Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) is a historical term which arose in the early 20th century to apply for Germans living outside of the German Empire. This is in contrast to Imperial Germans (Reichsdeutsche), German citizens living within Germany. In that sense, it is the equivalent of today's legal definition of the term Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad).

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.



Over the last thousand years tens of thousands of 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.

Catherine 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. 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 Moscow (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 St. Petersburg.

During Nazi Times

Volksdeutsche in  ().
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. Before and during WW2, most Volksdeutsche in some countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland or Yugoslavia, actively supported the Nazis by espionage, sabotage and other services against their countries of origin. Most Volksdeutsche left or were expelled from their countries in the course of the German exodus from Eastern Europe. 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 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).

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

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


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 Volksliste, the list of Germans living in Poland. This included ethnic Germans whose families had lived in Poland proper for centuries, and Germans (who after 1920 became citizens of Poland) from the part of Germany that had been given 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, 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. Having helped the Polish non-communist resistance didn't help in the eyes of new Communist government installed by the Soviet Union after 1945; therefore, some of these double agent Volksdeutsche were also persecuted.

In occupied Poland, the status of "Volksdeutscher" gave many privileges, but one big disadvantage: Volksdeutsche were conscripted into the German army. The Volksliste had 4 categories. No. 1 and No. 2 were considered ethnic Germans, while No. 3 and No. 4 were ethnic Poles who had signed the Volksliste for different reasons. 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.

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.

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

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