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The medieval Gaue in Central Europe around the year 1000


A Gau (plural Gaue) is a German term for a region within a country, often a former or actual province. It was used in medieval times, when it can be seen as roughly corresponding to an English shire, and was revived as an administrative subdivision during the period of Nazi rule in Germanymarker.

The Gau in the medieval period

Originally a Gau was an old Frankish term for a politico-geographical division of a nation. The word is the German gloss of the Latin pagus; hence the Gau is analogous with the pays of feudal Francemarker. In Middle High German it was gou and in Gothic gawi. Cognate equivalents are Gouw in Dutch (as Hetware / 'Hettergouw'), Go in Frisian, in Old Saxon and possibly *Ge in Old English surviving in names such as Vange, Essex ('fenn-*ge', fen district), or as Surrey; Sutherge = 'southern land'.

In the German-speaking lands east of the Rhinemarker, the Gau formed the unit of administration of the Carolingian empire during the 9th and 10th centuries. Many such a territory evolved into what would become known as a Grafschaft, the territory of a Graf or count within the Holy Roman Empire; the count was originally an appointed governor, but the position became in time a hereditary vassal princedom, or fief.

The Gau during the Nazi period

The term Gau was revived in the 1920s as the name given to the administrative regions of the Nazi Party. The Gau was the main administrative region of the NSDAP (Nazi Party), created by a party statute dated May 22, 1926. Each Gau was headed by a Gauleiter. The original 32 Gaue were generally coterminous with the pre-existing Länder and Prussian provinces.

By 1938 all of Germany was divided into around thirty Gaue. Following the suppression of the political institutions of the Länder (states) in 1934, the Gaue had become the de facto administrative region of government, and each individual Gauleiter had considerable power within his territory.

With Germanymarker's annexation of neighbouring territories beginning in the late 1930s, a new unit of civil administration, the Reichsgau, was also created. After the successful invasion of Francemarker in 1940, Alsace-Lorrainemarker was re-annexed by Germany. The former département of Mosellemarker was incorporated into the Gau of Saar-Palatinate, while Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhinmarker were incorporated into Baden Gau. Similarly, the formerly independent state of Luxembourgmarker was annexed to Koblenz-Trier, and the Belgianmarker territories of Eupenmarker and Malmedymarker were incorporated into Cologne-Aachen.

The Reichsgaue

German-speaking territories annexed to Germany from 1938 were generally organised into Reichsgaue. Unlike the pre-existing Gaue, the new Reichsgaue formally combined the spheres of both party and civil administration.

Following the annexation of Austriamarker in 1938, the country, briefly renamed "Ostmark", was sub-divided into seven Reichsgaue. These had boundaries broadly the same as the former Austrian Länder (states), with the Tyrolmarker and Vorarlbergmarker being merged as "Tyrol-Vorarlberg", Burgenland being divided between Styriamarker and "Lower Danube" (the re-named Lower Austriamarker). Upper Austria was also re-named "Upper Danube", thus eliminating the name of "Austria" from the official map. A small number of boundary changes were also made, the most significant of which was the massive expansion of Viennamarker's official territory, at the expense of "Lower Danube".

Northern and eastern territory annexed from the dismembered Czechoslovakiamarker were mainly organised as the Reichsgau of Sudetenland, with territory to the south annexed to the Reichsgaue of Lower and Upper Danube.

Following the invasion of Polandmarker in 1939, territories lost at the Treaty of Versailles, together with some adjacent territory, were re-annexed to Germany as the Reichsgaue of Danzig-Westpreussen (which also incorporated the former Free City of Danzigmarker) and Wartheland.

Legacy in topography

The medieval term Gau (sometimes Gäu; gouw in Dutch) has survived as (second, more generic) component of the names of certain regions -some named after a river- in Germanymarker, Austriamarker, Alsacemarker, Switzerlandmarker, Belgiummarker, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and the Netherlandsmarker.

Notably, the German translation of The Lord of the Rings opted not to use Gau for the translation of the Shire, due to its Nazi associations.



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