Terminology Associated with Germans

Figure 1.--

Throughout the Medieval era, Germans moved east and established communities as far east as the Volga. It is brelieved that well over 10 million Germans lived outside the Reich in eastern and southern Europe. Many of these Germans lived in separate communities and had separate schools and other institutions. Many of these Germans lived abroad for centuries. The German defeat in World War I resulted in large numbers of Germans being left outside the boundaries of the Reich against their will. Hitler made extensive political capital out of these Germans and used them to justify German demands on neighboring countries. There were also Germans in Western Europe. Various terms have been used for Germans, both Germans livibng within the Reich and Germans living in foreign countries. Some of these terms are difficult to translate. This is in part because the terms have taken on connotations not actually associated with the dictionary definition. This has especially been the case in the aftermath of World War II when NAZI officials perpetrated attrocities of apaling proportions. Local Germans in occupied countries played arranged of roles. Some collaborated with the NAZIs. Some assisted the resistance. Others avoid political involvement. We can not as this time just how common these different patterns were. The local hostilityb toward all Germans, however, was so intense that local Germans were often the targets of borth offical persecution and localized vigelante justice.


The term Volksdeutsche means litteraly "German people". The were ethnic Germany but who did not have German citizenship. The term began to be used in the early 20th century to apply to those Germans living outside the Reich (German Empire) who were referred to as Reichdeutsche. The term was not generally used fopr any German living outside the Reich, but instead took on cultural connotations. The term "Volksdeutsche" was generally used by Germans to describe the Germans who settled in Cenntral Eastern Europe: especially Poland and Russia, but also in areas such as the Baltics, Romania, and Yugoslavia. There were large groups. Catharine the Great, herself a German princess when she married the Czar, invited German farmers to settle lands that were empty after the Seven Yeatrs War (1763). These are the Volga Germans. They were not only offered the land, but also a whole list of privileges. They could continue living as Germans in their own communities, being Lutherans, Mennonites or Catholics in an Orthodox country. They also were exempt of military service and did not have to pay taxes. No wonder that thousands of poor German farmers went to Russia. They established colonies along the Volga, but also near Odessa, on the Crimea, in Wolhynia and even in the Caucasus mountains. Many of these Germans lived in isolatio and had few contacts ith Germans. In some cases they retained destinctive clothing styles and archaic language patterns. The Volga Germans loosing their privileges under Czar Alexander II in the 1860s and many emigrated to Canada and the United States, especially the Mennonites. But about 2 million stayed in Russia and thus after 1917 became Soviet citizens. The Romanian (Transsylvanian) Volksdeutche were known as Saxxons. The Yugosalvian Volksdeutsche were known as Swabians. Some estimates suggest that the Volsdeutsche totaled about 10 million people at the advent of World War II. The NAZIs used the Volksdeutche extensively for political purposes. After World War II began the NAZIs became usuing it to describe foreign-born Germans in occupied countries who applied for German citizenship. Not all of the Volksdeutsche wanted to be German citizens, many identified more with their adopted countries.


We note some difference of opinion as to just what Reichdeutsche meant. One source tells us that it meant Germans living within the Reich. This would mean after German unification (1871). A HBC reader assures us that it meant Germans living abroad, but who carried German passports. He tells us, "I don't realy agree with this definition of Reichdeutsche. The German Imperial Empire lasted only from 1872-1918. Perhaps German citizens during that time were called Reichsdeutsche. I know as a fact that my own father was a Reichsdeutscher until 1937 when he became a Dutch citizen. The term Reichsdeutsche meant Germans citizens with a German passport who were living outside of Germany." [Stueck]


Germans who never left Germany and were living within the borders of the Reich were just called "Deutsche", plain and simple. Deutsche came to be the term used for Germans living within the Reich (Imperial Germany and subsequent regimes) and holding German citizenship. This is a relatively recent term becaise until 1871 there was no unified German nation known as Deutchland. Rather Germans referred to themselves as Austrians Bavarians, Prussians, Saxons, ect. (Note the German mercinaries that fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War were known as Hessians.) Deutsche meaning a people was not much used until after the Napoleonic Wars when Liberals began agitating for German unification.

Displaced Germans

The German defeat in World War I resulted in large numbers of Germans being left outside the boundaries of the Reich against their will. Hitler made extensive political capital out of these Germans and used them to justify German demands on neighboring countries. There were also Germans in Western Europe. Austrians wanted to join Germany, but were not permitted to do so by the Versailles Peace Treaty. Some Austrians (South Tirol) was annexed by Italy. The Sudeten Germans were included in Czecholslovakia. Substantial numbers of Germans were left in Poland when the Polish Corridor was created and Bazig became a free city. Memel was awarded to Lithuania. A small area was awarded to Belgium and Denmark. Some of this was decided by League of Nation plebecite, but the larger boundary decessions were made by the victorious Allies.

Neighboring countries

In addition to the Volksdeutsche which were whole communities of Germans living in eastern and southern Europe, were Germans who as individuals moved to neighboring countries. They lived and worked in these countries, often marrying locals. Often these were professional individuals or businessmen. The Germans who were living in the Netherlands, for example, were never called "Volksdeutsche". When they still were German citizens they were "Rijksduitsers" according to Dutch law, but as soon as they became naturalized they were considered Dutchmen with perhaps one difference: a German accent.


NAZI attrocities during World War II and the collaboration of some Volksdeutsche has as a result left the term tainted. Many in Eastern Europe see the term as synnonamous with traitor. As a result, Germans now use the term Auslandsdeutsche with essentially the same meaning as Volksdeutsche. Again there is some difference of opinion as to the meaning. A reader tells us the term "Auslandsdeutsche" usually refers to German citizens living outside of Europe, for example in South America, Asia or Africa..


Those Germans expelled are today referred to in Germany as " Vertriebenen " (expelled ones). Nearly all lived in countries that were invaded and occupied by NAZI Germany. Another term being used is "Flüchtlinge".

Modern German Citzenship

The German Constitution allows any individual of German ancestry to claim German citizenship. The largest group of foreign Germans is today located in Kazakhstan. They are the descendents of the Volga Germans who were deported to Siberia by Stalin and never allowed to return to their Volga settlements. It is estimated that about 1 Million Volga Germans now are living in Kazakhstan where the soil is not nearly as good as along the Volga. Every month thousands of Russian Germans are moving to Germany where they are granted citizenship immediately on account of their heritage. Some of them don't speak German anymore and they have to prove that they are of German descent. There are lots of Vertriebenen clubs in Germany who try to get some compensation for their losses. But most of them are organizations for people from the same countries and areas. Many come together at Heimat fests where they show up in their original costumes, especially the Donau Schwaben.


Stueck, Rudi. E-mail message, April 15, 2004.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing German pages:
[Return to the Main Volksdeutsche page]
[Return to the Main German regional page]
[German choirs] [German movies] [German school uniforms] [German royalty] [German youth groups]
[German sailor suits] [Lederhosen] [Ethnic] [Tights] [Long stockings]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [German glossaries] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: April 15, 2004
Last updated: April 15, 2004