Ethnic german

This article is about the origins and historical use of the term Volksdeutsche. For the article about some of the people this term describes, see ethnic Germans.

In Nazi thinking, Volksdeutsche were "German in terms of people or folk". The term is the plural of Volksdeutsch. The words Volk and völkisch conveyed the meanings of "folk" and "race" while adding the sense of superior civilisation and blood.[1] These terms were used by Nazis to define people in terms of their ethnicity rather than citizenship and thus included Germans living beyond the borders of the Reich, as long as they were not of Jewish religion.[2] This is in contrast to Imperial Germans (Reichsdeutsche), German citizens living within Germany. The term also contrasts with the usage of the term Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad/German expatriate) since 1936, which generally denotes German citizens residing in other countries.[3]

Volksdeutsche were further divided into Racial groups, — a minority within a minority in a state — with a special cultural, social and historic development as described by Nazis.[4]

Origin of the term

According to the historian Doris Bergen, Adolf Hitler is reputed to have coined the definition of "Volksdeutsche" which appeared in a 1938 memorandum of the German Reich Chancellery. In that document, the Volksdeutsche were defined as "people whose language and culture had German origins but who did not hold German citizenship." After 1945 the Nazi laws of 1935 in Germany and their relevant paragraphs, that referred to the National Socialist concepts of blood and race, in connection with the concept of Volksdeutsch were rescinded.

For Hitler and the other ethnic Germans of his time, the term "Volksdeutsche" also carried overtones of blood and race not captured in the common English translation "ethnic Germans". According to German estimates in the 1930s, about 30 million Volksdeutsche and Auslandsdeutsche (German citizens residing abroad, see McKale 1977: The Swastika Outside Germany, p. 4) were living outside the Reich. A significant proportion of them were in Central Europe: Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, where many were located in villages along the Danube, and Russia. Many of their ancestors had migrated to non-German-speaking European countries in the 18th century, invited by governments that wanted to repopulate areas decimated by the Ottoman Empire occupation and sometimes by disease.

The Nazi goal of expansion assigned the Volksdeutsche a special role in German plans, to bring them back to German citizenship and elevate them to power over the native populations in those areas. The Nazis detailed such goals in Generalplan Ost.[5]

Historical background


Main article: Ostsiedlung

Over the last thousand years, Germans emigrated from traditional German lands in Central Europe and settled further east in Russia, present-day Romania and other countries. Many Germans settled in the Baltic and parts of present day Poland in colonies established by the Teutonic Knights beginning in the thirteenth century. The Knights were also granted rights in Transylvania, resulting in the settlement of many Germans there.

In the sixteenth century Vasili III invited small numbers of German craftsmen, traders and professionals to settle in Russia so that Muscovy could exploit their skills. These settlers (many of whom intended to stay only temporarily) were generally confined to the German Quarter in Moscow (which also included Dutch, British and other western or northern European settlers whom the Russians came to indiscriminately refer to as "Germans"). They were only gradually allowed in other cities, so as to prevent the spread of alien ideas to the general population.

In his youth, Peter the Great spent much time in the German quarter. When he became Tsar, he brought more German experts (and other foreigners) into Russia, and particularly into government service, in his attempts to westernise the empire. He also brought in German engineers to supervise the construction of the new city of Saint Petersburg.

Catherine the Great, herself a German, invited German farmers to immigrate and settle in Russian lands along the Volga River. She guaranteed them the right to retain their language, religion and culture. Germans were also sent[by whom?] in organised colonisation attempts aiming at Germanisation of conquered Polish areas.

Also in other areas with a German minority people of other than German descent assimilated into the German culture and formed then a part of the minority. Examples are people of Baltic and Scandinavian descent, who assimilated into the minority of the Baltic Germans. Jews of Posen province, Galicia, Bukovina and Bohemia, with their previously Yiddish culture anyway descending from Germany, often mingled into the German culture, thus forming part of the various German minorities mostly. With their anti-Semitism Nazis denied all Jewish ethnic Germans and all Jewish German citizens any Germanness.

Frederick the Great (reigned 1740–1786) settled around 300,000 colonists in the eastern provinces of Prussia, acquired in the First Partition of Poland of 1772, with the intention of replacing the Polish nobility. He treated the Poles with contempt and likened the "slovenly Polish trash" in newly occupied West Prussia to Iroquois, the historic Native American confederacy based in the state of New York.[6][7]

Prussia encouraged a second round of colonisation with the goal of Germanisation after 1832.[8] Prussia passed laws to encourage Germanisation of the provinces of Posen and West Prussia in the late 19th century. The Prussian Settlement Commission relocated 154,000 colonists, including locals.

Treaty of Versailles

Main article: Treaty of Versailles

The reconstitution of Poland following the Treaty of Versailles (1919) separated German minorities of some Prussian provinces of the German Empire from a German nation state. Ethnic German inhabitants of provinces of the dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Bukovina Germans, Danube Swabians, Sudeten Germans and Transylvanian Saxons, became citizens of newly established Slavic or Magyar nation-states and of Romania. Tensions between the new administration and the ethnic German minority arose in the Polish Corridor. The Austrian Germans also found themselves not allowed to join Germany as German Austria was strictly forbidden to join Germany as well as the name "German Austria" was forbidden so the name was changed back to just "Austria" and the First Austrian Republic was created in 1919.

The Nazi era before World War II

During the Nazi years, they used the term "Volksdeutsche" to refer to foreign nationals of factual or claimed German ethnicity living in countries newly occupied by Nazi Germany or its Ally Soviet Union and who applied for German citizenship. Prior to World War II, more than 10 million ethnic Germans lived in Central and Eastern Europe. They constituted an important minority far into Russia.

Pre-war relations with the Nazis

In 1931, prior to its rise to power, the Nazi party established the Auslandsorganisation der NSDAP/AO (Foreign Organisation of the Nazi Party), whose task it was to disseminate Nazi propaganda among the ethnic German minorities eligible as Volksdeutsche in Nazi ideology. In 1936, the government set up the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (Ethnic Germans' Liaison Office), commonly known as VoMi, under the jurisdiction of the SS as the liaison bureau. It was headed by SS-Obergruppenführer Werner Lorenz.

In 1936 the Nazis set up an office to act as a contact for the Volksdeutsche. According to the historian Valdis Lumans,

"[one of Himmler's goals was] centralising control over the myriad of groups and individuals inside the Reich promoting the Volksdeutsche cause. Himmler did not initiate the process but rather discovered it in progress and directed it to its conclusion and to his advantage. His principal instrument in this effort was an office from outside the SS, a Nazi party organ, the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (VoMi), translated as the Ethnic German Liaison Office."[11]

Internal propaganda

The supposed suffering of Volksdeutsche in foreign lands was often depicted in Nazi propaganda, before and during the war, to help justify the aggression of Nazi Germany. The annexation of Poland was presented as necessary to protect the German minorities there.[12] Supposed massacres of ethnic Germans, such as Bloody Sunday, or alleged atrocities, were used in such propaganda, and the film Heimkehr drew on such attempts although allowing the Volksdeutsche depicted to survive, saved by the arrival of German tanks.[13] Heimkehr's introduction explicitly states that hundreds of thousands of Poles of German ethnicity suffered as the characters in the film did.[14]

Main article: Heimkehr

Menschen im Sturm reprised Heimkehr's effort to justify the invasion of Slavonia, using many of the same atrocities.[15] In The Red Terror, a Baltic German is able to avenge her family's deaths, but commits suicide after, unable to live with meaning in the Soviet Union.[16] Flüchtlinge depicted the sufferings of Volga German refugees in Manchuria, and how a heroic blond leader saved them; it was the first movie to win the state prize.[17] Friesennot depicted the suffering of a village of Volga Germans in the Soviet Union;[18] it also depicted the murder of a young woman for an affair with a Russian -- in accordance with Nazi principle of Rassenschande -- as an ancient German custom.[19]

Rassenschande also featured in Die goldene Stadt, where the Sudeten German heroine faces not persecution but the allure of the big city;[20] when she succumbs, in defiance of blood and soil, she is seduced and abandoned by a Czech, and such a relationship leads to her drowning herself.[21]

Collaboration with the Nazis

Main article: Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz

Before and during World War II, some members of the German minorities, in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia, identifying as Volksdeutsche actively supported the Nazis. During the social and economic tensions of the Great Depression, some had begun to feel aggrieved with their minority status. They participated in espionage, sabotage and other means in their countries of origin.

In Yugoslavia, the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen was formed. It was conspicuous in its operations against the Resistance partisans and among the population. About 300,000 ethnic Germans from the Nazi-conquered lands and the satellite countries categorised as Volksdeutsche joined the Waffen-SS, the majority conscripted involuntarily. In Hungary, for instance, some 100,000 ethnic Germans volunteered for service in it. "After the initial rush of Volksdeutsche to join, voluntary enlistments tapered off, and the new unit did not reach division size. Therefore, in August 1941, the SS discarded the voluntary approach, and after a favourable judgement from the SS court in Belgrade, imposed a mandatory military obligation on all Volksdeutsche in Serbia-Banat, the first of its kind for non-Reich Germans."[22]

Among the indigenous populations in the Nazi-occupied lands, Volksdeutsche became a term of ignominy.

During the early days of WWII (i.e., before the US entered the war), a small number of Americans of German origin returned to Germany; generally they were immigrants or children of immigrants, rather than descendants of migrations more distant in time. Some of these enlisted and fought in the German army.

During World War II

Volksdeutsche in German-occupied western Poland

In September 1939 in German occupied Poland, an armed ethnic German militia called Selbstschutz (Self-Defence) was created. It organised the mass murder of Polish elites in Operation Tannenberg. At the beginning of 1940, the Selbstschutz was disbanded and its members transferred to various units of the SS and German police. Throughout the invasion of Poland, some ethnic German minority groups assisted Nazi Germany in the war effort. They committed sabotage, diverted regular forces and committed numerous atrocities against civilian population.[23][24]

After Germany occupied western Poland, it established a central registration bureau, called the German People's List (Deutsche Volksliste, DVL), whereby Poles of German ethnicity were registered as Volksdeutsche. The German occupants encouraged such registration, in many cases forcing it or subjecting Poles of German ethnicity to terror assaults if they refused.[25] Those who joined this group were given benefits, including better food as well as a better social status.

The Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle organised large-scale looting of property and redistributed goods to the Volksdeutsche. They were given apartments, workshops, farms, furniture, and clothing confiscated from Jewish Poles and Poles of Polish ethnicity. In turn, hundreds of thousands of the Volksdeutsche joined the German forces, either willingly or under compulsion.

During World War II, Polish citizens of German ancestry, who often identified with the Polish nation, were confronted with the dilemma of registering in the Deutsche Volksliste. Many ethnic Germans had families who had lived in Poland for centuries; even the more recent immigrants had arrived 30 years or more before the war. They faced the choice of registering and being regarded as traitors by other Poles, or not signing and being treated by the Nazi occupation as traitors to the Germanic "race".

In Polish Silesian Catholic Church authorities lead by bishop Stanisław Adamski and with agreement from Polish Government in Exile advised Poles to sign up to the Volksliste in order to avoid atrocities and mass murder that happened in other parts of the country.[26]

In occupied Poland, the status of "Volksdeutscher" gave many privileges, but one big disadvantage: Volksdeutsche were subject to conscription into the German army. In occupied Pomerania, the Gauleiter of the Danzig-West Prussia region Albert Forster issued a secret order which mandated a creation of a list of people who were considered to be of German ethnicity, in 1941. Since the number of supposedly ethnic Germans who signed up voluntarily was insignificant by 1942, in February of that year Forster made signing of the Volksliste mandatory and empowered local police and other authorities to employ various methods, including physical force and threats, to implement the decree. Consequently, the initially insignificant number of signatories rose to almost a million persons, or about 55% of the population by 1944. The special case of Polish Pomerania, where terror against civilians was particularly intense, and where, unlike in rest of occupied Poland, signing of the list was mandatory for many people, was recognised by the Polish Underground State and other anti-Nazi resistance movements, which tried to explain the situation to other Poles in underground publications.[27]

The Deutsche Volksliste categorised non-Jewish Poles of German ethnicity into one of four categories:[28][29]

  • Category I: Persons of German descent committed to the Reich before 1939.
  • Category II: Persons of German descent who had remained passive.
  • Category III: Persons of German descent who had become partly "Polonised", e.g., through marrying a Polish partner or through working relationships (especially Silesians and Kashubians).
  • Category IV: Persons of German ancestry who had become "Polonised" but were supportive of "Germanisation".

Volksdeutsche of statuses 1 and 2 in the Polish areas annexed by Germany numbered 1,000,000, and Nos. 3 and 4 numbered 1,700,000. In the General Government there were 120,000 Volksdeutsche. Volksdeutsche of Polish ethnic origins were treated by the Poles with special contempt, but were also committing high treason according to Polish law.

Annexed area Deutsche Volksliste, early 1944
Cat. I Cat. II Cat. III Cat. IV
Warthegau 230,000 190,000 65,000 25,000
Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia
Note: In Polish Pomerania, unlike in the rest of occupied Poland, signing
of the list was mandatory for a good portion of the population
115,000 95,000 725,000 2,000
East Upper Silesia 130,000 210,000 875,000 55,000
South East Prussia 9,000 22,000 13,000 1,000
Total 484,000 517,000 1,678,000 83,000
Total 2.75 million on Volkslisten plus non-German population (Polish) of 6.015 million- Grand Total 8.765 million in annexed territories.
Source: Wilhelm Deist, Bernhard R Kroener, Germany (Federal Republic). Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 132,133, ISBN 0-19-820873-1, citing Broszat, Nationalsozialistische Polenpolitik, p. 134

Because of actions by some Volksdeutsche and particularly the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, after the end of the war, the Polish authorities tried many Volksdeutsche for high treason. In the postwar period, many other ethnic Germans were expelled to the west and forced to leave everything. In 21st century Poland, the word Volksdeutsche is regarded as an insult, synonymous with "traitor".

In some cases, individuals consulted the Polish resistance first, before signing the Volksliste. There were Volksdeutsche who played important roles in intelligence activities of the Polish resistance, and were at times the primary source of information for the Allies. Particularly in Polish Pomerania and Polish Silesia, many of the people who were forced to sign the Volksliste played crucial roles in the anti-Nazi underground, which was noted in a memo to the Polish Government in Exile which stated "In Wielkopolska there's bitter hatred of the Volksdeutshe while in Silesia and Polish Pomerania it's the opposite, the secret organization depends in large measure on the Volksdeutshe" (the memo referred to those of Category III, not I and II).[27] In the turmoil of the postwar years, the Communist government did not consider this sufficient mitigation. It prosecuted many double-agent Volksdeutsche and sentenced some to death.

Volksdeutsche in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939–1940

Further information: Nazi-Soviet population transfers, Heim ins Reich and Expulsion of Poles by Nazi Germany

The Soviet invasion of Finland, which had been covertly ceded under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact secret protocols, created domestic problems for Hitler.[31] Supporting the Soviet invasion became one of the most ideologically difficult aspects of the countries' relationship.[32] The secret protocols caused Hitler to hurriedly evacuate ethnic German families, who had lived in Finland and the Baltic countries for centuries and now classified as Volksdeutsche, while officially condoning the invasions.[33][34] When the three Baltic countries, not knowing about the secret protocols, sent letters protesting the Soviet invasions to Berlin, Ribbentrop returned them.[35]

In August 1940, Soviet Foreign minister Molotov told the Germans that, with the government change, they could close down their Baltic consulates by 1 September.[35] The Soviet annexations in Romania caused further strain.[35] While Germany had given the Soviets Bessarabia in the secret protocols, it had not given them North Bukovina.[35] Germany wanted guarantees of the safety of property of ethnic Germans, security for the 125,000 Volksdeutsche in Bessarabia and North Bukovina, and reassurance that the train tracks carrying Romanian oil would be left alone.[34]

In October 1940, Germany and the Soviet Union negotiated about the Volksdeutsche in Soviet-occupied territories and their property.[36] Instead of permitting full indemnification, the Soviets put restrictions on the wealth that the Volksdeutsche could take with them and limited the totals that the Soviets would apply to the Reich's clearing accounts.[37] The parties discussed total compensation of between 200 million and 350 million Reichsmarks for the Volksdeutsche, while the Soviets requested 50 million Reichsmarks for their property claims in German-occupied territories.[38] The two nations reached general agreement on German shipments of 10.5-cm flak cannons, gold, machinery and other items.[38]

On 10 January 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the German–Soviet Border and Commercial Agreement to settle all of the open disputes which the Soviets had argued.[39] The agreement covered protected migration to Germany within two and a half months of Volksdeutsche, and similar migration to the Soviet Union of ethnic Russians, Baltic and "White Russian" "nationals" from German-held territories.[40] In many cases, the resulting population transfers resulted in resettlement of Volksdeutsche on land previously held by ethnic Poles or Jews in now Nazi-occupied territories. The agreement formally defined the border between Germany and the Soviet Union areas between the Igorka River and the Baltic Sea.[40]

Heim ins Reich 1939–1944[41]
Territory of origin Year Number of resettled Volksdeutsche
South Tyrol (see South Tyrol Option Agreement) 1939–1940 83 000
Latvia and Estonia 1939–1941 69 000
Lithuania 1941 54 000
Volhynia, Galicia, Nerewdeutschland 1939–1940 128 000
General Government 1940 33 000
North Bukovina and Bessarabia 1940 137 000
Romania (South Bukovina and North Dobruja) 1940 77 000
Yugoslavia 1941–1942 36 000
USSR (pre-1939 borders) 1939–1944 250 000
Summary 1939–1944 867 000

After the German invasion of the USSR

Further information: Operation Barbarossa

after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the government granted the Volga Germans an autonomous republic. Joseph Stalin abolished the Volga German ASSR after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR. Most of Soviet Germans in the USSR were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia by Decree of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of August 28, 1941, and from the beginning of 1942 those Soviet Germans who were deemed suitable for hard work (men aged from 15 to 55 and women from 16 to 45) were mobilised for forced labour into Working columns where they lived in a prison-like environment, and sometimes, together with regular inmates, were put in prison camps. Hundreds of thousands died or became incapacitated due to the harsh conditions.

Expulsion and exodus from Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the war

Most Volksdeutsche fled or were expelled from European countries (the Netherlands, Poland and other) from 1945 to 1948 towards the end and after the war. Both those who became Volksdeutsche by registering and Reichsdeutsche retained German citizenship during the years of Allied military occupation, after the establishment of East Germany and West Germany in 1949, and later in the reunified Germany. In 1953 the Federal Republic of Germany - by its Federal Expellee Law - naturalised many more East European nationals of German ethnicity, who neither were German citizens nor had enrolled in a Volksliste, but as a matter of fact had been stranded as refugees in West Germany fled or expelled due to their German or alleged German ethnicity.

An estimated 12 million people fled or were expelled from the Soviet Union and non-Geman-speaking Central Europe, many of them being Volksdeutsche.[42][43][44][45] Most left the Soviet-occupied territories of Central and Eastern Europe; they comprised the largest migration of any European people in modern history.[43][46] The then three Allies had agreed to the expulsions during negotiations in the midst of war. The western powers hoped to avoid ethnic Germans being an issue again in Central and Eastern Europe.[47][48][49] The three Allies at the Conference of Potsdam considered the "transfer" of "German populations" from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary an effort to be undertaken (see article 12 of the Potsdam Agreement), although they asked a halt because of the inflicted burden for the Allies to feed and house the destitute expellees and to share that burden among the Allies. France, which was not represented in Potsdam, rejected to come up for the decision of the Three of Potsdam and did not absorb expellees in its zone of occupation. The three Allies could only acknowledge facts, since expulsions of Volksdeutsche and Central and Eastern European nationals of German or alleged German ethnicity who never had enrolled as Volksdeutsche, was going on already.

Local authorities forced most of the remaining ethnic Germans to leave between 1945 and 1950. Remnants of the ethnic German community survive in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A significant ethnic German community has continued in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in Romania but most of it migrated to West Germany throughout the 1980s. There are also remnant German populations near Mukachevo in western Ukraine.[50]


The term is generally avoided today due to its usage by the Nazis.

Instead, ethnic Germans of foreign citizenship living outside of Germany are called "Deutsche Minderheit", or names more closely associated with their earlier places of residence, such as Wolgadeutsche or Volga Germans, the ethnic Germans living in the Volga basin in Russia; and Baltic Germans, who generally called themselves Balts, and Estländer in Estonia. They were relocated to German-occupied Poland during World War II by an agreement between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and most were expelled to the West after the war.

Ethnic Germans were among the millions of displaced peoples on the roads of Europe in the years after the war.

See also


  • Nazi Fifth Column Activities: A List of References, Library of Congress, 1943
  • The German fifth column in the Second World War, by L. de Jong
  • The German Fifth Column in Poland, London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd,
  • Luther, Tammo (2004): Volkstumspolitik des Deutschen Reiches 1933-1938. Die Auslanddeutschen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Traditionalisten und Nationalsozialisten, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2004
  • Douglas, R.M.: Orderly and Humane. The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0300166606.
  • Franzel, Emil: Sudetendeutsche Geschichte, Mannheim: 1978. ISBN 3-8083-1141-X.
  • Franzel, Emil: Die Sudetendeutschen, Munich: Aufstieg Verlag, 1980.
  • Meixner, Rudolf, Geschichte der Sudetendeutschen, Nuremberg: 1988. ISBN 3-921332-97-4.
  • Naimark, Norman: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Oltmer, Jochen: Institute of European History, 2011, retrieved: June 16, 2011.
  • Prauser, Steffen and Rees, Arfon: The Expulsion of the "German" communities from Eastern Europe at the End of the 2nd World War, Florence: European University Institute, 2004.



External links

  • Hitler's Fifth column in Czechoslovakia
  • Hitler's Fifth column in Croatia

Template:German people

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.