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3: The Political Development of the Modern German State

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    The Challenges of "Late Development"

     

    Since World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany has been one of the world's most stable democracies and strongest economies. Yet, clearly, the path to democracy in Germany was not a gradual process as it was in Britain. By the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was the most powerful nation, economically and militarily in Europe, and in every way a serious rival to Britain and France. The path to this point was, however, very different. While its experience and level of success are unique in many ways, it also reflects Germany’s response to a problem that faced every other country we will study, the problem which Alexander Gerschenkron called “late development”. Once the United Kingdom set the standard for economic and political development in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, every country attempting to do so after would be forced to play “catch-up.” Since Germany began this process in the mid-19th century, they had many advantages that other countries would not have. But the tumultuous events that befell German in the first half of the 20th century, the rise of the Third Reich, and the unparalleled destruction wrought by World War II, cannot be understood without full consideration of the challenges that “late development” posed for Germany after it became a unified nation in 1870. Trying to do in 30 years what Britain did over 200, caused strains within Germany and within Europe that provide a preview of conflict and upheaval in our other case studies. In that way, while Germany’s outcomes are perhaps more extreme, their situation, and the choices facing their leaders in many ways provide a better vantage point than the case of the United Kingdom does to understand the challenges of modern political development.

     

    Unification: From the Holy Roman Empire to the German Empire

     

    The modern nation-state of Germany did not emerge in its modern form until 1870 after the completion of a series of wara of German unification. The territory that became Germany was at the heart, geographically and politically, of the religious and political conflicts that created constant war in Europe from the 16th to the early 19th century. The efforts of the Hapsburg dynasty to reunite Christendom in the wake of the Reformation made it a continual zone of contention in Europe. As a result, the region was a collection of German-speaking principalities with political systems that varied between representative and absolutist. While these countries shared a Germanic language (though with many distinct regional dialects), geographic and religious factors hindered the unification process until the emergence of Prussia in the 18th century as a powerful rival to Britain and France. At the same time, Germany’s cultural traditions-as reflected in philosophy, literature, and music—provided a stronger basis for national identity than in many other nation-states that emerged in the 19th century. Nonetheless, defeat by the armies of Napoleon demonstrated that despite its growing strength, German states were not the equal of France or Britain in terms of the institutional capacity of the state or the economic power it could place in the service of national power. Napoleon attempted to integrate German states within the French Empire through the establishment of the Confederation of the Rhine which comprised 39 German principalities, though not Prussia. Yet, as in many other places, the effort to impose national power and control led to stronger nationalist forces of resistance, building bonds that would aid initially in the battle against Napoleon but then contribute to the unification process in the later part of the nineteenth century.

     

    After the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation under the control of Austria Empire. Austria’s foreign minister, Klemens Von Metternich sought to limit the growing power of Prussian as well as nationalist forces in Europe more generally. In many ways, however, nationalism was a genie unleashed by Napoleon which could not be put back in the bottle, especially in a region in which German culture and identity had deep roots. With the new, stronger ties between Germanic states, a trade union called the zollverein was established that allowed for freer and easier trade. The various states had previously had different currencies and practices that had hindered the development of commerce and trade. Prussia remained by far the strongest political and economic force. Within Prussia, the dominant power were the Junkers, a landed elite with very authoritarian conceptions of the role of the state in managing the economy and social order.

     

    At the same time, the influence of the French and American revolutions, and the conceptions of popular sovereignty and political equality they embodied, inspired liberal and democratic movements as well; these conflicts came to a head during the uprisings of 1848 that emerged across Europe. Middle and working class reformers met in Frankfurt to establish a constitution that would guarantee the “basic rights of German citizens.” These efforts were quickly defeated by an alliance of German states led by Prussia. Over the next two decades, Prussian nationalists, led by Otto Von Bismarck, carried out a series of wars against Denmark, Austria and finally, in 1870, France which led to the establishment of the German Empire in a territory that closely matches Germany today.

     

    Under the terms of a constitution adopted in 1871, which lasted until the end of World War I, Germany was officially a Constitutional Monarchy, with the Kaiser as the Head of State and the Chancellor as Head of Government. A parliamentary body, the Reichstag was elected by universal adult male suffrage. It was also a federal system in structure, but Prussia was, as usual dominant. The legislative districts were set up in a manner that gave more weight to conservative rural areas and the central authorities—the Chancellor and Kaiser were the dominant political actors. With clear territorial borders unifying most of the German speaking peoples outside Austria , Germany was now in a position to establish itself as a major world power.

     

    The German Empire: Doing in 30 years what Britain did in 150 years

     

    Bismarck had a vision for the new, unified Germany: a powerful, industrialized modern state that would be able to compete with other European powers like Great Britain and France as well as the other emergent power across the Atlantic, the United States. He did not believe Britain’s experience provided much guidance moving forward. The process of industrialization in Britain had occurred over the past century as the result of an alliance between a rising commercial class that consolidated its political control over the state by the beginning of the 18th century and used that control, and the military power of the state to expand its economic influence across the globe. The dynamic economic forces were largely private, but the British state combined a powerful navy with a legal structure which enabled the full unleashing of British commerce and enterprise around the world. Britain and France had already had two centuries of colonial control in the Americas and while these regions were largely independent by the mid-19th century, their role in the growth of the economic and political power of the two countries was immense.

     

    With the help of its military power, Britain had also opened up markets throughout Asia for its products and taken direct colonial control of a good part of a South Asian colony that included the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. France had also acquired colonies in North Africa and South East Asia. These factors point to important differences in the position of Germany, especially in comparison to Britain. With the establishment of political stability after 1688 and territorial unity by 1750, Britain has been able to develop its internal economic growth and colonial empire in an environment of more limited global competition. As the first country to industrialize, Britain had both more time, and was able to set parameters to what Germany could do.

     

    Bismarck and the German leadership concluded that if Germany wanted to catch up and compete as a modern state, rapid industrialization was essential. Germany did not have the luxury of waiting for a rising commercial class to accumulate the capital and investment necessary to make Germany a global economic power. Germany did not have a large middle class to spur economic development in the form of small, privately run independent businesses. As a historically agrarian peasantry based population, Germany also did not have a cache of merchants waiting to expand Germany’s economy through capitalist development. Germany did not have the levels of small business ownership that Britain did, so large banks and organizations dominated the economy. The German economy focused on heavy industries like mining for coal and ores, and producing heavy machinery, chemicals and steel rather than consumer products. In prioritizing rapid industrialization, Bismarck fused political and economic development. The newly unified state would need to oversee and coordinate the development of new German industrial power. Germany needed to use the power of the state to facilitate the rise of powerful commercial enterprises and ensure they had the necessary labor force, infrastructure and access to capital necessary. The necessities of economic and political development were completely entwined.

     

    Bismarck’s response to these challenges established a pattern for the relationship between the economy and political system that has continued to characterize Germany’s approach to a market economy into the 21st century. The German state played a key role in coordinating the development of powerful German industries in cutting-edge areas like petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and industrial machinery as global exports. Powerful banks and industrial associations operated with a degree of coordination that would have violated antitrust laws in the United States. In Germany, however, Bismarck saw them as necessary  to establish its German economic power. This reflected what Bismarck termed “organized capitalism”. The state was not directly involved in controlling the means of production in the manner of socialism or communism, but instead played a powerful role in coordinating the activities of banks and the private companies in ways which would make Germany a powerful international economic force. These policies placed particular emphasis on developing German exports, and Germany remains one of the leading export nations in the world, its products synonymous with quality.

     

    The Political Challenges of Rapid Development

     

    These efforts were fabulously successful in terms of industrial growth and economic power. By 1900, Germany was the largest economy in Europe and producing more steel than Britain, France and Russia combined. This growth occurred with a dizzying speed  and generated significant political challenges. As the revolutions of 1848 demonstrated, Germany was a politically diverse and conflictive region in which liberal democrats, militarists, socialists, and other political forces competed. The Socialist Worker Party, later to become the Social Democratic Party, was founded in 1875, but its ability to organize was limited by laws banning participation by "socialist" movements. While political participation was restricted, Bismarck understood that the state needed to respond to the social and political challenges generated by rapid economic growth. The formerly agrarian working class that now provided the workforce for the factories and heavy industry lacked formal political representation. People uprooted by industrialization, who had lost their mooring in rural communities and been thrown into larger cities and huge industrial labor forces, needed the state to foster bonds of solidarity and community. It was the responsibility of the state, Bismarck believed, to use nationalism and social welfare programs to counter the messages of more radical socialist and communist political forces.

    This led to the creation of what became the first modern welfare state. In the United States, this term is often associated with programs that target poorer members of society, but in most contexts, it applies to programs that are universally available. Rather than expanding political rights, Bismarck sought to appease the working classes with social programs that would directly benefit them and foster loyalty toward the state. Still focused on economic growth above all, Bismarck recognized how politically destabilizing such a process could be. This "revolution from above" weakened or destroyed the old ties of rural kinship and parish communities. Thrown into rapidly expanding cities and huge new industrial enterprises, urban dwellers experienced all the dislocation and alienation which Marx and other contemporary radicals associated with capitalism. Bismarck believed that a more democratic system would create intensive political mobilization that would undermine the goal of rapid economic growth. Yet, repression alone would not solve the problem. The state had to establish a modern conception of citizenship in which each member felt they had a place and would be taken care of. Economic progress depended on the creation of a state which could foster new forms of community and solidarity to replace older forms which were weakened by rapid urbanization. Social security and health insurance programs would tell citizens the state was looking after them and protecting their interests.

    The creation of the first welfare state demonstrates how the economic and political problems of building a modern state in Germany, or anywhere else, were tightly linked. Economic change created immense new political challenges. Rapid industrialization produced unparalleled wealth but also unprecedented levels of inequality in highly visible ways. Social programs were designed to address those challenges but they did not halt efforts at political mobilization among both middle class and working class political parties. As in Britain, but in far more rapid and conflictive ways, new political parties emerged especially on the political left. Workers' councils were formed to challenge corporate power and expand workers’ political rights. The space for these movements expanded somewhat in the years before World War I but the fundamental character of the regime remained authoritarian.

    The policy of combining limits on political participation with welfare state programs was tied to the underlying logic of industrialization—to foster a state and society which could compete fully and equally with the other emergent powers. Modern states require the ability to coordinate economic policies on a broad scale in ways which generate economic growth and mobilize the population as workers and citizens. These processes are by their nature somewhat at odds with the logic of democracy and, as we saw in the United Kingdom, the state only expanded individual rights when strong social movements demanded them, usually over a long period of time during which the state sought to resist reform for as long as possible.

     

    Nationalism, Popular Sovereignty and Political Legitimacy in the German Empire

     

    The political challenges of rapid modernization in Germany demonstrate how in the age of popular sovereignty one of the central challenges for modern states is to foster a sense of legitimacy among the population. While repression played a role in maintaining power, these states also sought to establish the rightness, what political scientists refer to as the legitimacy of their power. The claim of nationalists, then and now, is that a given people possess a very particular kind of shared bond with the members of the nation. Benedict Anderson described modern nation states as “imagined communities,” gatherings of individuals who feel themselves bound by language, history and expectations of loyalty and sacrifice on behalf of a community, most of whose members will never meet or come near each other. What makes it possible for people to feel that bond, to see and think of themselves as members of a nation? In the case of Germany, language and shared culture provided some glue, but it also clearly took wars of unification. Then it required a powerful state in order that Germany establish its place in the international hierarchy. While nationalists often present these bonds as products of a long shared history, what the German state was creating was something quite modern---a German identity that would weaken and transcend all the religious, political and regional ties which had kept Germany from uniting in the past. Those bonds of national identity could not be simply assumed to be present; they had to be actively created and reinforced by the actions of the state as the institutional embodiment of the nation.

     

    The policies of Bismarck and other German leaders enabled the country to quickly catch up with the other great powers. In the process, these leaders confronted the same challenges as the United Kingdom but on a much more accelerated time scale. Britain was politically unified before the industrial revolution and before the rise of modern ideologies of popular sovereignty. It was able to industrialize in a far less demanding domestic political environment. Movements for expansion of the suffrage emerged gradually and could be responded to in a similar manner. Imperial Germany faced the challenges of economic and political development---industrialization and the development of mass suffrage based systems of representation—at the same time.

     

    Considering the enormity of the task:  the level of success of the German empire in fostering rapid political and economic development is among the most impressive political achievements in the modern world. Still, significant political tension and conflict persisted .While rapid economic growth, social programs, and military power provided some basis for a strengthened sense of nationalism, German nationalists remained frustrated by Germany's global status and power. While the nation emerged from the “scramble for Africa” with colonies in East and South Western Africa, they were less richly endowed regions and there was still a strong resentment of Britain and France’s larger global empires. The “Social Darwinist” ideas of the late 19th century framed international relations as a zone which operated according to the “survival of the fittest.” More immediately, as an exporting nation, German nationalists felt stymied in their pursuit of resources and markets. Feeling cramped with Central Europe, they sought lebensraum or “living space” in which Germany could more fully be Germany. While understandable within the terms of global competition, Germany’s efforts to address these frustrations through development of its military power clearly made their neighbors wary. Eventually the consequences of Germany’s growing pains and nationalistic mindset would come to fruition after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, and heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist. Europe would erupt into a continental war that pitted the Axis powers, led by Germany, against the Allied powers comprised of Great Britain, France and Russia.

     

    Nonetheless, without the terrible consequences of World War I, it is quite possible that Germany’s leadership would have been able to manage these challenges in as relatively smooth a manner as did Britain. Political participation may have continued to expand and accommodation with more radical political forces might have been possible. But the growth of German power, and the spread of nationalism across Europe, eventually generated conflicts which diplomacy and limited war could not contain. The consequences of unprecedented technological development combined with the political power of nationalism produced what political scientists term “total war”. No longer was war simply a battle between rulers and their armies; it involved nations against nations, and the nationalistic fervor this generated led to a war of unimaginable brutality. It is a mark of the achievement of Imperial Germany that it fought three other countries alongside a relatively weak ally for over 4 years. On the eastern front, battling the far superior German forces led to the collapse of the Russian monarchy and the abdication of the Tsar, setting in motion the processes that led to the Bolshevik take over and the Russian Revolution. On the Western Front, Germany fought Britain and France to a standstill that was only resolved when the United States at last entered the war in spring 1917.

     

    The Weimar Republic: Democracy without Democrats

     

    The loss of WWI had immediate and very harsh consequences for Germany. When the Kaiser abdicated the German throne near the end of the war, the challenge of negotiating the Versailles treaty fell to the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). A new constitution was drafted in the city of Weimar that became the basis for what became known as the Weimar Republic. This constitutional monarchy of the German Empire became a parliamentary democracy overnight. When Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, the European Allies forced Germany to pay reparations, or monetary war damages, and placed severe limitations on the country's military capacity, including the creation of a demilitarized area in the Rhineland region near the border with France and Belgium. These politics devastated the German economy, with inflation rates rising rapidly. They were also viewed by German nationalist as a humiliating betrayal.

     

    Commentators have sometimes described the Weimar period as “democracy with democrats.” While overstated, it does express well the dilemma that German democracy continually faced. Parties such as the SPD and other smaller parties of the center-right and center-left were committed to the goal of moving away from the militarism and authoritarian nationalism of the German Empire. But alongside moderate parties were radical parties of the right and left which saw liberal democracy as merely a path to power which could enabled them to impose quite different political systems. Parties which were openly hostile to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, including the fledgling National Socialist (popularly known as Nazis) party, condemned the Weimar Republic and its proponents a traitors who had sold out Germany with territorial concessions and limits on Germany’s military power. On the other side of the political spectrum was the power German Communist party and other left movement committed to socialist revolution.

     

    As noted, the Weimar Republic was a parliamentary system in which the head of state, the Chancellor, emerged from the leadership of the majority party or parties that were able to form a ruling coalition. The system used voting method called proportional representation in which voters selected a party and seats in the Reichstag were distributed on the basis of the proportion of the vote each party received. This kind of system gives room for small parties but can also produce unstable ruling coalitions because there is seldom one party that receives a majority of the vote. Politics was very factionalized and coalitions of 3 or 4 parties were common. 13 Chancellors served between 1919 and 1933; only two last more than two years, several were in power for a few months a party coalitions gave way to internal conflicts and rivalries. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the most powerful, and held power from 1919-1920 and 1928-1930. However, factions broke off from the SPD and formed new parties. Inspired by the events of the Russian revolution, a Communist party formed which accounted for a not insignificant 15% of the voting base. An Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) also formed out of the SPD. The once prominent Catholic Center Party, which had 25% of the voting base before WWI, but quickly began to lose support after 1918. This system and political environment also made it possible for parties that were not committed to the maintenance of liberal democracy, including the Nazis and Communists to get a foothold. As a result, Chancellors seldom were in office for more than a couple years and policy agreement was hard to reach. Street conflicts between right and left wing forces, against each other and against the forces of the Republic, were common. Two of the most bitter foes were the Communist Party and National Socialist German Workers Party, the Nazis. The SPD and other mainstream parties relied on the military to maintain stability but nationalists who were not in favor of a democratic system of government and were bitter about the constraints on Germany’s military dominated it. Hence, the stability of democracy was in the hands of an institution which viewed it a reflection of the humiliation inflicted on Germany after WW I, while some of the leading parties viewed electoral democracy as simply a road to power.

     

    The Rise of Hitler and Nazism

     

    As the economy improved throughout the 1920s, so did the stability of the Weimar Republic. However, with the onset of the depression in 1929, the power of radical forces grew making stable ruling coalitions even harder to maintain. The share of the vote that went to radical parties increased; the Nazis came in second behind the SPD, and in the parliamentary elections in November 1932, they received the highest total—33%. The SPD received 20% and the Communist party received 15%. After negotiation between conservative parties, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. A fire in the Reichstag set by the Nazis was blamed on the Communists and became the pretext for President Von Hindenburg to issue emergency decrees curtaining civil liberties. The Nazi dominated Reichstag passed the Enabling Act that empowered the state to make laws without the approval of the Reichstag. This became the basis for a complete curtailment of free speech, press, assembly and political association. The Communist Party and other left parties including the SPD were banned. In 1934 the Nuremburg laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship. In keeping with the goals of a fascist political philosophy, the state sought to control every aspect of political life. It defined who was a citizen and who was an enemy. The latter category included Jews most notably, but also people of “deviant” sexuality, religious dissidents, Gypsies and other ethnic minorities as well as artists associated with the “decadent” and “degenerate” forms of modern art which had been prominent in Germany, and especially in Berlin, during the Weimar period. Sexual and artistic freedom was associated with liberal democracy and became part of the long list of scapegoats that the Nazis sought to target as enemies of Germany.

     

    The Nazis justified the dismantling of liberal democratic institutions and centralization of political power as the necessary means to rebuild the economy and restore Germany’s military power. In doing so, Hitler offered another version of “organized capitalism;” the economy remained principally in the hands of German private businesses but the Nazis placed party officials within companies to ensure they were operating in a way which served the interests of the state and the nation. Germany’s industrialists were generally happy with this arrangement; it brought firm control over labor unions and made the state an important consumer of many of their products as it sought to rebuild Germany’s infrastructure and war machine.

     

    At the heart of Hitler’s vision for Germany was the expansion of its lebensraum. This first required him to break with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and begin the process or remilitarization. German annexed Austria in 1935 and remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. In 1938, he claimed the right to annex a region of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland, which he deemed German. European powers initially opposed this but at the infamous Munich Conference in September, Britain and France pressured Czech leaders to accept the Accord. Hitler promised, “It is the final territorial demand which I shall make of Europe.” British Prime Minister told his citizens, “I believe it is peace for our time." A year later, German invaded Poland and World War II began. Germany was able to defeat and occupy France by mid-1940 and bombarded British cities from the air. President Roosevelt tried to offer aid to the British but resistance in Congress and the US public to joining the war was strong, led by major public figures including aviator Charles Lindbergh.

     

    It was at this point that Hitler made a disastrous choice; though Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1939 when the two powers had carved up Poland, he declared war on the USSR on June 22, 1941. After some initial military successes against the technologically less advanced Soviet army, the German effort to take control of Moscow failed that winter and a nearly 3-year siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) bogged down into a  brutal war of attrition that the Soviets eventually won. By the time the US took on Germany directly with the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, the writing was on the wall for the Third Reich, but it would still take another year to induce Germany to surrender on May 8, 1945. In the wake of the occupation of Germany by allied forces, the degree to which Hitler had sought to rid his empire of Jews, which was known by Allied intelligence services, became fully visible to the world. Shocking evidence of the systematic effort to murder millions of European Jews, more than 80% of which were living outside of Germany, generated a new term, “genocide” and an international effort to hold the surviving leaders of the Third Reich responsible for “crimes against humanity,” another new concept in international law.

     

    The Federal Republic of Germany: From Division to Reunification and Beyond

     

    Since the Third Reich was defeated by allied powers operating on different fronts, the occupation of Germany was by necessity divided among the Allied powers. The US, UK and France maintained zones of occupation in the western regions and the USSR in the east. As the wartime alliance gave way to the Cold War, however, the former allies could not agree on a basis for unification of the regions. Gradually, these occupations hardened into two German nations: The German Democratic Republic in the east and the Federal Republic of Germany in the west. (During the Cold War they were widely referred to as East Germany and West Germany). The political and economic systems in each country reflected those of their occupying powers and each remained closely within the emerging superpowers spheres of influence throughout the Cold War. The FRG occasionally showed independence in its foreign policy, but leaders of the GDR remained tightly aligned with the USSR.

     

    In writing a new constitution, the drafters looked back to the previous effort at democratization in Germany—the Weimar Republic—and sought to understand what went wrong and how the flaws with that system could be avoided. A parliamentary system with a Chancellor or as head of government and President as head of state was reestablished but the latter position was made more ceremonial and did not possess the emergency powers that had proven so important to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis after the 1932 elections. The legislative body was renamed the Bundestag and its membership was determined by a creative blend of proportional representation and single-member district election. The constitution writers wanted to support both strong political parties and a stronger sense of individual responsibility among legislators to their local constituency. The constitution established a 5% threshold rule for parties to be granted seats in the Bundestag. A powerful upper house, the Bundesrat, represented the interest of German states and had to approve all legislation as well as oversee their implementation. The overriding goal was to foster cooperation and consensus through a state that would be strong and effective while fostering commitment to democratic values.

     

    The dominant German figure in this process was Konrad Adenauer of the Christian Democratic Union. The CDU sought to overcome traditional religious divides in Germany while articulating a “communitarian” philosophy that was both hostile to communism but committed to a concept of capitalism called the “Social Market.” in which market forces served the whole community, not just the individual. The CDU was the ruling party until 1966. Its principle opposition was the old Social Democratic Party (SDP), one of the few parties not tainted by participation with the Nazis, but still seen by many Germans as too radical until its leadership was able to moderate its image by the mid-1960s. The SPD was the ruling party from 1969-1982. Under the rule of this constitution, and as a member of NATO, the Federal Republic became a stable democracy and the strongest economy in Europe. The Social Market philosophy characterized public policy under both the CDU and SPD and represented continuity in many ways, under a democratic political system, with Bismarck’s “organized capitalism”. German industries and state agencies worked together in ways that would be unthinkable in the United States and violate anti-trust laws, but in Germany, this model produced high wages, strong systems of social benefits, and the continuation of the nation as major exporting power.

     

    The emergence of reforms in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985 fundamentally changed the relationship between the superpowers and the impact was quickly felt in Eastern Europe. Once it became apparent that Soviet tanks would not be coming to the rescue of Communist leaders in the Soviet bloc, it did not take long for citizen action. Election of non-communist leaders in Poland in early 1989 quickly set off a chain reaction that included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most powerful physical and symbolic icon of the Cold War, on November 9, 1989, and end of rule by the Communist Party in East Germany. While the leadership of the protest movements in the east had not initially pushed for unification, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl quickly took it up, and in 1991 eastern Germany became a part of the Federal Republic.

     

    Unification proved more difficult than expected. Economic conditions in the east were worse than  expected. The East German economy had been considered strong by Soviet standards, but weak by all other accounts. The West German economy was doing well, but the unification took a toll on the overall economy of the FRG, which suddenly had to bear the burden of the GDR’s slower economy. The east had damaged or inferior infrastructure which would need rebuilding. Unemployment levels were high, putting pressure on the social welfare institutions in the FRG. There was also resentment in the east at the paternalism and condescension of the west. One western business person observed that “Communism turned Germans into Russians,” expressing disdain for the loss of what was seen as a strong German work ethic.

     

    In these ways, unification was an expensive process. West Germans had to pay a unification tax to help cover some of these costs, which was not popular with all Germans. Unification was also expensive politically. Helmut Kohl had to stretch himself politically thin in order to appeal to both East and West Germans. Kohl had to convince both sides that unification was a good idea. He also had to get the West Germans to pay the unification tax without serious upset bubbling to the surface that could threaten the unification process as well. In 1998, 14 years of CDU rule were ended by the election of the SDP under its new leader Gerhard Schroeder. The CDU returned to power in 2006 with Angela Merkel as Germany’s first female Chancellor. Since then the country has remained the most powerful economy in Europe and a dominant player in the European Union. Chancellor Merkel’s government has faced challenges in dealing with the economic problems of other EU countries, most notably Greece, as well as opposition to her initially generous policy toward Syrian refugees. The most explicitly nationalist party to emerge in Germany since World War II—the Alternative for Germany (AfD—has drawn some support and generated concern because of the xenophobic and anti-Semitic views of some of its members. Parties such as the AfD have appeared in virtually every European nation in recent years and its showing in 2017 (11% in elections in the Bundestag) is less impressive than some parties elsewhere. The legacy of Nazism make these issues especially sensitive for German citizens, but events in the rest of the continent show that the kinds of racist nationalism mobilized by the Nazis is by no means unique to Germany; Germany’s past may still provide lessons that make most Germans less likely to go down that path than some of their neighbors.

     

    The Long and Winding Road to Liberal Democracy in Germany

     

    Germany today is the most powerful and stable nation in Europe and its democratic institutions remain as strong as any. How it got there offers important lessons in the complexities of political development. Late unification and the challenges of playing catch up produced early unparalleled economic success. Only the rise of China over the past 40 years provides a comparable example of such rapid industrialization. Nonetheless, the need to pursue state building, economic development, the construction of a national identity, and foster a sense of modern German citizenship challenged German leaders and rattled its neighbors. The horror produced by the Third Reich left such an indelible imprint on the 20th century that we might ask, would it have been better for German leaders to take a more gradual approach. Might the country and the world have been spared some of the nightmare the two world wars produced immediately and in their aftermath? We will never know the answer, of course, but we can remember that once Britain and France established the models for a modern, centralized nation-state, its power and possibilities were quickly recognized and imitated. Britain did not choose to do things more gradually, geography and history gave it opportunities that countries industrializing later would not have. Germany's history provides a powerful lesson in both the best and the worst that can come from that challenge of late development and remind us that in politics there are not magic wands or perfect solutions.

    Authors: Marc Belanger and Mary Coleman


    3: The Political Development of the Modern German State is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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