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Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) is a historical term which arose in the early 20th century to describe ethnic Germans living outside of theReich. This is in contrast to Imperial Germans (Reichsdeutsche), German citizens living within Germany. The term also contrasts with the modern term Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad) which generally denotes German citizens residing in other countries.

This is the loosest meaning of the term, which was used mainly during the Weimar Republic. In a stricter sense, Volksdeutsch came to mean ethnic Germans living abroad but without German citizenship, i.e., the juxtaposition with Reichsdeutsch was sharpened to denote difference in citizenship as well as residence.

Origin of the term

According to Doris Bergen, Hitler himself is reputed to have coined the definition of "Volksdeutsche" that 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. However, for Hitler and other 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 in easteren Europe - Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states and Romania. The Nazi goal of expansion to the east assigned the Volksdeutsche a special role in German plans for the east as embodied in Generalplan Ost.

History of the term


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.

In the Sixteenth Century Vasili III invited small numbers of German craftsmen, traders and professionals to settle in Russia so that the empire could exploit their skills. These settlers (many of whom intended to stay only temporarily) were generally confined to the German Quarter inMoscow (which also included Dutch, British and other western or northern European settlers who the Russians came to indiscriminately refer to as "Germans") and gradually in other cities so as to prevent the spread of alien ideas to the general population. In his youth, Peter the Greatspent much time in the German quarter and when he became Tsar he brought more German experts (and other foreigners) into Russia and particularly into government service in his attempts to westernize the empire. He also brought in German engineers to supervise the construction of the new city of Saint PetersburgCatherine the Great, who was herself German, invited German farmers to immigrate and settle in Russian lands along the Volga River which had recently been conquered from the Ottoman Empire. She guaranteed them the right to retain their language, religion and culture.

Treaty of Versailles

Main article: Treaty of Versailles

The reconstitution of Poland following the Treaty of Versailles left millions of Germans previously living in a Prussian province of the German Empire outside a German nation state. The same happened to German inhabitants of most provinces of dissolved Austria-Hungary, most notably Sudeten GermansDanube Swabians and Transylvanian Saxons were now inhabitants of newly established Slavic or Magyar nation states. Tensions between administration and German minority arose in the Polish Corridor.

Areas of Europe with German speakers (green), ca. 1925.
Areas of Europe with German speakers (green), ca. 1925.

During the Nazi Era

Volksdeutsche in Sudetenland (1938).
Volksdeutsche in Sudetenland(1938).

During Nazi times, the term "Volksdeutsche" referred to foreign-born Germans living in countries occupied by Germany who applied for German citizenship. Prior to World War II, well above ten 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 (Foreign Organisation of the Nazi Party), whose task it was to disseminate Nazi propaganda among the German minorities living outside of Germany (Volksdeutsche). In 1936, the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (Ethnic Germans' Welfare Office), commonly known as VoMi, was set up under the jurisdiction of the SS as the liaison bureau for the Volksdeutsche, headed by SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Werner Lorenz.

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

"[one of Himmler's goals was] centralizing 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."

Collaboration with the Nazis

Before and during WWII, some Volksdeutsche in some countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland or Yugoslavia, actively supported the Nazis by espionage, sabotage and other services against their countries of origin.

In September 1939 in Poland, an armed self-defence unit called Selbstschutz (Self-Defence) was created for the Volksdeutsche. At the beginning of 1940, the Selbstschutz was disbanded and its members transferred to various units of the SS and German police.

In Yugoslavia, the "Prinz Eugen" Division of the Waffen-SS was formed, and was conspicuous in its operations against the partisans and among the population. About 300,000 Volksdeutsche from the conquered lands and the satellite countries joined the Waffen-SS. From Hungary alone, some 100,000 ethnic Germans volunteered for service in it. Among the populations in the Nazi-occupied lands, Volksdeutsche became a term of ignominy.


After the Germans occupied Poland in September 1939, they established a central registration bureau, called the German People's List (Deutsche Volksliste, DVL), where they registered Polish citizens of German origin as Volksdeutsche. Poles were greatly encouraged to register themselves, and were sometimes compelled to do so. Those who joined this group were given benefits, including better food, and were accorded a special status.

Among its activities on behalf of the Volksdeutsche, the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle organised large-scale looting of property. The Volksdeutsche were given apartments, workshops, farms, furniture, and clothing that had belonged to Jews and Poles. In turn, hundreds of thousands of the Volksdeutsche joined the German forces, either willingly or under compulsion.

In Poland during World War II, Polish citizens of German ancestry, who often identified themselves with the Polish nation, were confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, the list of Germans living in Poland. This included ethnic Germans whose families had lived in Poland proper for centuries, and Germans (who became citizens of Poland after 1920) from the part of Germany that had been transferred to Poland after World War I.

Often the choice was either to sign and be regarded as a traitor by the Polish, or not to sign and be treated by the Nazi occupation as a traitor of the Germanic race. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, some of these people were tried by the Polish authorities for high treason. Even now, in Poland the word Volksdeutsch is regarded as an insult, synonymous with the word "traitor".

In some cases, individuals consulted the Polish resistance first, before signing the Volksliste. Volksdeutsche played an important role in intelligence activities of the Polish resistance, and were at times the primary source of information for the Allies. In the eyes of the postwarCommunist government, having aided the non-Communist Polish resistance was not considered a mitigating factor; therefore, many of these double-agent Volksdeutsche were prosecuted.

In occupied Poland, the status of "Volksdeutscher" gave many privileges, but one big disadvantage: Volksdeutsche were subject to conscription into the German army.

The Deutsche Volksliste categorised Poles into one of 4 categories:

  • Category I: Persons of German descent who had engaged themselves in favour of the Reich before 1939.
  • Category II: Persons of German descent who had remained passive.
  • Category III: Persons of German descent who had become partly "polonized", e.g. through marrying a Polish partner or through working relationships (especially Silesians and Kashubians).
  • Category IV: Persons of German ancestry who had become "polonized" 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.

The Volga Germans

The Volga Germans were granted an autonomous republic after the Russian Revolution of 1917 but the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was abolished by Stalin after the German invasion of the USSR with many of its inhabitants being deported toSiberia.

Expulsion and exodus from Eastern Europe

Most Volksdeutsche left or were expelled from their countries in the course of the German exodus from Eastern Europe. Both those who became Volksdeutsche by signing the list 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.

Tiny remnants of the ethnic German community remain in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. There is also a small surviving German community in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in Romania.


The Nazis popularized the terms Volksdeutsche, and also exploited this group for their own purposes. As a result, the term is not much used today - often one uses either Auslandsdeutsche, or names that more closely associate them with their earlier place of abode such asWolgadeutsche or Volga Germans, the ethnic Germans living in the Volga basin in Russia; and Baltic Germans, those ethnic Germans who generally called themselves Balts and were removed to German-occupied Poland during WW2 by an agreement between Hitler and Stalin).

Flag of Volksdeutsche in the Independent State of Croatia.
Flag of Volksdeutsche in the Independent State of Croatia.

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