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Germany: History, government, and culture

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Historical Overview:

Germanic and Celtic tribes, hailing originally from Russia, were living in the region now known as Germany by 1000 BC. These tribes were continually at war with the Romans. In AD 400, a group called the Franks defeated the Romans.

In AD 800, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne made a move to revive the Roman Empire. He consolidated vast lands including northern Italy and the majority of France under his rule. After his time, however, Germany was divided into many states that then elected an emperor.

Medieval Germany was ruled by a succession of hereditary dynasties. The first was the Saxons in 963, under the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great.

From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, German history was dominated by conflicts between the popes and emperors regarding the Investiture Controversy, wherein the authority of monarchies to appoint church officials was challenged.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, instigated the Reformation movement. He called for changes and demanded reforms from the Roman Catholic Church. The religious strife he gave impetus to led to a division of Germany into Roman Catholic (southern) and Protestant (northern) states that didn’t end until 1648.

In the nineteenth century, Germany and other areas of Europe came under Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule after he defeated the Holy Roman Empire. After Napoleon himself was defeated, the Congress of Vienna convened in 1814 and founded a Germany Confederation composed of 35 autonomous states. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Prussia, instigated the reunification of Germany under Prussian leadership.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, German leaders fostered industrialization and tried to expand their influence in Europe and in other countries. This helped trigger World War I in 1914. The German Empire was defeated and subsequently replaced by the Weimar Republic in 1918. The harsh outcome of the war left the country in crisis, both economic and political.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he set out to correct the crisis by remilitarizing Germany along with the infamous campaign to create a master race. When German forces invaded Poland in 1939, a second world war was set in motion.

In 1945, Germany was again defeated in World War II. It was divided by the victors into zones of influence that became what we commonly refer to as East Germany (German Democratic Republic) and West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany). Berlin, the capital, was also divided in the process.

East Germany adopted communism and was closely linked with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, West Germany adopted a parliamentary democracy and built strong ties with Western Europe and the United States. Within a mere two decades of the defeat in World War II, West Germany had become one of the world’s richest countries with a prosperity that trickled down to the entire population. East Germany, on the other hand, had fallen far behind economically. Dissatisfaction with the communist system led millions of East Germans to flee to West Germany from 1946 to 1961. Because of this, East Germany built the Berlin Wall to block the major escape path.

In the eighties a chain of events including massive political protests and emigration to West Germany set the stage for German reunification. In November 1989, the government of East Germany abolished travel restrictions. In addition, non-Communist political parties were allowed to organize. In March 1990, parliamentary elections were held in East Germany that paved the way for non-Communists to gain control of the government.

With the end of Communist rule in East Germany, both sides started to consider reunification. In July 1990, the economies of the two nations were merged into a single system. A month after, East Germany and West Germany signed a treaty finalizing unification. This treaty took effect on October 3, 1990. Berlin was named the capital of Germany once again.

Germany’s Government:

Unified Germany is a federal parliamentary republic governed by the constitution of 1949.

The federal president is considered the head of state but has little influence on the government. He or she is elected for a term of five years by the Bundesversammlung (federal convention) that meets for this sole purpose. This convention is made up of the Bundestag (Federal Diet) and the same number of delegates from the state parliaments.

The chancellor is considered the head of the government. He or she is elected for a four-year term by a majority of the Bundestag.

There is a Parliament that is composed of two houses. The Bundesrat (Federal Council or upper house) has 69 seats. Each state is represented by three to six members, depending on its population. The Bundestag (lower house) is made up of 614 deputies with a term of four years elected via a mixed system of direct voting and proportional representation.

Germany has 16 states, each of which has its own legislature, constitution, and government. The government of each state is allowed to enact laws on all matters except finance, foreign affairs, and defense. These three areas are the sole province of the federal government.

German Culture:

Greetings: Even though German culture is evolving due to the more relaxed recent generations, greetings are still fairly formal. The traditional greeting is a quick and firm handshake. Upon entering a room, Germans usually shake hands with everyone, including children. If there are unfamiliar faces in the group, they usually wait for the host to introduce them to everybody. When it comes to introductions, Germans place a huge importance on titles. The title and the last name are initially used unless the person is invited to use the first name.

Communication: When it comes to business dealings, Germans don’t require a personal relationship. What they will be interested in are the number of years that your company has been in operation and your academic credentials. Also, they show great respect for people in authority, so it is important that they know your level vis-a-vis their own.

German communication is relatively formal. It is crucial that you adhere to the accepted protocol to build and maintain business relationships. In meetings, do not be too expressive as Germans are suspicious of exaggerated talk and promises that seem too good to be true. It is better to go straight to the point as they are accustomed to doing. Giving compliments is also not included in German business protocol and may cause awkwardness and embarrassment. In business transactions, expect a lot of written communication that will serve as a record of discussions and decisions that were made.

Saying No: Germans usually don’t have a problem with turning down an invitation or a request. They will most likely say no, not because they’re insensitive or because they mean to be discourteous, but because it’s simply a statement of fact. You may or may not feel uncomfortable, but be ready to apologize for errors and provide explanations or solutions.

On the other hand, Germans are very sensitive to criticism. They have an individualistic culture, so they are more concerned with their public “face.” As such, avoid doing anything that will embarrass them in public.

Eye Contact: Maintain direct eye contact during conversations and especially during introductions while you’re being addressed by the person. Even in public, eye contact can be direct and not smiling all the time. However, don’t assume that stares are meant to be threatening. Do not expect that direct eye contact will necessitate a greeting from Germans. They also won’t expect anything from you.

Gift Giving: If you are invited to come to a German’s house, bringing a gift such as flowers or chocolates is deemed respectful. Tea or yellow roses are always welcome. On the other hand, red roses are seen as an expression of romantic intentions. Do not offer carnations since these represent mourning. Also, do not offer lilies and chrysanthemums because they’re used in funerals. Should you decide to bring wine, bring one that is imported such as French or Italian. Bringing German wines is seen as indicating that you believe that your host won’t serve a good-quality wine. Once received, gifts are usually opened right away.

When meeting with a person for the first time, opt for a small gift. Large gifts are unusual and should definitely not be given before a deal has been made so that your intentions won’t be misconstrued. Substantial gifts shouldn’t be given in private. The general rule is that the bigger the gift, the more public and official the giving should be.

Dining: If you’ve been invited for dinner, do not arrive too early. Arrive on time instead as punctuality is an indication of good planning. Also, never arrive more than 15 minutes after the set time without contacting the host beforehand to explain why. If attending a business dinner, remember not to use first names when talking to people. Business is still business even when eating. Send the host a handwritten thank-you note the following day to express your gratitude.

Published - September 2011

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