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HISTORY UP TO 1945
HISTORY PAST 1945
HAMBURG HISTORY
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History up to 1945


Up to the last century, it was a widely held belief that German history began in the year A.D. 9. That was when Arminius, a prince of a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci, vanquished three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (southeast of modern-day Bielefeld). Arminius, about whom not much else is known, was regarded as the first German national hero, and a huge memorial to him was built near Detmold in the years 1838-1875.

Nowadays a less simplistic view is taken. The fusing of a German nation was a process which took hundreds of years. The word “deutsch“ (German) probably began to be used in the 8th century and initially defined only the language spoken in the eastern part of the Franconian realm. This empire, which reached the zenith of its power under Charlemagne, incorporated peoples speaking Germanic and Romance dialects. After Charlemagne’s death (814), it soon fell apart. In the course of various inheritance divisions, a western and an eastern realm developed, whose political boundary approximately coincided with the boundary between German and French speakers. Only gradually did a feeling of cohesion develop among the inhabitants of the eastern realm. Then the term “deutsch“ was transferred from the language to its speakers and ultimately to the region they lived in, “Deutschland“.

The German western frontier was fixed relatively early and remained fairly stable. But the eastern frontier moved to and fro for hundreds of years. Around 900 it ran approximately along the Elbe and Saale rivers. In subsequent centuries German settlement extended far to the east. This expansion stopped only in the middle of the 14th century. The ethnic boundary then made between Germans und Slavs remained until World War II.

High Middle Ages. The transition from the East Franconian to the German “Reich“ is usually dated from 911, when, after the Carolingian dynasty had died out, the Franconian duke Conrad I was elected king. He is regarded as the first German king. (The official title was “Frankish King“, later “Roman King“; from the 11th century the name of the realm was “Roman Empire“, from the 13th century “Holy Roman Empire“, and in the 15th century the words “of the German Nation“ were added.) It was an electoral monarchy; that is to say, the high nobility chose the king. In addition, “dynastic right“ applied: The new king had to be a blood relation of his predecessor. This principle was broken several times. There were also a number of double elections. The medieval empire had no capital city; the king ruled roving about from place to place. There were no imperial taxes; the king drew his sustenance mainly from “imperial estates“ he administered in trust. His authority was not always recognized by the powerful tribal dukes unless he was militarily powerful and a skillful forger of alliances. Conrad’s successor, the Saxon duke Henry?I (919-936), was the first to succeed in this, and to an even greater extent his son, Otto (936-973). Otto made himself the real ruler of the realm. His great power found obvious expression when he was crowned Emperor in 962 in Rome.

From then on, the German king could claim the title “Emperor“. The emperorship was conceived as universal and gave its incumbent control over the entire Occident. However, this notion never became full political reality. In order to be crowned Emperor by the Pope, the king had to make his way to Rome. With that began the Italian policy of the German kings. For 300 years they were able to retain control of upper and central Italy, but because of this they were diverted from important tasks in Germany. And so Otto’s successors inevitably suffered big setbacks. However, under the succeeding Salian dynasty a new upswing occurred. With Henry III (1039-1056), the German kingship and emperorship reached the zenith of its power, maintaining above all a supremacy over the Papacy. Henry IV (1056-1106) was not able to hold this position. In a quarrel with Pope Gregory VII over whether bishops and other influential church officials should be appointed by the Pope or by the temporal ruler, he was superficially successful. But Gregory retaliated by excommunicating Henry, who thereupon surrendered his authority over the church by doing penance to the Pope at Canossa (1077), an irretrievable loss of power by the emperorship. From that point onward, the Emperor and the Pope were equal-ranking powers.

In 1138 the century of rule by the Staufer, or Hohenstaufen, dynasty began. Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190), in wars with the Pope, the northern Italian cities and his main German rival, the Saxon duke Henry the Lion, led the empire into a new golden age. But under him began a territorial fragmentation which ultimately weakened the central power. This decline continued under Barbarossa’s successors, Henry VI (1190-1197) and Frederick II (1212-1250), despite the great power vested in the emperorship. The ecclesiastical and temporal princes became semi-sovereign territorial rulers. The end of Hohenstaufen rule (1268) also meant the end of the Emperor’s universal rule in the Occident. Internal disintegrative forces prevented Germany from becoming a national state, a process just beginning then in other western European countries. Here lies one of the reasons why the Germans became a “belated nation“.

Late Middle Ages to modern times. Rudolf I (1273-1291) was the first Habsburg to take the throne. Now the material foundation of the emperorship was no longer the lost imperial estates but the “house estates“ of the dynasties, and house power politics became every emperor’s main preoccupation.

The “Golden Bull“ (imperial constitution) issued by Charles IV in 1356 regulated the election of the German king by seven electors privileged with special rights. These sovereign electors and the towns, because of their economic power, gradually gained influence while that of the small counts, lords and knights declined. The towns’ power further increased when they linked up in leagues. The most important of these, the Hanseatic League, became the leading Baltic power in the 14th century.

From 1438 the crown – although the empire nominally was an electoral monarchy – practically became the property of the Habsburg dynasty, which had become the strongest territorial power. In the 15th century, demands for imperial reform increased. Maximilian I (1493-1519), the first to accept the imperial title without a papal coronation, tried to implement such a reform but without much success. The institutions newly created or reshaped by him – Reichstag (Imperial Diet), Reichskreise (Imperial Counties), Reichskammergericht (Imperial Court) – lasted until the end of the Reich (1806) but were not able to halt its continuing fragmentation. A dualism of “Emperor and Reich“ developed: The head of the Reich was offset by the estates of the Reich – electors, princes and towns. The power of the emperors was curtailed and increasingly eroded by “capitulations“, which they negotiated at their election with the electors. The princes, especially the powerful among them, greatly expanded their rights at the expense of imperial power. But the Reich continued to hold together, the glory of the imperial idea remained alive, and the small and medium-sized territories were protected in the Reich system from attack by powerful neighbors.

The towns became centers of economic power, profiting above all from growing trade. In the burgeoning textile and mining industries, forms of economic activity grew which went beyond the guilds system of the craftsmen and, like long-distance trading, were beginning to take on early capitalistic traits. At the same time an intellectual change was taking place, marked by the Renaissance and Humanism. The newly risen critical spirit turned above all on church abuses.

Age of religious schism. The smoldering dissatisfaction with the church broke out – mainly through the actions of Martin Luther from 1517 – in the Reformation, which quickly spread. Its consequences went far beyond the religious sphere. Social unrest abounded. In 1522/23 the Reich knights rose up, and in 1525 the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, the first larger revolutionary movement in German history to strive for both political and social change. Both uprisings failed or were bloodily quelled. The territorial princes profited most from the Reformation. After the changing fortunes of war, they were given the right to dictate their subjects’ religion by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. This accorded the Protestants equal rights with those of the Catholics. The religious division of Germany was thus sealed. On the imperial throne at the time of the Reformation was Charles V (1519-1556), heir to the biggest realm since the time of Charlemagne. His international political interests were too demanding for him to be able to assert himself within Germany. After his abdication, the empire was split up. The German territorial states and the western European national states together now formed the new European system of states.

At the time of the Peace of Augsburg, four fifths of Germany was Protestant, but the struggle between the faiths had not ended. In the following decades, the Catholic Church was able to recapture many areas (Counter-Reformation). The differences between the faiths sharpened; religious parties – the Protestant Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609) – were formed. A local conflict in Bohemia then triggered the Thirty Years’ War, which widened into a European conflict over religious and political differences. Between 1618 and 1648, much of Germany was devastated and depopulated. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia brought the cession of territories to France and Sweden and confirmed the withdrawal of Switzerland and the Netherlands from the Reich. The estates of the Reich were accorded all major sovereign rights in religious and temporal matters as well as the right to enter into alliances with foreign partners.

Age of absolutism. The almost sovereign principalities took over the absolutist form of government modeled on the French. Absolutism gave the ruler limitless power while at the same time allowing tight administrations to be built up, an organized fiscal policy to be introduced and new armies to be mobilized. Many princes aspired to making their residences cultural focal points. Some of them, representatives of “enlightened absolutism“, encouraged learning and philosophy, albeit within the confines of their power interests. The policy of state control of all economic life also allowed the absolutistically ruled states to gain in economic strength. Thus lands such as Bavaria, Brandenburg (the later Prussia), Saxony and Hanover were able to develop into power centers in their own right. Austria, which repelled the attacking Turks and acquired Hungary as well as parts of the formerly Turkish Balkan countries, rose to a large power. A rival to it developed in the 18th century in the form of Prussia, which under Frederick II the Great (1740-1786) grew into a first-rank military power. Both states sought to assert their authority in Europe.

Age of the French Revolution. The nudge which brought the crumbling Reich crashing down came from the west. Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Under pressure from the middle classes, the feudal social order which had existed since the early Middle Ages was swept away; a separation of powers and human rights were to assure the liberty and equality of all. The attempt by Prussia and Austria to intervene by force in events in the neighboring country failed ignominiously and triggered a counter-thrust by the revolutionary armies. Under the stormy advances of the forces of Napoleon, who had assumed the revolutionary heritage in France, the Reich finally collapsed. France took the left bank of the Rhine. To compensate the former owners of these areas for their losses, an enormous territorial reshuffling took place at the expense of the smaller and particularly the ecclesiastical principalities. Through the Final Recess (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) of 1803, some four million subjects changed rulers. The medium-sized states were the beneficiaries. In 1806 most of them grouped together under French protection in the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund). In the same year Emperor Franz II laid down the crown and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ceased to exist.

The French Revolution did not spread into Germany. Although there, too, various individuals had over the years tried time and again to do away with the barriers between the aristocracy and the common people, and although leading thinkers welcomed the overthrow in the west as the start of a new era, one major reason why the spark could not catch easily was that, in contrast to centrally oriented France, the federalistic structure of the Reich hampered the spread of new ideas. Another big reason was that France, the motherland of the revolution, opposed the Germans as an enemy and an occupying power. Indeed, the struggle against Napoleon forged a new national movement which culminated in wars of liberation. But Germany did not remain unaffected by the forces of social change. First in the states of the Confederation of the Rhine and then in Prussia (in the latter connected with names such as Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst and W. von Humboldt) reforms were begun which were aimed at breaking down feudal barriers and creating a society of free, responsible citizens. The objectives were abolition of serfdom, freedom of trade, municipal self-administration, equality before the law and general conscription. But many reform moves were pulled up short. Participation by the populace in legislation was refused almost everywhere. Only hesitantly did some princes grant their states constitutions, especially in southern Germany.

The German Confederation. After the victory over Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 to June 1815) redrew the map of Europe. The hopes of many Germans for a free, unitary nation-state were not fulfilled. The German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) which replaced the old Reich was a loose association of the individual sovereign states. Its sole organ was the Federal Diet (Bundestag) in Frankfurt, which was not an elected but a delegated diet. It was able to act only if the two great powers, Prussia and Austria, agreed. It saw its main task in the ensuing decades in suppressing all aspirations and efforts aimed at unity and freedom. Press and publishing were subject to rigid censorship, the universities were under close supervision, and political activity was virtually impossible.

Meanwhile a modern economic development which worked against these reactionary tendencies had begun. In the year 1834 the German Customs Union (Deutscher Zollverein) was founded, creating a unitary inland market. In 1835 the first German railway line went into operation. Industrialization began. With the factories there grew the new class of factory workers. At first they found better incomes, but the rapid growth of the population soon led to a labor surplus. And since there were no social welfare provisions, the mass of factory workers lived in great misery. Tensions exploded violently, for example in the 1844 uprising of the Silesian weavers, which was harshly put down by the Prussian military. Very hesitantly at first, a workers’ movement began to form.

The 1848 revolution. In contrast to the revolution of 1789, the French revolution of February 1848 found immediate response in Germany. In March there were uprisings in all states, and these forced many concessions from the stunned princes. In May the National Assembly (Nationalversammlung) convened in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt am Main. It elected Archduke John of Austria as Regent of the Empire (Reichsverweser) and set up a Reich Ministry which, however, had no powers or authority. The tune was called in the National Assembly by the Liberal center, which strove for a constitutional monarchy with limited suffrage. The splintering of the National Assembly from Conservatives to Radical Democrats, which already indicated the spectrum of parties to come, made it difficult to draw up a constitution.

But not even the Liberal center could overcome the differences between the protagonists of the “greater Germany“ and “smaller Germany“ concepts, in other words, a German Reich with or without Austria. After hard bargaining, a democratic constitution was drawn up which attempted to combine old and new ideas and required a government responsible to parliament. But when Austria insisted on bringing into the future Reich its entire realm, encompassing more than a dozen different peoples, the “smaller Germany“ concept won the day and the National Assembly proffered Frederick William IV of Prussia the hereditary German imperial crown. The king turned it down, not wanting to owe imperial majesty to a revolution. In May 1849 popular uprisings in Saxony, the Palatinate and Baden aimed at enforcing the constitution “from below“ failed.

That was the seal on the failure of the whole revolution. Most of the achievements were rescinded, and the constitutions of the individual states were revised along reactionary lines. In 1850 the German Confederation was restored.

The rise of Prussia. The 1850s were years of great economic upswing. Germany became an industrial country. Although its production output still lagged far behind England’s, it was growing faster. Pacemakers were heavy industry and mechanical engineering. Prussia also became the predominant economic power of Germany. Industrial power strengthened the political self-confidence of the liberal middle class. The German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), formed in 1861, became the strongest party in the Prussian Diet and denied the government the funds when it wanted to make reactionary changes to the structure of the army. The newly appointed Prime Minister (Ministerpräsident), Otto von Bismarck (1862), took up the challenge and for some years governed without the parliamentary approval of the budget which was required by the constitution. The Progress Party dared offer no further resistance than parliamentary opposition, however.

Bismarck was able to offset his precarious position on the domestic front by foreign policy successes. In the German-Danish War (1864), Prussia and Austria forced the Danes to cede the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which they initially administered jointly. But Bismarck had from the outset pursued the annexation of the two duchies and steered for open conflict with Austria. In the Austro-Prussian War (1866), Austria was defeated and had to leave the German stage. The German Confederation was dissolved and replaced by the North German Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) of states north of the Main River, with Bismarck as Federal Chancellor (prime minister).

The Bismarck Reich. From then on, Bismarck worked towards “smaller German“ unity. He broke France’s resistance in the Franco-German War of 1870/71, triggered by a diplomatic conflict over the succession to the Spanish throne. Defeated France had to cede Alsace-Lorraine and pay huge reparations. In the patriotic enthusiasm of the war, the southern German states joined up with the North German Confederation to form the German Empire (Deutsches Reich). At Versailles near Paris, King William I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871.

German unity had not come about by popular decision “from below“ but by a treaty between princes “from above“. Prussia’s predominance was stifling. To many, the new Reich seemed like a “greater Prussia“. The Reichstag (Imperial Diet) was elected by universal and equal suffrage. Although it had no say in the formation of the cabinet, it could influence government by its participation in lawmaking and its budgetary power. Although the Reich Chancellor was accountable only to the Emperor and not to parliament, he did have to try to get majorities for his policies in the Reichstag.

Suffrage in the individual Länder (states) still varied. In eleven it was still class suffrage, dependent on tax paid; in four there was still the old division into estates. The south German states, with their longer parliamentary tradition, reformed their electoral laws after the turn of the century, and Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria made theirs the same as the Reich laws. Although Germany’s emergence as a modern industrial country strengthened the influence of the economically successful middle class, the people who still called the tune in society were the aristocrats, above all in the army officer corps where they predominated.

Bismarck ruled as Reich Chancellor for 19 years. Through a consistent peace and alliance policy, he tried to give the Reich a secure position in the new European balance of power. In contrast to this farsighted foreign policy was his home policy. He had no feeling for the democratic tendencies of his time. To him, political opposition was “hostility to the Reich“. Bitterly, but ultimately vainly, he fought the left wing of the liberal middle class, political Catholicism and especially the organized labor movement, which for twelve years (1878-1890) was practically banned by a “Socialists Act“ (Sozialistengesetz). Hence the vastly growing working class, despite progressive social legislation, was alienated from the state. Bismarck ultimately became a victim of his own system when he was dismissed in 1890 by the young Emperor William II.

William II wanted to rule himself, but he lacked the knowledge and staying power. More by speeches than by actions, he created the impression of a peacethreatening dictator. Under him there took place a transition to “Weltpolitik“ (world policy), with Germany trying to shorten the lead of the great imperialist powers and thereby becoming more isolated. In his home policies, William soon took a reactionary course after his attempt to win the working class over to a “social emperorship“ failed to bring the quick success he had hoped for. His chancellors had to rely on changing coalitions of Conservatives and National Liberals. The Social Democrats, although one of the strongest parties, obtaining millions of votes, continued to be excluded from participation in government.

World War I. The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne on 28 June 1914 triggered the outbreak of World War I. The question as to who was to blame for this war remains a matter of dispute. Certainly Germany and Austria on the one side, and France, Russia and Britain on the other, did not consciously seek it but they were prepared to risk it. From the start, all had definite war aims for which military action was at least not unwelcome. The Germans failed in their aim to quickly vanquish France. After the defeat of Germany in the Battle of the Marne, the fighting in the west soon froze into trench warfare, ultimately peaking in senseless material attrition with enormous losses on both sides. With the outbreak of war, the Emperor receded into the background. As it progressed, the weak Reich Chancellors had to submit more and more to the will of the army supreme command, whose nominal chief was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg but whose real head was General Erich Ludendorff. The entry into the war of the United States of America in 1917 brought the decision which had long been developing and which could no longer be changed by the revolution in Russia and the peace in the east. Although the country had bled dry, General Ludendorff, completely misjudging the situation, continued until September 1918 to insist on “peace through victory“, but then he surprisingly demanded an immediate armistice. Military defeat also meant political collapse. Unresisting, Emperor William II and the princes yielded their thrones in November 1918. Not a hand stirred to defend a monarchy which had lost all credibility. Germany became a republic.

The Weimar Republic. Power fell to the Social Democrats. Their majority had long since abandoned the revolutionary notions of earlier years and saw their mission in securing an orderly transition from the old to the new form of state. Private ownership of industry and agriculture remained untouched. The mostly antirepublican civil servants and judges were taken over without exception. The imperial officer corps retained command of the armed forces. Attempts by radical leftists to drive the revolution in a socialist direction were quelled by the army. In the National Assembly elected in January 1919, which convened at Weimar and drew up a new Reich constitution, three unconditionally republican parties – the Social Democrats, the German Democratic Party and the Catholic Centre – had the majority. But during the 1920s, the parliamentary parties and popular forces which were more or less hostile to a democratic state became ever stronger. The Weimar Republic was a “republic without republicans“, rabidly fought by its opponents and only halfheartedly defended by its supporters. Especially the postwar economic misery and the oppressive terms of the Treaty of Versailles which Germany had to sign in 1919 made the people deeply skeptical of the republic. Growing domestic instability was the result.

In 1923 the confusion of the postwar era reached its peak (inflation, occupation of the Ruhr by France, Hitler’s coup, communist overthrow attempts). This was followed by economic recovery and with it some political pacification. The foreign policy of Gustav Stresemann regained political equality for defeated Germany through the Locarno Pact (1925) and accession to the League of Nations (1926). The arts and sciences experienced a brief, intensive flowering in the “golden 20s“. After the death of the first Reich President, Friedrich Ebert, former Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected head of state in 1925 as the candidate of the right. Although he abided strictly by the constitution, he never developed a personal commitment to the republican state.

The ultimate collapse of the Weimar Republic began with the world economic crisis in 1929. Left-wing and right-wing radicalism exploited unemployment and the general recession. No more majorities capable of government could be found in the Reichstag, the cabinet being dependent on the support of the Reich President. From 1930, the up to then insignificant National Socialist movement of Adolf Hitler, which fused extreme anti-democratic tendencies and a raging anti-Semitism with pseudo-revolutionary propaganda, grew ever stronger and by 1932 had become the most powerful party. On 30 January 1933, Hitler became Reich Chancellor. Apart from members of his own party, his cabinet included politicians of the right and non-partisan specialist ministers, so it was hoped that sole rule by the National Socialists could be prevented.

The National Socialist dictatorship. Hitler soon rid himself of his allies. An “Enabling Act“, approved by all the middle-class parties, gave him practically limitless power. He banned all parties but his own. The trade unions were smashed, basic rights virtually removed and press freedom abolished. The regime exercised ruthless terror and violence against anyone who stood in its way. Thousands disappeared without trial in hastily constructed concentration camps. Parliamentary institutions at all levels were abolished or made powerless. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler assumed the roles of president and chancellor. By this he gained control as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which up to then had still had a certain inner life of their own.

In the few years of the turbulent Weimar Republic, the majority of Germans had not acquired any deeprooted affinity to democracy. More than anything else, years of political turmoil, violence between the various camps – including bloody street battles – and the mass unemployment engendered by the world economic crisis had shattered confidence in government. Hitler, on the other hand, succeeded with jobcreation and armament production programs in reinvigorating the economy and quickly reducing unemployment. He was helped by the fact that the world depression came to an end.

The fact that initially Hitler was also able to achieve his foreign policy aims virtually without resistance further strengthened his postion. In 1935 the Saar region, until then administered by the League of Nations, returned to Germany, and in the same year the Reich regained its defense sovereignty. In 1936 German troops moved into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized since 1919. In 1938 Austria was joined to the Reich, and the Western powers allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland. All this made it easier for him to achieve his further aims, even though there were people from all walks of life who courageously resisted the dictator.

Immediately after taking power, the regime began to carry out its anti-Semitic program. Step by step, the Jews were stripped of all human and civic rights. Those who could tried to escape the persecution by fleeing abroad. The persecution of political opponents and the suppression of free speech also drove thousands out of the country. Many of the best German intellectuals, artists and scientists fled the country.

World War II and its consequences. But Hitler wanted more. From the outset he prepared for a war he was willing to wage to subjugate Europe. He demonstrated this as early as March 1939 when he had his troops march into Czechoslovakia. With his attack on Poland on 1 September 1939, he unleashed World War II, which lasted five and a half years, devastated much of Europe and killed some 55 million people. The German armies first defeated Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia and Greece. In the Soviet Union they advanced to a position just short of Moscow, and in North Africa they threatened the Suez Canal. Harsh occupation regimes were set up in the conquered countries. They were fought by resistance movements. In 1942 the regime began the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question“: All the Jews the regime could lay its hands on were taken to concentration camps and murdered. The total number of victims is estimated at six million. The year in which this inconceivable crime began marked the turning point in the war. From then on, Germany and its allies suffered setbacks in all theaters.

The terror of the National Socialist regime and the military setbacks strengthened resistance against Hitler in all classes of society. A coup attempt on 20 July 1944, carried out mainly by officers, failed. Hitler survived a bomb planted in his headquarters and took terrible revenge. More than 4,000 people from all walks of life who had been involved in the resistance were executed in the following months. Outstanding figures of the resistance, whose names stand for all the victims, were General Ludwig Beck, Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, the former lord mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, and the Social Democrat Julius Leber.

The war continued. Hitler prosecuted it under enormous losses until the entire Reich area was occupied by the Allied forces. Then, on 30 April 1945, the dictator killed himself. Eight days later, the successor he had willed by testament, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, carried out the unconditional surrender.


DEUTSCH
ENGLISH
ESPAÑOL
FRANÇAIS
.
THE BASIC LAW
THE CONSTITUTIONAL BODIES
THE LEGAL SYSTEM
FEDERALISM & SELF-GOVERNMENT
PARTIES & ELECTIONS
COUNTRY AND LANDSCAPE
THE "LÄNDER" (STATES/COUNTRIES)
THE PEOPLE
THE STATE OF HAMBURG
HISTORY UP TO 1945
HISTORY PAST 1945
HAMBURG HISTORY
X
X
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