Before the unification of the German Empire in 1871, about half of the 27 individual German states issued their own stamps. Among the most interesting are the low-value stamps created for the states of Brunswick and Mecklenburg-Schwerin, which could be divided into quarters for minor postage needs. Most German stamps at the time featured large numerical denominations surrounded by fanciful scrolls indicating the specific currency and postal service.
Prussia’s first stamps appeared in 1850, portraying Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The king was replaced by the Prussian armorial design in 1861 after his successor, Wilhelm I, initiated this new trend. By the 1860s, other states like Bavaria had adopted designs emblazoned with their official coat of arms at center and the monetary value marked along the border. Armorial imagery generally included conventional symbols like castles, lions, crowns, keys, and dragons.
After the North German Confederation was established in 1868, the stamps of individual member states were substituted with numerical designs in either groschen or kreuzer currencies for the northern and southern regions, respectively. The unification of 1871 inspired stamps featuring the German eagle emblem to showcase the strength of a consolidated German Empire. A special issue from 1899 shows the actress Anna Führing in her popular role as Germania, wearing full battle gear and looking severely toward an unseen enemy.
Germany became the first country to produce stamps using photolithography in 1911 with a series celebrating the 90th birthday of Prince Regent Luitpold; two years later, stamps featuring the Luitpold’s son Ludwig III were the first to use the photogravure process.
Designs from the Weimar Republic era, which began in 1919, still incorporated the established title “Deutsches Reich,” or “German State,” but highlighted imagery of the labor class. Special issues of this era often had high premium costs to benefit state welfare funds. The hyperinflation of German currency in 1923 required overprinting for many German stamps to match new values which changed faster than designs could be released. The highest stamp value was eventually raised to 50 billion marks, with stamps labeled “50 milliard.”
Many of the most collectible German stamps come from the great period of upheaval which began with Hitler’s ascent to power in the 1930s and lasted through 1949, when two distinct German states were established. In 1933, the National Socialist Worker’s Party appointed Hitler as chancellor and shortly after the passage of the “Enabling Act” gave him absolute power. Under the Nazis, philately was used as a means for disseminating state propaganda, as seen in many stamps from the 1930s, like the design featuring ominous, disembodied hands extending toward a giant glowing swastika.
Other stamps celebrated the expansion of the Reich, including the acquisition of the Saar region which inspired stamps featuring a symbolic embrace between mother and child. As G...
Finally, in 1941, Hitler replaced the classic portrait of Paul von Hindenburg on the country’s definitive stamps with his own image. Two years later, in the midst of World War II, Germany introduced stamps commemorating its attacks on Poland and began labeling postage “Grossdeutsches Reich” or “Great German State.”
After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, Germany’s postal system was completely wrecked, and many systems appeared to fill the voids. Very popular today are the stamps bearing Hitler’s portrait which were still used in eastern Germany where the Soviets had no immediate provisions for a new postal service. These stamps were routinely altered so that Hitler’s face was no longer visible, and only circulated for a few months following the war.
The occupying allied forces each issued stamps, creating unique versions for each postal zone within their own territories. Additional series of generic stamps for use in all of the American, British, and Soviet zones were created beginning in 1946, including the modernist series depicting a pair of hands breaking free from chains while reaching for a dove carrying an olive branch. Many municipalities again released their own stamps with charity surcharges to aid in reconstruction.
Finally, in 1949, the three western occupied zones became the Federal German Republic while the Soviet territory became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The western portion of Berlin was officially ceded as a province of the Federal Republic in 1950, and would issue its own stamps through 1990. Stamps used in West Berlin were often just modified versions of the Federal Republic’s original designs, like the 1971 stamp commemorating the German postal service’s centenary.
Stamps in the GDR emphasized historical communist figures and anniversaries, as well as an idealized working class. The GDR also recognized many painful moments from Germany’s recent past, with series memorializing the Kristallnacht riots or the terror of concentration camps. However, the GDR’s postal service still attempted to censor philately that suggested problems with communism. For example, in 1965, a stamp commemorating the 20th anniversary of refugees fleeing East Germany was produced by the German Federal Republic; letters marked with this postage and mailed to the East were either returned or had their stamps painted over.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the currency of East Germany was replaced by the Deutschmark, and new stamps were printed reading simply “Deutsche Post.” One of the earliest designs depicted the reunification of Berlin, with revelers climbing the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate.