POPULATION: Over 81 million
LANGUAGE: Standard German (Hochdeutsch); Sorbian; Turkish
RELIGION: Protestantism; Catholicism; Methodist; Baptist; Mennonite; Society of Friends; small numbers of Jews and Muslims
Germany is one of Europe's largest nations, with one of the largest populations. Although it has played a major part in European and world history, it has been a single, unified nation for less than 100 years. The area that now makes up Germany originally was a cluster of partially independent cities and states. In 1871 the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck created a unified Germany. In this century, Germany fought in two world wars (World War I, 1914–1918, and World War II, 1939–1945), and lost both.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the nation was divided by the countries that had defeated it: the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The American, French, and British zones were combined in 1949 to create the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). That same year, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Germany was separated for four decades.
Both Germanys recovered from the damage of the war with impressive speed. However, progress was faster and more dramatic in the West than in the East. Because of this, nearly three million East Germans eventually fled to West Germany, seeking better lives. Finally, in 1961, the East Germans put up the Berlin Wall and sealed off the nation's borders.
In the late 1980s, however, Germany became caught up in the changes sweeping communist Eastern Europe. The destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 became one of the most important symbols of the communist system's collapse. In March 1990, the East Germans held their first free elections. The two German nations were reunited on October 3, 1990.
Germany's main regions are the Bavarian Alps (which form the boundaries with Austria and Switzerland), the South German Hill Region, the Central Uplands, and the North German Plain. Major rivers include the Rhine in the west and the Danube, which flows from west to east.
Germany has the second largest population of any European country—over 81 million. More than 90 percent of the people are ethnic Germans, descended from Germanic tribes. Since the 1950s, significant numbers of foreign workers have come into Germany from countries including Turkey, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia. By the end of 1991, Germany had a foreign population of close to 6 million.
Standard (or High) German is the nation's official language, but many other dialects are spoken throughout the country. Low German is spoken along the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts and on Germany's offshore islands. It has some features in common with Dutch and even English (examples: Standard German Wasser, Low German Water; Standard German Apfel, Low German Appel ). Sorbian is a Slavic language spoken by approximately 60,000 people in eastern Germany. A number of different languages, including Turkish, are spoken by Germany's immigrant populations.
Germans must get government approval for the names of their children. Male children must have obviously male names, and female children must have obviously female names. Names must also be chosen from a pool of distinctly German names. These include Dieter and Helmut for boys and Katarina and Christa for girls.
The most famous German folktale is the Nibelungenlied dating back to AD 1200. Its characters, including Siegfried, Brunhilde, and Hagen, have become famous around the world through the operas of Richard Wagner (1813–83).
Another important set of tales was collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century. Tales of the Brothers Grimm is the second most frequently translated book after the Bible.
About 30 percent of Germans belong to the official Protestant church. An estimated 28 percent of the population is Catholic. The Protestants live mainly in the north, and the Catholics, in the south. Other Christian denominations include Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, and the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Before the 1930s, Germany had a Jewish population of about 530,000. However, the great majority fled or were killed by the government during World War II (1939–45). Today, only about 40,000 Jews live in Germany. Most of these are recent refugees from Russia. Muslims (followers of Islam) now account for nearly 3 percent of the population. They are mostly guest workers from Turkey.
Germany's legal holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Good Friday (late March or early April), Easter (late March or early April), Pentecost (in May), Labor Day (May 1), and Christmas (December 25). Many different local and regional festivals are celebrated as well. Even the observance of some religious holidays varies from one region to another. Catholic areas celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi (eleven days after Pentecost) and All Saints' Day (November 1). Lutheran regions observe Reformation Day (October 31) and Repentance and Prayer Day (the third Wednesday in November). In December, there are special Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkte) in many towns. They sell candles, Christmas trees, and other seasonal goods.
Germans live in a modern, industrialized Christian country. Many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, many familes mark a student's progress through the education system with graduation parties.
German young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are subject to being drafted into the armed forces. As of the late 1990s, the length of service was one year. Duty is usually near a young man's home town. The German armed forces are an important part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense alliance. Conscientious objectors (people whose religious beliefs do not allow them to participate in warfare) can engage in substitute service in hospitals, nursing homes, and similar institutions. As of the late 1990s, conscientious objectors' service obligation was fifteen months.
Germans are usually thought of as hardworking, efficient, and without a sense of humor. These are stereotypes, of course, but there is some truth to them. Regional differences make it hard to pin down a national character or set of traits. The division between north and south is older and deeper than that between the formerly divided East Germany and West Germany. The Rhine-landers of the north are said to be easygoing and good-natured, while the Bavarians of the south are thought of as lively and excitable. Frisians, who live between the North Sea and Baltic Sea, have a reputation for being quiet and unsophisticated.
On the whole, however, Germans tend to be more serious and aloof than Americans. In Germany, it is customary to shake hands when you greet another person.
The most common greetings (with regional differences) are Guten Morgen (good morning), Guten Tag (hello), Guten Abend (good evening), and Gute Nacht (good night). Auf Wiedersehen means "goodbye."
Germans take great pride in their homes; most spend about 10 percent of their income on home furnishings and decoration. Families live in small houses or apartments with a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and one or two bedrooms. Young children often share a bedroom.
Germans receive high-quality medical care, and the life expectancy (the average age a person can expect to live to) is seventy-two years for men and seventy-nine years for women. The German love of beer has taken its toll on the nation's health: alcoholism follows smoking as one of the nation's leading causes of death.
Most Germans have small families, and Germany today has one of the world's lowest birthrates.
German children are taught to be polite and respectful to their elders. An increasing number of unmarried couples are living together, either with or without children. In fact, a recent study found that 40 percent of German couples under the age of thirty-five are not married. About three out of every ten German marriages end in divorce.
Traditionally, Germans referred to the role of women in terms of "three K's": Kinder (children), Kirche (church), and Küche (kitchen). Today, however, German women have legal equality with men. Like others throughout the world, German women are challenging the restrictions that have been placed on them. Although women account for roughly a third of the labor force, men still are usually paid higher salaries.
Germans wear modern Western-style clothing for everyday and formal occasions. However, at festivals such as the popular Oktoberfest in Munich, one may still see traditional clothes such as black feathered hats, white shirts, embroidered suspenders, and Lederhosen (leather shorts) for men. On such occassions, women will wear lacy white peasant blouses, black embroidered bodices, and white aprons.
Regional costumes are especially popular in southern Germany. The traditional outfit of the carpenters' guild (craft association), for example, may still be seen in some areas. It consists of a felt hat, a black corduroy suit with pearl buttons, bell-bottomed trousers, and a red kerchief worn around the neck.
The traditional German diet is high in starch (noodles and dumplings in the south, potatoes in the north). Würste (sausages)—in hundreds of varieties—are a staple throughout the country. Bread is usually eaten at every meal. In addition, the Germans are famous for their love of beer.
Various regions have their own special foods. They include Weisswurst (light-colored sausage) and Black Forest cherry cake in the south. Labskaus (stew), seafood dishes, and bean soup with bacon ( Bohnensuppe mit Speck ) are favorites in the north. Spaetzle, tiny dumplings, are enjoyed by all Germans. A recipe for spaetzle follows.
While it may be tasty, the traditional German diet, with its cold meats, starches, sugary desserts, and beer, is high in calories and cholesterol. Many Germans are trying to change their eating habits in order to improve their health.
Most Germans eat their main meal at noon and prefer a lighter, often cold, supper. Germans keep the knife and fork in their hands while eating and consider it bad manners to place a hand under the table, on one's lap.
Education is free and required between the ages of six and eighteen. After four years of primary school (Grundschule) , there are different roads students may take. They may spend two years in "orientation grades" and then six years in a Realschule in preparation for technical training. Or they may spend five years in a Hauptschule , followed by a three-year apprenticeship, a system in which a student learns a trade by working alongside a skilled worker.
The other option is a nine-year gymnasium program that prepares students for a university education. In addition, however, some states offer the comprehensive system (Gesamtschulen) , in which all students attend a single school from the fifth year onward. This system was also used in the former East Germany. University attendance is free of charge.
In music, Germany is famous for its great composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Felix Mendelssohn (1809– 47), Robert Schumann (1886–1963), Johannes Brahms (1833–97), and Richard Wagner (1813–83). Well-known twentieth-century composers include Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Kurt Weill (1900–50), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–), Carl Orff (1895–1982), and Hans Werner Henze (1926–).
In literature, Germany's greatest names include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). Modern German writers include Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann (1875–1955), Günter Grass (1927–), and Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll (1917–85).
A great early name in German visual arts is that of Albrecht Dürer, whose masterpieces include both paintings and woodcuts. In the twentieth century, German artists worked in the Expressionist movement. In 1919, German architect Walter Gropius founded the famous Bauhaus school of art and design. This school had a great influence on architecture around the world.
The total labor force of Germany numbers over 37 million people. Of these, nearly two million are foreign workers, including Turks, citizens of parts of the former Yugoslavia, and Italians.
The German workday begins early. Many people employed in factories start work at 7:00 AM , and most stores and offices are open by 8:00. Laborers in industry usually work a little more than thirty-five hours a week. Two of Germany's largest employers are auto manufacturers. Daimler Chrysler (producer of the Mercedes-Benz) employs over 320,000 people worldwide. Volkswagen has a total work-force throughout the world that is nearly as large. Nearly half of all German workers belong to labor unions.
The standard of living of the Germans is very high. It is higher, in fact, than in any previous generation. There is an extensive social security net and job security is very important. Wages are high, making the German labor force one of the best paid in the world. The German currency, the Deutsche Mark (German Mark), ranks among the strongest currencies in the world.
Football (the game that Americans call soccer) is Germany's most popular sport. Some German teams have an international reputation, and the national soccer association has over four million members. Germany has a tradition of world-class gymnasts. Other popular sports include shooting, handball, golf, horseback riding, and tennis. In tennis, Germany has produced two recent world masters: Steffi Graf and Boris Becker.
Recreational sports include hiking, bicycling, camping, sailing, and swimming, as well as both downhill skiing and cross-country skiing in the country's alpine regions.
Many Germans enjoy relaxing around the television set. Over 90 percent of the population owns a TV, and more than half of all Germans watch television daily. The use of television and radio is not free; people have to pay a small monthly fee. However, both television and radio are nearly free of commercials.
The German people enjoy the scenic forest, mountain, and lake regions of their country while engaging in hiking and jogging, and other outdoor activities. Cultural activities available in all major cities and many smaller ones include museums, concerts, exhibits, and historic sites.
Most Germans have as many as six weeks of paid vacation during the year. Vacation destinations include the mountains and the beaches of the North and Baltic seas. Since Germans love the sun, Italy, Greece, Spain, Egypt, and Florida have become favorite vacation spots for many families.
In their homes or in small shops, German craftspeople still produce works of art and souvenirs, including the cuckoo clocks for which they are famous. The wood carvings produced in Bavaria are world-famous.
The high cost of the unification of East and West Germany, plus a worldwide recession, weakened the German economy in the early 1990s. Other challenges facing Germany include reducing pollution and providing enough housing at prices people can afford. As unemployment has increased, tensions between immigrants and Germans have led to discrimination and even violence.
The area that was East Germany still requires much social and economic rebuilding to make up for the lower living standards that took place there under the communist government.
Germany in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1994.
Hargrove, Jim. Germany. Enchantment of the World Series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1991.
Lye, Keith. Passport to Germany. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.
Porter, Darwin. Frommer's Comprehensive Travel Guide (Germany '95). New York: Prentice-Hall Travel, 1994.