German History: The Long Journey to the West

A chequered history with Empire and Weimar Republic, two world wars and reunification.
by Heinrich August Winkler

It existed for 184 years, the German Question. It arose on August 6, 1806 when Franz II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, bowed down to an ultimatum from Napoleon, laid down his crown, relieved the Estates of their duties and thereby dissolved the “Old Empire”. The German Question was resolved on October 3, 1990, with the approval of the four former occupying powers, when the German Democratic Republic acceded to the Federal Republic of Germany. At a state act in the Berlin Philharmonie Richard von Weizsäcker, the German President, described the historical importance of Reunification in a sentence that has gone down in the annals of German history: “The day has come on which for the first time in history the whole of Germany takes a permanent place among Western democracies.”

Between 1806 and 1990 there were indeed periods in which Europe was not concerned by what we call “the German Question”. Between 1871 and 1914, the peacetime of the Kaiserreich, nobody would have dreamed of referring to an unresolved German Question. There can be no denying that the German Question resurfaced at the latest on May 8 and 9, 1945 when the German Reich surrendered unconditionally to the victors of the Second World War. The division of Germany into two states was a preliminary answer to the German Question. The final answer came in the form of the merger of the two states, together with the recognition under international law of the borders of 1945. Since October 3, 1990 it has been irrefutably laid down where Germany lies, what belongs to the country and what does not.

1830–1848: The Vormärz and Paulskirche parliamentary movement

For the Germans there were always two sides to the German Question: that of territory and that of constitution, or to be more precise, the question of the relationship between unity and freedom. At the heart of the territorial question was the problem of a “larger Germany” or “smaller Germany”. If it were possible to replace the Holy Roman Empire with a German national state, would it have to include German-speaking Austria or was a solution to the German Question possible without these territories? The question of the constitution related primarily to the distribution of power between the people and the throne. In a united Germany who was to call the shots: the elected representatives of the Germans or the princes respectively their most powerful choice?

Unity and freedom first emerged as issues in the wars of liberation against Napoleon. The French Emperor was beaten but the removal of the foreign rulers brought the Germans neither a united Germany nor liberal conditions in the states of the German Confederation that in 1815 replaced the Old Reich. Yet the call for unity and freedom could no longer be suppressed permanently. In the early 1830s it once again became louder, the French having won their struggle for a liberal constitutional monarchy in the July 1830 revolution. And although in Germany the old rulers were once again able to get their way, from now on the Liberals and Democrats no longer remained silent. Inspired by events in France in February, in March 1848 there was a revolution in Germany, too: Unity and freedom were once again what the forces that knew historical progress was on their side demanded.

To make Germany both a nation and a constitutional state was a far more ambitious goal than that the French revolutionaries had set themselves in 1789, as their starting point was a nation state, which, albeit somewhat pre-modern, already existed and they therefore planned to place it on a completely new, civil basis. Anyone demanding unity and freedom for the Germans first of all needed to clarify what was actually to be part of Germany. In the first freely elected parliament, the National Assembly, which convened in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt/Main, the fact that a German nation state should include the German- speaking part of the Habsburg monarchy was initially beyond dispute. It was only as of fall 1848 that a majority of the Deputies came to the conclusion that it was not within their power to break up the multi-nation state of Austria-Hungary. Accordingly, as a “large” German state that included Austria could not be established, all that remained possible was a “small” German national state without Austria, and as things stood that meant a Reich under a hereditary Prussian Emperor.

The German state which, according to the will of the National Assembly in Frankfurt/Main, would have been headed by Frederick William IV of Prussia, would have been a liberal constitutional state with a strong parliament that had the government under its control. As German Emperor, the King of Prussia, of the House of the Hohenzollern, would have had to forego the divine right of kings and succumb to being the executor of the superior will of the people. It was a notion that on April 28, 1849 the monarch finally rejected, effectively sealing the fate of the revolution, which had thus brought the Germans neither unity nor freedom. What remained among the bourgeois Liberals was a feeling of political failure: they had, or so it seemed retrospectively, chased down countless illusions in that “mad year” and the realities of power proved them wrong.

It was not by chance that a few years after the 1848 revolution, “Realpolitik” was to become a political catchword: The term’s international career began with a pamphlet entitled “The Principles of Realpolitik. Applied to Conditions in the German States”, which the Liberal journalist Ludwig August von Rochau brought out in 1853. The Paulskirche had in fact already pursued a policy of “Realpolitik” when it ignored the right of self-determination of other peoples (the Poles in the Prussian Grand Duchy of Posen, the Danes in North Schleswig, and the Italians in “Welsch Tyrol”) and decided to define the borders of the future German Reich in line with supposedly German national interests. As such, unity was for the first time given a higher standing than freedom. The freedom of other nations still had to play second fiddle to the goal of German unity.

1871: Founding of the German Reich

In the 1860s, however, Germany likewise took the decision to prioritize unity over freedom. This was the result of the “revolution from above”, by which Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) , the Prussian Prime Minister, solved the German Question in his own way. The Prussian constitutional conflict, which lasted from 1862 to 1866, enabled him to solve the question of domestic power in favor of the Executive and against Parliament; in terms of foreign policy a solution to the question of power was delivered by Prussian victory in 1866 in the “smaller Germany” war, i.e., the exclusion of Austria, and in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1, against the France of Napoleon III, the power that until then had vetoed the creation of a German nation state.

One goal of the 1848 Revolution had thus been achieved: unity. However, the demand for freedom, inasmuch as it denoted a government responsible to parliament, remained unfulfilled. Even if it had been his intention Bismarck would have been unable to solve the freedom question in the interest of the Liberals: Ceding power to Parliament fundamentally contradicted not only the interests of the ruling classes in old Prussia – of his dynasty, his army, the landed gentry, and high-ranking civil servants. It also contradicted the interests of the other German states, at the top of the list Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg. In the form of the Bundesrat they were entitled to a major share of the executive power in the German Reich and were not inclined to forego this power and grant it to the Reichstag. The Reichstag was elected on the basis of universal and equal suffrage by men who had reached the age of majority. This was in line with the Reich Constitution of 1849, which never actually came into power and gave the Germans more democratic rights than those enjoyed at the time by the citizens of liberal model monarchies such as Great Britain and Belgium.

As a result one can talk of a partial democratization of Germany in the 19th century, or in relation to the total life span of the German Reich, of dissynchronic democratization: Suffrage was democratized relatively early on, the system of government in the narrow sense, late.

1914–1918: The First World War

It was not until October 1918, when there could no longer be any doubt about Germany’s military defeat in The First World War , that the decisive change to the constitution occurred, making the Reich Chancellor dependent on the confidence of the Reichstag. This act of making him responsible to Parliament was intended to encourage the victorious Western democracies to condone a lenient peace agreement and preempt a revolution from below. It failed on both counts, but from then on it was easy for the opponents of democracy to denounce the parliamentary system as ”Western” and “un-German”.

The revolution from below broke out in November 1918 because the October Reforms proved to be nothing more than a piece of paper: Large parts of the military were unwilling to subordinate themselves to political control by Reich leaders that were responsible to Parliament. However, the German Revolution of 1918/9 cannot be considered as one of the major or classic revolutions of world history: Germany around 1918 was already too “modern” for a radical break with its political and social fabric along the lines of the French Revolution of 1789 or the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. In a country that at a national level had enjoyed universal and general suffrage for men for some 50 years, the issue could not be to establish a revolutionary educational dictatorship but more democracy. In concrete terms that meant: the introduction of women’s suffrage, making suffrage democratic in the individual states, districts and communities and the establishment of governments answerable to parliament.

1919–1933: The Weimar Republic

There was in fact considerable continuity between the German Reich and the Weimar Republic, which emerged following the fall of the monarchy in November 1918 and the January 1919 elections to the German National Assembly, which was to draw up a constitution. To a certain extent the institution of the monarchy simply persisted in a different form: The office of Reich President, who was elected by the people, came with such powers that there was very quickly talk of a “substitute Emperor” or a “replacement Emperor”.

Nor was there any ethical break with the German Reich. The question of responsibility for the war was not addressed in a serious manner even though (or because) Germany’s actions spoke a very clear language: Following the assassination on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo of the successor to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the leaders of the Reich deliberately escalated the crisis and therefore bore the main responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War. The subsequent lack of debate about bearing the blame for the war resulted in the German legend that the country was indeed innocent of starting the war. Together with the the „stab-in-the-back-legend (which claimed that treason on the home front had led to Germany’s defeat) this played a part in the undermining of the first German democracy.

Almost all Germans saw the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was forced to sign on June 28, 1919, as a blatant injustice. This was primarily as a result of the territories the country had to cede, in particular to the newly established Poland, to material hardships in the form of reparation payments, the loss of colonies, and the military restrictions, all of which were justified by citing the guilt of the German Reich and its allies for the Great War.

The fact that Austria was forbidden to unite with Germany was likewise considered to be unjust. Once the downfall of the Habsburg monarchy had removed the major obstacle to a solution for a greater Germany, the revolutionary governments in Vienna and Berlin (Berlin in the “Golden Twenties“) had spoken out in favor of the two German-speaking republics uniting. They could be assured of the popularity of the demand in both countries.

The fact the Treaties of Versailles and Saint Germain forbade the union did not, however, prevent the notion of a greater Germany once again gaining momentum. It went hand in hand with the renaissance of the old idea of the Reich: Especially because Germany had been beaten militarily and was suffering from the consequences of defeat, it was receptive to the lures that emanated from a past seen through rosy eyes. The Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages had not been a nation state but rather a supranational structure with universal claims. After 1918, forces on the political right, who attributed a new mission to Germany, made increasing reference to this legacy: In Europe, they suggested, it should establish itself as the upholder of law and order in the struggle against Western democracy and Eastern Bolshevism.

As a parliamentary democracy the Weimar Republic survived a mere 11 years. At the end of March 1930, the last majority government, headed by Hermann Müller, a Social Democrat, collapsed on the back of an argument about restructuring the unemployment insurance system. The Grand Coalition that had been in power until then was replaced by a center-right minority cabinet under a politician from the Catholic Zentrum Party, Heinrich Brüning. From the summer of 1930, this government ruled with the help of emergency decrees issued by General Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, the aging Reich President.

When at the Reichstag elections held on September 14, 1930 Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist Party (NSDAP) became the second biggest party, the Social Democrat Party (SPD), which was still the largest party, decided to tolerate the Brüning cabinet in order to prevent the Reich drifting further to the right and to preserve democracy in Prussia, the largest individual state, where the SPD ruled jointly with Brüning’s Catholic Center Party, and the center-right Democrats.

Following the transition to a presidential system of emergency decree, as a legislative body the Reichstag had less influence than during the constitutional monarchy of the German Reich. The decreased influence of parliament meant that to a large extent the electorate no longer played any role in the running of the country, and it was precisely this that gave a boost to anti-parliamentarian forces on the right and left. Of these the National Socialists (National Socialism) benefited the most. From the point in time when the Social Democrats supported Brüning, Hitler was able to present his party as the people’s only alternative to all forms of Marxism, the Bolshevist just as much as the Reformist. He was now in a position to refer to both: to the widespread resentment of parliamentary democracy (which indeed had by now well and truly failed) and to the people’s secured claim to participation in the shape of universal and equal suffrage, which they had enjoyed since the days of Bismarck and which had been rendered politically ineffective by the three presidential governments of Brüning, Papen and Schlei¬cher in the early 1930s.

Thus, Hitler became the greatest beneficiary of the dissynchronic democratization of Germany, namely the introduction of democratic suffrage well before that of a parliamentary system of government.

1933–1945: The era of National Socialism

Hitler did not come to power on the back of a major election victory but he would not have become Reich Chancellor in January 1933 had he not been the leader of the strongest party. At the last Weimar Republic Reichstag elections on November 6, 1932 the National Socialists had lost two million votes compared with the July 31, 1932 elections, while the Communists gained 600,000 thereby reaching the magic number of 100 Reichstag seats. The success of the Communist Party (KPD) whipped up fears of civil war, and it was this fear that was to become Hitler’s most powerful ally, particularly among the powerful Conservative elite. It was their recommendation to Hindenburg that Hitler had to thank for the fact that on January 30, 1933 the Reich President appointed him to the position of Reich Chancellor at the head of a predominantly conservative cabinet.

Terror against anyone who dissented was not a sufficient means to hold on to power during the 12 years of the Third Reich. Hitler was able to beat unemployment within a matter of years primarily through a rearmaments program, thereby winning the support of large sections of the working classes. As a result of the ruthless exploitation of workers and natural resources in the occupied territories he had been able to spare the German masses the hardships they had had to endure after the First World War (The First World War), ensuring that he could count on their support even during the Second World War. The major successes in foreign policy during the pre-War years, headed by the re-occupation of the de-militarized Rhineland in March 1936 and the Austrian “Anschluss” in March 1938 meant that Hitler’s popularity was to reach record levels in all classes of society. The legend of the Reich and its historic mission, which Hitler was a master in propagating, influenced in particular educated Germans. The charismatic “Fuehrer” needed their assistance if he was to make Germany a long- term power in the European order, and they needed him, too, because otherwise it seemed there was nobody in a position to make the dream of a great German Reich become reality.

Even though he did not focus on it, in the electoral campaigns in the early 1930s Hitler had made no secret of his anti-Semitism. His slogans would not have won him many votes among the working classes, something he was extremely keen to do. Among educated, property-owning classes, small businessmen and farmers anti-Jewish prejudice was widespread, whereas strident anti-Semitism was frowned upon.

Because they remained within the letter of the law, the Nuremberg Race Laws of September 1935, which deprived Jews of their civil rights, met with no opposition. The violent disturbances during the Reichs¬kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 were unpopular, the “Aryanization” of Jewish property, an enormous re-distribution of assets, the repercussions of which are still being felt today, on the other hand, not. More was actually known about the Holocaust (The Holocaust), the systematic extermination of European Jews during the Second World War, than suited the regime. But knowledge of something also involves a wish to know, something of which, as far as the fate of the Jews was concerned, there was a distinct lack in Germany during the Third Reich.

In German history the downfall of Hitler’s Greater German Reich in May 1945 signifies a far deeper caesura than that of the German Reich in November 1918. The Reich as such continued to exist after the First World War. Following the unconditional surrender at the end of the Second World War governmental power and the decision-making powers as to the future of Germany were assumed by the four occupying powers, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France. Unlike 1918, in 1945 the German political and military leaders were stripped of their powers and, inasmuch as they were still alive, sent for trial before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. The landowners east of the River Elbe, who had contributed more than any other powerful elite to the destruction of the Weimar Republic and the transfer of power to Hitler lost everything: on the one hand, as a result of the cession of territories to the east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers to Poland, or, in the case of Northeastern Prussia, Soviet administration, and, on the other, due to the “land reform” in the zone under Soviet occupation.

As opposed to the aftermath of 1918, after 1945 the legends of back-stabbing or a lack of guilt for the war fell on as good as deaf ears. It was just too clear-cut that Nazi Germany had unleashed the Second World War (The Second World War) and had only been suppressed from without, through the superior might of the Allies. In both the First and Second World Wars German propaganda had portrayed the democratic Western powers as imperialist plutocrats, but their own law and order as an expression of a high level of social justice. After 1945 renewed attacks on the Western democracies would have been crazy: The price paid for the contempt shown for the West’s political ideas was too high for a return to the slogans of the past to promise any success.

1949–1990: The two German states

After 1945 only one part of Germany had a chance to give democracy a second go, namely West Germany. In 1948/9, representatives of the freely elected parliaments of the federal states in the American, British and French zones of occupation met in the Parliamentary Council in Bonn and devised a constitution that drew logical conclusions from the mistakes made in preparing the Reich Constitution of 1919 and the failure of the Weimar Republic: The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. This second German democracy was to be a functioning parliamentary democracy with a strong Federal Chancellor, who could only be toppled by a “constructive vote of no confidence”, i.e., by a successor being voted, and a Federal President who played a nominal role only. As opposed to Weimar days, parallel legislative powers for the people were not envisaged. The Basic Law put a shot across the bows of any self- confessed opponents of democracy, by stating that the fight for basic rights and a ban on political parties that were not in line with the constitution would be taken as far as the Federal Constitutional Court. The principles of the state were given very strong foundations by making it impossible even for a majority vote to change the constitution, rendering the “legal” elimination of democracy, as in 1933, impossible.

While the West of Germany drew “anti-totalitarian” conclusions from the most recent German history, the East, that is the Soviet zone of occupation and later East Germany, had to put up with “anti-fascist” consequences. These served to legitimize a Marxist-Leninist-influenced party dictatorship. The break with the principles of Nazi rule was to be achieved primarily through class struggle, by dispossessing large landowners and industrialists. Former Nazi “supporters”, by contrast, were to be allowed to prove their worth to society by helping “build socialism”. Once the process of “denazification” had been completed, in East Germany former Nazi party officials also managed to occupy leading positions. They were, however, fewer and their cases less spectacular than in West Germany.

In retrospect, had it not been for the Economic miracle in the 1950s and 1960s, the longest boom period in the 20th century, there could hardly have been talk of a success story with regard to West Germany. The booming economy gave legitimacy to the model of a social market economy promulgated by Ludwig Erhard, the first Federal Economics Minister by virtue of its success. It enabled the swift integration of the eight million displaced persons from the former Eastern territories of the German Reich, the Sudetenland and other areas of East and Southeast Europe.

It made a decisive contribution to class and religious differences being eliminated, to the attraction of radical parties being curbed, and to the major democratic parties, initially the Christian Democrat (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), followed by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) becoming major popular parties. With regard to politics and social mores, however, there was also a different side to this prosperity: It made it easier for many citizens of West Germany neither to ask themselves searching questions about their own role in the years between 1933 and 1945, nor to let others ask them about it. The philosopher Hermann Lübbe referred to this approach to recent history as “communicative refusing to mention” (and judged it to be necessary in the stabilizing of West German democracy).

In the Weimar Republic the right had been nationalist and the left internationalist. In West Germany it was a different story: the center right camp under the first Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) stood for a policy of alignment with the West and the supranational integration of western Europe; the moderate left, the Social Democrats under their first post-War Chairman Kurt Schumacher and his successor Erich Ollenhauer, gave themselves a decidedly national profile by favoring reunification ahead of integration in the West. It was not until 1960 that the SPD accepted the basis of the West Treaties, which in 1955 had enabled West Germany to join NATO.

The Social Democrats had to make this step if they were to assume governmental responsibility in West Germany. Only on the basis of the West Treaties were they able, in 1966, to become a junior partner in the Grand Coalition and three years later, under the first Social Democrat Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–1992) , begin the “new Ostpolitik” that enabled West Germany to make a contribution to easing tension between West and East, to put relations with Poland on a new footing by the recognition (even if not only conditionally de jure) of the Oder-Neisse line and to enter into a contractually regulated relationship with East Germany.

The 1971 Four Powers Agreement on Berlin, which actually only concerned West Berlin and its relations with West Germany, would also have been impossible without the larger of the two Germanies being firmly integrated in the West.

The series of treaties with Eastern Europe signed by the liberal Brandt-Scheel government between 1970 and 1973 was primarily one thing: a response to the harder shape taken by the division of Germany with the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. With reunification becoming an ever more distant prospect, West Germany was forced into making the consequences of this division more sufferable, thereby ensuring the cohesion of the nation. The re-establishment of German unity remained an official goal of West German policy. However, following signature of the treaties with the East, the expectation that there would ever again be a German nation state dwindled – much more among younger Germans than among the more elderly.

In the 1980s, though, the post-War fabric gradually began to tear. The crisis in the Eastern bloc began in 1980, with the founding of an independent trade union, “Solidarnosc” , in Poland, followed by the imposition of martial law at the end of 1981. Three-and-a-half years later, in March 1985, Michael Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union.

In January 1987 the new Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union uttered the almost revolutionary statement: “We need democracy like the air we breathe.” A message like this was an added boost to civil rights activists in Poland and Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and in East Germany. In fall 1989 the pressure from the protests in East Germany became so great that the communist regime could only have been saved by military intervention on the part of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, however, was not prepared to do this. This ultimately caused the party leadership in East Berlin to capitulate to the peaceful revolution in East Germany: On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell – a symbol of the restriction of freedom similar to the Bastille in Paris two hundred years before.

1990: Reunification

With the Wall having fallen in 1989, it was to be another 11 months before Germany was reunited. Germans in both German states welcomed it. In the first (and last) free elections to East Germany’s Volkskammer (parliament) on March 18, 1990 the East German electorate voted by an overwhelming majority for those parties that demanded swift accession to West Germany.

In summer 1990 a treaty to this effect was negotiated by the two Germanies, as had the treaty concerning the German-German currency union. Parallel to this in the Two-plus-Four-TreatyWest and East Germany reached agreement with the four powers responsible for Berlin and Germany as a whole, i.e., the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France on the conditions with regard to foreign and security policy determining German unity.

In terms of the old demand for “unity in freedom” the German Question was finally solved in 1990. It could only be solved with the approval of all the country’s neighbors, which also meant: with the solution at the same time of another problem that had dominated the century: the Polish Question. The final recognition, binding under international law, of the fact that the Oder and Neisse Rivers formed the western border of Poland was a precondition of the reunification of Germany in the borders of 1945.

Post-reunification Germany sees itself not as a “postnational democracy among nation states”, as the political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher once termed the “old” Federal Republic in 1976, but rather a post-classical democratic national state among others – firmly embedded in the Atlantic Alliance and in the supranational confederation of states that is the European Union (EU), in which certain aspects of national sovereignty are pursued jointly with other member states. There is much here that distinguishes the second German state from the first – namely everything that had made Bismarck’s Reich a military and authoritarian state. There is, however, also some form of continuity between the first and the second nation state. As a democratic constitutional state, a federal and welfare state the reunited Federal Republic of Germany very much follows traditions that date well back to the 19th century. The same applies to the universal, equal suffrage and the parliamentary culture, which had emerged in the Reichstag during the German Reich. A certain geographical continuity is also clearly evident: The Two-plus- Four-Treaty, the constitutional founding document of the reunited Federal Republic of Germany, once again outlined in writing the smaller German solution, the existence of the separate states of Germany and Austria.

The German Question has been resolved since 1990, but the European Question remains open. Since the expansions to the EU in 2004 and 2007, the EU has included 12 additional nations, of which ten were under Communist rule until the dawn of the new epoch between 1989 and 1991. They are all states that belong to the former Occident – and which have been defined by a largely shared legal tradition, the early separation of religious and state powers, princely and civil powers, not to forget by the experience of the murderous consequences of religious and national enmity, and racial hatred. It will take time for those parts of Europe that were once divided to grow closer together. This will only succeed if European unity develops at the same pace as the Union has expanded. This development requires more than institutional reforms. It hinges on joint deliberation on European history and its consequences. The one consequence that is more important than all others is an appreciation of the overall binding nature of Western values, first and foremost inalienable human rights. These are the values that Europe and America have created together, which they uphold, and by which they must at all times be measured.

by Heinrich August Winkler