At the heart of Europe, bordered by the Alps to the south and by the Baltic Sea to the north, Germany is virtually without natural frontiers to the east and the west. Such a lack of barriers, and the subsequent accessibility to outside influences has had a profound effect on the country’s history and civilization.
In the north is the immense Germano-Polish Plain, formed by the glaciation of the Quaternary Era. The resistance of its crystalline bedrock meant that it was scarcely touched by the Hercynian and Alpine mountain-building movements. In the center, during the Primary Era, the formidable Hercynian folding created a complex of minor massifs—now smoothed by erosion and for the most part wooded—separated by geographic depressions. The most important of these Hercynian massifs are the Black Forest, the Rhenish schist massif, and—encircling Bohemia in the Czech Republic—the Bavarian Forest, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) and the Sudeten Mountains. On the edges of this Hercynian zone accumulated the coal-bearing deposits of the Ruhr and Silesia which led to the industrial expansion of the 19C.
The sedimentary basin of Swabia-Franconia, its vast area drained by the Main and the Neckar Rivers, offers a less dramatic landscape. Abutting the Black Forest to the west and the Swabian Jura to the south, the limestone plateau is patterned with lines of hills sculpted according to the resistance of the varied strata.
In the south, the Alpine portion of Germany is delimited by the Pre-Alps (Voralpen) where the debris torn up and crushed during the final exertions of Quaternary glaciation formed the Bavarian plateau—a huge area stretching in a gentle slope as far as the Danube.
Lower Rhine Valley and Westphalia
Lush, green and flat, protected from flooding, the plain of the Lower Rhine brings to mind the landscape of the neighboring Netherlands. There is similar scenery around Münster, on the Westphalian plain, where farmlands patterned by hedges and trees offer the additional attraction of many moated castles (Wasserburgen).
Great Northern Plain
Despite its apparent monotony, this enormous area (which extends eastwards into Poland) does offer a certain variety of landscapes.
In the south, below the Weser and Harz foothills, the Börde country lies between the Weser and the Elbe—a region covered by an alluvial topsoil whose fertility is legendary. Farms and market gardens flourish in this densely populated zone, which is favored also with mineral deposits rich in iron and potassium. Farther north, on either side of the Elbe, is the Geest—a region of glacial deposits (sand, gravel, clay) with little to recommend it geographically, since it was covered by the Scandinavian glaciers right up to Paleolithic times. This has resulted in poor drainage and soils that are too sandy; between Berlin and the Baltic, the Mecklenburg plateau is scattered with shallow lakes interspersed with morainic deposits that bear witness to the prolonged glacial presence. The Spree and the Havel, meandering through the flatlands, supply the lakeland regions of the Spreewald and Potsdam. West of the Lower Weser, and in the Worpswede neighborhood north of Bremen, peat bogs (Moore) alternate with very wet pastureland. Most of the peat moors are now under cultivation, after having been drained using Dutch methods. The nature reserve south of Lüneburg, however, has preserved for all time a typical stretch of the original moorland.
The Baltic Coast
The German section of the Baltic Coast, which stretches from Flensburg all the way to the Stettin Haff, is a murrain landscape, which, in addition to very flat parts also has a few elevations that rise above the 100m/320ft mark. Because of the relatively limited tidal differences of the shallow (on average 55m/180ft deep) Baltic Sea, the coastline has only been subject to little change. That’s why numerous cities with long traditions have evolved here. Between the bays of Lübeck and Kiel lies the Holsteinische Schweiz (Holstein Switzerland), the hilly and lake-dotted remainders of a ground and end moraine from the Ice Age. The arms of the sea, which are the fjords and bays left over from the glaciers of the last Ice Age, cut deep into the land and form excellent natural harbors. Their banks are lined with beaches, forests and little fishing villages. Further to the east, the Baltic Coast is marked by shallow, water-filled inlets from the post-Ice Age period. Four islands lie offshore, the largest is the water-washed Rügen.
North Sea Coast
Because of the winds and waves, the North Sea Coast between the Netherlands and Denmark is constantly undergoing change. The tides raise and lower the water level by 2m/6.4ft to 3m/9.6ft twice daily. Several island groups lie off shore in the «Watt», a 5x30km/3x18mi strip of land that is washed by the sea when the tide is in, but is above sea level at ebb times. The Watt ecosystem is home to nearly 2 000 species, from sea lions to creatures 1/10 of a millimeter in size. A strip of marshland created over centuries lies along the coast. Once upon a time, the tides used to bring in animal and plant particles together with fine sand, which formed a fertile base for agriculture in the marshlands. Behind this is the less fertile, hilly “Geest”. Broad moors have formed in the depressions, some of which have been turned over to farming. Germany’s two largest seaports, Hamburg and Bremen, lie at the inner ends of the funnel-shaped Elbe and Weser estuaries.
The Rhenish Schist Massif
This ancient geological mass, cut through by the Rhine—the only continuous natural channel of communication between the north and south of the country—the Lahn and the Moselle, comprises among others the highlands known as the Eifel, the Westerwald, the Taunus and the Hunsrück.
They share the same inhospitable climate and the same evidence of volcanic activity as the crater lakes, known as the Maare, of the Eifel plateau.
The Eifel will be familiar to motoring enthusiasts as the home of the Nürburgring Grand Prix race circuit. The Upper Sauerland, a thickly wooded, mountainous region (alt 841m/2 760ft), with its many dams, acts as a water reserve for the Ruhr industrial area.
Mountains of Upper Hessen and the Weser
Between the Rhenish Schist Massif and the Thuringian Forest (Thüringer Wald) lies an amalgam of heights, some of them volcanic (Vogelsberg, Rhön), and depressions which have been used as a highway, linking north and south, by German invaders throughout the ages. Between Westphalia and the north, the Weser Mountains—extended westwards by the Teutoburger Wald—form a barrier that is breached at the Porta Westfalica, near Minden. Farther to the east, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) form a natural frontier with the Czech Republic.
This relatively high range (alt 1 142m/ 3 747ft at the Brocken) has a typical mountain climate, characterized by heavy snowfalls in winter.
Plain of the Upper Rhine
Between Basle and the Bingen Gap, a soil of exceptionally fertile loess—accompanied by a climate combining light rainfall, an early spring and a very hot summer—has produced a rich agricultural yield (hops, corn and tobacco) and a terrain highly suitable for the cultivation of vines. The whole of this low-lying, productive tract has become a crossroads for the rest of Europe, which is why certain towns—Frankfurt, for instance—have profited internationally from their development.
Schwarzwald (Black Forest)
This crystalline massif (alt 1 493m/4 899ft at the Feldberg), which overlooks the Rhine Gap, is relatively well populated. The region’s healthy climate and many thermal springs, with their attendant, highly reputed spa resorts, draw large numbers of tourists here every year.
Franconia, formed by vast, gently undulating plateaux, is bordered to the south-east by the small limestone massif of the Franconian Jura which produces Germany’s building stone, and to the north and north-east by the wooded crystalline ranges flanking Bohemia and Thuringia. Swabia, once ruled by the kings of Württemberg, offers a variety of landscapes—barred to the south by the blue line of the Swabian Jura, which rises to 874m/2 867ft. Small valleys, enlivened by orchards and vineyards, alternate here with the gentle slopes of wooded hillsides.
The Alps and the Bavarian Plateau
The Bavarian Alps and the Allgäu Alps offer contrasts between the sombrergreen of their forests and the shades of gray of their rocks and escarpments, an impressive sight when seen against the backdrop of a blue sky. The Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany, reaches an altitude of 2 962m/9 720ft. Torrents such as Isar, Lech, Iller and Inn, have over time carved out corridors with broad, flat floors suitable for the cultivation of the land and the development of towns (Ulm, Augsburg and Munich).