The Federal Republic of Germany is a country in Western Europe. Its western border is shared with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Its southern border follows the northern reaches of the Alps and touches Switzerland and Austria. Its eastern border is shared with Poland and the Czech Republic. To the north, Germany is defined by the North and Baltic seas and a border with Denmark.
Geographically, Germany is very diverse, ranging from high-altitude Alpine territories to the lowlands of the Rhine basin to the floodplains of the upper Danube and the Elbe rivers.
Germany is divided into 16 states: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein und Thuringia.
Germany is the most populous Western European country, with a population of 82.5 million. Of these, over 6.7 million are non-citizens (8.1%), of whom over 20% of the non-citizens were born in Germany (May, 2004). The most frequent countries of origin for migrants in Germany include Turkey, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro, Greece, Poland, Croatia and Russia. There are four recognized national minorities in Germany: Sinti and Roma, Sorbs, Frisians and Danes.
The major religions in Germany are: Roman Catholic (32.5%), Protestant (32.1%) and Islam (3.9%). 28% of the population is officially of no religion (2004). With the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union since 1990, the Jewish population has increased dramatically, from around 30,000 in 1990 to over 100,000 (.22%).
Germany political history is one of changing state structures. Germany was unified in the modern sense after the Franco-German War in 1871. In this so-called "small-German" state (thus excluding Austria), Prussia was the dominant force. Prior to that, Germany was organized into a variety of princepalities states and kingdoms that enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. After Germany and its allies lost World War I, the German Emperor (Kaiser) abdicated the throne and parliment took control. Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Weimar Republic, established in the same year, was confronted with extreme difficulties, including high reparations. The Weimar Republic was designed as a constitutional democracy, but was confronted with severe problems regarding economic and social stability. In the years between the beginning of the economic depression in 1929 and 1933, the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) under Adolf Hitler was supported by more and more of the German population. After winning a plurality of votes and being elected Chancellor of Germany, Hitler and his party proceeded to establish a dictatorship. After a series of aggressive foreign policy moves, including supporting Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and occupying a part of then Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany attacked Poland in 1939, thus beginning World War II.
During the Nazi period, hundred of thousands of people were persecuted, black listed, dispossesed, forced into exile, placed in concentration camps and murdered. Most prominently, around 6 million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Other victims included oppositional Catholics and Protestants, socialists, communists, social democrats, homosexuals, the handicapped, Sinti and Roma and other cultural minorities.
After the liberation of Germany on May 8, 1945, the country was divided into four administrative zones (in Berlin, four sectors). The French, British and American zones were unified to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949 (West Germany). Shortly thereafter, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was constituted out of the Soviet zone East Germany. West Germany became a modern European style mixed economy democracy under the auspices of France, Great Britain and the United States, joining NATO in 1955, while East Germany was designed as a Soviet style socialist state. After mass street protests in East Germany and the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, free elections were held in March 1990. Germany was subsequently unified in October 1990.
Political and cultural upheavals in the 1960s greatly changed West German society, as did large-scale immigration in the 1960s and 1970s.
After 1990, Germany was faced with a period of political stagnation under the Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Between 1998 and November of 2005, the Social Democrats governed with the Green Party. Large changes were made under the so-called "reform chancellor" Gerhard Schröder, among them the modernization of the German immigration and citizenship laws and the implementation of civil unions for same-sex couples. However, Schröder also pushed through strict social reforms (e.g. health, social security, welfare). Together with the then leading figure of the previously pacifist Green Party, Joschka Fischer, and with the backing of the governing parties, Schröder also led the German military into its first war since World War II against Yugoslavia in 1999.
Together with France, Germany plays a leading role in the European Union. Germany is at the forefront of European states seeking to advance the creation of a more unified and capable European political, defence and security apparatus.
In 2003, Germany and France were protagonists in the coalition of nations opposing the US-led war in Iraq. Nevertheless, the German government has offered help to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, but only outside of the war-torn country. In 2004, German troops stationed in the United Arab Emirates trained 122 Iraqi soldiers to drive and maintain military trucks. In April 2005, the German military sent around 50 German soldiers and 19 translators to Abu Dhabi to show 85 Iraqis how to build bridges and streets.
In the years since unification, Germany has continued to play a role as one of the major economic powerhouses of Europe. Despite this, it has been plagued by some economic malaise, especially with unemployment and the integration of the former East, where wages and economic stability still lag behind the West.
The currency of Germany is the Euro.
Currently, Germany is challenged by a number of social issues, including an increasingly costly pension and healthcare plan for the elderly and domestic unease over immigration from Turkey, the Middle East and Africa.
The Federal Republic of Germany is a constitutional democracy with a parlimentary system of representation. It is comprised of 16 federal states. The formal head of the German goverment is the Federal President (Bundespräsident), elected by a special body of electors. The former head of the World Bank, Horst Köhler, holds the position since July 2004. Even though the Federal President signs all bills into law, the role is largely ceremonial. The chief executive in Germany in the Chancellor (Bundeskanzler). The Chancellor is chosen by the parliament (Bundestag) and is the head of the Federal Government (Bundesregierung). The current Chancellor, Angela Merkel, began her tenure in November 2005 and is the first woman to hold this position.
Legislative power lies for the most part with the Bundestag. The Bundestag is elected by the voters in a primarily proportional system of representatives. The Federal Council (Bundesrat) is the federal states' chamber. The number of seats per federal state in the Bundesrat varies to a degree according to population in order to avoid the dominance of the "small" federal states over the "large" ones (as is the case, for example, in the US Senate) and vice-versa. According to the constitution, federal states with less than two million inhabitants (Bremen, Hamburg, Saarland, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) have three votes, those from 2 to 6 million have four (Berlin, Brandenburg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia), those from 6 to 7 million have five (Hesse) and those with more than 7 million have 6 votes (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia).
Additionally, the political system includes the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.
Germany currently has five political parties of note.
The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is the conservative mainstream party in Germany and the senior partner in the current ruling coaltion. It is technically only active in 15 of the 16 federal states, due to an alliance with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). Both parties work together as one on the federal level, and are often referred to as either "CDU/CSU" or "the union parties". The current head of the CDU is the Chancellor Angela Merkel. The current head of the CSU is Edmund Stoiber, Minister President of Bavaria.
The oldest political party in Germany, the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is the junior partner in the current ruling coalition. Their traditional orientation was to side with employees, but current reform efforts have strained this relationship and cost them elections. Its current head is Kurt Beck, Minister President of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is a classical liberal party, in the sense that they favor policies that in the USA would be called "libertarian". They often ally with the CDU to form coalitions, but have in the past also worked together with the SPD. The current head of the party is Guido Westerwelle, head of the FDP parliamentary group in the federal parliament.
The The Left Party is the political alliance between two opposition parties on the left: The first, the former Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), is the heir to East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (SED). It remains popular in the five East German federal states and in Berlin, and has formed coalition governments with the SPD on local and state levels. The second, the Voter's Alternative for Work And Social Justice (WASG), was founded in 2005 by by trade unionists and Social Democrats dissolusioned with the SPD's neo-liberal policies. The two parties are currently in the process of creating a new party. The current head of the Linkspartei is Lothar Bisky. The current head of the WASG is Klaus Ernst.
Alliance 90/Green Party (Green) are concerned with environmental issues and are, in general, social liberals. They often ally with the SPD, but currently are in the opposition in all federal states and on the federal level. In the SPD/Green government (1998-2005), the Greens governed for the first time on the federal level. The current heads of the party are Claudia Roth and Reinhard Bütikofer.
There are currently three right-wing extremist parties active in Germany: National Party of Germany (NPD), the German People's Union (DVU) and the Republikaner. The first two are neo-Nazi-inspired parties, the NPD being more of a grass-roots movement and the DVU a hobbyhorse of a wealthy right-wing extremist publisher. They are relatively well-financed and have managed to get elected into the Saxon (NPD) and Brandenburg (DVU) parlaiment.
Also, there are a number of small parties ranging from the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD), the Women's Party (Die Frauen) and a LaRouche outgrowth (BüSo).
Most Recent Federal Elections
The most recent elections took place after a no-confidance vote of the then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in September 2005. The conservative CDU/CSU received the most votes (35.2%), closely followed by the SPD (34.2). Three other parties received more than the required 5% of the votes: FDP (9.8%), Linkspartei (8.7%) and Green (8.1%).
Because the CDU/CSU and FDP was not elected to majority, CDU/CSU and SPD have entered into a Grand Coalition (Grosse Koaltion), giving the parties a large majority in Parliament, far over the two-thirds needed to change the constitution (Grundgesetz), for example. Main figures in the current government are the Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Vice-Chancellor and Labor Minister Franz Müntefering (SPD), Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück (SPD), Economics Minister Michael Glos (CSU), and Health Minister Ulla Schmidt (SPD).