Germanic tribes, Roman conquests, and the Migration Period

Germany | Facts, Geography, Maps, & History

History of Germany

History of ,Germania, Germany

Germany today is a strong and prosperous country  –the richest in Europe and with one of the largest populations. However, the area was long dominated by clans and tribes who warred against each other as often as they fought off invaders. In later years, tribes turned into duchies and city-states.  

The regional divisions created an impossibly complex tapestry of intertwined yet separate sources of authority. However, uniting Germany into one nation was a long and arduous process. And forging the state did not end the problems of the German people; far from it. But how did the story start?  

The earliest humans arrived in the area we later called Germany some 600,000 years ago. However, we know little about pre-Roman Germany – mainly because the people living there were not literate and didn’t leave records behind. The people we call the Celts dominated Germany in the Late Bronze Age. However,  by 700 BCE, they were threatened and eventually replaced by the Germanic tribes from Scandinavia and northern Germany. 

Germanic peoples

Germany Peoples

The Germanic people first entered recorded history via their contact with the Roman legions and their military commander: Julius Caesar. Caesar built his reputation by conquering Gaul in 55 BCE. Rome permanently incorporated the territory into the holdings of the Roman Empire and drew its border at the Rhine. In addition, he named the area past the river Germania, apparently adopting the name from the Gaul language

The Roman hunger for conquest was seemingly boundless. However, there is an inarguable topographical logic to using major rivers as boundaries; as such, the Rhine served as the de facto frontier of Rome for centuries.

The two cultures – Roman and Germanic – built frontier towns, and fortifications, and traded.

In addition, the Empire established strong relations with some of the local tribes and warred with others. However, when the legions operated behind the natural barrier of the Rhine, they lived to regret it.

Germanic tribes, Roman conquests, and the Migration Period

Germanic tribes, Roman conquests, and the Migration Period

In 9 AD, Emperor  Augustus attempted to expand his domain, and his general Varus suffered a terrible defeat in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The victory’s engineer was Arminius, a Roman-raised boy of Germanic heritage, who tricked the Roman legions into a trap. Arminius is still hailed as a German national hero some two millennia later. After that point, Rome ceased any serious attempts to expand into Germany. But the reverse was not true. Instead, Germanic tribes migrated into Roman territory and played an outsized role in the collapse of the once-mighty Empire.

Sack of Rome

One group, the Visigoths, sacked Rome and ended the reign of that Empire in Western Europe. In the process, they were influenced by Roman culture, and most converted to Christianity. One Germanic group built the next great European  Empire. The Franks started as an alliance of tribes, but by 500 AD, they had absorbed former  Gaul into one centralized unit.

The great King Clovis established the Merovingian dynasty, which would dominate central Europe for over 200 years. During protracted wars against other Germanic peoples, the Merovingian Dynasty defeated and converted the Saxons and Avars.

The Frankish Empire was reborn under the tutelage of Charlamagne. Starting in 768, he engaged in a string of conquests and diplomatic overtures, which saw him cement vast Eastern Europe holdings and incorporate most Germanic tribes into one political entity. At his peak, Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Romanorum by the Pope.  

This act established what the Frankish Emperors would eventually call the Holy Roman Empire. This moniker was an obvious misnomer. However,  it reflected the determination of the monarchy to replace the Roman Empire. Starting with the rule of Otto I in the 10th Century, the Holy Roman Empire engaged in an aggressive campaign to control the Holy See.

On September 23, 1122, Henry V relinquished his claims on determining papal appointments with the Concordat of Worms.  This agreement (also called the Pactum Calixtinum by papal historians) was created in response to the ongoing conflict between Church and state.  The controversy led to almost 50  years of civil war in Germany. The supreme power of the Holy  Roman Empire in Central Europe slowly but surely deteriorated past this point. 

Emperor Frederick I, commonly known as Barbarossa, attempted to reestablish Imperial supremacy over the Papacy. However, he was defeated by a coalition of Italian city-states in the Battle of Legnano. The weakened Holy Roman Empire was then devastated by the Black Death Pandemic, which killed close to 50% of its population. Following this catastrophe, a more diffuse and mercantilist power structure emerged. With an imperial structure all but gone, the city-states were left to their own devices.

Early modern Germany

Modern Germany

They each developed their own unique systems,  controlled by the wealthy merchants and the dominant professional guilds of the time. Though Germany was no longer a political powerhouse, it emerged as a continental cultural center. Perhaps its most important contribution was the printing press, pioneered by Johannes  Gutenberg of Mainz. Dating from the 1450s, Gutenberg Bibles are considered the first books printed in the Western world, and while they didn’t bear his name anywhere in the volumes, historians agree that they resulted from his first printing efforts.

The invention replaced the painstaking process of writing by hand with the cheap and quick dissemination of written material and earth-shattering ideas. One such idea was a call to reform the Catholic Church by Martin Luther. When he posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Luther could not predict the forces he had unleashed. What followed was a sustained and relentless challenge to the religious and earthly authority of the Church of Rome. The lack of a centralized government in Germany allowed the ideas to spread, as every city-state could handle its religious affairs as it saw fit. However, the passions stirred by the reformation were too intense to be settled peacefully.

Thirty Years’ War, 1618–1648

In 1618, a devastating conflict pitting Protestants against Catholics in a catastrophic conflict known to posterity as the Thirty Years’ War. The  War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The agreement saw all sides agree to respect religious pluralism. As it loosened the Church’s grip on society, the agreement is often seen as the birth of modern Europe. One of the new protestant nations to emerge from the War was Prussia. The small rural area was highly militarized and used its well-trained military and focused diplomacy on dominating much of Germany.

However, it soon found itself in confrontation with Austria,  the center of traditional Catholic Germanic power. Under Frederick the Great, Prussia adopted a model of enlightened absolutism. Frederick did not allow personal political freedom. However,  

he encouraged the sciences and egalitarian treatment of minorities. This system also produced great art, including the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Otto the Great

In the late 19th Century, Prussia was led by Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. Though he remained under the technical authority of the Kaiser, Bismarck directed national policy and strove to unite Germany under Prussian control. In a series of wars culminating in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871-1872, he succeeded. A new and united German Empire was thus established. It was the most populous and wealthiest country in Europe. 

How Kaiser Wilhelm II Changed Europe Forever

Kaiser Wilhelm felt that Germany did not receive the respect it was due.  In particular, he was concerned that the  British and French Empires prevented him from establishing a far-flung colonial empire and establishing lucrative trade routes. Wilhelm’s Germany launched a foreign policy, which in retrospect seems needlessly confrontational.

It contested French dominance in Morocco and fermented rebellion in the French colony. It also attempted to rival the power of the Royal Navy by constructing a large blue sea navy of its own. Finally, it allied with Austria and thus provoked Russia by supporting the ambitions of the Habsburgs in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. These policies contributed to the conflagration we now call World War 1.

The war itself was a bloody and lengthy affair. The Germans experienced great success on the eastern front, taking Russia out of the entente coalition. After that, however, the war turned into a protracted and seemingly directionless affair. In the process, it lost over two million soldiers, mainly in the bloody stalemate which emerged in Belgium and France. When all was said and done, it was the most devastating conflagration the continent had ever seen. When the United States entered the war in 1917,  

Germany was forced to surrender. U.S. President  Woodrow Wilson wanted a fair and equitable peace agreement that would allow the losers to regain their honor and rebuild their economies. But unfortunately, the British and the French imposed a humiliating peace on Germany. They forced them to liquidate all colonies and give up large areas populated by ethnic Germans to their neighbors, including the newly created Czechoslovakia. They also imposed massive reparations on the losers. When they proved unwilling to pay, France occupied the industrial heartland on the Ruhr and hindered the German economy.

The upshot of this process was that many were left seething with anger and vowing to seek vengeance. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the democratic Weimar regime, which came to power after the War, proved unstable. From the start, the new government was blamed for the failures of its predecessors. However, they had played no part in losing the war and bringing misfortune and humiliation to the country.

At the time, democracy was under threat throughout the world, weakened by the horrors of the First World War.  Liberal democracy was hit yet again by the onset of a global depression from 1929 and onward.  Throughout its brief and troubled history, the Weimar Republic was challenged by fascists on the right and communists on the left. 

It was replaced in 1933 by a racist and expansionist regime under dictator Adolph Hitler. Under his leadership, the Nazi regime rebuilt the economy and began a massive rearmament program. Hitler also challenged the Versailles  Treaty further by moving to take back German-speaking areas through a combination of diplomacy and force. Unfortunately, most of the world stood back and allowed Nazi Germany to grow in power and stature, believing that Hitler would be satisfied once the unfair elements of the peace agreement were reversed. Today we call that failed policy appeasement.

However, all efforts to avoid war ultimately failed. Germany launched another World War.  This conflict proved even more devastating. In the process, the Nazi regime engaged in mass genocide against multiple groups, most notably the Jewish population in the territories it occupied. The German government slaughtered six million defenseless Jews before they were defeated by the allies in 1945. 

The victors divided Germany between them. East  Germany was under Communist Soviet control. The Soviet allied country in the east was named the German Democratic Republic. Meanwhile, in the West, the democratic and capitalist state, the Federal Republic of Germany, ruled. A wall built through  Berlin divided the people of the city. The metropolis was a flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union

East Germany failed economically and politically.  Many tried to escape to a better life in the West but were killed by the Communist regime. As that conflict began to peter out in 1989, the wall came down, and the country was reunited.  The forces of capitalism and democracy had won, and Germany was once again the continent’s economic and political focal point. It has been a long and often traumatic journey for the people of Germany. Still, they have emerged from the chaos as a united, prosperous, and peaceful member of the international community.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top