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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 the Reich. 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 Republicmarker. 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 eastern 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


Over the last thousand years, Germans emigrated from traditional German lands in Central Europe and settled further east in Russiamarker, present day Romaniamarker and other countries. Many Germans settled in the Baltic and parts of present day Polandmarker 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 in Moscowmarker (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 Great spent 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 Petersburgmarker.

Catherine the Great, who was herself 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 in organized colonization attempts aiming at Germanization of conquered Polish areas.

Frederick the Great settled around 300,000 colonists in the eastern provinces of Prussia acquired in Partitions of Poland and aimed at a removal of the Polish nobility, which he treated with contempt and likened the 'slovenly Polish trash' in newly reconquered West Prussia to Iroquois..

A second colonization aimed at Germanisation was pursued by Prussia after 1832. Laws were passed aimed at Germanisation of the provinces of Posenmarker and West Prussia in the late 19th century. 154,000 colonists, including locals, were settled by the Prussian Settlement Commission.

Treaty of Versailles

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

The Nazi Era before World War II

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 Russiamarker.

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 countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland or Yugoslavia, actively supported the Nazis by espionage, sabotage and other means in their countries of origin.

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.

A small number of people of German origin returned to Germany from the USA during the early days of WWII (i.e. before the US entered the war). Some of these enlisted and fought in the German army.

During the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Eastern Europe

German and Soviet invasions and annexations from 1939-1940
On August 23, the Soviet Union and Germany entered the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression pact that contained secret protocols dividing the states of Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet "spheres of influence."

One week after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact's signing, the partition of Poland commenced with the German invasion of Western Poland, followed by the Soviet Union's invasion of Eastern Poland on September 17, which included coordination with German forces. Three Baltic States described by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Estoniamarker, Latviamarker, and Lithuaniamarker, were given no choice but to sign a so-called Pact of defense and mutual assistance which permitted the Soviet Union to station troops in them.

Pursuant to the division in the Pact, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939, Baltic States Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in June 1940 and after issuing an ultimatum in June of 1940 demanding Bessarabiamarker, Bukovina, and the Hertza region from Romaniamarker, the Romanians caved to the Soviet demands and the Soviets occupied the territory.

Volksdeutsche in German-occupied Western Poland

[[Image:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2008-0415-505, Bromberg, Leichen getöteter Volksdeutscher.jpg|250px|thumb|left|Wehrmacht soldiers showing alleged German victims to journalists. One of many photos used by Nazi propaganda. The image bears editor's cropping marks, showing portion of the image that was intended to be used for publication.Bundesarchiv (image source) also cites the original caption, which is written in a propagandistic style: Herr Chamberlein!Sie haben Polen die Blanko-Vollmacht für diese Schandtaten erteilt! Auf Ihr Haupt kommt das Blut dieser Opfer! Wenn Sie noch einen Funken Gefühl für Menschlichkeit, Wahrheitsliebe und Fairneß im Leibe hätten, müßte Sie das Grausen packen beim Anblick der Bilddokumente über die Bromberger Blutopfer.UBz: Ausländische Journalisten überzeugen sich an Ort und Stelle von den furchtbaren Mordtaten der Polen in Bromberg.

English: Bromberg, corpses of slain ethnic Germans Mr. Chamberlain! You gave Poland a blank check for this atrocity! On your head the blood of these victims comes! If you had any spark of feeling left, for humanity, truthfulness and fairness, you would have been filled with horror at the sight of the visual evidence of the Bromberg blood victims. For example: foreign journalists bear witness at the scene of Poland's terrible acts of murder in Bromberg. 9.9.39 photo Weltbild Fremke 212-39 <="">ref>" href="/Poland._-_German_soldiers_and_international_journalists_before_corpses_of_slain_ethnic_Germans_(victims_"Bromberg_Blood_Sunday")__">Poland. - German soldiers and international journalists before corpses of slain ethnic Germans

In September 1939 in Poland, an armed formation called Selbstschutz (Self-Defence) was created which organized 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 German minority formations assisted Nazi Germany in war effort, by sabotage, diversion and committed numerous atrocities against civilian population.

Following the September 1st German invasion of Poland, on September 3rd, between 100 and 400 Volksdeutsche were killed in the city of Brombergmarker, in what was is now known as "Bromberg Bloody Sunday." The circumstances around the killings remain controversial. Nazi Germany used the deaths to justify reprisal atrocities against the ethnic Poles, which were like Operation Tannenberg were organized and planned well before the war and started on 1st September.

After the Germans occupied Western Poland in September 1939, they established a central registration bureau, called the German People's List (
Deutsche Volksliste
, DVL), where Polish citizens of German origin were registered as Volksdeutsche. Poles were greatly encouraged to register themselves, in many cases forced or even subject to terror if they refused. Those who joined this group were given benefits, including better food as well as a better social status.

Among its activities on behalf of the Volksdeutsche, the Volksdeutsche Mittelstellemarker 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 Polandmarker 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. This included ethnic Germans whose families had lived in Poland proper for centuries and former colonists sent by German Empire to germanize Polish territories in the time period of 1880-1908 and who became citizens of Poland after World War I. Often the choice was either to sign and be regarded as a traitor by the Polish people, 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 postwar Communist 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.

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 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
Toal 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 0198208731, citing Broszat, Nationalsozialistische Polenpolitik, p. 134

Volksdeutsche in Soviet-occupied Pact territories

Volksdeutsche resettling after the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland

The Soviet invasion of Finland, which had been covertly ceded to it under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact secret protocols, created domestic problems for Hitler. Supporting the Soviet invasion became one of the most ideologically difficult aspect of the countries' relationship. The secret protocols caused Hitler to be in the humiliating position of having to hurriedly evacuate ethnic German families, the Volksdeutsche, who had lived in Finland and the Baltic countries for centuries, while officially condoning the invasions. While the three Baltic countries, not knowing about the secret protocols, sent letters protesting the Soviet invasions to Berlin, Ribbentrop returned them.

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

In October 1940, Germany and the Soviet Union negotiated about the fate of the Volksdeutsche in Soviet-occupied territories and their property. 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. 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. They reached general agreement on German shipments of 10.5-cm flak cannons, gold, machinery and other items.

On January 10, 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the German–Soviet Border and Commercial Agreement to settle all of the open disputes that the Soviets had demanded. Among other things, the agreement covered the migration to Germany within two and a half months of Volksdeutsche and the migration to the Soviet Union of ethnic Russians, Baltic and "White Russian" "nationals" in German-held territories. In many cases, the resulting population transfers of Volksdeutsche were to land previously held by ethnic Poles or others in Nazi-occupied territories. The agreement also formally set the border between Germany and the Soviet Union between the Igorka river and the Baltic Sea.

After Germany broke the Pact

Volksdeutsche murdered in Ukrainian prisons as German troops approached are examined on July 10, 1941

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 to Siberiamarker.

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

Sudeten Germans expelled after World War II

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 Germanymarker and West Germanymarker in 1949, and later in the reunified Germany.

At least twelve million fled or were expelled, mostly from Sovietmarker-occupied territories becoming the Eastern Bloc, making it was the largest movement of any European people in modern history. The expulsions had been agreed upon during the war by the Allies.

At least two million people perished due to flight and expulsion, 400,000 to 600,000 of whom by physical force.

German expellees
Expelled from Ethnic German population 1944/1945 Fled or expelled Died during flight or expulsion
Baltic states and Memel Territory 256,000 256,000 66,000
Yugoslavia 550,000 523,000 135,000
Former eastern territories of Germany

territories east of the Oder-Neisse line

annexed into Polandmarker and the Soviet Unionmarker
10,000,000 7,400,000 1,225,000

excluding former eastern territories of Germany
1,400,000 675,000 263,000
Romaniamarker 785,000 347,000 101,000
Czechoslovakiamarker 3,274,000 2,921,000 238,000
Hungarymarker 597,000 259,000 53,000
Totals 16,862,000 12,381,000 2,081,000

The total figures include a considerable exodus of German refugees began from the areas near the front lines as the Red Army advanced towards German-settled areas at the end of World War II. Many were aware of the Soviet reprisals on German civilians, such as Soviet soldiers committing rape and other crimes. News of these atrocities, like the Nemmersdorf massacremarker, were also, in part, exaggerated and spread by the Nazi propaganda machine.

Local authorities forced most of those who remained or returned to leave between 1945 and 1950, such that the total number of ethnic Germans still living in Eastern Europe today numbers approximately 2.6 million, about 12 percent of the pre-war total. Tiny remnants of the ethnic German community also remain in the former Sovietmarker republics in Central Asia. There is also a small surviving German community in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in Romaniamarker.


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 as Wolgadeutsche 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).

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, Hutchinson & Co Ltd, London
  • Luther, Tammo (2004): Volkstumspolitik des Deutschen Reiches 1933-1938. Die Auslanddeutschen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Traditionalisten und Nationalsozialisten. Franz Steiner, Stuttgart


  1. Bergen, Doris. The Nazi Concept of 'Volksdeutsche' and the Exacerbation of Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, 1939-45 Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 569-582
  2. "In fact from Hitler to Hans we find frequent references and Jews as Indians. This, too, was a long standing trope. It can be traced back to Frederick the Great, who likened the 'slovenly Polish trash' in newly' reconquered West Prussia to Iroquois". Localism, Landscape, and the Ambiguities of Place: German-speaking Central Europe, 1860-1930 David Blackbourn, James N. Retallack University of Toronto 2007
  3. Wielka historia Polski t. 4 Polska w czasach walk o niepodległość (1815 - 1864). Od niewoli do niepodległości (1864 - 1918)Marian Zagórniak, Józef Buszko 2003 page 186
  5. Text of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, executed August 23, 1939
  6. Wettig, Gerhard, Stalin and the Cold War in Europe, Rowman & Littlefield, Landham, Md, 2008, ISBN 0742555429, page 20-21
  7. Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline, Stalin's Cold War, New York : Manchester University Press, 1995, ISBN 0719042011
  8. Senn, Alfred Erich, Lithuania 1940 : revolution from above, Amsterdam, New York, Rodopi, 2007 ISBN 9789042022256
  9. Bundesarchiv (image source) captioned this picture Polen.- Deutsche Soldaten und internationale Journalisten vor Leichen getöteter Volksdeutscher (Opfer des "Bromberger Blutsonntag") (Poland.- German soldiers and international journalists in front of bodys of killed Volksdeutsche (victims of the "Bromberg Bloody Sunday")
  10. Historia Encyklopedia Szkolna Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne Warszawa 1993 page 357, 358
  11. Georg Hansen, Ethnische Schulpolitik im besetzten Polen: Der Mustergau Wartheland, Waxmann Verlag, 1995, pp30ff, ISBN 3893253009 [1]
  12. Bruno Wasser, Himmlers Raumplanung im Osten: Der Generalplan Ost in Polen, 1940-1944, Birkhäuser, 1993, pp.109ff, ISBN 3764328525 [2]
  13. among the resettled people were the parents of todays German president Horst Köhler
  14. Johari, J.C., Soviet Diplomacy 1925-41: 1925-27, Anmol Publications PVT. LTD., 2000, ISBN 8174884912 pages 134-137
  15. Jürgen Weber, Germany, 1945-1990: A Parallel History, Central European University Press, 2004, p.2, ISBN 9639241709
  16. Peter H. Schuck, Rainer Münz, Paths to Inclusion: The Integration of Migrants in the United States and Germany, Berghahn Books, 1997, p.156, ISBN 1571810927
  17. The Expulsion of 'German' Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, European University Institute, Florense. HEC No. 2004/1. p.4
  18. Arie Marcelo Kacowicz, Pawel Lutomski, Population resettlement in international conflicts: a comparative study, Lexington Books, 2007, p.100, ISBN 073911607: "...largest movement of any European people in modern history" [3]
  19. Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism and civilization: a history of Europe in our time, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.419: "largest population movement between European countries in the twentieth century and one of the largest of all time." ISBN 0198730748
  20. Detlef Brandes, Der Weg zur Vertreibung 1938-1945: Pläne und Entscheidungen zum "Transfer" der Deutschen aus der Tschechoslowakei und aus Polen, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2005, pp.398ff, ISBN 3486567314 [4]
  21. Klaus Rehbein, Die westdeutsche Oder/Neisse-Debatte: Hintergründe, Prozess und Ende des Bonner Tabus, LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2005, pp.19,20, ISBN 3825893405 [5]
  22. Christoph Bergner, Secretary of State in Germany's Bureau for Inner Affairs, outlines the stance of the respective governmental institutions in Deutschlandfunk on 29 November 2006, [6]
  23. Statistisches Bundesamt, Die deutschen Vertreibungsverluste, Wiesbaden, Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart 1958, pp.38,45,46.
  24. Matthew J. Gibney, Randall Hansen, Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present, 2005, pp.197,198, ISBN 1576077969, 9781576077962
  25. Matthew J. Gibney, Randall Hansen, Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present, 2005, p.198, ISBN 1576077969, 9781576077962
  26. Earl R. Beck, Under the Bombs: The German Home Front, 1942-1945, University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p.176, ISBN 0813109779


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