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Deutsches Reich was the official name for Germany from 1871 to 1945 in the German language. The direct literal translation, "German Empire", is used only when describing Germany under Hohenzollern rule (until 1918). For the entire 1871–1945 period, the English name given for Germany was the partially translated "German Reich" (pronounced /ˈdʒɜrmən ˈraɪx/).[1] Following the German Kaiser's (Emperor's) abdication of the German Empire after World War I, the word "Empire" was dropped and the official name used in English was the "German Reich". Informally, this nation was also simply known as Germany.

The name "Deutsches Reich" was also often applied in contemporary maps to the supranational Holy Roman Empire (911–1806). The history of Germany during the time of the (second) German Reich is conventionally broken into three distinct periods:

  • the monarchy under Hohenzollern rule, known in English as the German Empire (1871–1918)
  • the democratic republic, known retrospectively as the Weimar Republic (1919–33)
  • the totalitarian dictatorship commonly known as the Third Reich or Nazi Germany (1933–45)

Following the de-facto annexation of Austria in 1938, Germany informally named itself the Greater German Reich (German: Großdeutsches Reich). This name was made the official state name only during the last two years (1943–45) of Nazi rule.[2]


The difference between "Reich" and "Empire"

While the German word "Reich" translates to the English word "empire" (it also translates to similar words such as "realm" or "domain"), this translation was not performed throughout the full existence of the German Reich. Historically, only 1871–1918 Germany — where Germany was under the rule of an Emperor — is known in English as the "German Empire", while the term "German Reich" describes Germany from 1871 to 1945.[1]

Under Hohenzollern rule, the German Reich was officially known as the German Empire.[3] After the events of World War I, the official English name for Germany was the "German Reich" and this name was used as such on legal documents and English-language international treaties — for example, the Kellogg–Briand Pact[4] and the Geneva Conventions.[5] If the term "Empire" were still considered valid at this point, it would have been used on these documents instead of "Reich".

Apart from official documents, post-WWI Germany was referred to as the "German Reich" — never as the "German Empire" — for example, by British politicians[6] and the word "Reich" was used untranslated by Allied prosecutors throughout the Nuremberg Trials, with "German Empire" only used to signify pre-1918 Germany.

The fact that the word "Reich" was never translated to "Empire" after 1918 has to do with the somewhat untranslatable nature of the word. In German, "Reich" does not presuppose a monarchical form of government, but in English, the word "Empire" almost certainly does, notwithstanding the fact that the Latin word imperium, from which "empire" is derived, does not actually connote a monarchy. Old English had the word "rīc" which was cognate with Reich, but this term has long since fallen out of use, except perhaps in the compound "bishopric".

Heads of state

Title Head of State from to
German Empire (1871–1918)
Emperor Wilhelm I 18 January 1871 9 March 1888
Emperor Frederick III 9 March 1888 15 June 1888
Emperor Wilhelm II 15 June 1888 9 November 1918
Weimar period (1919–33)
President Friedrich Ebert 11 February 1919 28 February 1925
President Paul von Hindenburg 12 May 1925 2 August 1934
Nazi period (1933–45)
Führer Adolf Hitler 2 August 1934 30 April 1945
President Karl Dönitz 30 April 1945 23 May 1945

The German Reich since 1945

End of World War II

On 8 May 1945, with the capitulation of the German armed forces, the supreme command of the Wehrmacht was handed over to the Allies. The Allies refused to recognise Karl Dönitz as Reichspräsident or to recognise the legitimacy of his Flensburg government (so-called because it was based at Flensburg and controlled only a small area around the town) and, on 5 June 1945, the four powers signed the Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany in Berlin, creating the Allied Control Council, and assumed de jure supreme authority with respect to Germany.[7]

Divided Germany

In its 1973 review of the previous year's Basic Treaty between East and West Germany, the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) ruled that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) is identical with the German Reich and not merely its legal successor.[8] The court also explained that the FRG had only partial identity in questions concerning the territory because the German Democratic Republic and the Polish- and USSR-occupied territories were outside of FRG territory.

The view, however, was contested by most other countries of the world. The three Western allies, the Soviet Union and most other Western countries regarded the German Reich as still being one nation — not synonymous with either the West or East German state but rather the two states in collective. Other countries tended to regard the German Reich to have been divided into two states. As of 1974, East Germany's official stance was that the GDR was a new state that is German in nature — but not a successor state to the Reich — and that there were then two German states that were different nations. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany was made with agreement of at least the Western allied forces. It is also worth noting that the FRG was held responsible for reparations after the war, while the GDR denied any legal responsibility for the German Reich.

Reunified Germany

When the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany between Germany and the wartime Allies was signed on 12 September, 1990, there was no mention of the term Deutsches Reich, however the Allies paraphrased the international legal personality of Germany as "Germany as a whole" in the English version of the text. Instead the states of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR) agreed to be bound by certain conditions which they had to ratify, one of which was the creation of a united Germany — which to come into existence was also required to agree to certain treaty conditions. On meeting these conditions under Article 7.2 "The United Germany [has] accordingly full sovereignty over its internal and external affairs."[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Germany" in the Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ Decree RK 7669 E of the Reichsminister and head of the Reich chancellery, 26 June 1943
  3. ^ "Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law with respect to Collisions between Vessels". Brussels. 23 September 1910.  — an example of a legal document where Germany is officially referred to as "the German Empire"
  4. ^ "Full text of the Kellogg–Briand Pact". 27 August 1928. 
  5. ^ "Full text of the Geneva Convention". 27 July 1929. 
  6. ^ "Speech by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain". 17 March 1939. 
  7. ^ Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany and the Assumption of Supreme Authority by Allied Powers, 5 June 1945
  8. ^ BVerfGE 36, 1: Verdict of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) regarding the East–West Basic Treatyin German and in English, 31 July 1973
  9. ^ Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany. Updated: November 2003

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