History of Germany economy
Medieval Germany, lying on the open Central European Plain, was divided into hundreds of contending kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, and free cities. Economic survival in that environment, like political or even physical survival, did not mean expanding across unlimited terrain, as in the United States. It meant a constant struggle that required collaboration with some, competition with others, and an intimate understanding among government, commerce, and production. A desire to save was also born in the German experience of political, military, and economic uncertainty.
Even under these difficult conditions, Germany had already developed a strong economy during the Middle Ages. It was based on guild and craft production, but with elements of merchant capitalism and mercantilism. The trade conducted by its cities ranged far and wide throughout Europe in all directions, and Germany as a whole often had trade surpluses with neighboring states. One reason for these exports was the sheer necessity for the small states to sell abroad in order to buy the many things they could not produce at home.
The German guilds of the Middle Ages established the German tradition of creating products known for quality and durability. A craftsman was not permitted to pursue a trade until he could demonstrate the ability to make high-quality products. Out of that same tradition came an equally strong passion for education and vocational training, for no craftsman was recognized until he had thoroughly learned a trade, passed a test, and been certified.
The Industrial Revolution reached Germany long after it had flowered in Britain, and the governments of the German states supported local industry because they did not want to be left behind. Many enterprises were government initiated, government financed, government managed, or government subsidized. As industry grew and prospered in the nineteenth century, Prussia and other German states consciously supported all economic development and especially transportation and industry.
The north German states were for the most part richer in natural resources than the southern states. They had vast agricultural tracts from Schleswig-Holstein in the west through Prussia in the east. They also had coal and iron in the Ruhr Valley. Through the practice of primogeniture, widely followed in northern Germany, large estates and fortunes grew. So did close relations between their owners and local as well as national governments.
The south German states were relatively poor in natural resources except for their people, and those Germans therefore engaged more often in small economic enterprises. They also had no primogeniture rule but subdivided the land among several offspring, leading those offspring to remain in their native towns but not fully able to support themselves from their small parcels of land. The south German states, therefore, fostered cottage industries, crafts, and a more independent and self-reliant spirit less closely linked to the government.
German banks played central roles in financing German industry. They also shaped industrywide producer cooperatives, known as cartels. Different banks formed cartels in different industries. Cartel contracts were accepted as legal and binding by German courts although they were held to be illegal in Britain and the United States.
The first German cartel was a salt cartel, the Neckar Salt Union of 1828, formed in Württemberg and Baden. The process of cartelization began slowly, but the cartel movement took hold after 1873 in the economic depression that followed the postunification speculative bubble. It began in heavy industry and spread throughout other industries. By 1900 there were 275 cartels in operation; by 1908, over 500. By some estimates, different cartel arrangements may have numbered in the thousands at different times, but many German companies stayed outside the cartels because they did not welcome the restrictions that membership imposed.
The government played a powerful role in the industrialization of the German Empire founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1871 (see Bismarck and Unification, ch. 1). It supported not only heavy industry but also crafts and trades because it wanted to maintain prosperity in all parts of the empire. Even where the national government did not act, the highly autonomous regional and local governments supported their own industries. Each state tried to be as self-sufficient as possible.
Despite the several ups and downs of prosperity and depression that marked the first decades of the German Empire, the ultimate wealth of the empire proved immense. German aristocrats, landowners, bankers, and producers created what might be termed the first German economic miracle, the turn-of-the-century surge in German industry and commerce during which bankers, industrialists, mercantilists, the military, and the monarchy joined forces.
The German Empire also established, under Bismarck’s direction, the social compact under which the German laboring classes supported the national ambitions of the newly united German state in exchange for a system of social welfare that would make them, if not full participants in the system, at least its beneficiaries and pensioners. Bismarck was not a socialist, but he believed that it was necessary to accept portions of the socialist platform to sustain prosperity and social cohesion.
From the prosperity of the empire during the Wilhelmine era (1890-1914), Germany plunged into World War I, a war it was to lose and one that spawned many of the economic crises that would destroy the successor Weimar Republic (see The Weimar Republic, 1918-33, ch. 1). Even the British economist John Maynard Keynes denounced the 1919 Treaty of Versailles as ruinous to German and global prosperity. The war and the treaty were followed by the Great Inflation of the early 1920s that wreaked havoc on Germany’s social structure and political stability. During that inflation, the value of the nation’s currency, the Reichsmark, collapsed from 8.9 per US$1 in 1918 to 4.2 trillion per US$1 by November 1923. Then, after a brief period of prosperity during the mid-1920s, came the Great Depression, which destroyed what remained of the German middle class and paved the way for the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. During the Hitler era (1933-45), the economy developed a hothouse prosperity, supported with high government subsidies to those sectors that Hitler favored because they gave Germany military power and economic autarchy, that is, economic independence from the global economy. Finally, the entire enterprise collapsed in the Stunde Null (Zero Hour), when Germany lay in ruins at the end of World War II in May 1945 and when every German knew that he or she had to begin life all over again.
The first several years after World War II were years of bitter penury for the Germans. Their land, their homes, and their property lay in ruin. Millions were forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Tens of millions did not have enough to eat or to wear. Inflation raged. Parker pens, nylon stockings, and Camel cigarettes represented the accepted, if not the legal, tender of the time. Occupation projections showed that the average German would be able to purchase a plate every five years, a pair of shoes every twelve years, and a suit every fifty years.
As Germany’s postwar economic and political leaders shaped their plans for the future German economy, they saw in ruin a new beginning, an opportunity to position Germany on a new and totally different path. The economy was to be an instrument for prosperity, but it was also to safeguard democracy and to help maintain a stable society. The new German leaders wanted social peace as well as economic prosperity. They wanted an economic system that would give all an equal opportunity in order to avoid creating underprivileged social groups whose bitter frustration would erupt into revolution and–in turn–repression.