Long-term studies of land system change can help providing insights into the relative importance of underlying drivers of change. Here, we analyze land system change in Germany for the period 1883–2007 to trace the effect of drastic socio-economic and institutional changes on land system dynamics. Germany is an especially interesting case study due to fundamentally changing economic and institutional conditions: the two World Wars, the separation into East and West Germany, the accession to the European Union, and Germany’s reunification. We employed the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP) framework to comprehensively study long-term land system dynamics in the context of these events. HANPP quantifies biomass harvests and land-use-related changes in ecosystem productivity. By comparing these flows to the potential productivity of ecosystems, HANPP allows to consistently assess land cover changes as well as changes in land use intensity. Our results show that biomass harvest steadily increased while productivity losses declined from 1883 to 2007, leading to a decline in HANPP from around 75%–65% of the potential productivity. At the same time, decreasing agricultural areas allowed for forest regrowth. Overall, land system change in Germany was surprisingly gradual, indicating high resilience to the drastic socio-economic and institutional shifts that occurred during the last 125 years. We found strikingly similar land system trajectories in East and West Germany during the time of separation (1945–1989), despite the contrasting institutional settings and economic paradigms. Conversely, the German reunification sparked a fundamental and rapid shift in former East Germany’s land system, leading to altered levels of production, land use intensity and land use efficiency. Gradual and continuous land use intensification, a result of industrialization and economic optimization of land use, was the dominant trend throughout the observed period, apparently overruling socio-economic framework conditions and land use policies.