The term Germania was coined by Julius Caesar to describe an area that encompassed numerous tribes. These groups were diffuse rather than politically unified, with various tribes having hereditary or chosen leaders. However, they are believed to have spoken mutually intelligible Germanic dialects that all derived from a single earlier parent language.
Migrating Germanic tribes often came into conflict with the people of Gaul, Italy and Hispania, and as such were seen as a major threat throughout the Roman period. To counter this threat, in 12 BC, the Romans, under Augustus attempted to conquer Germania. They had intended to annex the whole region, but only got as far as the River Elbe, where they were decisively defeated in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (in 9 AD). This battle established the Rhine and the Danube as the boundary of the Roman Empire and halted Roman expansion into northern Europe.
Following the decline of Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries, Germanic tribes migrated westward once more. The Visigoths founded an Iberian kingdom that lasted for 200 years, Frankish tribes took control of the area of modern-day France, and the Angles and Saxons settled in eastern Britain. In later centuries, the Germanic peoples were Christianised, stable kingdoms were formed and older tribal structures were replaced.
The first unification of German people occurred in 937, when Otto the Great began to control the appointment of previously independent dukes. This prompted the formation of the Holy Roman Empire in 962, which dominated Central Europe throughout the Middle Ages and survived in its fragmented form until it was dissolved in 1806 following Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz.
In 1517, angry at the corruption and worldliness of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther (who was from modern-day Eastern Germany) published 95 critical ‘theses’. This started the Protestant Reformation, which eventually led to the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648. This caused great upheaval to the German States, and heralded a decline in the Empire's power, as religious divisions were sown and states were forbidden from forming alliances with one another.
The pixellated nature of the German States continued until Prussia started to gain hegemony under Frederick The Great and his successor, Frederick William III. This lead to the formation of a new, unified German Empire following Otto von Bismarck's victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The subsequent realpolitik diplomacy employed by Germany led to its place as a major power by the time of the First World War.
It cannot be doubted that German aggression was one of the causes of World War I. Germany was eventually one of the defeated nations, and was forced to make punitive reparations at the Treaty of Versailles. After a decade of hyperinflation and depression, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933. Charismatic as he was, many Germans saw in him a way out of the mess the country was in. But Hitler was an utterly hateful man who immediately started planning his revenge on his perceived enemies. He launched this in 1939 by invading Poland, plunging the world into a second global war. Defeat left Germany broken again, and the world reeled in horror as evidence of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ came to light.
After the war, the country was managed by four of the victorious powers. The divisions then hardened into two separate states as the Cold War intensified. West Germany was painstakingly rebuilt and became a remarkable economic success, while East Germany floundered under oppressive Communist rule. After the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1990,Germany was reunified. Since this time, vast sums have been spent in an effort to bring Eastern productivity and wages up to Western standards. This has impacted on growth somewhat, but Germany is now the fourth largest economy in the world and once again politically and economically at the heart of Europe.
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