diplomatic balance he developed unraveled.

The young William wanted to challenge Great Britain at sea, increase African landholdings at the expense of both the British and French, as well as dominate manufacturing through the use of cartels like I. G. Farben. The expansionist-minded Kaiser also attempted to increase influence in Asia, including west Asia (what you might want to call the Middle East) and into China.

Fearing a German-controlled world trade, a group of nations decided that enough was enough. Czarist Russia and France had already signed a treaty in 1894 (The Dual Alliance). Many of the terms of this were secret. Part of the “justification” for this was the agreement called the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in 1882 as Italy felt that it had lost its North African ambitions to the French and also because both Austria and Italy were Catholic. This had been engineered by Bismarck, laying down the gauntlet.

The “New Course”

General Georg Leo von Caprivi, the Commander of the Hanoverian Army Corps replaced Bismarck as Chancellor from 1890-94. What he is most remembered for is the “Caprivi Strip,” an eastward extension of land about 20 miles wide and 280 long in German Southwest Africa (today called Namibia) to the Zambezi River. It propitiously ended at Victoria Falls, making it impossible for the British expansionists to connect various colonial possessions.

Caprivi Strip

I preferred to call it “Caprivi’s Finger” because that is what he gave the British.



Organizations like the Eastern Marches Association, the Colonial League, the Navy League, and the Pan-German League began a strong propaganda campaign to expand German trade and interests in East Asia. They were supported by the great iron magnates like Krupp and pushed for a world-wide navy. As the Royal Navy was stretched to protect the global English interests, in 1902, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed whereby the burgeoning Japanese would protect English East Asian possessions in return for the English not restricting Japanese expansion. Then the Royal Navy could concentrate in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters.

In 1904, England negotiated an Éntente with its perennial hated enemy France called the Éntente Cordiale. This agreement was not as defined as a treaty because “England does not like the definitive.” France would protect British Mediterranean interests while the Royal Navy concentrate in the North Atlantic.

1907 brought the Anglo-Russian Convention or Éntente which ended the long dispute over Persia (present-day Iran) while Russia agreed to stay out of Afghanistan and Tibet. [Do you remember the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when Harrison Ford went against the Nazi force in Tibet? Well, German interests in the Roof of the World began around the turn of the 20th century!]

Germany had drawn Turkey and Bulgaria into its sphere to gain control of the Orient Express Railway that would create an overland trade route through South and Central Asia, crossing the Bosporus at Constantinople, then through Bulgaria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Berlin, the German Imperial capital. Now the stage was set for The Great War with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) against the Allied and Éntente Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, and in 1915 Italy). All that was needed was a spark to set it off.

I will leave our history of Germany here.

Now return to “The Rhine: An Informational Essay” and finish that article, please.