Germanic people begin to settle in Central Europe at about 100 BCE, grouping into hundreds of competing states that, apart from Charlemagne's 9th Century empire (the First Reich), will not come near to unification for almost 2,000 years.
By the 18th Century the two largest Germanic states, Prussia and Austria, have begun competing for regional dominance. When pressure for unification mounts from the intelligentsia, bureaucrats and business interests, Prussia takes the lead. In 1871 the aristocrat Otto von Bismarck engineers the formation of a unified Germany under Kaiser (emperor) Wilhelm I, the king of Prussia.
However, the new state, proclaimed the German Empire and known as the Second Reich, does not include Austria and its European satellites. It is also far from a true democracy as, although membership of the multiparty Reichstag (parliament) is determined by general election, and while opposition groups are allowed, ultimate power rests with the unelected kaiser and his appointed ministers, who form the government and prepare legislation.
As the new state's economy and influence grows it begins to seek overseas colonies, creating tensions with its European neighbours that are exacerbated by Germany's increasing arms production. By the start of 1914 Germany has become convinced that it is "encircled" by an alliance of hostile neighbours and its very survival depends on a successful war against Russia and France.
The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June 1914 with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In its ensuing dispute with Serbia, Austria-Hungary refuses to be placated. Germany sides with Austria-Hungary when the situation deteriorates.
On 3 August 1914 Germany declares war on France. Britain in turn declares war on Germany on 14 August. The First World War has begun.
The war will see the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) pitted against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia).
After four years of exhausting and bloody conflict the war ends on 11 November 1918 with the signing of a general armistice.
Germany has accepted a humiliating defeat. About 1.6 million Germans have died in the conflict and more than four million have been wounded. The kaiser has been forced to abdicate, the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been destroyed and a new democratic parliament has proclaimed Germany a republic - the Weimar Republic.
Germany suffers further humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919. The Allies annex German land, Germany is ordered to pay large war reparations, the size of the German army is limited, and Germany and Austria-Hungary are blamed for starting the conflict.
The new German Government, a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties, attempts to rebuild the country but faces opposition from the right and extreme left and only lukewarm support from the majority of Germans.
The German economy begins to buckle under the weight of the enormous war reparations demanded by the Allies and debts incurred during the war. Inflation and unemployment climb.
The coalition government loses its majority in the elections of 1920, introducing a decade long period of political instability. Inflation skyrockets in 1923 and is fuelled when the government begins printing more and more money. The value of the Deutschmark plummets. In mid-1920 US$1 is worth 40 marks. By November 1923 US$1 will buy 4.2 trillion marks. Social unrest begins to escalate.
A new government succeeds in containing the crisis but is crippled when the Wall Street stock market crash of October 1929 ushers in the Great Depression. Unemployment rises from 8.5% in 1929 to 29.9% in 1932.
Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) Party exploits the situation, advocating national pride, blaming the Treaty of Versailles, the left, and Jews for the political turmoil and claiming to have a solution to the economic crisis. Many Germans come to see the party as a credible alternative.
In 1928 the Nazis hold 12 seats in the Reichstag. By 1932 they have 230 seats and are the largest party in the government. The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January 1933 when Hitler is appointed chancellor.
- Germany - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series