Germany has always been the problem child of Europe. For over a millennium it was no more than a loose confederation of separate states and territories, whose number at times topped the thousand mark. When unification belatedly came about in 1871, it was achieved almost exclusively by military might; as a direct result of this, the new nation was consumed by a thirst for power and expansion abroad. Defeat in World War I only led to a desire for revenge, the consequence of which was the Third Reich, a regime bent on mass genocide and on European, indeed world, domination. It took another tragic global war to crush this system and its people. When the victors quarrelled over how to prevent Germany ever again becoming dominant, they divided it into two hostile states; the parts held by the Western powers were developed into the Federal Republic of Germany, while the eastern zone occupied by the Soviets became the German Democratic Republic.
The contest between the two was an unequal one - the GDR, never able to break free from being a client state of the Soviet Union and forced to adopt a Communist system at odds with the national character, had fallen so far behind its rival in living standards that in 1961 the authorities constructed the notorious electrified barbed-wire frontier, with the Berlin Wall as its lynchpin, to halt emigration - the first time in the history of the world that a fortification system had been erected by a regime against its own people. Thereafter, the society settled down, but the GDR was a grey, cheerless place whose much trumpeted economic success was a mirage, and bought at the price of terrible pollution problems.
On the other hand, the Federal Republic - which was seen as the natural successor to the old Reich, if only on account of its size - had not only picked itself up by the bootstraps, but developed into what many outsiders regarded as a model modern society. A nation with little in the way of a liberal tradition, and even less of a democratic one, quickly developed a degree of political maturity that put other countries to shame. In atonement for past sins, the new state committed itself to providing a haven for foreign refugees and dissidents. It also became a multiracial and multicultural society - even if the reason for this was less one of penance than the self-interested need to acquire extra cheap labour to fuel the economic boom. A delicate balance was struck between the old and the new. Historic town centres were immaculately restored, while the corporate skyscrapers and well-stocked department stores represented a commitment to a modern consumer society. Vast sums of money were lavished on preserving the best of the country's cultural legacy, yet equally generous budgets were allocated to encouraging all kinds of contemporary expression in the arts.
Officially, the Federal Republic was always a "provisional" state, biding its time before national reunification occurred. Yet there was a realization that nobody outside Germany was really much in favour of this. "I love Germany so much I'm glad there are two of them", scoffed the French novelist François Mauriac, articulating the unspoken gut reactions of the powers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. German division may have been cruel, but at least it had provided a lasting solution to the German "problem". Such thinking was rendered obsolete by the unstoppable momentum of events in the wake of the Wende, the peaceful revolution that toppled the Communist regime in the GDR in 1989, leading to the full union of the two Germanys less than a year later. Yet initial euphoria has been quickly replaced by concern about the myriad problems facing the new nation as it attempts to integrate the bankrupt social and economic system of the GDR into the successful framework of the Federal Republic. While Germany may officially be one again, it will certainly continue to look and feel like two separate countries until the end of the century - and probably well beyond. Moreover, international pressure has ensured that, far from being a re-creation of the old Reich, it can be no more than the nineteenth-century concept of a Kleines Deutschland ("little Germany"), excluding not only Austria but also the "lost" Eastern Territories, which are now part of Poland, the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation.
In total contrast to Germany's intrinsic fascination as the country which has played such a determining role in the history of the twentieth century is its otherwise predominantly romantic image. This is the land of fairy-tale castles, of thick dark forests, of the legends collected by the Brothers Grimm, of perfectly preserved timber-framed medieval towns, and of jovial locals swilling from huge foaming mugs of beer. As always, there is some truth in these stereotypes, though most of them stem from the southern part of the country, particularly Bavaria, which, as a predominantly rural and Catholic area, stands apart from the urbanized Protestant north which engineered the unity of the nation last century and thereafter dominated its affairs.
Regional characteristics, indeed, are a strong feature of German life, and there are many hangovers from the days when the country was a political patchwork, even though some historical provinces have vanished from the map and others have merged. More detail on each of the current Länder, as the constituent states are now known, can be found in the chapter introductions. Hamburg and Bremen, for example, retain their age-old status as free cities. The imperial capital, Berlin, also stands apart, as an island in the midst of the erstwhile GDR where the liberalism of the West was pushed to its extreme, sometimes decadent, always exciting. In polar opposition to it, and as a corrective to the normal view of the Germans as an essentially serious race, is the Rhineland, where the great river's majestic sweep has spawned a particularly rich fund of legends and folklore, and where the locals are imbued with a Mediterranean-type sense of fun. The five new Länder which have supplanted the GDR, and in particular the small towns and rural areas, are in many ways the ones which best encapsulate the feel and appearance of Germany as it was before the war and the onset of foreign influences which were an inevitable consequence of defeat.