Germanic History

ROLL Reunion


Ancient Customs of the Germans - Victory feast after a battle.

Germanic Tribes. Up to the last century, it was a widely held belief that German history began in the year A.D. 9. That was when Arminius, a prince of a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci, vanquished three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (southeast of modern-day Bielefeld). Arminius, about whom not much else is known, was regarded as the first German national hero, and a huge memorial to him was built near Detmold in the years 1838-75.

Nowadays a less simplistic view is taken. The gradual emergence of a distinctly German nation was a process which took hundreds of years. The German nation essentially grew out of a number of German tribes such as the Franks, the Saxons, the Swabians and the Bavarians. These old tribes have of course long since lost their original character, but their traditions and dialects live on in their respective regions. Those ethnic regions are not, however, identical to the present states (Länder), most of which were only formed after the Second World War in agreement with the occupying powers. In many cases the boundaries were drawn without any consideration for old traditions. Furthermore, the flows of refugees and the massive postwar migrations, but also the mobility of the modern industrial society, have more or less blurred the ethnic boundaries.

Much of what is known about the Germanic people comes from historical accounts written by two Roman authors: Commentaries (51 BC) by Julius Caesar and Germania (98 AD) by Cornelius Tacitus. By comparing the two writings, it is possible to trace the evolution of Germanic society in the intervening period. In Caesar's time, land tenure did not involve private property; instead, fields were divided annually among clans. By the time of Tacitus, however, land was distributed annually to individuals according to social class. The basic sociopolitical unit was the pagus (clan). In Caesar's period, some pagi had military leaders as chiefs, but only during wartime. By Tacitus's time, however, several pagi, at least, had full-time, elected chiefs. These leaders did not have absolute power but were limited by a council of nobles and an assembly of fighting men. Military chiefs had groups (comitium) of men who swore allegiance to them in both peace and war.

The first clash between the Germanic peoples and the neighboring Romans was in the 2nd century BC, when the Cimbri and Teutons invaded Gaul and were defeated in present-day Provence, France. By this period, however, much of Germany was occupied by such Germanic tribes as the Suevi, Cherusci, and others. When the Romans in turn attempted to conquer the area east of the Rhine River early in the 1st century, they were defeated by the Cherusci chief Arminius (Hermann). By the mid-2nd century AD Germanic pressures on the Roman frontiers intensified. The emperor Marcus Aurelius waged successful warfare against such tribes as the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges. By this period, German mercenaries were beginning to be used by the Roman armies. During the 3rd century, more migrations caused a crisis within the empire, as Goths, Alamanni, and Franks penetrated German borders. The movement stopped temporarily in the late 3rd century during the reigns of the emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great, but it resumed under pressure from the non-Germanic Huns, who came out of Central Asia in the 4th century. In the 5th century the Germans occupied the whole Western Roman Empire. Over the next few hundred years, the Germanic tribes adopted Christianity and laid the foundations of medieval Europe. Germanic languages are still spoken today in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, and the English-speaking countries.

Historic German trivia: In the year 402 the Roman Emperor fled to Ravenna, which was a sea-port and strongly fortified, and there, in the year 475, Odoacer, commander of a regiment of the German mercenaries, who wanted the farms of Italy to be divided among themselves, gently but effectively pushed Romulus Augustulus, the last of the emperors who ruled the western division, from his throne, and proclaimed himself Patriarch or ruler of Rome. The eastern Emperor, who was very busy with his own affairs, recognised him, and for ten years Odoacer ruled what was left of the western provinces.

Germany on-line map - mapping web site.

The word deutsch (German) probably first became common currency in the 8th century and initially defined only the language spoken in the eastern part of the Franconian realm. This empire, which reached the zenith of its power under Charlemagne, incorporated peoples speaking both Germanic and Romance dialects. After Charlemagne’s death (814), it was not long before it fell apart. In the course of various divisions prompted by the respective lines of noble inheritance, a western and an eastern realm developed, whose political boundary approximately coincided with the boundary between German and French speakers. Only gradually did a feeling of cohesion develop among the inhabitants of the eastern realm. It was not until then that the term deutsch was transferred from the language to its speakers and ultimately to the region they lived in, henceforth termed Deutschland.

There are four main national minorities residing in Germany from early times: the Sorbs, Frisians, Danes, German Sinti, and Romas. The Lusatian Sorbs are the descendants of Slavic tribes. They settled the territory east of the Elbe and Saale rivers in the 6th century in the course of the migration of people that occurred in the early centuries A.D. The first document in which they are mentioned dates from 631. In the 16th century, under the influence of the Reformation, a written Sorbian language evolved. The Frisians are the descendants of a Germanic tribe on the North Sea coast (between the Lower Rhine and the Ems River) and have preserved numerous traditions in addition to their own distinct language. A Danish minority lives in the Schleswig region of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, especially around Flensburg. The number of Sinti and Roma peoples with German citizenship is estimated at 70,000 and have the Romani language.

The German western frontier was fixed relatively early and remained fairly stable. But the eastern frontier moved to and fro for hundreds of years. Around 900 it ran approximately along the Elbe and Saale rivers. In subsequent centuries German settlement extended far to the east. This expansion stopped only in the middle of the 14th century. The ethnic boundary then made between Germans and Slavs remained until World War II.

Since time immemorial, different characteristics have been ascribed to the various regional groups. Natives of Mecklenburg, for instance, are considered reserved, Swabians thrifty, Rhinelanders happy-go-lucky, and Saxons hardworking and shrewd traditional observations that are gladly perpetuated to this very day in a spirit of good-natured folkloric rivalry.

High Middle Ages. The transition from the East Franconian to the German Reich is usually dated from 911, when, after the Carolingian dynasty had died out, the Franconian duke Conrad I was elected king. He is regarded as the first German king. (The official title was Frankish King and later Roman King; from the 11th century the name of the realm was Roman Empire, from the 13th century Holy Roman Empire, and in the 15th century the words of the German Nation were added.) It was an electoral monarchy; that is to say, the high nobility chose the king who then ruled over them. In addition, dynastic right applied: The new king had to be a blood relation of his predecessor. This principle was broken several times. There were also a number of double elections. The medieval empire had no capital city; the king ruled from a court which moved from place to place. There were no imperial taxes; the king drew his sustenance mainly from imperial estates he administered in trust. His authority was not always recognized by the powerful tribal dukes unless he was militarily powerful and a skillful forger of alliances. Conrad’s successor, the Saxon duke Henry I (919-36), was the first to succeed in this complex tactical role, and to an even greater extent so did his son, Otto (936-73). Otto made himself the real ruler of the realm. His great power found obvious expression when he was crowned Emperor in 962 in Rome.

From then on, the German king could claim the title "Emperor". The emperorship was conceived as universal and theoretically gave its incumbent control over the entire Occident. However, this notion never became full political reality. In order to be crowned Emperor by the Pope, the king had to make his way to Rome and this inaugurated an ongoing orientation toward Italy by the German kings. For 300 years they were able to retain control of upper and central Italy, but because of this they were diverted from important tasks in Germany. And so Otto’s successors inevitably suffered big setbacks. However, under the succeeding Salian dynasty a new upswing occurred. With Henry III (1039-56), the German kingship and emperorship reached the zenith of its power, maintaining above all a supremacy over the Papacy.

Henry IV (1056-1106) was not able to hold this position. In a quarrel with Pope Gregory VII over whether bishops and other influential church officials should be appointed by the Pope or by the temporal ruler, he was superficially successful. But Gregory retaliated by excommunicating Henry, who thereupon surrendered his authority over the church by doing penance to the Pope at Canossa (1077), an irretrievable loss of power by the emperorship. From that point onward, the Emperor and the Pope were equal-ranking powers.

In 1138 the century of rule by the Staufer, or Hohenstaufen, dynasty began. Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-90), in wars with the Pope, the northern Italian cities and his main German rival, the Saxon duke Henry the Lion, led the empire into a new golden age. But under him began a territorial fragmentation which ultimately weakened the central power. This decline continued under Barbarossa’s successors, Henry VI (1190-7) and Frederick II (1212-50), despite the great power vested in the emperorship. The ecclesiastical and temporal princes became semi-sovereign territorial rulers. The end of Hohenstaufen rule (1268) also meant the end of the Emperor’s universal rule in the Occident. Internal disintegrative forces prevented Germany from becoming a national state, a process just beginning then in other western European countries. Here lies one of the reasons why the Germans became a belated nation.

Late Middle Ages to modern times. Rudolf I (1273-91) was the first Habsburg to take the throne. Now the material foundation of the emperorship was no longer the lost imperial estates but the house estates of the dynasties, and house power politics evidently became every emperor’s main preoccupation.

The Golden Bull (imperial constitution) issued by Charles IV in 1356 regulated the election of the German king by seven electors privileged with special rights. These sovereign electors and the towns, because of their economic power, gradually gained influence while that of the small counts, lords and knights declined. The towns’ power further increased when they linked up in leagues. The most important of these, the Hanseatic League, became the leading Baltic power in the 14th century.

From 1438 the crown although the empire nominally was an electoral monarchy practically became the property of the Habsburg dynasty, which had become the strongest territorial power. In the 15th century, demands for imperial reform increased. Maximilian I (1493-1519), the first to accept the imperial title without a papal coronation, tried to implement such a reform but without much success. The institutions newly created or reshaped by him Reichstag (Imperial Diet), Reichskreise (Imperial Counties), Reichskammergericht (Imperial Court) lasted until the end of the Reich (1806) but were not able to halt its continuing fragmentation. A dualism of Emperor and Reich developed: The head of the Reich was offset by the estates of the Reich electors, princes and towns. The power of the emperors was curtailed and increasingly eroded by capitulations, which they negotiated at their election with the respective electors. The princes, especially the powerful among them, greatly expanded their rights at the expense of imperial power. But the Reich continued to hold together, the glory of the imperial idea remained alive, and the small and medium-sized territories were protected in the Reich system from possible attack by powerful neighbors.

The towns became centers of economic power, profiting above all from growing trade. In the burgeoning textile and mining industries, forms of economic activity grew which went beyond the guilds system of the craftsmen and, like long-distance trading, were beginning to take on early capitalistic traits. At the same time an intellectual change was taking place, marked by the Renaissance and Humanism. The newly risen critical spirit turned above all on church abuses.

Age of religious schism. The smoldering dissatisfaction with the church broke out mainly through the actions of Martin Luther from 1517 in the Reformation, which quickly spread. Its consequences went far beyond the religious sphere. Social unrest abounded. In 1522-3 the Reich knights rose up, and in 1525 the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, the first larger revolutionary movement in German history to strive for both political and social change. Both uprisings failed or were bloodily quelled. The territorial princes profited most from the Reformation.

After the changing fortunes of war, they were given the right to dictate their subjects’ religion by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. This accorded the Protestants equal rights with those of the Catholics. The religious division of Germany was thus sealed. On the imperial throne at the time of the Reformation was Charles V (1519-56), heir to the biggest realm since the time of Charlemagne. His international political interests were too demanding for him to be able to assert himself within Germany. After his abdication, the empire was split up. The German territorial states and the western European national states together now formed the new European system of states.

At the time of the Peace of Augsburg, four fifths of Germany was Protestant, but the struggle between the faiths had not ended. In the following decades, the Catholic Church was able to recapture many areas (Counter-Reformation). The differences between the faiths sharpened; religious parties the Protestant Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609) were formed. A local conflict in Bohemia then triggered the Thirty Years’ War, which widened into a European conflict over religious and political differences. Between 1618 and 1648, much of Germany was devastated and depopulated. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia brought the cession of territories to France and Sweden and confirmed the withdrawal of Switzerland and the Netherlands from the Reich. The estates of the Reich were accorded all major sovereign rights in religious and temporal matters as well as the right to enter into alliances with foreign partners.

Age of absolutism. The almost sovereign principalities took over the absolutist form of government modeled on the French. Absolutism gave the ruler limitless power while at the same time allowing tight administrations to be built up, an organized fiscal policy to be introduced and new armies to be mobilized. Many princes aspired to making their residences cultural focal points. Some of them, representatives of enlightened absolutism, encouraged learning and philosophy, albeit within the confines of their power interests. The policy of state control of all economic life also allowed the absolutistically ruled states to gain in economic strength. Thus lands such as Bavaria, Brandenburg (the later Prussia), Saxony and Hanover were able to develop into power centers in their own right. Austria, which repelled the attacking Turks and acquired Hungary as well as parts of the formerly Turkish Balkan countries, rose to a large power. A rival to it developed in the 18th century in the form of Prussia, which under Frederick II the Great (1740-86) grew into a first-rank military power. Both states sought to assert their authority in Europe.

ROLL Reunion

"The German is like a willow.
No matter which way you bend him,
he will always take root again."
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn -

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