Germany is one of Europe’s largest countries, and encompasses a wide variety of landscapes: the tall, sheer mountains of the south; the sandy, rolling plains of the north; the forested hills of the west; and the plains of the agricultural east. At the spiritual heart of the country is the magnificent capital city of Berlin, which rose from the ashes of World War II and the Rhine River, which flows northward from Switzerland.
Along its banks stand hundreds of medieval castles, churches, picturesque villages, market towns, and centres of learning and culture, including Heidelberg, the site of one of Europe’s oldest universities (founded in 1386) All are centrepieces of Germany’s thriving tourist economy, which brings millions of visitors to the country each year, drawn by its natural beauty, history, culture, and cuisine (including its renowned wines and beers).
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
The German nation in more or less its present form came into being only in the 19th century, when Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck brought together dozens of German-speaking kingdoms, principalities, free cities, bishoprics, and duchies to form the German Empire in 1871. This so-called Second Reich quickly became Europe’s leading power and acquired colonies in Africa and Asia.
That overseas empire was dismantled following Germany’s defeat in World War I and the abdication of Emperor William II. Economic depression, widespread unemployment, and political strife that verged on civil war followed, leading to the collapse of the progressive Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler. After gaining power in 1933, Hitler established the Third Reich and soon thereafter embarked on a ruinous crusade to conquer Europe and exterminate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others.
The Third Reich disintegrated in 1945, brought down by the Allied armies of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. The victorious powers divided Germany into four zones of occupation and later split the country into East and West and were separated for more than 40 years by a long boundary. In the East, this boundary was, until the fall of its communist government in 1989, marked by defences designed to prevent escape. The 185 square miles (480 square km) of the “island” of West Berlin were similarly ringed from 1961 to 1989 by the Berlin Wall running through the city and by a heavily guarded wire-mesh fence in the countryside.
Although Berlin was a flashpoint between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the city declined in national and international significance until 1989–90, when a popular and peaceful uprising toppled the East German government and soon after restored a united Berlin as the capital of a reunified Germany.
Heidleberg Castle, Heidleberg.
Since World War II, Germany has made great efforts to both commemorate the victims and redress the crimes of the Holocaust, providing strong material and political support for the state of Israel and actively prosecuting hate crimes and the propagation of neo-Nazi doctrine.
Matters of national importance, such as defence and foreign affairs, are reserved to the federal government. At both the state and federal levels, parliamentary democracy prevails. The Federal Republic has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) since 1955 and was a founding member of the European Economic Community.
Germany is bounded at its extreme north by Denmark. To the west, it borders The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg; to the southwest it borders France. In the south is Switzerland and Austria. In the southeast the border with the Czech Republic corresponds to an earlier boundary of 1918, renewed by treaty in 1945. Poland lies to the east.