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Germany - Geography

Roughly the size of Montana and situated even farther north, unified Germany has an area of 356,959 square kilometers. Extending 853 kilometers from its northern border with Denmark to the Alps in the south, it is the sixth largest country in Europe. At its widest, Germany measures approximately 650 kilometers from the Belgian-German border in the west to the Polish frontier in the east.

The territory of the former East Germany (divided into five new L�nder in 1990) accounts for almost one-third of united Germany's territory and one-fifth of its population. After a close vote, in 1993 the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament, voted to transfer the capital from Bonn in the west to Berlin, a city-state in the east surrounded by the Land of Brandenburg. The relocation process is expected to be concluded by about the year 2000, following the transfer of the Bundestag, the Bundesrat, the Chancellory, and ten of the eighteen federal ministries.


With its irregular, elongated shape, Germany provides an excellent example of a recurring sequence of landforms found the world over. A plain dotted with lakes, moors, marshes, and heaths retreats from the sea and reaches inland, where it becomes a landscape of hills crisscrossed by streams, rivers, and valleys. These hills lead upward, gradually forming high plateaus and woodlands and eventually climaxing in spectacular mountain ranges.

As of the mid-1990s, about 37 percent of the country's area was arable; 17 percent consisted of meadows and pastures; 30 percent was forests and woodlands; and 16 percent was devoted to other uses. Geographers often divide Germany into four distinct topographic regions: the North German Lowland; the Central German Uplands; Southern Germany; and the Alpine Foreland and the Alps.

<>North German Lowland
<>Central German Uplands
<>Southern Germany
<>Alpine Foreland and the Alps
<>The Environment

Germany - North German Lowland

The North German Lowland is a part of the Great European Plain that sweeps across Europe from the Pyrenees in France to the Ural Mountains in Russia. All of the L�nder of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Berlin, most of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, and parts of Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia are located in this region.

Hills in the lowland only rarely reach 200 meters in height, and most of the region is well under 100 meters above sea level. The lowlands slope almost imperceptibly toward the sea. The North Sea portion of the coastline is devoid of cliffs and has wide expanses of sand, marsh, and mud flats (Watten ). The mud flats between the Elbe estuary and the Netherlands border are believed to have been above sea level during Roman history and to have been inundated when the shoreline sank during the thirteenth century. In the western area, the former line of inshore sand dunes became the East Frisian Islands. The mud flats between the islands and the shore are exposed at very low tides and are crossed by innumerable channels varying in size from those cut by small creeks to those serving as the estuaries of the Elbe and Weser rivers. The mud and sand are constantly shifting, and all harbor and shipping channels require continuing maintenance.

The offshore islands have maximum elevations of fewer than thirty-five meters and have been subject to eroding forces that have washed away whole sections during severe storms. Shorelines most subject to eroding tides were stabilized during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although the East Frisian Islands are strung along the coast in a nearly straight line, the North Frisian Islands are irregularly shaped and are haphazardly positioned. They were also once a part of the mainland, and a large portion of the mud flats between the islands and the coast is exposed during low tides.

The Baltic Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein differs markedly from its North Sea coast. It is indented by a number of small, deep fjords with steep banks, which were carved by rivers when the land was covered with glacial ice. Farther to the east, the Baltic shore is flat and sandy. R�gen, Germany's largest island, lies just offshore of Stralsund.

Wherever the region's terrain is rolling and drainage is satisfactory, the land is highly productive. This is especially true of the areas that contain a very fertile siltlike loess soil, better than most German soils. Such areas, called B�rden (sing., B�rde ), are located along the southern edge of the North German Lowland beginning west of the Rhine near the Ruhr Valley and extending eastward and into the Leipzig Basin. The Magdeburg B�rde is the best known of these areas. Other B�rden are located near Frankfurt am Main, northern Baden-W�rttemberg, and in an area to the north of Ulm and Munich. Because the areas with loess soil also have a moderate continental climate with a long growing season, they are considered Germany's breadbasket.

More about the <>Geography of Germany.

Germany - Central German Uplands

The Central German Uplands are Germany's portion of the Central European Uplands; they extend from the Massif Central in France to Poland and the Czech Republic. Germany's uplands are generally moderate in height and seldom reach elevations above 1,100 meters. The region encompasses all of the Saarland, Hesse, and Thuringia; the north of Rhineland-Palatinate; substantial southern portions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt; and western parts of Saxony.

In the west, the Central German Uplands begin with the Rheinish Uplands, a massive rectangular block of slate and shale with a gently rolling plateau of about 400 meters in elevation and peaks of about 800 to 900 meters. The Rheinish Uplands are divided by two deep and dramatic river valleys--the Moselle and the Rhine. The high hilly area to the south of the Moselle is the Hunsr�ck; the one to its north is the Eifel. The Rhine separates these areas from their extensions to the east, the Taunus, and, to the north, the Westerwald. To the north and east of the Westerwald are further distinct areas of the Rheinish Uplands, most notably the small range of hills known as the Siebengebirge, across the Rhine from Bonn, and the larger hilly regions--the Siegerland, Bergishes Land, Sauerland, and the Rothaargebirge. The higher elevations of the Rheinish Uplands are heavily forested; lower-lying areas are well suited for the growing of grain, fruit, and early potatoes.

Because of the low elevations of its valleys (200 to 350 meters), the Uplands of Hesse provide an easily traveled passageway through the Central German Uplands. Although not as dramatic as the Rhine Valley, for hundreds of years this passageway--the so-called Hessian Corridor--has been an important route between the south and the north, with Frankfurt am Main at one end and Hanover at the other, and Kassel on the Weser River in its center. The headwaters of the Weser have created a number of narrow but fertile valleys. The highlands of the Uplands of Hesse are volcanic in origin. The most notable of these volcanic highlands are the Rh�n (950 meters) and the Vogelsburg (774 meters).

To the north of the Uplands of Hesse lie two low ranges, the Teutoburger Wald and the Wiehengebirge, which are the northernmost fringes of the Central German Uplands. It is at the Porta Westfalica near Minden that the Weser River breaks through the latter range to reach the North German Lowland.

One of the highest points in the Central German Uplands is at Brocken (1,142 meters) in the Harz Mountains. This range is situated about forty kilometers to the northeast of G�ttingen and forms the northwestern boundary of the Leipzig Basin, an extension of the North German Lowland. The Harz are still largely forested at lower levels; barren moors cover higher elevations. An important center for <> tourism in the 1990s, the range was once an important source for many minerals.

The Th�ringer Wald, located in southwestern Thuringia, is a narrow range about 100 kilometers long, with its highest point just under 1,000 meters. Running in a northwesterly direction, it links the Central German Uplands with the Bohemian Massif of the Czech Republic and forms the southwestern boundary of the Leipzig Basin. The basin's southeastern boundary is formed by the Erzgebirge range, which extends to the northeast at a right angle to the Th�ringer Wald. Part of the Bohemian Massif, the Erzgebirge range reaches 1,214 meters at its highest point.

The southeasternmost portion of the Central German Uplands consists of the Bohemian Forest and the much smaller Bavarian Forest. Both ranges belong to the Bohemian Massif. The Bohemian Forest, with heights up to 1,450 meters, forms a natural boundary between Germany and the Czech Republic.

More about the <>Geography of Germany.

Southern Germany - Geography

Between the Central German Uplands and the Alpine Foreland and the Alps lies the geographical region of Southern Germany, which includes most of Baden-W�rttemberg, much of northern Bavaria, and portions of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate. The Main River runs through the northern portion of this region. The Upper Rhine River Valley, nearly 300 kilometers long and about fifty kilometers wide, serves as its western boundary. The Rhine's wide river valley here is in sharp contrast to its high narrow valley in the Rheinish Uplands. The southern boundaries of the region of Southern Germany are formed by extensions of the Jura Mountains of France and Switzerland. These ranges are separate from those of the Central German Uplands. One of these Jura ranges forms the Black Forest, whose highest peak is the Feldberg at 1,493 meters, and, continuing north, the less elevated Odenwald and Spessart hills. Another Jura range forms the Swabian Alb and its continuation, the Franconian Alb. Up to 1,000 meters in height and approximately forty kilometers wide, the two albs form a long arc--400 kilometers long--from the southern end of the Black Forest to near Bayreuth and the hills of the Frankenwald region, which is part of the Central German Uplands. The Hardt Mountains in Rhineland-Palatinate, located to the west of the Rhine, are also an offshoot of the Jura Mountains.

The landscape of the Southern Germany region is often that of scarp and vale, with the eroded sandstone and limestone scarps facing to the northwest. The lowland terraces of the Rhine, Main, and Neckar river valleys, with their dry and warm climate, are suitable for agriculture and are highly productive. The loess and loam soils of the Rhine-Main Plain are cultivated extensively, and orchards and vineyards flourish. The Rhine-Main Plain is densely populated, and Frankfurt am Main, at its center, serves both as Germany's financial capital and as a major European transportation hub.

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Germany - Alpine Foreland and the Alps

The Alpine Foreland makes up most of Bavaria and a good part of Baden-W�rttemberg. The foreland is roughly triangular in shape, about 400 kilometers long from west to east with a maximum width of about 150 kilometers north to south, and is bounded by Lake Constance and the Alps to the south, the Swabian and Franconian albs to the north, and the Bavarian Forest to the east. Elevation within the foreland rises gently from about 400 meters near the Danube, which flows along its north, to about 750 meters at the beginning of the Alpine foothills. With the exception of Munich and the small cities of Augsburg, Ingolstadt, and Ulm, the foreland is primarily rural. Soils are generally poor, with the exception of some areas with loess soil, and much of the region is pasture or is sown to hardy crops.

Germany's portion of the Alps accounts for a very small part of the country's area and consists only of a narrow fringe of mountains that runs along the country's border with Switzerland and Austria from Lake Constance in the west to Salzburg, Austria, in the east. The western section of the German Alps are the Alg�uer Alps, located between Lake Constance and the Lech River. The Bavarian Alps, the central section, lie between the Lech and Inn rivers and contain Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze (2,963 meters). The Salzburg Alps, which begin at the Inn River and encircle Berchtesgaden, make up the easternmost section of Germany's Alps.

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Germany - Drainage

The greater part of the country drains into the North Sea via the Rhine, Ems, Weser, and Elbe rivers, which flow in a north-northwest direction. In the east, the Oder River and its tributary, the Neisse River, flow northward into the Baltic Sea and mark the border with Poland. With the exception of the Lahn River, which flows southward before joining the Rhine, most of the tributaries of these rivers flow in a west-to-east or east-to-west direction. In an exception to the south-north pattern of major rivers, the Danube River rises in the Black Forest and flows in a southeasterly direction, traversing Bavaria before crossing into Austria at Passau on the long journey to the Black Sea. The Iller, Lech, Isar, and Inn rivers flow from the south into the Danube and drain the Alpine Foreland.

The Rhine, Germany's longest and most important river, originates in Switzerland, from where it flows into Lake Constance (actually a river basin). At the lake's west end, it begins a long course (800 kilometers) to the Netherlands, at first marking the boundary between Germany and Switzerland and later that between Germany and France. Of the Rhine's three most important tributaries, the Moselle River drains parts of the Rheinish Uplands, the Main drains areas between the Central German Uplands and the Franconian Alb, and the Neckar River drains the area between the Black Forest and the Swabian Alb. Because these rivers keep the Rhine high during the winter and because melting snow in the Alps keeps it high during the spring and summer, the river generally has a high steady flow, which accounts for its being the busiest waterway in Europe.

More about the <>Geography of Germany.

Germany - Climate

Although located mostly at latitudes north of the United States-Canadian border and thus closer to the Arctic Circle than to the equator, Germany's climate is moderate and is generally without sustained periods of cold or heat. Northwestern and coastal Germany have a maritime climate caused by warm westerly winds from the North Sea; the climate is characterized by warm summers and mild cloudy winters. Farther inland, the climate is continental, marked by greater diurnal and seasonal variations in temperature, with warmer summers and colder winters.

In addition to the maritime and continental climates that predominate over most of the country, the Alpine regions in the extreme south and, to a lesser degree, some areas of the Central German Uplands have a so-called mountain climate. This climate is characterized by lower temperatures because of higher altitudes and greater precipitation caused by air becoming moisture-laden as it lifts over higher terrain.

The major air masses contributing to the maritime weather are the Icelandic low-pressure system and the Azores high-pressure system. The Icelandic lows rotate in a counterclockwise direction and tend to move to the east and southeast as they approach Europe. The Azores highs move eastward and rotate in a clockwise direction. Both of these air masses furnish Western Europe with moisture-laden clouds propelled by westerly winds.

The northern lowlands frequently experience a situation (more often during the winter months) when they are between these air masses and are simultaneously influenced by both. At such times, winds come from the west and are usually strong. When only one of the systems is dominant, it is more often the Icelandic low. In spite of their nearly polar origin, Icelandic lows are warmed by the Gulf Stream, and areas on the country's North Sea coast have midwinter temperatures averaging more than 1.6� C. This temperature is more than three degrees above the average for the latitude, which is shared by central Labrador and some bitterly cold regions in Siberia.

When continental weather systems originating to the east are responsible for the weather, conditions are markedly different. In the winter months, these systems have high-pressure air masses that bring bright, clear, cold weather. The local people describe these air masses as Siberian highs and usually expect them to last for about two weeks. An occasional condition called f�hn , or warm wind, arises when the center of a low-pressure system deviates to the south of its usual path and crosses the central part of the country. In this atmospheric condition, warm tropical air is drawn across the Alps and loses moisture on the southern slopes of the mountains. The air warms significantly as it compresses during its descent from the northern slopes. In the springtime, these winds dissipate the cloud cover and melt the snows. Many people respond to the rapid weather changes caused by the f�hn with headaches, irritability, and circulatory problems.

The yearly mean temperature for the country is about 9� C. Other than for variations caused by shelter and elevation, the annual mean temperature is fairly constant throughout the country. Temperature extremes between night and day and summer and winter are considerably less in the north than in the south.

During January, the coldest month, the average temperature is approximately 1.6�C in the north and about -2�C in the south. In July, the warmest month, the situation reverses, and it is cooler in the north than in the south. The northern coastal region has July temperatures averaging between 16�C and 18�C; at some locations in the south, the average is 19.4�C or slightly higher.

Annual precipitation varies from 2,000 millimeters a year in the southern mountains to a low of 400 millimeters in the vicinity of Mainz. Over most of the country, it averages between 600 millimeters and 800 millimeters per annum.

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Germany - The Environment

Unification abruptly transformed the Federal Republic from a country with a solid, even excellent, environmental record to one facing a whole range of ecological disasters--the result of the GDR's decades-long abuse of its natural habitat. The estimated costs of restoring the environment in the new L�nder grew as information became available about how much damage it had sustained. Expert estimates of from DM130 billion to DM220 billion (for value of the deutsche mark--see Glossary) in the spring of 1990 had increased to a possible DM400 billion two years later.

The two Germanys differed greatly in their approaches toward protecting the environment. Beginning in the late 1960s, ecological concerns had become increasingly common in West Germany, as was repeatedly demonstrated in opinion polls. A 1990 poll, for example, found that more than 70 percent of those West Germans questioned held that environmental protection should be the highest priority for the government and the economy.

In East Germany, environmental activism was minimal. For decades the GDR had followed standard Soviet practices in regard to industrial and urban development, scrimping on or avoiding entirely key infrastructure investments such as water-treatment facilities and air-pollution abatement. The comprehensive and intelligent Socialist Environmental Management Act of 1968 was poorly implemented and, more important, largely ignored after the late 1970s when East German authorities decided that Western economic growth could only be matched by sacrificing the environment. This policy was followed throughout the 1980s.

West German environmental legislation initially lagged behind that of East Germany. For the first decades after World War II, West Germans were concerned with reconstructing their country and its economy. Early efforts to deal with the environment met with little interest. The attainment of widespread prosperity and the coming to maturity of a new generation with so-called postmaterialist values led to an interest in protecting the environment. The late 1960s and the early 1970s saw the passage of several dozen laws relating to the environment, the most important of which were the Waste Disposal Law and the Emission Protection Law, both passed in 1972. In 1974 the Federal Environmental Agency was established. The new legislation established the principles of Germany's environmental policies, still in effect in the mid-1990s: preventing pollution by monitoring new products and projects; requiring the polluter, rather than society at large, to pay damages; and relying on cooperation among government, industry, and society to protect the environment.

The oil crisis of 1973-74 and the ensuing worldwide recession led to a tapering off of environmental activism on the part of the West German government and the political parties. However, numerous citizens' groups formed and pressed for increased environmental protection (see Citizens' Initiative Associations, ch. 7). The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States in 1979 also spurred the growth of such groups. Elements of the environmental movement formed a political party, the Greens (Die Gr�nen) in 1980, which in 1983 won seats in the Bundestag (see The Greens, ch. 7). Of greatest importance were domestic ecological problems such as pollution in the Baltic Sea and the Rhine and Main rivers and damage to the country's forests from acid rain.

During the early 1980s, concerns about the environment became widespread in the general population, and all political parties were forced to address them. These concerns were raised still higher by a series of ecological disasters in 1986: the accident at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and serious spills of dangerous chemicals into the Rhine at Basel in Switzerland. Immediately after the Chernobyl disaster, Chancellor Helmut Kohl created the Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Reactor Safety.

Stricter environmental controls led to marked improvements in air quality. Between 1966 and 1988, sulfur dioxide emissions in West Germany fell by one-third. Dust levels, which stood at 3.2 million tons in 1980, fell to 550,000 tons by the late 1980s. The quality of river water also improved. The Rhine and Main rivers, nearly "biologically dead" in the 1960s, supported several species of fish by the early 1990s. The Ruhr River, located in the heart of the country's largest manufacturing region, became the cleanest "industrial" river in West Germany after the construction of a series of dams and the reforestation of slag heaps and wastelands.

At unification, the ecological situation in the new L�nder was quite different. Because 95 percent of industrial wastewater had been discharged without treatment and 32 percent of households were not connected to sewerage systems, more than 40 percent of the rivers of the new L�nder and 24 percent of their lakes were totally unfit as sources of drinking water; only 3 percent of their rivers and 1 percent of their lakes were considered ecologically healthy. Some rivers had pollution levels 200 times higher than that permitted by European Community (EC--see Glossary) environmental standards. The widespread use of brown coal had resulted in record emissions of sulfur dioxide, which rose by one-fifth between 1980 and 1988. Moreover, decades of brown coal strip mining had left some eastern areas resembling a lunar landscape. Other areas had been contaminated by the mining and processing of uranium, primarily to service the Soviet nuclear sector.

Although East German per capita waste production had been much lower than that of West Germany, the East German government had negotiated away this advantage and jeopardized ecological security in the bargain. In the 1980s, the GDR had earned hard currency by importing and carelessly disposing of millions of tons of West Germany's trash, exacerbating soil degradation and groundwater contamination. Some 60 percent of industrial waste had been deposited without controls. Of about 11,000 landfill sites, more than 10,000 were uncontrolled. With more than 28,000 potentially hazardous sites, the cleanup effort required in the east appears comparable in scope to the Superfund campaign in the United States.

The Cold War had also damaged East Germany's environment and to a lesser extent that of West Germany. For nearly five decades, millions of troops from the East and the West had made intensive use of the territory of the two Germanys as military bases and training sites. Cleanup costs were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In recognition of this situation, the United States Department of Defense allocated funds to repair environmental damage in the Federal Republic. In contrast, Soviet and later Russian forces, although they reportedly occupied as much as 2.5 percent of East German territory, were paid to leave the country and did so without compensating Germany for the extreme environmental damage they had caused.

With unification in 1990, the new L�nder became subject to the environmental laws of the Federal Republic and the EC, although both sets of laws were to be applied gradually. Standards in some areas, such as emissions control, would not come into effect until after 2000. The ecological situation in the new L�nder soon changed for the better, although much of the improvement stemmed less from the imposition of new standards than from the closing, for economic reasons, of outmoded plants that had caused much pollution. Projects such as constructing new air, water, and soil treatment plants and modernizing old ones, reducing the amounts of brown coal consumed, and cleaning up dump sites will gradually undo decades of ecological damage. Some environmental policies in the new L�nder , like those in the old L�nder , are preventive in nature. Because of the irresponsible practices of the former GDR, however, a great number are also restorative.

Serious environmental problems continue to confront Germany. Despite the efforts begun in the early 1970s, the "death of the forest" (Waldsterben ) caused by acid rain continues. In 1992 about 68 percent of the country's trees had suffered significant ecological damage. Forests in northwestern Germany had suffered the least damage from acid rain, those in the south and east the most. Chemical emissions from automobiles are a serious cause of this problem. Only since 1993, however, have new vehicles been required to have catalytic converters. Germany's farmers also cause much pollution through intensive use of fertilizers. Because they are a powerful interest group, it has been difficult to pass legislation to regulate their farming methods.

Nuclear power presents a special dilemma for Germany. In western Germany, support for that power source, which in the mid-1990s supplied about 35 percent of the country's energy requirement, has fluctuated depending upon international events and crises. As of the mid-1990s, however, there appeared little chance that any more nuclear plants would be constructed in the near future.

Upon unification, the Federal Republic inherited East Germany's two nuclear power plants, which had been built to Soviet specifications. Decommissioning these plants would increase reliance on polluting coal-fired power plants. Despite this prospect, the likelihood of a Chernobyl-like disaster prompted the shutdown of these unsafe nuclear power plants. As of 1995, new, more ecologically friendly power plants are being built in the new L�nder to replace nuclear power and brown coal-fired plants.

More about the <>Geography of Germany.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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