Germany - A Country Overview

Information on Germany; its place geographically, its history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Germany...

Geography

Germany covers nearly 138,000 square miles of land and sea territory. It is Europe's 7th largest country and the 62nd largest country in the world.

The country stretches across the North European plain from the Alps in the south. It shares borders with France and Luxembourg in the southwest, Belgium and the Netherlands in the northwest, Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east and Austria and Switzerland to the south. In addition to these borders, Germany also has a 2,400 Km coastline on the North and Baltic Seas.

Germany's highest peak lies in the Bavarian Wetterstein area of the Alps; the Zugspitze rises to 2,962 metres above sea level. The lowest point in the country is in the low-lying lands to the north of the country, 3.54 metres below sea level.

Germany's main rivers are the Rhine, the Danube and the Elbe.

History

German history can be traced as far back as 1700BC and the Nordic Bronze Age. Germanic tribes were thought to have spread south, east and west from Denmark before coming into contact with Gaul tribes in the west, Slavic tribes in the east and eventually Roman forces in the south. It is Julius Caesar that first referred to the area east of the Rhine as Germania.

After the Romans failed to conquer Germania and after the eventual fall of Rome, a large number of western Germanic tribes emerged and moved further south west while larger tribes emerged in what is now known as Germany. These larger tribes displaced smaller ones and the area became controlled by the Franks, Saxons and Slavs.

In 800AD Charlemagne, king of the Franks, expanded the Frankish kingdom into the Carolingian Empire that incorporated most of central Europe, northern Italy and France. After Charlemagne's death in 814AD, the Carolingian Empire was partitioned. The Germanic peoples, including those in East Francia, united under Duke Henry of Saxony in 919AD and claimed a "realm of the Germans".

After the death of Henry of Saxony in 919AD, Otto the Great was crowned at Aachen. His coronation proclaimed the start of what was to be known as the Holy Roman Empire which included the German people and was set to last for some 840 years.

By the beginning of the 12th century German lands had a population of between 5-6 million and small towns began to spring up around monasteries, strongholds, castles and palaces. Several of these began to establish municipal rights and civil liberties and class systems soon followed. Cologne in particular flourished and served as a trading bridge between the east and west. It was during this period too, that science began to flourish with Hildegard von Bingen and Walther von der Vogelweide coming to prominence.

The Holy Roman Empire expanded eastwards in the 13th century as Teutonic Knights invaded and Christianised Slavic territories along the Baltic coastline and into Prussia.

In the early 16th century, after a general discontent in society with the excesses and indulgences of the Catholic Church, reform came in the form of Martin Luther's "95 Theses". Having been outlawed and forced into hiding, Luther translated the Bible into German from Latin in 1521 thus establishing the basis of the German language. After the slaughter of an estimated 100,000 peasants in the 1524 German Peasants War, a separate Lutheran church emerged in 1530.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the Holy Roman Empire from 1618-1648. The Protestant and Catholic disagreements, the Catholic Emperor's attempts to unify the Empire and the aspirations of many states to solidify or increase their power all contributed to the war. Bands of soldiers wandered across the country murdering and plundering while others levied taxes on cities to fund the war. After Peace of Westphalia, the Netherlands officially left the Empire while further territory was lost to France and Sweden.

In the 18th century German history was dominated by the fighting between the two strong regions of Prussia and Austria. This German Dualism saw both regions vying for leadership of the Holy Roman Empire, which had since devolved into numerous independent principalities. It was the Napoleonic Wars that finally saw the Holy Roman Empire overrun and dissolved in 1806. From this, the Congress of Vienna founded the German Confederation in 1814, which was made up of 39 sovereign states.

Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of the German Confederation in 1862 and a series of wars saw a now united Germany gain victories over Denmark, Austria and France. Bismarck's "Second German Reich" dominated and strengthened Germany throughout his tenure. Bismarck was dismissed by the new emperor, Kaiser Wilhem, in 1890.

Wilhem sought to increase Germany's influence by cooling relations with Russia, empire building, engaging in a naval race with Britain and improving the army. This foreign policy was misguided however as Germany became isolated and relied heavily on its relationship with Austro-Hungary and Italy.

It was this relationship that saw the Outbreak of World War I. Germany supported Austro-Hungary in its confrontation with Serbia, while Serbia was protected by Russia who in turn was allied with France and consequently Britain. The result was four years of Stalemate across two fronts in Europe.

After Germany's defeat and enforced unconditional surrender in 1918, it was made to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which ceded a number of territories and colonies to the Allies. The treaty also minimised the military might of the country and demanded that it pay money to its victors in the form of war "reparations". The latter policy saw massive hyperinflation in the country as the new Weimar Republic government printed money in order to pay France. By 1923 it saw people pushing their daily wages home in wheelbarrows and burning wads of notes as a cheaper alternative to firewood.

By the end of 1923 the economy stabilised with the introduction of the new Rentenmark currency. This lasted until The Wall Street Crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great German Depression that saw six million people unemployed. Due to the economic and political instability, anti-democratic parties of the far left and right became popular. They appealed greatly to the young who had no work prospects, the unemployed, and the middle classes who had previously had their assets stripped as a result of hyperinflation. By 1933 the Nazi party and the Communist KPD party together had a majority in parliament and, under pressure, the President declared Adolf Hitler Chancellor.

Following World War II Germany was divided into four Allied controlled zones at the Potsdam Conference and didn't reunite until 1949. Millions of displaced people moved across the country-in-turmoil in an attempt to return home. Berlin, in the Soviet occupied East Germany was also divided into four zones.

On 23 May 1949 the three western occupied zones merged to form the Bundesrepublik Deutschland while in October 1949 the Soviet east zone became the German Democratic Republic. West Germany nominated Bonn as the temporary capital and quickly established itself as a strong social market economy allied to Britain, France and USA. It joined NATO and the UN and was a founding member of the European Economic Community in 1957.

East Germany fell under Communist control maintained by the Stasi secret police. Many East Germans dreamed of moving to the West and in 1961 the Berlin wall was built to annex West Germans in the city of Berlin. This wall became a symbol of the Cold War.

Tensions dropped between East and West Germany in the 1970s and when Hungary attempted to part the Iron Curtain by opening up its borders in 1989, thousands of East Germans moved to the west. This was the catalyst for German reunification on 3rd October 1990.

Berlin became the capital of the reunited Germany in 1994 and the relocation of the government was completed in 1999. Germany has taken an active role in NATO and with the UN. In 2005 Angela Merkel became Germany's first female Chancellor.

Politics and Government

One of the most influential political powers in Europe, Germany is a Federal Parliamentary Republic based on representative democracy. The head of state is the President of Germany (Bundesprasident) while the Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) is the head of government.

The Chancellor heads the Federal Cabinet (Bundesregierung), which wields executive power in the country. The Chancellor is usually the leader of the largest party and is elected for a four-year term. This term can only be ended prematurely by a vote of no confidence combined with a positive majority in favour of a named successor.

The federal cabinet is responsible, through the guidance of the Chancellor, for deciding political direction. According to the departmentalisation principle (Ressortprinzip), ministers are free to carry out their duties in line with boundaries set by the Chancellor.

The President's role is largely representative and ceremonial. He or she is required to propose the Chancellor and appoint ministers proposed by the Chancellor. The President is elected every five years by a special body formed solely for this purpose called the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) comprising Parliament (Bundestag) and an equal number of state delegates.

Legislative power in Germany is held by Parliament and the Federal Council (Bundestag and Bundesrat). The Bundestag is elected by the German people while the Bundesrat represents the regional states.

Members of the Bundestag are elected in single seat constituencies by means of mixed member proportional representation using a first past the post system. There are a total of 598 members, but there are usually further seats awarded if parties gain more than the national share of the vote. In this case, the seats are kept and known as overhang seats. In contrast, those that gain less constituency seats than their national share of the vote are allotted seats from party lists.

Judicial power in Germany rests with an independent network of ordinary, specialised and constitutional courts at federal and national level.

Economy

Germany has a social market economy characterised by strong innovation and low levels of corruption. The German economy is the largest economy in the European Union and the fourth largest in the world based on GDP. As a founding member of the Eurozone, Germany adopted the Euro currency on 1 January 2002 and, has since, had its monetary policy set by the Central European Bank.

As a percentage of GDP the German economy is made up of 71 percent service sector, 28 percent manufacturing and 1 percent agriculture.

Germany has a number of natural resources, which include iron ore, coal, timber, lignite, gas, salt, nickel, water, potash, uranium and lignite. It was the world's leading exporter of goods between 2003 and 2008 and remains the third highest importer.

Germany was ranked at number 22 on the 2011 Ease of Doing Business Index.

Climate

On the whole, Germany has a temperate seasonal climate dominated by humid westerly winds.

To the north of the country the climate is affected by the North Atlantic Drift warm ocean current making the climate predominantly oceanic. The temperatures in the area are typically cool in the summer and warm in the winter, though sub-zero temperatures in the winter and 30 degree plus temperatures in the summer are not unheard of. Rainfall occurs all year round.

The east of the country has a continental climate, which is characterised by cold winters and hot, dry summers.

Central, west and southern Germany have varying degrees of oceanic and continental climates across the regions, which depend on their proximity to the sea and other bodies of water.

The far south of the country has a mountainous climate in the Alpine regions, which sees low temperatures and high precipitation levels.

Security

Each state in Germany is responsible for managing its own state police force (Landespolizei). In addition to state policing, there are three national police forces: Bundespolizei, Bundeskriminalamt and Bundestagpolizei.

According to Travel and Tourism Competitiveness reports Germany remains one of the safest travel destinations in the world. However, it is always advisable to check government warnings before travelling.

Immigration

The majority of the population is made up of German nationals, however, due to the decline in birth and death rates, immigration to the country has been politically encouraged. In 2005 the United Nations declared Germany host to the world's third-highest number of international migrants.

As of 2009, seven million foreign citizens were registered to work in Germany while 19 percent of all inhabitants were of foreign decent. Workers from Turkey, Italy, Poland and the former Soviet Union make up the vast majority of immigrants to the country.

Tourism

Germany is the third most visited European country and the 7th worldwide as of 2008, and has much to offer the tourist. It has a rich history of heritage and culture and many famous art, music and literary icons were born there. Historically, many German landscapes and cities were part of the Grand Tour in the 19th century.

With lots of theme parks, landmarks, beaches to the north and mountains to the south, Germany has locations to suit all types of seasonal tourism. Recently, spa towns have attracted a significant number of people interested in health tourism while medical tourism is also popular.

As well as having 14 national parks and 14 biosphere reserves, Germany is also home to 33 UNESCO world heritage sites including Aachen and Cologne Cathedrals, Messel Pit Fossil Site, The Wadden Sea and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.