An old saying in comparative politics claims that the history of happy countries is boring to read. If this is the case, then German politics and society should not be boring.

German politics is interesting and important to study because it represents some of the best and worst parts of human history, and some of the most intriguing questions that we face as social scientists. For instance, in the later half of the twentieth century research focused on what is known as "the German question". This question really had three parts. The first part began by discussing the positive accomplishments of Germany by the early twentieth century. Germany was the land of thinkers and writers. Berlin was home to Nobel Prize winning scientists, including Albert Einstein. German was the language of science. Berlin and Germany more broadly was a nation with a strong cultural tradition, and one of the more modern nations in Europe in many areas.

Hitler salutes The first German question asks how this society and the democratic Weimar Republic could succumb to the lure of Hitler and the Third Reich. While other Western democracies struggled with the Great Depression and endured, Germany turned to the dark side. It accepted an authoritarian state that promised prosperity and order, but at too high a price. A modern, educated society allowed Hitler to gain absolute power, and then abuse that power. And in the end, most people ignored the signs that Hitler's final solution was being executed through the Holocaust. How could this happen in the land of Schiller, Goethe and Beethoven? We address this question in the early chapters of this volume. We describe the processes that lead to the Third Reich, and the continuing legacy of this experience for contemporary German politics.

The second version of the German question arose in 1945. As Hitler's Reich was defeated and analysts asked what was to become of Germany. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was created in 1949 and faced uncertain prospects at the start. The FRG inherited a very negative cultural and political legacy. Authoritarian orientations supposedly ran deep in German politics and society; democracy lacked the historical tradition found in other West European nations. The new political institutions also were not solely the product of German efforts; they came from wartime defeat and were imposed by occupying powers. The economy was in a shambles, and many people worried about their economic and physical well-being. Thus, political analysts often discussed the prospects for German democracy, and whether the Federal Republic would follow the same course as the Weimar Republic.

Despite the magnitude of these challenges, the Federal Republic developed a viable and successful democratic system. The political culture was gradually changed, and the public developed support for democratic institutions and procedures. A growing institutionalization and stabilization of the political system paralleled the changing political culture. Society developed a broad social consensus on the basic principles of the welfare state and the FRG's role within the Western Alliance. The political system became an effective parliamentary democracy and the political vitality of Germany rivaled many of the more established European democracies. By the 1972 election one party claimed that West Germany had become the model for other European democracies to follow (Modell Deutschland). A second major theme of this book focuses on explaining the success of the Federal Republic, and how it functions today.

Berlin Wall Opens The third version of the German question began on the night of November 9, 1989. For two months, East Germans had staged a series of escalating protests against the communist regime and its leadership. The scent of change was in the air. In the late evening, a government spokesperson announced that Easterners were now free to travel to the West by merely showing their identity cards at the border. This simple event had revolutionary consequences. East Berliners pressed forward on the border guards who relented before the human wave--the Berlin Wall was breached. Startled East Berliners and West Berliners hugged each other in what was the former no-mans-land of the border. Young people climbed upon the Wall and danced, and a spontaneous celebrations erupted in the streets. In less than a year, the unimaginable was a reality. Two German states--one democratic and one communist, one based on a market economy and one based on a socialist planned economy, one linked to the Western alliance and one sworn to socialist solidarity with the Soviet Union--were united.

This newest version of the German question asked if the new Eastern part of Germany could make a successful transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic political system? For forty years the German Democratic Republic (GDR) tried to create authoritarian social and political systems in the East. Still, this German revolution took place in a different setting than the Federal Republic's first democratic transition. This is the first time that the Germans themselves have successfully led a revolution for a democratic form of government. In addition, the Federal Republic is the political and economic success story of postwar Europe, and these strengths carry over to the present. Unification meant that 16 million more people were able to live in a free and democratic state.

YouTube photo montage of Germany with national anthem (4:27min)

Although unification has been a difficult process at times, it has largely yielded a positive answer to this third German question. The life conditions of people in the East have improved substantially in economic, social and political terms--even though they still lag behind the West. As the capital of the new Germany, Berlin has again become a vibrant world city. And following the 2005 elections, a former easterner, Angela Merkel, became chancellor of the Federal Republic. She won re-election as head of a new CDU/CSU-FDP government in the 2009 elections and then a CDU/CSU-SPD government in 2013. A great deal has changed in the years since unification.

Modern Germany is a mainstay of modern democratic Europe. As Europe faced the economic challenges of recession and then national debt crises in the last several years, German support for financial aid and German pressure for policy reforms have guided the course of Europe. In 2014 the strong German economy is the most powerful force shaping the prospects for economic recovery in Europe. Its unemployment levels and nation accounts are among the most positive of any European economy. German economic and political leadership has played a central role in Europe's economic challenges related to the 2008 recession and the Euro crisis. Reflecting these trends, Angela Merkel has emerged as both a major European leader and arguably the most powerful woman in the world.

This book maintains that both of the Federal Republic's "transitions to democracy" in 1945 and 1989 were successful, and both have special lessons to teach us about politics and society. At the end of the war, virtually no one could have imagined the social and political transformation that Germany quickly experienced. What was done to reshape the political culture? How did the new political institutions take root? What enabled the Federal Republic to become both the economic miracle and the political miracle of postwar Western Europe? Furthermore, how does the unique history and political processes of the Federal Republic shape its policies today? Perhaps the new German question is not about the nation's problems or past history, but how does it function so effectively and democratically in a challenging international political and economic context.

copyright 2014
Russell J. Dalton
University of California, Irvine

Revised June 26, 2014