Germany - Introduction

Map of Germany in 1933
Map of Germany in 1933. Click on regions for more specific information.
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Today, Germany is one of the most popular destinations for tourists. There are few signs remaining of the last war, but rebuilding still continues. Two weeks before the end of the war, a bombing raid destroyed 40% of the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, today one of the most popular tourist destinations. Rebuilding of the stone wall surrounding the town continued well into the 1990's. In Dresden, the Frauenkirche is only now undergoing a rebuilding effort. (Computer analysis showed that the structure was inherently weak, so it's not surprising that it collapsed during the bombing.)

Although much of the country was rebuilt after the war, much of the landscape has a timeless quality that in many cases appears unchanged for centuries. But in most cases, it is because most old structures have been rebuilt or repaired in more recent decades. For instance, most castles and palaces still standing have been restored or rebuilt, sometimes at great cost. Only a small few castles (such as Burg Eltz and the Marksburg) remain relatively untouched since medieval times. Many castles seem very old, but were built in the 19th century. These include favorites like Schloß Lichtenstein and Schloß Neuschwanstein.

The above map shows the internal divisions in the country around 1933. This map, which shows the original kingdoms, principalities, duchies, grand-duchies, and city-states, is useful in understanding the history of the country, which in turn is important when visiting historical sites. Territories in red were parts of the Kingdom of Prussia, which dominated the German union. (Before they were lost to Poland and Russia after each of the world wars, Prussian holdings also included East Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania to the east.)

Driving in Germany

Autobahn sign The Germans love their cars. So much so that highways can be clogged with motorists, especially on the major Autobahns. Many people know that the German Autobahns have no speed limits, but many stretches of highway now do have limits, varying from 100km/h to 120km/h. In many places, the posted speed limits don't matter since the heavy traffic prevents motorists from driving very fast anyways!

If you're planning on visiting several countries, consider picking up your rental car in Germany. Rental rates are generally cheaper in Germany that other European countries.

The Food

The food is one of the reasons to enjoy Germany. There is a wide variety of foods, including some of the best beers and wines in the world.

Breakfast service is almost always included in your room. For bed and breakfast accomodation, expect a small assortment of breads and rolls, along with a couple of slices of various meats and cheeses, as well as some jams or jellies, and often a hard boiled egg. Coffee is always good. In hotels, expect to find a well-stocked buffet.

For lunch, look for an Imbiß stand. If you visit a town during market day, follow the aroma of cooked sausage. The Wurst are often served on a small hard roll with mustard. One of my favorite lunches is the Currywurst. It's a sausage sliced into bite-sized pieces served with a tomato and curry sauce. It's commonly served on top of a serving of Pommes, or french fries. (The word Pommes, although of French origin, is pronounced with equal emphasis on both syllables.)

For dinner, we often just buy some rolls and meats and cheeses in shops we encounter during the days sight-seeing. German supermarkets are generally smaller than North-American supermarkets, but are often just as well-stocked. Soft drinks are often sold in a separate area of the store. Normally, you pay a deposit on the bottles, even plastic bottles, and you get the deposit back when returning the bottles on your next shopping trip.

Dining in restaurants is generally a treat. You can choose from many different nationalities. Italian and Greek restaurants are popular and plentiful. The rare Chinese restaurants tend to be on the pricy side. Often, the more inexpensive items on the German menu are the Schnitzels, which are generally made from pork.

The choice of Schitzels alone can be staggering. There are two basic styles of Schnitzel: breaded and unbreaded. The basic breaded schnitzel is the Viennese style, the ubiquitous Wiener Schnitzel, the choice for most tourists. Another variety of breaded schnitzel, for example, is the Holsteiner Schnitzel (topped with fried egg and anchovies).

The choice of non-breaded schnitzels includes the Rahm Schnitzel (served with a cream sauce, often with mushrooms), and my favorite, the Jäger Schnitzel (topped with an assortment of vegetables in a sauce).

On the side, try the Spätzl, which is a soft noodle. Contrary to the stereotype, Sauerkraut is not really very popular with Germans, and so may be hard to find in German restaurants. Some serve Kasseler Rippchen, a smoked pork, with Sauerkraut.

Oh yeah, be sure to try the Sauerbraten if you can find it. Despite the name, the marinated roast beef is not at all sour.

Although the number of breweries is dropping, there are still many small breweries around the country, most still following the centuries old beer purity laws. The area with the best selection of breweries is northern Bavaria. When visiting Bamberg, try the smoked beer, only brewed there. In Munich, you can purchase one liter glasses of locally brewed beer in the parks. Generally, choose a Bier or Pils (pilsener) brewed locally.

Where to Stay

Small hotels and bed-and-breakfast houses are plentiful, especially in the more popular tourist areas. For single travellers, often you can find single rooms that are half the price of double rooms. English is commonly understood in the bigger (and more expensive) hotels in the larger cities and other areas popular with foreign tourists.

If you know German, the choice of accomodation increases, and the best choices are the bed-and-breakfast houses. Rooms are often as comfortable as in hotels, and much cheaper. Just look for the Zimmer frei signs. The owners of the bed-and-breakfast houses are often very friendly, and if you give them a chance, will talk your ear off! After I said we were from Canada, one proprieter showed me her guest-book, showing off the various countries her guests were from.

A Brief History of Germany

The country has been shaped by centuries of turbulent history. For more than a millennium, the country was dominated by tension between the church and numerous royal families. For a long time, numerous small kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and city states were under the collective umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire, loosely governed by an Emperor and the Pope.

The Protestant Reformation was based more on political manoevering than it was on religious differences. And that led to even more strife. During the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century, invading armies from various neighboring lands swept through in at least three distinct waves. Almost all medieval castles still standing were destroyed during this time. (Today, there are only a couple of castles that have survived relatively untouched since medieval times. Some were rebuilt in the last few centuries, some were built new recently, but many castles remain ruins.)

After the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire was weakened considerably, but survived until the invasion of Napoleon in the early 19th century. A loose political alliance was established among the various German states, which led to the establishment of a German nation in 1873 after a brief war between France and Prussia.

Poor diplomatic manoevering led to strategically poor alliances with other European nations, which put Germany at a disadvantage on the eve of the First World War. The stalement between warring nations on the western front led to the entry of the United States into the war, which tipped the balance in favor of France and Great Britain. After armistice in the west, fighting continued in the east, while Russia underwent its own internal conflicts.

The end of the war also meant the end of the monarchy in all German states still led by royal families. Troubles continued in Germany. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were especially costly to Germany, and the resulting economic upheavals led to political instability. The revolution in Russia inspired people in Germany to left-wing political action, which was countered by the rise of right-wing parties favored by the business elite.

The rise in power of the extreme right-wing Nazis meant some short-term improvements in Germany's fortunes, but at the end of the Second World War, the country was literally in ruins. Massive investment by the allies and a lot of long and hard work, though, turned West Germany into an economic powerhouse in the decades after the war.

East Germany lagged under communist rule, but things started to change after the rise of a reform-minded leader in the Soviet Union. At first, East Germany resisted calls to reform government (unlike Poland and Hungary). The beginning of the end for communist rule in East Germany happened in the spring of 1989 when Hungary decided to tear down the barbed war on its border with Austria due to the expense of maintenance. East Germans then saw an opportunity - they could still freely travel to Hungary, where they could cross on foot to Austria. After a short train trip, they could reach West Germany, where they had full rights to West German citizenship.

By the end of the summer, a trickle had turned into a flood as thousands of East Germans left each day. Meanwhile, thousands of East Germans started to protest in the streets demanding government reforms. Protests in Leipzig saw hundreds of thousands of protesters each Monday evening. The East German leader, Erich Honnecker, even ordered the police and military to take action against the protesters. But Soviet generals advised against it. Late October in 1989, Honnecker resigned, to be replaced by Egon Krenz.

At a November 9 press conference, the new East German leadership announced some easing of travel restrictions. People were happy to learn that they would be able to freely travel to the west, and that evening, thousands of Berliners gathered at the Berlin wall. Some asked to be able to cross the border, but the guards hadn't yet received instructions. The guards relented though, and allowed thousands to cross the border that evening. At once, the Berlin wall was rendered obsolete, and people started to dance on the wall and tear it down with sledge hammers.

Ironically, the fall of East Germany and its subsequent absorption into West Germany under West German terms was not what the Leipzig protesters wanted. They wanted to keep a socialist government, but with more freedom and democracy. Instead, they were thrown completely into West Germany's capitalistic society.