About the size of Montana but home to Western Europe's largest population, Germany is in many ways a land of contradictions. The land of "Dichter und Denker" ("poets and thinkers") is also one of the world's leading export countries, specializing in mechanical equipment, vehicles, chemicals, and household goods. It's a country that is both deeply conservative, valuing tradition, hard work, precision, and fiscal responsibility, and one of the world's most liberal countries, with a generous social welfare state, a strongly held commitment to environmentalism, and a postwar determination to combat xenophobia. But Germany, which reunited 22 years ago after 45 years of division, is also a country in transition. As the horrors of World War II, though not forgotten, recede, the country that is Europe's most important economic powerhouse has once again taken a leading economic and political role in Europe, setting, for example, the EU's austerity-oriented policies in an attempt to counteract Europe's current economic downturn.
During the "Wirtschaftswunder," the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany invited "guest workers" from Italy, Greece, and above all Turkey to help in the rebuilding of the country. Because the Germans assumed these guest workers would return home, they provided little in the way of cultural integration policies. But the guest workers, usually manual workers from the countryside with little formal education, often did not return to the economically depressed regions they had come from. Instead, they brought wives and family members to join them and settled in Germany, often forming parallel societies cut off from mainstream German life. Today, Germany's largest immigrant group is Turkish. In fact, Berlin is the largest Turkish city after Istanbul. Though these Turkish communities are now an indelible part of the German society—one blond-hair, blue-eyed German soldier deployed to Afghanistan famously said that the thing he missed most about home was the döner kebab, the ubiquitous Turkish-German fast-food dish—thus far, the country has fumbled somewhat when it comes to successful integration. Efforts, however, are currently underway to redress the situation. Unlike the United States, Germany is historically a land of emigrants, not immigrants, but Germany’s demographics are undergoing a radical shift: one in three children in Germany today is foreign-born or has a parent who is a foreign-born; in bigger cities, as many as two-thirds of school-age children don’t speak German at home.
Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy, was the world's largest exporter until 2009, when China overtook it. The worldwide recession hit Germany squarely, though thanks to a strong social network, the unemployed and underemployed did not suffer on the level we are used to in the United States. In Germany, losing your job does not mean you lose your health insurance, and the unemployed receive financial help from the state to meet housing payments and other basic expenses. More recently, Germany has been a bastion of economic strength during the euro zone crisis, maintaining a solid economy while countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have entered into economic tailspins. By far the most important economy in the European Union, Germany, with its traditional, don't-spend-more-than-you-earn culture, has a strong voice in setting the EU's economic agenda and has traditionally acted as a kind of rich uncle that other countries turn to when they need an economic bailout. But Germany’s push for austerity measures hasn’t always been met with enthusiasm: on an official visit to Greece, Angela Merkel was met by protesters dressed in Nazi uniforms.
Germany has a well-deserved reputation as a land of engineers. The global leader in numerous high-tech fields, German companies are hugely successful on the world's export markets, thanks to lots of innovation, sophisticated technology and quality manufacturing. German cars, machinery, and electrical and electronic equipment are all big sellers. But recent years have seen series of bloopers. Three major building projects in Germany—the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg; Stuttgart 21, a new train station in Stuttgart; and the new airport in Berlin—have run way over budget and dragged on for years. Of the three, the airport is the most egregious: Originally planned to open in 2010, Berlin Brandenburg Airport has suffered delays due to poor construction planning, management, and execution (in 2012, the airport canceled its grand opening only days before flights were scheduled to begin). No one knows when it will open, and numerous politicians have expressed concern that failures like these will tarnish Germany’s reputation as a country of can-do engineers.
The Germans are not big fans of Facebook. With good reason: With recent experiences of life in a police state under both the Nazi regime and the East German regime, they don't like the idea of anyone collecting personal information about them. Germany has some of the most extensive data privacy laws in the world, with everything from credit card numbers to medical histories strictly protected.
To the Left, to the Left
By American standards, German politics are distinctly left-leaning. One thing that's important to know is that the Germans don't have a two-party system; rather they have several important parties, and these must form alliances after elections to pass initiatives. Thus, there's an emphasis on cooperation and deal-making, sometimes (but not always) making for odd bedfellows. A "Red-Green" (or "stoplight") coalition between the Green Party and the socialist SPD held power from 1998 to 2002; since then, there has been a steady move to the center-right in Germany, with recent reforms curtailing some social welfare benefits and ecological reforms. In 2005, Germany elected the first female chancellor, center-right Christian Democratic party member Angela Merkel. A politician from the former East Germany who speaks Russian, Merkel has enjoyed much popularity.
Renew, Recycle, Reuse
The Green Party, founded in 1980, is an established and important player in the German government. Thanks to aggressive government legislation initiated by the Greens in the past decades, Germany today is a leader in green energy technology and use—in 2012, 25% of the electricity used in Germany came from renewable sources.
GREAT AMERICAN VACATION
Take our short photo quiz to reveal your ideal trip in the U.S.More
View deals in Germany for vacation packages, hotels, airfare, and more from our partners!More