Ethnic Clothes: German Minorities

Figure 1.--

Germany has several ethnic sand religious minorities. There were an especially large number of Poles because Germany (Prussia) participated in the partition of Poland. There were, however, other ethnic groups including Czechs, Gypsies, Jews, Serbs, and others. There were once large numbers of ethnic populations within Germany, especailly the German Empire (1871-1918). German policies toward these groups have varied over time. German Jews were highly assimilated. Other groups less so. Many of these groups wore destinctive costumes, at least for special events and celebrations. Several developments after World War I (Treaty of Versailles, NAZI ethnic policies and the Holacaust) and the redrawing of boundaries after World War II all acted to reduce the population of ethnic minorities in Germany, but some remain. And new minorities have migrated to Germany. Some have assimilated, others seem more resistent to assimilation. We are insure to what extent these minorities celebrate ethnic festivals, and wear ethnic clothing as is common in America. We know that the Sorbs do, we are unsure about the other ethnic minorities. Ethnic costumes in Germany are generally thought as the various costumes worn in Germany by basically people all ethnically German and all speaking German, albeit with different accents and dialects.

Minority and Immigrant Groups


There always were Slavonic Czechs in Germany, but their numbers are insignificant. There were very large numbers of Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I (1914-18). The number of Czechs under Austraian control Germany was considerably reduced by the Versailles peace treaty and the creation of Czecheslovakia. They were brought back into the Reich by the Munich Pace Conference in 1938 which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. (Germany has eralier in the year absorbed Austria in the Anschluss.) NAZI policy was to Germanize the Sudentland, but we have fewe details at this time. World War II limited the process and the Sudentenland was returned to Czecheslovakia after the War. I do not have infornation on Czech folk costumes, but there is some information on German clothing trends in the Sudetenland. More than 3 million German-speaking Czech citizens (Sudeten-Germans) were expelled from their homeland in 1945-46 and ended up mainly in Southern Germany, but as they are ethniclly German they are not considered an ethnic minority.


There is a Danish minority in the far north of Germany around the city of Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein. The Danes today have their own schools, libraries, and clubs. (I am not sure what German policies were toward such institutions under Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, or the Third Reich.) There also exist a German minority on the other side of the border, mostly in souther Denmark. The Prussians seized southern Jutland in the Prussian-Danish War of 1864. Northern Schleswig was eventually returned to Denmark on the basis of a plebesite mandated by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. As far as German policies toward the DANES in Germany are concerned, the German and the Danish government have agreed that the German Danes can freely express theit cultural heritage as long as the German minority in Southern Denmark is allowed the same privileges. So now they all have their own newspapers, schools and libraries. In small cities and villages they share the same Lutheran church with services in both languages alternately. All this was never possible before this agreement was signed in 1949.


Although little known to Americans, the Frisians are of some historical importance. The Fisians were one of the Anglo-Saxon groups which settled Britain after the withdrawl of the Roman legions in 410 AD. The Frisian language is in fact closer to English than any of the other Germanic alaguages. There are Frisians today in Denmark, Germay, and the Netherlands. There are three dialectsspoken (at least in 1966): the Westfrisian is spoken in Eastholland and around Gronningen (Netherlands), the Eastfrisian is only spoken in three villages around Frieshoythe (southwest of Oldenburg) and Northfrisian is spoken on the Halligen islands, the Northfrisian islands and the land facing them, and on Helgoland. The Frisians in Schleswik (Germay) are today a small but recognized as an autochthonous or historical minority. The regional governments in Schleswik oversee the execution of some special rights that these minorities possess, such as education in the ethnic language, ethnic periodicals and bilingual road signs. A reader reports, "I find it especially interesting because I live in Cotati a few miles north of Petaluma where many German Frisians have settled. They worked in this area as chicken and turkey farmers. Petaluma used to be the egg capital of California. Most of the Frisians here came in the 1920s from the North Sea islands of Sylt and Foehr, but also from the mainland of Schleswig-Holstein. Including their descendants there are in this part of Sonoma County more people hailing from Foehr than on the island itself. However, few know how to speak Frisian. The older folks all speak Plattdeutsch (Low German) as well as English and High German. Our telephone book is full with names like Hansen, Christiansen, Boysen, etc. all people from the North Frisian islands. The Frisian spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland (where the street signs are bilingual) is similar to the language of the German and Danish Frisians. They are able to converse very well and there are contacts, a.o. with the Nord Friisk Instituut in Bredstedt (Schleswig), that is doing a good job in protecting, preserving and promoting Frisian culture."


We do not yet have any information about Gypsies in Germany. There was a small Gypsy (Roma) population in both Germany and Austria. The population was considerably reduced after World War I when Austria-Hungary was divided into national states. The German Gypsies did often wear ethnic costumes. We see what looks to be a gypsey influence on the photographic record. An example here is an unidentified Berlin boy. The Roma were strongly affected by World War II as many countries with important Roma populations were occupied by the NAZIs. Under the NAZIs. the Roma were prcecuted. Many were sent to the concentration camps. The NAZIs were unsure at first what to do with them, but then began gassing them like the Jews. It is calculated that a half million Gypsyes were killed during the Holocaust


Before the NAZI's seized power in 1933 there were about 500,000? Jews in Germany and before the Anchluss there were more than 180,000 Jews in Austria. Many were families with ancestors that had lived in Germany and Austria for centuries. Others were more recent arrivals, like American Jewish immigrants, fleeling the reprerssive policies and pogroms of Tsarist Russia, especially after the assasination of Alexander II in 1881. Most appeared highly assimilated. One author contgends that German Jews assimilated the cultural values of Germany but were not themselves assimilated into German society, Mendes-Flohr contends. Yet, by virtue of their adoption of values sponsored by enlightened German discourse, they were no longer unambiguously Jewish. [Mendes-Flohr] Although there had been laws in Prussia and many German states restricting their rights, the Constitution of the German Empire emancipated Jews and recognized them as full citizens. The German Jews were so well assisimalted that they very effectively competed with other Germand for university slots and pretigious jobs such as doctors, lawyers, university professorships, and others. The NAZIs were to gain considerable support in these professions by expelling Jews, creating oportunities for ambitious young Germans. NAZI schools first mistreated and then expelled Jewish children. The NAZIs passed laws intended to deprive Jews of their economic livelihood and to remove them from a competitive position in the German economy. A good example id Jews involved in the clothing industry. The NAZI objective at first was to steal Jewish property and force Jews to emmigrate. The NAZIs at the natioanl level as well as ealous independent local officials on their own iniative conduted a systematic and progressive denial of the basic needs of life for German Jews. The initial program is starkly remarkable for its relentless malice and viciousness. The effort reached a fever pitch with the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9-10, 1938. After World War II began in September 1939 the NAZI policy turned genocidal with the launching of the Holocaust. At first many German and Austrian were deported to the Lublin district of the Government General. Mosdt subsequently were mirdered in the death camps. As a result of emmigration and the Holocaust the Jewish population in both Germany and Austria was reduced to minimal levels. Few of the Jews who survived desired to return. Given the level of Jewish assimilation, here were probably not German Jewish ethnic costumes worn to any great extent before the NAZI takeover.


Italians during the Gernman Empire (1871-1918) were also imported to work in Ruhr-area mines and factories, like the Poles. The Italians, unlike the Poles, were not German citizens. Many did, however, settle down in Gernay and integrate with the local population.


There also was another Slavic tribe living in Germany, the " Masuren ", about 150,000 of them, living in the southern part of East Prussia. They spoke a Polish dialect, but they were Lutherans, not Catholic like the Poles and Lithuanians, and they always voted for Germany in any border dispute.


The Poles were a very substantial minority in Germany, especially because Germany (Prussia) participated in the partitions of Poland. There was always a Polish minority along the Eastern border of Prussia and the Polish partitions brough areas into Prussia that were laergely populated by Poles. Surpringly However, the most significant ethnic Polish group in Germany was along the western border of Germany in the Ruhrgebiet of Rhineland-Westphalia. These were the so-called Ruhr Poles, who after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 were invited by German authorities to work in the coal mines and newly established industries. In 1914 there were between 350 000 and 500 000 "Ruhrpoles" living in Germany. They had their own organizations like the "Sokols" (sport clubs) where they wore destinctive uniforms. I am not sure to what extent they wore ethnic clothing or held folk festivals. After World War I, the number of Poles in Germany were substantially reduced when the Versailles Peace Treaty created a new Polish statem in part out of areas from the German Empire, especially Upper Silesia and West Prussia.


German slavs were called "Sorbs" or "Wends". These people are a west slavic speaking, of whom are mainly protestant. There're some catholic, too. The Sorbs are primarily located in Eastern Germany. The northern Sorbs in the Spree Forest southeast of Berlin are called "Wends". Most of them are protestant. The Sorbs first settled in what is now Germay during the Middle Ages. Heinrich I in 928 created the Mark Meissen and at this time te Sorbs were reported in Saxony. Sorbs are also found in Bohemia, the modern day Czech Republic. Main Towns in the area are Bautzen (Bydsin) Vetschau and Görlitz. The Sorbs never had their own state. They always were Prussian or German citizens. But they kept their culture, language and costumes.


The German economy recovered rapidly after World War II and by the 1950s as a result of the a href="/Country/ger/chron/20/pw/dec/1950/gem.html">German Economic Miricle, there was a shortage of workers to staff the rebuilt and new factories appearing throughout West Germany. To address the labor shortage, "guest workers" were invited to work in Germany. Some stayed briefed periods. Others made their home in Geramny and a substantial population of ethnic Turks now calls Germany home. In more recent years other Muslim immigrants have come to Germany from Morocco and other Muslim countries. The most established Muslim population is the Turks. Germans once had relatively positive attitudes towards Turks and Arabs. The attitude of the Germans and the neighboring Dutch is changing towards Muslim immigrants like the Turks and Moroccans. Many Germans complain that there are simply too many. They complain that they do not assimilate fast enough. One HBC reader writes, "On the contrary, being Muslims, they expect the autochthons to adjust to them." Here Koranic teaching is a factor. The Koran teaches that Muslims should associate with other Muslims and avoid Christiasns and Jews. The question of the Koran and Toleration is importsant to consider. Many Germans complain that after 50 years in Western Europe many still don't speak Dutch or German. Some Muslims have assimilated. Germans also see a different mentality and habits in which their religion plays a large role. There are exceptions. The mayor of an important city in Germany (Bielefeld) is a Turk and the mayor of Rotterdam is Moroccan. The Turks fr their part complain that Germany is not a veryv welcoming society and that racial prejudice mmakes assimilation difficult. I'm not sure to what extent they wear ethnic costumes. If at all it would probably be at ethnic celebrations. Given that German Turks are sometimes attacked by neo-NAZI skin heads, they presumably do not normally wear ethnic clothing.


Current estimates suggest that nearly 7.5 million foreigners live in Germany. They are about 9 percent of the German population. Interestingly the foreign share of the German population is about the same as the foreign-born share of the United States population, generally seen as a natin of immigrants. If current levels of immigration continue, the German population is expected to reach 75 million in 2030, including a stunning 33 percent foreigners. The social and cultural impact of that is potentially huge, especially in a country that has often not welcomed migrants or been sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity. The U.S. population is expected to reach about 345 million in 2030, including about 14 percent foreign-born residents. There has been an extensive public debate in America over this, but the projected numbers of foreign-born residents are less than half of that projected for Germany. Germany appears to be a reluctant land for these immigrats. Many Germans do not want the 350,000 to 400,000 immigrants who arrive annually. Neither German public opinion nor German law embraces this level of migration. The United States celebrates its heritage as a haven for immigrants. One of the most cherished national icon is the Statute of Liberty welcoming foreign immigrants. There is a widespread, although not universal belief, among Americans that immigrants have made an indesspensible contribution to the country's economic and cultural life. Not such national consensus exists in Germany. [Martin]


Cotati, Rudi. E-mail, July 11, 2002.

(Dr.) Fritzsch, Dr. Fiedler and Ms. Dr. Koenig (Institut für Deutsche Volkskunde, Dresden). Deutsche Volkstrachten (1955).

Martin, Philip L. "Germany: Reluctant Land of Immigration", undated U.C. Davis paper.

Mendes-Flohr, Pauk.German Jews: A Dual Identity (1999), 168p.

Mueller, Reinhard. E-mail message, July 11, 2002.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main German page]
[Return to the Main lederhosen page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [German glossary] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing ethnic pages:
[Main ethnic page]
[German] [Greek] [Irish] [Native American] [Scottish]

Created: July 10, 2002
Last updated: 1:42 AM 7/26/2009