A woman places a rose at the Berlin Wall memorial in Bernauer Strasse after a ceremony marking the 26th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Germany November 9, 2015.
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

German politics over the last century have been shaped by the outcomes of two hot wars and one cold one. Germany began the twentieth century as a world leader in economic development, scientific achievement, and cultural creativity. Then came the destruction of World War I, economic collapse, and a harsh peace settlement. Defeat led to the chaos of the German Revolution, in which a coalition of center and center-left parties held off challenges by the reactionary right and far left, wrote a constitution, and initiated Germany's first democratic regime. The experiment with democracy did not take, and after little more than a decade the Weimar Republic was replaced by the Nazi dictatorship. After an even more devastating defeat in World War II, Germany was divided into zones of occupation that became two distinct German states in 1949: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (DDR). With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, pressure for reunification grew and the DDR was absorbed into the FRG as five new states under the existing institutional framework. The turbulence of German politics in the past both contrasts with and informs the calm of German politics in the present.

The Weimar Republic. By Detlev J.K. Peukert. Hill & Wang, 1992.
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Detlev Peukert's account places the Weimar Republic in the context of the emergence of modernity in Europe and sees the rise of Nazism as a product of Germany's radical break with its traditional past. Given the material constraints faced by the republic, Peukert argues, the attempt to modernize all spheres of German society simultaneously led to political, economic, and psychological crisis. He sees the Republic's collapse as unsurprising but not inevitable, arguing that modernization held the potential for the emergence of both democracy and dictatorship.

What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History. By Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband. Basic Books, 2005.
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Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. By Götz Aly.  Metropolitan Books, 2007.
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Nazi Germany has attracted as much attention as any subject in history or the social sciences. In recent years, a wave of innovative scholarship has emerged on the subject of everyday life in Hitler's Germany, leading to a reconsideration of the relationship between the Nazi state and the German people. What We Knew and Hitler's Beneficiaries are representative of this new line of research, with both digging deeply into such micro-level source materials as police records, diaries, and personal letters. The picture they paint is not pretty. Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband reveal a German society more supportive of the Nazi regime and more aware of the horrors going on than most postwar Germans were willing to admit. Götz Aly looks at grass-roots support for genocide and finds it greater than hitherto acknowledged, largely because of the benefits derived from the looting of its victims.

The Origin of the West German Republic. By Peter H. Merkl. Oxford University Press, 1963.
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After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995. By Konrad H. Jarausch. Oxford University Press, 2006.
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The Federal Republic was Germany's first successful democracy. Its success rested on two pillars, institutional and cultural. First, after World War II, the West Germans, aligned with the West, established political structures that avoided many of the pitfalls of the Weimar constitution. How order was created out of chaos in occupied Germany is comprehensively documented in Peter Merkl's unmatched account of the period. Second, German political culture was transformed. This is the subject of Konrad Jarausch's compelling overview of the development of a democratic political culture in the Federal Republic. During the occupation and the years immediately following, democracy was imposed on a defeated and passive population, but later the citizens of the Federal Republic fully embraced democracy as their own. In the rebellious 1960s, younger Germans questioned the rationalizations for obedience proffered by their parents and grandparents. The 1980s saw the Historikerstreit (historian's quarrel), a public debate among German intellectuals on the nature of the Holocaust and its meaning for Germany. In response to an attempt by right-wing historians to diminish the significance of the Holocaust, opinion leaders and citizens came to embrace the difficult truth about the past and acknowledged that it created a special ethic of responsibility. This period formed the Germany that we know today, with its strong commitment to human rights, a European identity, and an aversion to the use of military force. The period since 1989, in turn, has been marked by problems associated with reintegrating the two German states and sporadic violence directed at non-German immigrants.

Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany. By Charles S. Maier. Princeton University Press, 1997.
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The unification of Germany marked the end of the Cold War both substantively and symbolically. It also brought to a close the 40-year history of the German Democratic Republic. The dramatic end of the DDR saw the flight of East Germans across the newly opened Hungarian border with Austria, the occupation of the West German embassy in the Czech Republic by East Germans who did not want to return home, massive spontaneous and repeated demonstrations in several East German cities, and eventually the breeching of the Berlin Wall.  Of the many accounts of the unification, Charles Maier's stands out as one of the best. It not only clearly details the events noted above but also addresses the flaws that rendered the DDR vulnerable and discusses how unification was negotiated both domestically and internationally.

In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent. By Timothy Garton Ash. Random House, 1993.
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In 1945, Germany was defeated, destroyed, tainted, and soon to be divided. Today, it lies at the center of a unified Europe, more prosperous and peaceful than it has ever been. The transformation of Germany in the second half of the twentieth century is a remarkable story, and Timothy Garton Ash, who stresses how the politics of a divided Germany led to a unified Europe, does a superb job of telling it. A particular strength of Ash's book is the integration of the national and international dimensions of this story. He details how the limitations placed on German sovereignty by Cold War politics led German politicians to approach issues of security in innovative ways. Ultimately, he argues, it was the inability of the Federal Republic to rely on military power that led to the embrace of Europe and the cultivation of a special relationship with the DDR through engagement -- and it was the success of these unconventional policies that explains a large part of Germany's remarkable reversal of fortune since 1945.

Protest Politics in Germany: Movements on the Left and Right Since the 1960s. By Roger Karapin. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
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The most important change in German politics since the immediate postwar era is the degree to which Germans have become disobedient, outspoken, and activist. Roger Karapin's book shows how opportunities opened up by sustained democratic politics led to a citizenry prepared to take to the street, organize, and disagree with the authorities. The locus of German politics has shifted from its leaders to its subjects, and Karapin traces this development through the emergence of alternative political forces such as the Greens, citizen activism in the DDR, and even xenophobic violence against foreigners, showing how citizen activism has become a major force driving the actions of the German state.

  • MICHAEL BERNHARD holds the Raymond and Miriam Ehrlich Eminent Scholar Chair in Political Science at the University of Florida.
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