Germans, great ethnic complex of ancient Europe, a basic stock in the composition of the modern peoples of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, N Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, N and central France, Lowland Scotland, and England. From archaeology it is clear that the Germans had little ethnic solidarity; by the 7th cent. B.C. they had begun a division into many peoples. They did not call themselves Germans; the origin of the name is uncertain. Their rise to significance (4th cent. B.C.) in the history of Europe began roughly with the general breakup of Celtic culture in central Europe. Before their expansion, the Germans inhabited N Germany, S Sweden and Denmark, and the shores of the Baltic. From these areas they spread out in great migrations southward, southeastward, and westward.

Although the earliest mention of the Germans is by a Greek navigator who saw them in Norway and Jutland in the 4th cent. B.C., their real appearance in history began with their contact (1st cent. B.C.) with the Romans. The chief historical sources for the culture and distribution of the Germans are Tacitus' Germania and Agricola and the remnants in later ages of early Germanic institutions. Apart from describing their barbarity and warlikeness, Caesar's Commentaries tell little. As the centuries passed the Germans became increasingly troublesome to the Roman Empire. The Vandals in the west and the Ostrogoths in the east were the first to attack the empire seriously. The Ostrogoths were a part of the Gothic people, often called the East Germanic, whose language (Gothic) was the first written Germanic language. The Goths apparently moved SE from the Vistula River to the Balkans, thence W across Europe.

German Tribes

The chief German tribes included the Alemanni, the Angles (see Anglo-Saxons), the Burgundii (see Burgundy), the Lombards, the Saxons, and the Visigoths. The many Scandinavians included the Icelanders, who produced the first Germanic literature (see Old Norse literature). Many other Germanic tribes appeared in various ancient periods. The Chamavi were in the 1st cent. N of the Rhine and SE of the Zuider Zee; by the 4th cent. they had moved southward and joined with the Frankish people. The Cimbri appeared in Transalpine Gaul late in the 2d cent. B.C. and fought Roman armies; c.103 B.C. they migrated to Italy with some Helvetii and Teutons and were crushed by Marius in 101 B.C. The Heruli, or Eruli, possibly stemming from Jutland, inhabited the shores of the Sea of Azov, E of the Don, in the 3d cent. A.D. They fought with the Goths against the Huns, joined Odoacer in his attack on the Roman emperor, and settled in N Lower Austria. In the 6th cent. their kingdom was destroyed by Lombards, and they disappeared as a group.

The Gepidae, a Gothic people, moved southward from the Baltic at Vistula into the Hungarian plain W of the Danube. Overwhelmed by Attila, they survived only to be defeated in 489 by Theodoric the Great and in 566 by the Lombards and Avars. They disappeared soon after. The Marcomanni, probably originally part of the Suebi, lived N of the Danube in Germany in the 1st and 2d cent. A threat to the Roman border, they were defeated by Marcus Aurelius in the Marcomannic War (166-180). They moved into the country of the Celtic Boii and probably expanded into Bavaria, where they seem to be the Baiuoarii, or Boiarii, ancestors of the Bavarians.

The Suebi, or Suevi, mentioned by Tacitus as a central German people, gave their name to Swabia. They probably included a number of smaller tribes, of whom the Alemanni and the Marcomanni were two. Others were the Semoni, the Hermunduri, and the Quadi. The Suebi lived near the Elbe c.650 B.C.; thence they spread S into Germany. By 100 B.C. they no longer constituted a political unit, although Tacitus maintained that they retained cultural and religious unity. The Teutons, who were allied with the Cimbri in 103 B.C., were crushed (102 B.C.) by Marius at Aquae Sextiae (present-day Aix-en-Provence). By an extension of the name of that tribe the Germanic peoples are sometimes called Teutonic.

See Germanic laws; Germanic religion; Germany.


See F. Owen, The Germanic People (1960); A. Schalk, The Germans (1971).

The German people (Deutsche) are an ethnic group, in the sense of sharing a common German culture, descent, and speaking the German language as a mother tongue. Within Germany, Germans are defined by citizenship (Federal Germans, Bundesdeutsche), distinguished from people of German ancestry (Deutschstämmige). Historically, in the context of the German Empire (1871-1918), German citizens (Imperial Germans, Reichsdeutsche) were distinguished from ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche). Out of approximately 100 million native speakers of German in the world, about 75 million consider themselves Germans. There are an additional 80 million people of German ancestry (mainly in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, France and Canada) who are not native speakers of German.

Thus, the total number of Germans worldwide lies between 75 and 160 million, depending on the criteria applied (native speakers, single-ancestry ethnic Germans, partial German ancestry, etc.). In the U.S., 43 Million or 15.2% of citizens identify as German American according to the United States Census of 2000. Although the percentage has declined, it is still more than any other group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2006 American Community Survey, approximately 51 Million citizens identify themselves as having German ancestry.

Ethnic Germans

The term Ethnic Germans may be used in several ways. It may serve to distinguish Germans from those who may have citizenship in the German state but are not Germans; or it may indicate Germans living as minorities in other nations. In English usage, but less often in German, Ethnic Germans may be used for assimilated descendants of German emigrants.

Ethnic Germans form an important minority group in several countries in central and eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Russia) as well as in Namibia, southern Brazil (German-Brazilian) and Argentina.

Some groups may be classified as Ethnic Germans despite no longer having German as their mother tongue or belonging to a distinct German culture. Until the 1990s, two million Ethnic Germans lived throughout the former Soviet Union, particularly 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 northern Midwest (especially in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, southern Michigan and eastern Missouri), and the Mid-Atlantic states (especially Pennsylvania). But historically Germanic immigrant enclaves can be found in many other states (e.g., the German Texans and the Denver, Colorado area) and to a lesser extent, the Pacific Northwest (i.e. Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington state).

Notable Ethnic German minorities also exist in other Anglosphere countries such as Canada (approx. 9% of the population) and Australia (approx. 4% of the population). As in the United States, most people of German descent in Canada and Australia have almost completely assimilated, culturally and linguistically, into the English-speaking mainstream.


The Germans are a Germanic people which as an ethnicity emerged during the post-medieval Unification of Germany. From the multi-ethnic Holy Roman Empire, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) left a core territory that was to become Germany, already to the exclusion of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Flanders. "German" ethnogenesis was complete by the time of the German Empire in 1871.


The area of modern-day Germany in the European Iron Age was divided into the (Celtic) La Tène horizon in Southern Germany and the (Germanic) Jastorf culture in Northern Germany. The predominant Y-chromosome haplogroup in Germans is R1b, followed by I and R1a; the predominant mitochondrial haplogroup is H, followed by U and T.

The Germanic peoples during the Migrations Period came into contact with other peoples, in the case of the populations settling in the territory of modern Germany, Celts to the south and Balts and Slavs towards the east.

The Limes Germanicus was breached in AD 260, and migrating Germanic tribes commingled with the local Gallo-Roman populations in what is now Swabia and Bavaria.

The migration period peoples that would coalesce into a "German" ethnicity are the Saxones, Frisii, Franci, Thuringii, Alamanni and Bavarii. By the 800s, the territory of modern Germany had been united under the rule of Charlemagne, although much of what is now Eastern Germany remained Slavonic-speaking (Sorbs, Veleti).

Medieval history

A "German" as opposed to generically "Germanic" ethnicity emerges in the course of the Middle Ages, under the influence of the unity of Eastern Francia from the 9th century. The process is gradual and lacks any clear definition.

After Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church and local rulers lent the upper hand for a German expansion and settlement in areas inhabited by Slavs and Balts (Ostsiedlung). Massive German settlement led to the assimilation of Baltic (Old Prussians) and Slavic (Wends) populations, in part exhausted by previous warfare.

At the same time, naval innovations led to a German domination of trade in the Baltic Sea and parts of Eastern Europe through the Hanseatic League. Along the trade routes, Hanseatic trade stations became centers of Germanness where German town law (Stadtrecht) was promoted by the presence of large, relatively wealthy German populations and their influence on the worldly powers.

This means that 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). The Hanseatic League was not exclusively German in any ethnic sense: many towns who joined the league were outside the Holy Roman Empire, which was not entirely German itself, and a number of them may only loosely be characterized as German.

Early Modern period

It was only in the late fifteenth century that the Holy Roman Empire came to be called the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, and even this was not exclusively German, notably including a sizeable Slavic minority. The Thirty Years' War, a series of conflicts fought mainly in modern Germany, confirmed the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Napoleonic Wars gave it its coup de grâce. Since the Peace of Westphalia, Germany has been "one nation split in many countries" (Kleinstaaterei). The Austrian–Prussian 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 alive.

In the nineteenth 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. Austria, trying to remain the dominant power in Central Europe, led the way in the terms of the Congress of Vienna. The Congress of Vienna was a very conservative act assuring that little would change in Europe and would prevent Germany from uniting. The terms of the Congress of Vienna would come to a sudden halt following the Crimean War in 1856. This paved the way for German unification in the 1860s. In 1870, Prussia attracted even Bavaria (the old ally of France) 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.

The concept of a separate Austrian nation emerges in the nineteenth century, following the Napoleonic wars, but German speaking Austrians continued to consider themselves Germans until 1919, when "German Austria" was dissolved following the Treaty of Saint-Germain.

During the 19th century in the German territories, rapid population growth due to lower death rates, combined with poverty, spurred millions of Germans to emigrate, chiefly to the United States. Today, roughly 30% of the White American population is of mainly German background, and in fact there will likely be more people of German background in the United States than Germany itself in the next several decades due to population decline in Germany and differential birth rates (1.3-1.4 children per woman in Germany versus 1.8-1.9 per non-Hispanic white woman in the United States).

20th century

The dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire after World War I led to a strong desire of the population of the new Republic of Austria to be integrated into Germany. This was, however, prevented by the Treaty of Versailles.

The Nazis attempted to unite "all Germans" into one realm. This idea was initially welcomed by many ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, Danzig and Western Lithuania, but met with significant resistance among the Swiss, who saw themselves as separate nations at least since the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

After World War II, 12 million Germans were expelled from areas annexed by the Soviet Union and Poland as well as territories of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia.

The Austrians increasingly saw themselves as a nation distinct from the other German-speaking areas of Europe; today, some polls have indicated that no more than 10% of the German-speaking Austrians see themselves as part of a larger German nation linked by ancestry or language. This phenomenon became commonplace shortly after the Second World War, when Austrian identity was emphasized along with the "first-victim of Nazism" theory.

Between 1950 and 1987, about 1.4 million ethnic Germans and their dependents, mostly from Poland and Romania, arrived in Germany under special provisions (right of return). With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, "Aussiedler" — ethnic Germans, mainly from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union — took advantage of Germany's liberal law of return to leave the harsh conditions of Eastern Europe. Approximately 2 million have resettled in Germany since the late 1980s.


The Germans are divided into sub-nationalities, some of which form dialectal unities with groups outside Germany that are not considered "Germans". The southern Upper German groups retain a pronounced identity, in the case of the Swabians historically even the cause of a limited movement of Alemannic separatism. The Low German Platt speakers also retain a certain ethnic identity, while the Central German majority has largely abandoned individual nationalisms.

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 worldwide influence of German science at the end of the nineteenth 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.

Ethnic nationalism has essentially been a taboo in German society since World War II, but it has seen a limited comeback since German reunification, with the ethnic nationalist National Democratic Party of Germany receiving 1.6% of the popular vote in the 2005 federal election.


Today, Germans include both Protestants and Catholics, with each group about equally represented in Germany. Historically, Protestants formed the majority, but with the loss of traditionally Protestant regions after World War II and many Protestants turning to agnosticism and atheism, especially in the former East Germany, the two groups are about equally represented. Today, non-Christians constitute a majority. Also some large groups of immigrants were or are mostly Catholics (e.g., Poles, Italians and Croatians).

The Protestant Reformation started in the German cultural sphere, when in 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche ("castle church") in Wittenberg. Among Protestant denominations, the Lutherans are well represented among Germans, while Calvinists are historically to be found primarily near the Dutch border and in a few cities like Worms and Speyer. The late nineteenth century saw a strong movement among the Jews in Germany and Austria to assimilate and define themselves as Germans, i.e., as Jewish Germans (a similar movement occurred in Hungary). In conservative circles, this was not always embraced, and for the Nazis, it was unacceptable. The Nazi rule led to the death or exile of almost all of the relatively small number of domestic Jews. Today Germany attempts to successfully integrate the Gastarbeiter and later arrived refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, especially Bosnian Muslims.


In recent years, the German-speaking countries of Europe have been confronted with demographic changes resulting from 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% of the German population, mostly the descendants of guest workers who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. The Poles, Turks, Moroccans, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese and people from the Balkans in southeast Europe form the largest groups of non-ethnic Germans in the country.

As of December 2004, about seven million foreign citizens were registered in Germany, and 19% of the country's residents were of foreign or partially foreign descent. The young are more likely to be of foreign descent than the old. 30% of Germans aged 15 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad. In the big cities 60% of children aged 5 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad. The largest group (2.7 million) is from Turkey.

In addition, a significant number of German citizens (close to 5%), although traditionally considered ethnic Germans, are in fact foreign-born and retain cultural identities and languages from their native countries, a fact that sets them apart from ethnic Germans. Of course, the idea of foreign-born repatriates is not unique to Germany. The English and British equivalent legal term is lex sanguinis, which is exactly the same principle- that citizenship is inherited by the child from his/her parents. It has nothing to do with ethnicity.

Ethnic German repatriates from the former Soviet Union are a separate case and constitute by far the largest such group and the second largest ethno-national minority group in Germany. The repatriation provisions made for ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe are unique and have historical basis, since these were areas where Germans traditionally lived. A controversial example of repatriation involves the Volga Germans, descendants of ethnic Germans who settled in Russia during the eighteenth century, who have been able to claim German citizenship even though neither they nor their ancestors for several generations have ever been to Germany. In contrast, persons of German descent in North America, South America, Africa, etc. do not have an automatic right of return and must actually prove their eligibility for German citizenship according to the clauses pertaining to the German nationality law. Other countries with post-Soviet Union repatriation programs include Greece, Israel and South Korea.

Unlike these ethnic German repatriates, some non-German ethnic minorities in the country, including some who were born and raised in the Federal Republic, choose to remain non-citizens. Although citizenship laws have been recently relaxed to allow such individuals to become nationalized citizens, many choose 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 since 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 because such sources traditionally survey only German citizens, and under the so called jus sanguinis system, that has been in effect in Germany since the nineteenth century, and has only recently been partially replaced by the alternative jus soli system. This situation contributes to the invisibility of Germany's minorities, making Germany technically one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations in the world, whereas in all practicality the Federal Republic is today one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe.


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