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Regions with significant populations

United States:
   57,000,000 1990
The former Soviet Union:

German, English, Russian, Polish, Romanian, Portuguese, Hungarian
Catholicism, Lutheranism, Other, None
Related ethnic groups
other Germanic peoples

The Germans (German: die Deutschen), or the German people, are a nation in the meaning an ethnos (in German: Volk), defined more by a sense of sharing a common German culture and having a German mother tongue, than by citizenship or by being subjects to any particular country. In the world today, approximately 100 million have German as their mother tongue. If a distinction is made between Germans and Ethnic Germans, the latter are distinguished by living outside of the Federal Republic of Germany and not holding German citizenship.

The concept of who is a German has varied. Until the 19th century, it denoted the speakers of German, and was a much more distinct concept than that of Germany, the land of the Germans. The Dutch and the Swiss had already split off and shaped separate national identities. Swiss Germans, however, retained their cultural identity as German, albeit as a specific German subculture.

In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the Holy Roman Empire (of the German nation), Austria and Prussia would emerge as two opposite poles in Germany, trying to re-establish the divided German nation. In 1870, Prussia attracted even Bavaria in the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire as a German nation-state, effectively excluding the multi-ethnic Austrian Habsburg monarchy. From this time on, the connotation of Germans came to shift gradually from "speakers of the German language" to "Imperial Germans."

Before World War II, most Austrians considered themselves German and denied the existence of a distinct Austrian ethnic identity. It was only after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II that this began to change. After the world war, the Austrians increasingly saw themselves as a nation distinct from the other German-speaking areas of Europe, and today, polls indicate that no more than ten percent of the German-speaking Austrians see themselves as part of a larger German nation linked by blood or language.

Ethnic Germans form an important minority group in several countries in central and eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania) as well as in Namibia and in southern Brazil. Until the 1990s two million Ethnic Germans lived throughout the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia and Kazakhstan. In the United States 1990 census, 57 million people are fully or partly of German ancestry, forming the largest single ethnic group in the country. Most Americans of German descent live in the Mid-Atlantic states (especially Pennsylvania) and the northern Midwest (especially in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, and eastern Missouri.)


The Germans are a Germanic people. Ethnographers hypothesize that all Germanic speakers originally came from Scandinavia, which includes Jutland and the southwest shores of the Baltic Sea, before the Migrations Period. Prior to that time, their Indo-European ancestors may have migrated slowly from the Black Sea region and arrived in southern Scandinavia. Assimilation with other peoples is postulated, both with the prior inhabitants of Scandinavia and with peoples encountered on their way from Asia. Celtic peoples were then either assimilated, exterminated, or driven out during the expansion southwards from the Baltic.


After the Migrations Period, Slavs expanded westwards at the same time as Germans expanded eastwards. The result was German colonization as far East as Romania, and Slavic colonization as far west as present-day Lübeck, at the Baltic Sea, Hamburg (connected to the North Sea), and along the rivers Elbe and Saale further South. After Christianization, the superior organization of the Catholic Church lent the upper hand for a German expansion at the expense of the Slavs, giving the medieval Drang nach Osten as a result. At the same time, naval innovations led to a German domination of trade in the Baltic Sea and Central–Eastern Europe through the Hanseatic League. Along the trade routes, Hanseatic trade stations became centers of Germanness where German urban law (Stadtrecht) was promoted by the presence of large, relatively wealthy German populations and their influence on the worldly powers.

Thus people whom we today often consider "Germans", with a common culture and worldview very different from that of the surrounding rural peoples, colonized as far north of present-day Germany as Bergen (in Norway), Stockholm (in Sweden), and Vyborg (now in Russia). At the same time, it's important to note that the Hanseatic League was not exclusively German in any ethnic sense. Many towns who joined the league were outside of the Holy Roman Empire, and some of them ought not at all be characterized as German.

Also the "German" Holy Roman Empire was not in any way exclusively German, and its course became much different than that of France or Great Britain. The Thirty Years War confirmed its dissolution; the Napoleonic Wars gave it its coup de grâce.

Ethnic nationalism

The reaction evoked in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars was a strong ethnic nationalism that emphasized, and sometimes overemphasized, the cultural bond between Germans. Later alloyed with the high standing and world-wide influence of German science at the end of the 19th century, and to some degree enhanced by Bismarck's military successes and the following 40 years of almost perpetual economic boom (the Gründerzeit), it gave the Germans an impression of cultural supremacy, particularly compared to the Slavs.

The Divided Germany

The idea that Germany is a divided nation is not new and not peculiar. Compared to the neighbors France, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark it was obvious and true. Since the Peace of Westphalia, Germany has been "one nation split in many countries". The AustrianPrussian split, confirmed when Austria remained outside of the 1871 created Imperial Germany, was only the most prominent example. Most recently, the division between East Germany and West Germany kept the idea at life.

The beginnings of the divided Germany may be traced back much further; to a Roman occupied Germania in the west and to Free Germania in the east. Starkly different ideologies have many times been developed due to conquerors and occupiers of sections of Germany. Poets talked of Zwei Herzen in einer Seele (Two hearts in one soul).

The thought of a weak split nation gave birth to the idea of the advantage by unification. With Prince Bismarck as the great example, the Nazis went all the way and wanted to unite "all Germans" in one realm, which met a certain resistance among the Flemish and the Austrians, and much more so among the Swiss and the Dutch, who mostly were perfectly content with their perception of separate nations established in 1648.


Protestant Reformation started in the German culture, and Germans are both Protestants and Catholics. The late 19th century saw a strong movement among the Jewry in Germany and Austria to assimilate and define themselves as à priori Germans, i.e. as Germans of Jewish faith. In Conservative circles, this was not always quite appreciated, and for the Nazis it was an anathema. After the Nazi rule led to the annihilation of almost all domestic Jews, the controversy today is over the Gastarbeiter and later arrived refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, who often are Muslims.


In recent years, the German-speaking countries of Europe have been confronted with demographic changes due to decades of immigration. These changes have led to renewed debates (especially in the Federal Republic of Germany) about who should be considered German. Non-ethnic Germans now make up more than 8 percent of the German population, mostly the descendants of guest workers who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. Turks, Italians, Greeks, and people from the Balkans in southeast Europe form the largest single groups of non-ethnic Germans in the country.

In addition, a significant number of German citizens (close to 5%), although traditionally considered ethnic Germans, are in fact foreign-born and thus often retain the cultural identities and languages or their native countries, a fact that clearly sets them apart from those born and raised in Germany, in the eyes of the latter. Ethnic German repatriates from the former Soviet Union constitute by far the largest such group and the second largest ethno-national minority group in Germany.

Unlike these ethnic German repatriates, most non-German ethnic minorities in the country, including many who were born and raised in the Federal Republic, remain non-citizens. While citizenship laws have been recently relaxed to allow such individuals to become nationalized citizens, many chose not to give up allegiance to the countries of their ethnic roots and continue to live in Germany under an ambiguous status of an alien resident or a guest worker, especially that this status, though lacking certain political rights, often does not impede one's ability to work, get free public higher education and travel abroad.

As a result, close to 10 million people permanently living in the Federal Republic today distinctly differ from the majority of the population in a variety of ways such as race, ethnicity, religion, language and culture, yet often fail to be recognized as minorities in official statistical sources due to the fact that such sources traditionally survey only German citizens, and under the so called jus sanguinis system, that has been in effect in Germany since the 19th century, and has only recently been partially replaced by the alternative jus soli system, citizens are, by definition, ethnic Germans. This situation contributes to the invisibility of Germany's minorities making Germany technically one of the most ethnically homogeneous nation in the world, whereas in all practicality the Federal Republic is today the most ethnically diverse country in Europe.

Since the mid 1990s, however, changes in citizenship laws and the increased visibility of ethnic minorities seems to indicate that the concept of who is a German is slowly moving away from one that centered on ethnicity and heritage (jus sanguinis) to a concept based more on nationality, citizenship, and cultural identification (jus soli). The shift can be viewed as having been caused, in part, by both the pressure from the international community and the immigrants themselves to move to a more "modern" system citizenship based on place of birth and/or permanent residence, on the one hand, and internal pressure to limit what is viewed as excessively "generous" across-the-board granting of citizenship to everybody who can prove German heritage. Overall, mainstream public opinion seems to be shifting towards a more socially and culturally defined concept of "Germanness" rather than purely racial, ethnic or hereditary.


Historical persons like Kafka might be called Germans, or might not. Some would hold that they belong to the German culture, which is what decides if someone is considered a German or not, at least in certain contexts. Similarly, Händel, Mozart and Beethoven - who spent most of their lives in what is Austria today - may be considered to have been central within the German culture.

The Dutch and the Flemish have another standard language, so conceptually they constitute no real problem.

With regard to present-day conditions, many, probably most, Germans consider Austrians and the Swiss to have nationalities of their own, although their ethnicity may be defined as German.

See also