Historical Background

Germany Table of Contents

Since the first unification of Germany in 1871 to form the German Empire, the population and territorial expanse of Germany have fluctuated considerably, chiefly as a result of gains and losses in war. At the time of its founding, the empire was home to some 41 million people, most of whom lived in villages or small towns. As industrialization and urbanization accelerated over the next forty years, the population increased significantly to 64.6 million, according to the 1910 census. About two-thirds of this population lived in towns with more than 2,000 inhabitants, and the number of large cities had grown from eight in 1871 to eighty-four in 1910. Stimulating population growth were improvements in sanitary and working conditions and in medicine. Another significant source of growth was an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, who came to Germany to work on farms and in mines and factories. This wave of immigrants, the first of several groups that would swell Germany's population in the succeeding decades, helped compensate for the millions of Germans who left their country in search of a better life, many of whom went to the United States.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the population of Germany had reached about 68 million. A major demographic catastrophe, the war claimed 2.8 million lives and caused a steep decline in the birth rate. In addition, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles awarded territories containing approximately 7 million German inhabitants to the victors and to newly independent or reconstituted countries in Eastern Europe.

In the 1930s, during the regime of Adolf Hitler, a period of expansion added both territory and population to the Third Reich. Following the annexation of Austria in 1938 and the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) in 1939, German territory and population encompassed 586,126 square kilometers and 79.7 million people, according to the 1939 census. The census found that women still outnumbered men (40.4 million to 38.7 million), despite a leveling trend in the interwar period.

The carnage of World War II surpassed that of World War I. German war losses alone were estimated at 7 million, about half of whom died in battle. Ruined, defeated, and divided into zones of occupation, a much smaller Germany emerged in 1945 with a population about the same as in 1910. In the immediate postwar period, however, more than 12 million persons--expelled Germans and displaced persons--immigrated to Germany or used the country as a transit point en route to other destinations, adding to the population.

By 1950 the newly established Federal Republic of Germany had a population of about 50 million, more than 9 million of whom were "expellees." The German Democratic Republic had about 4 million newcomers and 14 million natives. Most of the expellees came from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, and the Sudetenland, all one-time German territories held by other countries at the end of World War II. The majority of the settlers in West Germany remained, found work in the rapidly recovering economy, and in time were successfully integrated into the society. Between 1950 and 1989, West Germany's population grew from 50 million to 62.1 million. Resettled Germans and refugees from former eastern territories and their families constituted approximately 20 percent of the country's population. From its earliest years, West Germany had become either a temporary or a final destination for millions of migrants. Yet despite this influx, the country did not develop an identity as a country of immigration as did, for example, the United States or Canada.

The situation in East Germany was much different. From its founding in 1949, the GDR struggled to stabilize its population and thwart emigration. In the course of its forty-year history, almost one-quarter of East Germany's population fled the state to settle in West Germany. In the 1950s alone, more than 2 million people moved west, a migration that triggered the regime's radical solution in August 1961--the construction of the Berlin Wall. During most of its existence, the only segment of East Germany's population permitted to leave for West Germany were retirees, whose resettlement there was unofficially encouraged to reduce the GDR's pension payments. As a result, the number of persons sixty years of age and older in the GDR fell from 22.1 percent in 1970 to 18.3 percent in 1985 and made the East German population younger than that of West Germany.

Deprived of a regular supply of workers by the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Federal Republic in the 1960s absorbed yet another wave of migrants. Laborers were recruited through agreements with seven countries: Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Tunisia, and Morocco. Between 1955 and 1973, the number of foreign workers, called guest workers (Gastarbeiter ) to emphasize the intended temporary nature of their contracts, grew from about 100,000 to about 2.5 million. Originally brought in for three-year shifts, most workers--mainly single men--remained and made a valuable contribution to the booming West German economy. In the early 1970s, however, a recession brought on by the international energy crisis slowed the West German economy; the importing of workers officially came to an end in 1973.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the fourth and most controversial wave of immigrants to West Germany were asylum-seekers and political refugees--ethnic Germans from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and territories belonging to the former Soviet Union and also East Germans who moved west as the GDR collapsed. Many Germans were angered by the financial and social costs these immigrants required because they believed many asylum-seekers were drawn to Germany more by the desire for a better standard of living than by the need to escape political oppression. Many ethnic Germans hardly seemed German: some did not even speak German.

More about the Population of Germany.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress