Germany Today Essay
Germany, after Russia, is the country with the largest population in Europe, even though France and Spain are larger in terms of territory. Germany has borders with nine countries, including the Czech Republic and Poland in the East. It occupies a strategically important geopolitical position in the very heart of Europe; as such, the new, united Germany is ideally situated to influence policy decisions and play a vital role on the ever-changing European stage, as well as to act as an essential link between East and West in both a European and a global context. In the autumn of 1990, the new Germany, retaining the name FRG, was born. It consists of sixteen federal states or Länder: the ten so-called ‘old’ western states, the five ‘new’ eastern states, plus the new capital, a reunited Berlin. Berlin is both a city and, with its surrounding area, a federal state known in German as a Stadtstaat, a city-state.
The new Germany ought to have been in an ideal position to understand the problems of both Western democracies and the countries of a changing Eastern Europe, following the breakdown of a number of socialist/communist systems. However, in the heady and euphoric days following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the East Berlin and East German borders, German politicians seemed to be obsessed with the political and economic problems, as they saw them, ignoring almost completely the social, cultural and psychological ones which have since reared their heads in no uncertain terms. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that the truly astonishing events of 1989/90, which even at the beginning of 1989 could not have been predicted, brought about the most exciting and far-reaching changes in life and society in Germany since 1945. This work sets out to highlight and explain several key aspects of political, economic, social and cultural life in contemporary Germany. It also provides a brief survey of some of the recent developments in the business sphere and introduces some of the recent debates.
The majority of Germany’s population live in small towns and villages, with around one-third living in one of the eighty-four cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, defined in German as Gro?städte. Berlin (3.5 million), Hamburg (1.7 million) and Munich (1.3 million) are the largest cities, followed by Cologne, Frankfurt, Essen, Dortmund, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf and Bremen (Parkes 1997). Leipzig and Dresden, in the east, come just behind Nuremberg, with just under half a million inhabitants each. Although it is not the norm, it is still possible today to find Germans living in rural communities who speak only dialect, hardly using High German (Hochdeutsch) at all and who feel far more attached to their particular local region than to Germany as a whole.
Until recently, when an influx of refugees came from Eastern Europe, Germany had one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Amongst a population of approximately 82 million, there are now around 7 million foreigners (Land and People 2006). The Turks are by far the largest group, with nearly 2 million, followed, in order of size, by those from the former Yugoslavia (this was always a large group, now swelled by the many war refugees), Italians, Greeks, Poles, Austrians, Romanians, Spaniards, Iranians, Portuguese, Americans, Dutch and many more. It is worth remembering two facts about Germany’s foreign population. Nearly half of them have been living in Germany for at least ten years, and more than two-thirds of the children born to foreign parents were born in Germany, although being born in Germany does not give them German nationality.
For years the FRG was described as an economic giant but a political dwarf; the picture is very different today. Germany is nowadays a key player in the political arena. Contemporary Germany is very much a Parteiendemokratie, that is, the power and role of the different political parties are quite central to the functioning of the system. The parties are, in fact, explicitly covered by the country’s Basic Law. In East Germany, the SED ruled supreme, although a variety of smaller parties, without any significant power, joined it in a kind of “national front” coalition. These were the so-called bloc parties (or what the Germans tend to nickname Blockflöten), and these GDR parties either merged with their western German counterparts or vanished altogether as the GDR crumbled. Despite the dominance of Wessis in each party’s national organization, however, distinct eastern versus western perspectives, identities, and allegiances can be found in the CDU, SPD, FDP (Quickfacts: Government 2006). The SED generated its own successor party, the PDS, and is an almost entirely eastern phenomenon, seeking to carve out a niche for itself in Germany’s political landscape as the party of Ossi identity and protest.
The German media landscape has undergone a dramatic expansion process over the last decade or so. There has been a broadcasting revolution, accompanied by fresh challenges concerning the freedom and regulation of broadcasting. What distinguishes the Federal Republic’s cultural landscape from that of many other Western countries is, above all, the visibility of cultural activity all over the country. If New York is often regarded as the cultural capital of the United States, or London as that of Great Britain, there is no one single city to claim this title in Germany. Alongside Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and other major cities, smaller towns and even rural areas often boast their own distinctive cultural scene and offer cultural attractions to locals and visitors alike.
Federalism is a vital thread running through several facets of life in contemporary Germany. It affects people’s daily lives in various ways. The German education and political systems, to give just two examples, are influenced by the federal structure. The FRG’s system of state funding and patronage has often been praised as beneficial for artistic development and for making culture more accessible to the public. Doubtlessly, it has contributed to the existence of a lively and prolific cultural scene-one which is both open to international, particularly Anglo-American, influences and committed to fostering its own distinctive expressions of traditional and contemporary culture.
Germany’s external borders have changed frequently, and there are very strong regional ties amongst its people. Even today some Germans feel they are first and foremost from a particular region or locality, be it Hesse, the Rhineland, Brandenburg or wherever. It would therefore be dangerous to try to describe in too much detail ‘the German people’. There are fifteen federal states, not to mention the districts within those states. The local traditions, customs and regional idiosyncrasies in areas of Germany, such as Hamburg, the Palatinate, Friesland, Saxony or Swabia, are just as colorful and fascinating, and the local dialects are certainly just as hard for the outsider to understand.
In recent years, Germany, along with many other countries, has faced social and technological developments that have caused great changes in the domestic economy, which in turn has experienced changes that have caused considerable social disruption. In addition, technological advances and international trade agreements have led to a rapid growth of international trade, which has increased competition in many sectors of the economy. This competition has been intensified by the emergence of developing countries in Asia and Latin America, joined recently by east European countries. In an effort to reduce barriers to investment and trade and to promote efficiency, the European Union has adopted measures intended to open state-owned and -operated monopolies to international competition.
The economic changes have created increasing challenges for Germany’s manufacturing sector. On the one hand, German manufacturers of high-quality products face more competition as companies in other countries are increasingly able to match the quality and performance of even the best German products. On the other hand, relative costs of manufacture have risen in Germany over the past decade because of both increases in direct and indirect costs in Germany and the strength of the German mark. As a result, German exports face increasing price competition in foreign markets. More troubling, the balance of investment flows has turned sharply negative as foreign investors and German companies alike choose to locate new facilities outside Germany.
Within each industry, German business is characterized by a balance of competition and co-operation. Firms compete in product markets but cooperate in the acquisition of inputs and in product and process innovation, particularly firms belonging to the crucial tier of medium sized, privately held engineering companies that account for a substantial share of German exports. Sectoral business associations, nationally tied together under the umbrella of the BDI (German Federation of Industry), provide for the sharing of valuable information among firms, facilitate co-operation and complementarity, and promote joint innovation and international trade strategies.
The role of the state and of public authority within Germany is one of regulation, facilitation and delegation by public agencies, rather than of direction. The sector of state-owned or subsidized companies is small and public anti-trust agencies keep a watchful eye on inter-firm competition. However, some regulations, such as the law on retail shop opening hours, limit the extent of competition, for example between small and large firms. Furthermore, there have been major exemptions from the principle of competition in the German economy. One important example is the banking sector, where the majority of business accrues to non-profit municipal and state-owned or co-operative savings institutions and banks (Kitschelt & Streeck 2003). When borrowing funds, these public establishments have a competitive advantage vis-à-vis their private sector rivals because lenders see them as lesser credit risks. Other examples of restraints on competition include the health care sector, trucking and shipping, insurance and, of course, agriculture.
As to state facilitation, business development is promoted primarily through an infrastructure of public and semi-public research agencies, institutions of higher education, regional development agencies, as well as subsidized credit facilities for domestic business investments and international trade. Delegation of decision-making to the corporate sector takes place, for example, with respect to the specification and enforcement of industrial standards. Most importantly, according to the principle of autonomous wage bargaining, business and labor negotiate wages without direct state intervention.
In the course of the twentieth century, visible economic success gained relative importance in determining Germany’s social standing. Economic factors became more and more important – though within limits, as mentioned above – in determining social relations and even cultural phenomena. The federal system operating in Germany today means that power is not all concentrated in one capital, as happens in London or Paris, the German regions and Land capitals have taken on considerable importance. This again strengthens the role of the federal states in the German way of life, since the Land has autonomy in four key areas: education, broadcasting/culture, health and police. This, in turn, means that many Germans feel a strong attachment to their particular Land, especially if they live in a rural setting, where regional differences tend to be more pronounced than in big cities.
Within this general commitment to culture, the federal state is, primarily, in charge of Germany’s cultural representation abroad. Today Germany occupies a central position in Europe, and has common frontiers with nine European states. Whenever Germany has been united it has wielded enormous power owing to its large population, economic might and military strength, factors which combine to give Germany’s political leaders great influence, and which have in the past seemed to threaten its smaller neighbors and to challenge other leading European powers. The new Germany’s changing European and global role, and the importance of its foreign policy initiatives are crucial to current and future developments. There can be little doubt that reunited Germany – with its powerful industrial and financial sectors, large well-trained population, and situated in the heart of the continent – will occupy a pivotal position not only in the European Union, but also in Eastern Europe.
Kitschelt, H. and Streeck, W. “From stability of stagnation: Germany at the beginning of the twenty-first century”. West European Politics. Vol. 26, 4 October 2003,
“Land and People”. Questions & Answers about Germany. www.germany info.org/relaunch/info/facts/facts/questions_en/landandpeople/population.html
Parkes, S. Understanding Contemporary Germany, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Quickfacts: Government. 2006. http://www.germany-info.org/relaunch/info/facts/government.html