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Ethnic German repatriates: Historical background

The emigration of Germans to Eastern and Southeastern European countries has a long history. It dates back in part to the Middle Ages.

Unlike the emigrants to North and South America, who quickly integrated into their new homeland, the Germans in the East often form “colonies” in which they want to continue living as Germans. Thus, they are naturally very much subject to the respective political currents and often become their victims: The number of descendants of these people living outside Germany is estimated at around four million.

Russia and former USSR

Map of the village Alt-Montal

Already during the Tartar rule (1237 to 1480) German merchants were able to establish their first branches as part of the Hanseatic League, thus connecting Russia with the West. But an active immigration policy was not established until the subsequent tsars. Their goal is not only the settlement of almost deserted areas, but above all the Europeanisation of Russia. For this purpose, foreign specialists are primarily invited to the country: craftsmen, master builders, merchants and even scientists and officers.


German settlers make land arable

Overview of the emigration movements to Russia at that time

This policy culminated in the manifesto of Czarina Catherine II in 1763: As a result of serfdom in the tsarist empire, there is a shortage of farmers willing to cultivate further lands, especially along the Volga and the Black Sea. The tsarina's appeal promises foreign settlers land ownership in this region as well as various privileges, such as freedom of religion, tax exemption and exemption from military service. Around 8,000 families, mainly from Hesse and southern Germany, follow this call and settle in the Volga region, some of them after years of travel. These “Volga Germans” form the core of the ethnic German population in Russia. The first decades of these settlers are marked by hardship and privation; eventually, however, they attain economic success. The next larger group of immigrants arrived in the country at the beginning of the 19th century. Under the reign of Alexander I, areas of the Transcaucasus, the Crimea and today's Ukraine are settled. In the middle of the 19th century, German settlers founded around 3,000 colonies.


Strengthening of Russian nationalism

Decree on the relocation of the Volga Germans

The life of the German emigrants, however, is not devoid of tension. Their linguistic and religious differences often arouse the suspicion of the Russian population. The strengthening of Russian nationalism does the rest. With the reforms of Alexander II in 1871, the Russian-Germans also lose their former privileges. From now on they are treated like Russian citizens and have to do military service. The hitherto practised self-administration of the German settlement areas is dissolved in 1878. Under these conditions many no longer wish to stay. They move further east, to parts of Siberia, others leave Russia and emigrate to America. Those who stay struggle to preserve their relative independence up to the beginning of the First World War. Their number is estimated at around 1.5 million.

During the First World War, the situation of the Russian-Germans worsens dramatically. Their land is expropriated, more than 100,000 are deported to Siberia, and thousands die.

The Russian Revolution and the Civil War between 1917 and 1920 have an impact on the fate of the German minority. However, they do result in a slight consolidation of their living conditions. As early as 1917, the new Soviet government proclaims equal rights for all nationalities on Russian territory. As a result, the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Volgadeutsche ASSR) is established in 1924, whereby the German population living there almost achieves its goal of national autonomy. However, the socialist system and the seizure of power by Stalin put a quick end to this. The efforts for autonomy are completely destroyed in 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Second World War separates settler families

Working in the Trud Army

From August 1941 onwards, all Germans living in the Volga regions are expelled from their settlement areas as a group and deported to Central Asia and Siberia. Worse still, they are drafted into the so-called Trud Army (labour army), where they are put into forced labour and housed in labour camps. Many do not survive this martyrdom.

The fate of the Russian-Germans who, as a result of the war, come under German control is no better. After the end of the war, almost 300,000 people, who are in parts of Poland, but also in the western occupation zones, are “repatriated”, i.e. brought back to the Soviet Union, where they are put into the same forced labour camps. Many die during these repatriation transports. Many families are torn apart. Only years after the Second World War does the situation gradually improve. The Germans are released from the Trud Army but remain under commander's supervision. Only in 1955, two years after Stalin's death, do their lives return to normal and the Russian-Germans are allowed to move relatively freely within the Soviet Union. But a return to their former homeland is still denied. Likewise, only very few of them are able to leave the country for Germany.

This situation changes decisively only at the end of the 1980s as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies.


The history of the ethnic German population in Romania dates back to the middle of the 12th century. Back then, the Hungarian king Geysa II. had German settlers from the left bank of the Rhine move to the area that is now known as Romania. His intention was to introduce new agricultural production methods and Central European culture. These settlers settle in the Carpathian Arch, in the region of Transylvania.


No Romanianization until 1945

Overview of German resettlement to Romania

In the 18th century, the Habsburg rulers, in particular Empress Maria Theresa, lured German settlers, mainly from south-west Germany, to settle in the Banat. The settlers transformed the largely swampy area into fertile farmland.

After 1918 the Banat is divided between Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary, so that the Germans living there belong to three states. In the second half of the 18th century, German settlers, who mainly came from Upper Swabia, are settled in the Sathmar County. During the same century, further Germans are settled e.g. in Bukovina and Bessarabia. Over the centuries, the Germans in Romania have preserved their German culture and the German language, partly influenced by the dialects of their regions of origin. Even in the period between the two world wars there are no attempts to Romanianize the Germans. However, they do suffer from disadvantages. Nevertheless, the Germans living in Romania had a strong economic and social position until 1945, which also allowed them to enjoy an intensive cultural life.

Resettlement and separation during the Second World War

In 1940, due to political events, Romania loses large parts of its territory to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Germans living in Bessarabia and Bukovina are resettled. 215,000 people are brought into the former Reich territory. The 70,000 or so Germans living in northern Transylvania and in the Sathmar region are forced to become Hungarian citizens.

During the Second World War, Romania is allied for a time with Hitler's Germany and takes part in the fighting against the Soviet Union. The price paid for this is high. In 1943 alone, 60,000 men are drafted into Waffen-SS units, where they suffer heavy losses. The survivors, provided they have not been taken prisoner of war, live in Western countries after the war and are thus separated for many years from their families living in Romania.

In autumn 1944, more than 100,000 Romanian-Germans fled to the then German Reich. Some of them, however, are brought back to Romania by the Soviet troops after 1945.

Of the remaining Germans in Romania, about 80,000 men and women were deported to the Soviet Union and put to forced labour in January 1945. Many of them die under the inhuman conditions or return home sick after years.

From 1990 relocation to Germany

The Romanian-Germans lose their political rights and are expropriated without compensation. In the years after the Second World War, the ethnic German population suffer from various disadvantages - in addition to the generally poor economic conditions. After 1956, their situation improves due to a more liberal policy. Nevertheless, the Germans who remained in Romania continue to wish for reunification with family members who they have been separated from by war and post-war events. After the opening of the Romanian borders in 1990, about 60% of the approximately 180,000 Romanian-Germans still living in Romania at that time move to Germany within one year. The remaining Germans increasingly suffer from loneliness, as relatives and friends have left the country.

On 1 January 2007 Romania becomes a member of the European Union.


Overview of German resettlement in Poland (GRC Tracing Service)

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the borders of the former Polish territory were moved westwards in accordance with the agreements of the Potsdam Conference. Part of the former territory was assigned to the Soviet Union; in the west and north, however, Poland was extended to include the former German territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. Until 1945 these areas were almost exclusively inhabited by Germans.

But also outside these areas live people of German origin, descendants of the German settlers who moved to Poland beyond Silesia and Pomerania in the Middle Ages. Despite all the tendencies towards assimilation, the majority of these people profess to be German.

Until the Second World War, German nationals were able to retain their language and culture. After the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War, many people have the opportunity to acquire German citizenship by registering in the “Deutsche Volksliste” (German People's List).

At the beginning of 1945 about 3.6 million Germans flee from these areas from the Red Army or become victims of expulsions. Of these, more than one million people returned by the summer of 1945, assuming that the territories would remain German.

Discrimination after the Second World War

In the period that followed, Germans suffer many kinds of disadvantages, from discrimination to forced deportation and forced labour. Between 1945 and 1950, about 3.5 million Germans are forcibly expelled from Poland. The remaining about 1.7 million Germans have to undergo a “verification” of their national affiliation.

Only after 1950 does the situation for the remaining 1.7 million Germans improve somewhat. They are recognized as a minority and are able to preserve their German culture. From 1960, however, Poland denies the existence of a German minority and stops promoting German culture. For example, the German schools are dissolved and German newspapers are no longer printed. Especially the bilingual Germans, the so-called autochthons, suffer from this, as they are excluded from any promotion of German culture by the Polish state.

The Warsaw Treaty of 1970 indirectly recognises a German minority by guaranteeing ethnic Germans permission to leave the country.

Poland assumes that only a few tens of thousands of people wish to leave the country. However, the German Red Cross alone names more than 300,000 people seeking to leave the country to the Polish Red Cross. Estimates even assume that as many as 1.5 million people wish to leave the country. Despite the improved situation, many people still wish to leave the country, as many families have been separated and it is still not possible to maintain the German culture in Poland without hindrance.

The protocol signed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany at the end of 1975 represents a milestone for those wishing to leave the country. The protocol guarantees the granting of 125,000 exit permits within the next four years, with the prospect of more to follow.

In 1981, Poland becomes the first country of the former Warsaw Pact to respond to a demand of the Vienna CSCE Follow-up Meeting and wants to facilitate family reunification. A sharp increase in the number of entries is the result, e.g. in 1989: 250,340.

In May 2004 Poland becomes a member of the European Union.

Other German language and culture islands in Eastern and Southern Europe

In addition to the areas mentioned so far, numerous other German settlements exist, e.g. in Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and in Yugoslavia. German language and culture islands have existed in all countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe for centuries. The fate of the Germans, who were once welcome as workers and colonizers, but increasingly suffer discrimination and pressure to adapt due to their origins as nation-state ideas emerge, is essentially similar.

The increasing deterioration in the living conditions of members of the German minority strengthens the desire to resettle in Germany.

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