Germany may be thought of as the land of bratwurst, beer, Beethoven and BMW, but in reality it's so much more! Germany is the heart of Europe, both geographically and financially. It is located in the center of Europe, and shares borders with Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as the North Sea. Financially, it's Europe's largest economy, and is home to 82 million people.
The official language is German and the capital is Berlin. It covers a large area: 137,847 square miles with a population density of 596 per square mile. It's been a member of the European Union since 1957 and has used the Euro as it's currency since 1999. Geographically it is divided into 16 member states or 'Bundeslaender' which are further subdivided into districts and cities.
To begin to understand Germany today, it's necessary to review Germany's history and how it has combined and rebuilt itself over time. The country's history is thought to go back to the Nordic Bronze Age and the movement of the Germanic tribes. In 962 the German King was crowned Holy Roman Emperor of consolidated regions including the duchies of Saxony, Franconia, Thuringia, Swabia, and Bavaria. The region was impacted under the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) which caused a split into numerous principalities, and later governing influence by the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy and the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1806 the Napoleonic Wars further disrupted the region while the Congress of Vienna created in 1841 a loose grouping of 39 sovereign states (the German Confederation or Deutscher Bund).
The state of Germany was formally created in 1871 with the creation of the imperialistic German Empire which flourished under the leadership of William I and later William II. Germany's entrance into World War I and subsequent defeat later impacted the country through the signatures of the Treaty of Versailles, often described as a pre-cursor to the rise of Nazism. With the Treaty, Germany became a Republic as of 1919, and the Weimar Republic was in place from 1919-1933.
Germany's dark days of history began in 1933 when the Hitler government was able take full legislative power through emergency decree after the fire in the Reichstag. Subsequent militarization and invasion took place during the years of World War II, which finally ended in 1945 after the deaths of nearly 10 million German citizens. The end of the war created a split of Germany into two parts: the West (Federal Republic of Germany) and the East (German Democratic Republic). East Germany remained largely closed off from much of the world in the ensuring years as it remained under the thumb of the USSR with travel outside of the Eastern Bloc states severely restricted.
The re-unification of Germany arrived in 1990 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and normalcy of a 're-combined' Germany was established through the commitment to Berlin as the capital and an easing of two cultures which had been largely independent of each other since the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Germany operates politically under a federal, parliamentary, representative democratic republic and has done so since 1949. This setup ensures that political decisions operate under an elected party scheme with parties in power needing to join together in coalition governments in order to enact legislative changes.
Germany today is a vibrant country which provides a strong voice on European affairs due to its large population and powerful economy. Perhaps due to historical events, Germany has become the second largest aid donor in the world of development and humanitarian aid (trailing only the US). It's known in environmental circles as a leader; the largest wind farm and solar power generation in the world is found in Germany.
Germany continues to grapple with immigration challenges, however. The country has a large number of immigrants (about 12% of the overall population), and it struggles with how to best integrate this group into the fabric of its society. Another controversial point in Germany is the division of students in the educational system into three tiers: Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule at a relatively early age; once set into one of these tracks one's career level is relatively static and unchangeable.
Germany has a superb transportation network of road and rail links, including high speed trains which can travel between 160 and 300 km/hour. The road network (the Autobahn) is known for having sections without speed limits, although these are lessening over time. The standard speed limit on these highways where one exists is normally 130 km/hour.
Major cities in Germany to visit include: Berlin, Hamburg, Duesseldorf, and Munich, however medium and small size cities offer plenty to see and do and hospitality found in the tiny villages is second to none. It is easy to travel to Germany by air due to extensive flight routes, although once in the country train travel can often be a good value for money and an easy way to see much of the country. Germany is a great place to visit on holiday as well it offers plenty of opportunities for study abroad or to do business, both of which are eased if you can master the language in advance.