I love history! But by now, everyone should already know that. For this reason, I am appalled that I had not already thought of spinning the tale of Germany’s history for all of you. It’s a beautifully tragic one to be sure. The German people truly have seen the brightest and darkest forms of human ambition. An area that was once a cluster of small, isolated kingdoms would be united by a single man with a stone-like disposition. The nation and its people, led by the most maniacal mind of the century, would burn to the ground, just to rise from the ashes decades later. Now they stand at the forefront of European politics, acting as a beacon of light for the wayward and unstable countries of the world.
The Germanic States and the Holy Roman Empire
It is believed that ancient humans resided in Germany at least 600,000 years ago. The first Neanderthal was discovered there, its fossils dating back to 40,000 years earlier. Primitive tools, weapons, instruments, and art have been found throughout the country as well.
The Germanic tribes originated during the Nordic Bronze Age and steadily expanded south, east and west during the 1st century BCE. During Augustus’ reign (27 BCE-14 AD), Rome began to invade Germania, the land from the Rhine River to the Ural Mountains. By 9 AD, three Roman legions were defeated in Germania, and by 100 AD, Germanic tribes had settled along the Rhine and Danube Rivers. At the time, the Romans controlled Bavaria and the western Rhineland. By the 3rd century AD, a number of West Germanic tribes rose to prominence; the Alemanni, Franks, Chatti, Saxons, Frisii, Sicambri, and Thuringii. The Germanic people began to challenge the neighboring Romans. Following the invasion of the Huns in 375 and the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes began to migrate further south-west.
Over the course of the next 900 years, the Germanic tribes would settle and their history would be intertwined with that of the Holy Roman Empire (see the map on the side). Ironically, the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, having no official affiliation with a religion, was not Roman, never having been part of the Roman Empire, Rome, or any of its descendants; and was not an empire, having a very loose structure in which each kingdom’s prince had more say than the emperor. To get an idea for it, by “the 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of approximately 1,800 [territories].”
Basically, the entire endeavor was a big swing-and-a-miss. In the year 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Carolingian Empire, which was divided in 843, the eastern portion forming the Holy Roman Empire.
A series of Ottonian emperors from 919-1024 were responsible for consolidating a number of major duchies. The Salian emperors succeeded in integrating northern Italy and Burgundy into the empire. The Hohenstaufen emperors, ruling from 1138-1254, are examples of the falsehood behind the distinction of “empire” as they lost a great deal of influence to the innumerable German princes. Finally, in 1356, some uniformity was instilled with the declaration of the Golden Bull. Essentially, it operated as the empire’s constitution. From that point on, seven prince-electors would choose an emperor through an election process.
In 1517, all of the supposed control and uniformity that had blanketed, and possibly suppressed, Europe, in the form of the Catholic Church, was completely upended when Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. He challenged the Church, sparking the Protestant Reformation and the formation of Lutheranism. The German states were a hotbed of religious reformation, some converting to the ways of Martin Luther while others vehemently defended the traditional practices of Roman Catholicism. This came to a climax in the form of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a military conflict among the Catholic and Protestant states of the Holy Roman Empire that left the German states devastated in terms of land and population. It was ended by the Peace of Westphalia.
There on, the Holy Roman Empire, strangely, continued to strive for autonomy. The Imperial Reform, for instance, created the Imperial Estates in order to provide self-governance to the ecclesiastical, secular, and hereditary states. Despite the new leadership in the council of princes and the emperor they chose, the rivalry that developed between Austria and the Kingdom of Prussia caused a new divide within the Holy Roman Empire. However, by 1806, none of this mattered as the Napoleonic Wars led to the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire.
The German Empire
Napoleon having been defeated and now memorialized in the form of a flaky dessert pastry, the Congress of Vienna was convened to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by resizing the main European powers. The former Germanic States were combined to form the German Confederation, a loosely bound group of 39 sovereign states.
More than one thousand years have passed since the formation of the Not-so-Holy Not-so-Roman Not-so-much-of-an-Empire, and the former Germanic states were still organized in an inefficient and decentralized manner. History seemed to be repeating itself.
That is, until the emergence of resident bad-ass Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was appointed to the position of Minister President of Prussia in 1862 by King Wilhelm I, King of Prussia at the time. His first major accomplishment in office is concluding the war on Denmark in 1864. Soon after in 1866, his victory in the Austro-Prussia War allowed him to create the North German Confederation. This purposefully excluded archrival Austria from the federation’s affairs. By 1871, under the new leadership of Bismarck, the German princes proclaimed the founding of the German Empire at Versailles. This effectively united all of the loose states of Germany into one entity.
Bismarck had done what no man could do for one and a half thousand years before him. He became the first Chancellor of Germany while King Wilhelm I took on the responsibilities of Emperor of Germany. From here, it was Otto von Bismarck’s foreign policy that led Germany to global prominence. Bismarck successfully forged alliances while isolating France. At the 1884 Berlin Conference, Germany claimed numerous colonies in Africa.
Emperor Wilhem I (pictured to the left), however, had a nasty habit of undoing much of this progress by taking an imperialist approach. This led to friction with neighboring countries, which avoided renewing alliances with Germany. As a result, Germany resorted to aligning themselves with Austria-Hungary. This would be expanded upon in 1882 when Italy was included to form the Triple Alliance. Similarly, Britain, France and Russia drew up a coalition.
This tangled web of alliances would become a key contributor towards the start of WWI following the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. For the next four years, Germany was obligated to fight in a war of which they wanted no part. By the end, two million German soldiers were dead and Emperor Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate his position. Germany was declared a republic.
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