• Yoshika Lowe

Christmas in Germany

Updated: Dec 28, 2019


As a military brat, Germany was the country where I spent my early years, completed high school and began college. As such, Germany holds a special place in my heart, with Berlin being my favorite city in the world. Because of my personal affinity for Germany, this will be a two-part post. Today's post will only cover the fascinating history of Berlin. Tomorrow's post will be about how Germans celebrates Christmas, and its profound impact on how most western countries celebrate Christmas today. I hope you will enjoy this two-part series on Germany as much as I've enjoyed writing about it.

A Brief History

Early German History

Before Roman rule, ancient Germanic paganism, a polytheistic religion was practiced in prehistoric Germany. It included a pantheon of deities such as Wodan, Frouwa and Donar. Christianity came to Germany after the 4th century under the control of the Roman Empire during the reign of emperor Constantine I. Pagan Roman temples did exist in Germany before this, but once Christianity began to flourish, Christian structures began to be erected as well. Christianity spread throughout Germany during the reign of Charlemagne. Charlemagne is considered the father of the German monarchy.

When Otto I is crowned King of Germany in 936, the Holy Roman Empire is centered in Germany. In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg invents movable type and the printing press. This invention revolutionized bookmaking and is considered by some as the most important invention in modern times.

Protestant Reformation

Like much of Europe, the areas that make up present-day Germany were entirely Roman Catholic. Any attempts to break away from the Catholic church were suppressed by the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. However, in 1517 that all changed with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began when Martin Luther published his 95 Theses which detailed the 95 reasons which Martin believed demonstrated corruption and misguidance on the part of the Church. The main gist is his objection to the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. He also questioned why the pope, who had immense wealth, raised funds from the poor to build St. Peter’s Basilica rather than use his own. Not only did Luther challenge the abuse of power among Church leadership, but also the very idea of a papacy. Luther also translated the New Testament into German making scripture accessible to the common German-speaking people for the first time.

While the northern German states became Protestant, the south remained Catholic. This dichotomy would eventually lead to conflict between the religious factions and ultimately to The Thirty Years’ War. The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, and gradually came to involve most of Europe. The war ravaged Europe, claiming 8 million lives, with Germany losing 20 percent of its total population.

Famous Germans

From 1700 to 1918 the German kingdom of Prussia was the leading state of the German Empire. During this period many notable German figures graced the world stage. Mozart was born in 1756, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was first performed in 1808 , the Brothers Grimm published their first collection of folk tales in 1812, Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, Otto von Bismarck becomes Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862. Until 1866, modern-day Austria was part of Germany. In 1867 it became the Dual Monarch, Austria-Hungary.

World War 1 and World War 2

When WWI broke out in 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary were on the losing side and lost an estimated 2 million soldiers and 1 million soldiers respectively. After the war, both Austria-Hungary and Germany experienced a revolution (called the November Revolution in Germany) which led to the abolition of the monarchy, followed by an economic collapse. These events created the perfect climate for a young despot named Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

Using the wealthy Jews as scapegoats and touting a doctrine of racial superiority, he created the Nazi party and was able to galvanize his base to believe they could take over the world. Hitler began WWII and conquered most of Europe. In the end, the Allied Powers were able to defeat Germany and their allies also known as the Axis Powers.

Cold War Era

Whereas the Allies eventually granted Austria its independence (in 1955), Germany was not so lucky. After the war, Germany was divided into East and West Germany. The capital of Germany, Berlin was also divided into East and West. East Germany was a communist state under Soviet control, while West Germany was occupied and governed by the Allies as a free market state.

In August 1961, the Berlin Wall, called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart by the GDR (East German government) was erected. Since all of Berlin was located in the middle of East Germany, the wall encircled all of West Berlin, separating it from the surrounding East Germany; it also cut through the middle of the city separating West Berlin from East Berlin.

There is an excellent collection of memoirs of American military dependents stationed in Berlin with their parents from 1946 when the destroyed city was first occupied by US military troops and their families to 1994 when the US military withdrew. The book is called Cold War Memories: A Retrospective on Living in Berlin and includes first-hand accounts and memorabilia of more than 150 former American teens and their high school teachers. These stories span four decades of history, with eyewitness accounts of: the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall being built, Germans fleeing the East to the West, and personal encounters with JFK, George Bush Sr and Ronald Reagan. The book culminates with accounts of the fall of the Wall, the reunification of Germany (1990) and Berlin being reinstated as the capital of the newly unified country (1991).

21st Century

In 2002 the Euro replaced the Deutsche Mark in Germany and the Schilling in Austria. In 2005 Angela Merkel was elected as the first woman Chancellor of Germany. And in June of 2019, Brigitte Bierlein became the first woman Chancellor of Austria. Germany has become a world leader with a strong economy. Germany is leading the twenty-first century energy revolution, and seeks to become the world’s leading user of wind and solar power by 2050. This type of forward thinking that has enabled this Germany to emerge as Europe’s most industrialized country, the continent’s economic giant, co-leader of the European Union, and influential NATO member.

The interior of the Reichstag building in Berlin [photo credit: Christian Lowe]

Germany boasts Europe’s largest economy - the fifth largest in the world. This success is built on export industries, fiscal discipline, a highly skilled workforce, and a history of consensus-driven economic policies. In the area of education, Germany has produced 108 Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Max Planck and Albert Schweitzer. Humboldt University in Berlin has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners, and boasts employing a number of them as professors including Albert Einstein.

When Europe recently faced its largest refugee crisis in years, Germany opened its borders to roughly one million asylum-seekers, quickly becoming a primary European destination. Germany (as well as Austria) has a very strong stance against Antisemitism and Holocaust deniers.

Clockwise: Brandenburg Gate; Berlin Mitte viewed from Reichstag at night; the Tiergarten and French Cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt

As a nation, Germans have worked hard to shake off the negative image created by their roles in the Holocaust and two world wars. One of the ways this is reflected in society is the German aversion to overt symbols of nationalism such as concerns the German flag. This is why Germans do not place flags on their homes or display them in their businesses as is done in the US. Many believe that nationalism is not practical anyway, because no one has control over where they are born.

Tomorrow: Christmas in Germany Today

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