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Historical Background

The emigration of Germans to the countries of Eastern and South-eastern Europe has a long history. In some cases it dates back to the Middle Ages. Unlike emigrants to North and South America who quickly integrated into their new homelands, the Germans in the east often formed "colonies" in which they wanted to carry on living as Germans. So of course they were subjected very heavily to the respective political opinions and often fell victim to them. The number of descendants of these people living outside Germany is estimated to be around four million.

Russia and the former USSR

The residents of the village Alt-Montal in south Ukraine were predominantly German in 1918. Sketch: GRC tracing serviceEven during the rule of the Tatars (1237 to 1480), German traders founded the first settlements under the Hanseatic League, thus connecting Russia with the west. But only the later tsars were interested in an active policy of immigration. Their goal was not only to colonise the areas where there were virtually no inhabitants, but the Europeanisation of Russia in particular. To do this, primarily skilled foreign workers were summoned to the country: tradesmen, builders, merchants and even scientists and officers.

German settlers reclaim the land

This policy culminated in the manifesto of Tsarina Catherine the Great 1763. Due to the serfdom under the tsardom, there was a lack of farmers to reclaim other areas, especially on the Volga and on the Black Sea. The tsarina promised the foreign settlers land ownership in this region and various other privileges, such as religious and tax freedom and exemption from military service. Around 8,000 families, primarily from Hesse and Southern Germany, responded to this call and settled in the area around the Volga, in some cases after travelling for years. These "Volga Germans" formed the basis of the ethnic German population in Russia. The first decades of these settlers were characterised by hardness and deprivation, but finally they achieved economic success. The next biggest group of immigrants arrived in the country at the start of the 19th century. Under the rule of Alexander I, areas of Transcaucasia, the Crimea and the area we currently know as the Ukraine were settled. By the middle of the 19th century, German settlers had set up around 3,000 colonies.

Strengthening of Russian nationalism

The life of the German emigrants was not without pressures however. The differences in terms of language and religious outlook often aroused suspicion in the Russian population. The strengthening of Russian nationalism added up to that. With the reforms of Alexander I, the Russian Germans also lost their former privileges in 1871. For now on they were treated as Russian citizens and also had to undertake military service. The previous self-administration practised in the areas where Germans had settled was dissolved in 1878. Under these conditions, many chose to move on. They travelled further to the east, to parts of Siberia, others left Russia and emigrated to America. Those who stayed retained with some effort their relative independence until the start of the First World War. Their numbers are estimated at around 1.5 million.

The situation of the Russian Germans deteriorated drastically during the First World War. The land they owned was taken from them and over 100,000 persons were deported to Siberia, with thousands dying on the way.

Decree allowing resettlement of the Volga Germans. Picture: GRC tracing service

The Russian Revolution and Civil War from 1917 to 1920 left its mark on the fate of the German minority. Even so, these events resulted in a slight stabilisation of their living conditions. The new Soviet Government had already proclaimed in 1917 the equal rights of all nationalities living on Russian soil. As a result, 1924 saw the emergence of the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Volga Germans (Volga Germans ASSR), by which means the German population living there had almost achieved its goal of national autonomy. The socialist system and the takeover of power by Stalin brought this process quickly to an end however. The efforts to achieve autonomy were completely destroyed in 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Second World War separates families of settlers

From August 1941, all Germans living in the areas around the Volga were evacuated from their settlement areas and deported to Central Asia and Siberia. What’s more, they were conscripted into the so-called Trud Army (work army) where they had to carry out forced labour and were accommodated in labour camps. Many did not survive this martyrdom.

Working in the Trudarmy. Photo: DRK tracing serviceThe fate was no better for those Russian Germans who - due to the acts of war  -ended up in areas controlled by the Germans. After the end of the war, almost 300,000 people were "repatriated" to parts of Poland but also to the western zones of occupation, i.e. brought back to the Soviet Union where they ended up in the same forced labour camps. Very many people died while being transported during repatriation. Many families were torn apart. Only years after the Second World War did improvements gradually start to take effect. The Germans were discharged from the Trud Army but still remained under the supervision of the commander’s office. It was not until 1955, two years after the death of Stalin, that their life returned to normal again. The Russian Germans were able to move about relatively freely within the Soviet Union, although they were still not permitted to return to their former homelands. Likewise, emigration to Germany was possible only for very few.

This didn't change decisively until the end of the 1980s with the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Romania

The history of the ethnic German population in Romania stretches back to the middle of the 12th century. At that time, the Hungarian King Geysa II allowed German settlers from the area to the west of the Rhine to travel to the area we know today as Romania. His intention was to introduce new agricultural production methods and Central European culture. These settlers congregated in the Carpathian Arch, more precisely in the region of Siebenbürgen.

 

No Romanisation until 1945

In the 18th century, the Habsburg rulers, especially Empress Maria Theresia, enlisted German settlers primarily from South-western Germany for a settlement in Banat. The settlers transformed the largely marshy area into fertile arable land.

After 1918, the Banat was divided up between Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary with the result that the Germans living there belonged to three countries.

In the second half of the 18th century, German settlers most of whom stemmed from Upper Swabia, took up residence in the county of Satu Mare.

The 18th century also saw other Germans settle in areas such as Bukowina and Bessarabia.

The Germans in Romania retained their German culture over the centuries and also the German language, in some cases characterised by the dialects of the areas they descended from. There were no attempts to romanise the Germans in the period between the two world wars either. They still suffered discrimination even so. Nevertheless, the Germans living in Romania had a strong economic and social position, which also enabled them to enjoy a vibrant cultural life.

Resettlement and separation in the Second World War

In 1940, due to the political events, Romania lost large parts of its national territory to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Germans who lived in Bessarabia and Bukowina were resettled. 215,000 people were brought to the territory of the then German Reich. The approximately 70,000 Germans who lived in the areas of Nordsiebenbürgen and Satu Mare were forced to assume Hungarian nationality.

During the Second World War, Romania became for a while an ally of Hitler's Germany and took part in the hostilities against the Soviet Union. There was a high price to pay for this. In 1943, 60,000 men were conscripted into units of the Waffen SS, where they suffered heavy losses. The survivors, unless they ended up as prisoners of war, spent the time after the war in Western Europe and were separated from their families in Romania for many years.

In the autumn of 1944, over 100,000 Romanian Germans fled to the then German Reich. Nevertheless, some of them were brought back again to Romania by the Soviet troops after 1945.

In 1945, of the Germans remaining in Romania, approximately 80,000 men and women were deported for forced labour to the Soviet Union. Many people died under the inhumane conditions or returned home years later in ill health.

Emigration to Germany from 1990

The Romanian Germans lost their political rights and were dispossessed without compensation. In the years following the Second World War, the ethnic German population – in addition to the generally poor economic conditions – suffered from various forms of discrimination. The situation improved in 1956 due to a liberal policy. Nevertheless, the desire of the Germans still living in Romania for reunification with the family members from whom they had been separated due to events during and after the war remained. After the opening of the Romanian borders in 1990, around 60% of the approximately 180,000 Romanian Germans currently still living in Romania emigrated to Germany within a year. The Germans still remaining suffered increasingly from isolation, as relatives and friends had left the country.

Romania was incorporated into the European Union on 1 January 2007.

Poland

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the borders of the former Polish national territory were relocated towards the west in accordance with the agreements made at the Potsdam Conference. A part of the former territory was assigned to the Soviet Union; in the west and north, on the other hand, Poland was extended by the former German territories to the east of the rivers Oder and Neiße. These regions were inhabited almost exclusively by Germans until 1945.

But ethnic Germans, descendants of the German settlers who moved to Poland in the Middle Ages via Silesia and Pomerania, also lived outside these regions. Despite all the efforts towards assimilation, the majority of these people identified with their Germanness.

Until the Second World War, it was possible for ethnic Germans to cultivate their language and culture. After the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War, numerous people had the opportunity to apply for German citizenship via entry into the "German People’s List".

At the beginning of 1945, around 3.6 million Germans fled from the Red Army and left these regions or fell victim to displacement. Of these, over a million people had returned by the summer of 1945 as they assumed that the areas would remain German.

Discrimination after the Second World War

In the subsequent period, the Germans suffered from many disadvantages, from discrimination to enforced disappearance and forced labour. In the period between 1945 and 1950, approximately 3.5 million more Germans were forcibly deported and ousted from Poland. The remaining figure of approximately 1.7 million Germans had to undergo a "verification" of their national affiliation.

It was only after 1950 that the situation improved somewhat for the remaining Germans, of which there were approximately 1.7 million left. They were recognised as a minority and they could cultivate their German culture. From 1960, however, Poland disputed the existence of a German minority and stopped the promotion of German culture. For instance, the German schools were disbanded and the printing of German-speaking newspapers was stopped. In particular, bilingual Germans, so-called autochthons, suffered from this as they were excluded from any promotion of German culture on the part of the Polish state.

The Warsaw Agreement in 1970 recognised a German minority indirectly, as ethnic Germans were guaranteed permission to leave.

Poland assumed that only a few tens of thousands would want to leave. However, the German Red Cross alone enumerated by name to the Polish Red Cross over 300,000 wanting to leave. Estimates were even as high as 1.5 million people wanting to leave. Despite the improved situation, there were still many people wanting to leave, as many families were separated and the unhindered cultivation of Germanness in Poland was still not possible.

A milestone for those wanting to leave was the protocol signed by the Foreign Ministries of Poland and Germany at the end of 1975. This document guaranteed the granting of 125,000 permits to leave over the next few years and more were promised in the subsequent period.

In 1981, as the first country of the former Warsaw Pact, Poland acted on a request from the subsequent meeting in Vienna regarding Security and Cooperation in Europe and intended to facilitate the reunification of families. This resulted in a substantial increase in the number of those entering the country (such as 250,340 in 1989).

Poland joined the European Union in May 2004.

Other pockets of German language and culture in Eastern and Southern Europe

In addition to the previously mentioned areas, there were numerous other German settlements, for example in Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and in Yugoslavia. Over the centuries there have been pockets of German language and culture in all the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe. The fate of the Germans who were once welcomed as workers and colonists but, due to their origin, increasingly suffered from discrimination and pressure to adapt in the course of emerging concepts of a nation state, was essentially the same.

The on-going deterioration of the living conditions that the relatives of the German minority experienced increased the desire to settle in Germany.