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Germany as found on the map today had not existed prior to the mid-19th century as a unified nation-state (the early Middle Age states based on Frankish and Saxon kingdoms had rather different dimensions). The region covered by Germany had been a group of small principalities, including Prussia, Saxony and Bavaria. These small states were only loosely associated by cultural and religious concerns, e.g. under the 'Holy Roman Empire', but this cultural unity was fractured by the conflict between Protestants and Catholics from the 16th century onwards. However, the growth of Prussian power helped establish a unified Germany between 1866 and 1871, using wars against neighbouring states, especially Austria and France, to complete unification. From this time the country emerged as a modern, industrialised, central European power. During the late 19th century and early 20th Germany came into conflict with Russian, French and English interests over the balance of power in Europe and over imperial domains world-wide. In spite of the complexities of the causes of World War I, as the defeated side Germany was held to have had the major responsibilities for the war. This 'war guilt' was the moral justification for the loss of German territory and a heavy reparations dictated by the Versailles treaty. This in turned sowed the seeds of future conflict.

At the same time, a more democratic constitution was put in place, the Weimar Republic, with general elections first occurring in 1918. Partly under the impact of the local depression of 1923-1925 and the World Depression of the late 1929-1932, political life in the Republic began to polarise into a number of smaller extreme parties (Peacock 1974, pp174-177), with extreme violence occurring between the far left (the Communists) and the right (the National Socialists). Part of this polarisation from the Centre to extreme parties on the fringe was aided by the proportional representation (PR) system which gave many small parties a voice (Roskin 1992, p164). In contrast, current polarisation trends are comparatively mild, though some would argue that a somewhat greater gap between the rich and poor emerged within Germany during the 1990s, with up to 13% of household being defined as poor in European terms (see Vincur 1998; Roskin 1992, p182). The manoeuvring between parties is indicated by the fact that there were twenty-six different Cabinets in 14 years (Roskin 1992, p149). Unemployment reached some 6 million in the early 1930s.

Figure 1: Selected Timeline 1815-1991

1815Germany a loose Confederation of States

1868Bismark leads Prussia against Austria

1870-71War with France - Effective unification of Germany as the Second Reich

1914-1918World War I

1919Creation of democratic Weimar Republic

1933NAZI Enabling Act gives Hitler domination of German political life

1939-1945World War II

1941Soviet Union invaded by Germany

1948-49The Berlin Airlift

1955Warsaw Pact and NATO Created

1961August 13, Building of Berlin Wall begun

1975Helsinki accords: from Cold War to Detente

1987Gorbachev begins major reforms

1988Visits between Kohl and Gorbachev warm West German - USSR relations

Sept 1989Mass demonstrations in East Germany

November 9, 1989Opening of the Berlin Wall

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