For better or for worse, Germany has often played a starring role in the history of Europe. Going back to days of antiquity, Germanic tribes are often unfairly portrayed as the "barbarians" who finished off the Roman Empire and cast Europe into the Dark Ages. While this is certainly debatable, what is certain is that these northern "barbarians" majorly shaped medieval Europe. For the most part, they upheld the hierarchical and cultural elements introduced by the Romans. They strengthened the presence of Christianity, and their political and social structures led to the prevalence of the fragmented, feuding kingdoms that now define medieval Europe. (This is why we see so many medieval fortresses and defensive castles throughout Europe; they never stopped fighting!)
Even today while on vacation in Germany, it's still possible to visit intact, walled cities from the medieval era; two of our favorites include Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Quedlinburg (the latter being a UNESCO World Heritage Site). One of the greatest rulers of this era was the Frankish emperor, Charlemagne (buried in the Aachen Cathedral, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). His reign saw the rebirth of culture and scholarship in Western Europe and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. The Middle Ages also saw the formation of strong economic alliances, the best known being the Hanseatic League. The German city of Lubeck was the capital of this medieval league, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lubeck along with Bremen, Stralsund, Wismar and Hamburg remain wonderful cities to include on your itinerary when planning a vacation to Germany.
Traveling south to Bavaria, the Middle Ages saw the rise of powerful dynastic families like the Wittelsbach. Their spectacular palaces and patronage of the arts ultimately created many of Munich's best sightseeing attractions like the Alte Pinakothek, the Schloss Nymphenburg and the Bavarian National Museum. And further down the road, a 19th-century Wittelsbach, Ludwig II (also commonly referred to as "Mad King Ludwig" or "the fairy-tale king") was responsible for the commissioning of Bavaria's famous castles including the splendidly-rococo Linderhof Castle, Herrenchiemsee Castle and Neuschwanstein Castle, whose design later inspired Walt Disney who replicated it when creating his theme parks' iconic castles.
The 15th and 16th centuries carried the territories of Germany into the Renaissance, and a rebirth of classical subjects made manifest with German painters, musicians, humanists, philosophers, scientists and inventors. Perhaps the greatest figure of Germany's Renaissance is Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in 1440. (The German winemaking city of Mainz houses the fantastic Gutenberg Museum; it is well worth a visit). Another event that took place in Renaissance Germany changed the face of Europe: Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. (Many travelers to Germany interested in Martin Luther-related historical attractions also visit the Dom St. Peter in Worms).
The 18th century saw the rise and dominance of the Prussian Empire under the command of Frederick the Great, who was part of the powerful Hohenzollern family dynasty. Although born in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, Frederick the Great preferred to be buried inside of his summer palace: Sanssouci in Potsdam; this beautiful palace and its grounds merit a visit and make for an easy day trip from Berlin.
After Napoleon conquered much of modern-day Europe, formally ended the Holy Roman Empire and eventually received the punishment of permanent exile – in 1871 Germany was unified (largely thanks to the efforts of Prussia's Otto von Bismarck).
Due to extensively-formed political alliances, the assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary) in 1914 signaled the start of the most gruesome warfare the world had ever experienced. Germany unsuccessfully sided with the other Central Powers (Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria) against the Allies: France, the British Empire, Russia, Italy, Japan and the USA.
For Germany, the loss represented a loss of territory, money (in war reparations), power and prestige. All of this led to the rise of fascism in German and culminated with the rise of Hitler's Nazi Party and the start of World War II. During the period of Nazi power, it is estimated that there were at least 1,200 concentrations camps and approximately 5,000,000 died in the camps including Jews, political prisoners, the disabled, and gypsies. Today it is possible to remember the victims by visiting memorial sites like the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site located a half hour northwest of Munich.
Following Germany's surrender at the end of the Second World War, the country was reduced in size and then further divided into four occupied areas and the Cold War commenced. East Germany (including the Eastern half of Berlin) became a communist satellite state under Soviet domination. The Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany established its capital in Bonn and began to rebuild its economy and prosper.
In one of the most memorable events in modern history, the Berlin Wall went down in 1989, signifying the end of the Iron Curtain. One year later, East and West Germany reunified, and after a transitional period of merging the very different economies and mentalities, Germany is now once again an economic and political powerhouse in both Europe and the world. Some of Berlin's most interesting sightseeing attractions today date back to this era including the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall Memorial, and the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.
A few favorite historical sightseeing attractions: the medieval Eltz Castle (on the Moselle River), the magnificent Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, and the 13th-century Cologne Cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site.