Print Email Download Reference This Send to Kindle Reddit This
submit to reddit

The Emergence Of A German Ethnic Identity History Essay

The emergence of a German ethnic identity in the early Middle Ages was a prolonged process in which various West Germanic tribes participated. Then, an awareness of national unity was still absent from the minds of German people, something that evolved, in the eighteenth century, inspired by ideas of the Age of Enlightenment about the cultivation of the native language as marker of national identity. The cult of the national language furthered aspirations of political unity which the Germans had lacked for many centuries. German nationalism nurtured German expansionism once Prussia set out for gathering the lands with German-speaking populations. Expansionism in central Europe was followed by colonial imperialism after the German Empire had been established in 1871. Since Germany was ranked among the losers of World War I (1918) its monarchy was abolished and its territory mutilated. The harsh terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) brought about social unrest and political instability, eventually resulting in Nazi totalitarian rule between 1933 and 1945. Post-war Europe saw the extreme polarization of two German states (1949 - 1990) according to worldviews and political systems, and their unification into one. Seemingly, the Germans have found their proper home in the European Union with its capacity to diffuse radicalism.

There are some 101 million Germans who live in countries around the world. Since language has been considered to be the major marker of German ethnicity, the given number refers to those speaking German. The overall number of ethnic Germans is higher, including those who have German-speaking parents but who have assimilated into other speech communities (e.g. US-citizens of German descent who have adopted English as first language, Russian citizens of German affiliation who speak Russian, Chilean citizens who may have a German surname but who speak Spanish only). The great majority of German-speakers inhabit central Europe, concentrating on Germany and adjacent areas. The number of Germans in Germany is 76 million where they account for 92 per cent of the population. Populous communities of German-speakers outside Germany are those in Austria (7.6 million), Switzerland (4.2 Germanophone Swiss), France (1.2 million), Kazakhstan (0.9 million), Russia (0.84 million), Poland (0.7 million), Italy (0.28 million), Hungary (0.25 million), etc. There are 1.6 US-citizens who speak German as mother tongue which is the largest number of Germans in an overseas country.

Germany has been home to some native minorities, the (--->) Frisians and the (--->) Sorbs, and to some ethnic groups that developed their cultural identity on European soil (i.e. ---> Gypsies and ---> Ashkenazic Jews). The demographic structure of West German society started to change with the arrival of workforce from Turkey in the 1960s. Today, the number of Turks (i.e. first-generation immigrants, their children and grand-children who were born in Germany) is c. 2.2 million. Most of the members of the second and third generation are bilingual, speaking Turkish as first and German as second language. Since the 1990s there has been a steady flow of asylum-seekers to Germany, and the number of “new” German citizens who came from third-world countries amounts to more than 4 million.

According to the findings of a recent analysis of ancient place- and river-names, central Europe, and especially the northern part of modern Germany, is the region where the populations and cultures of Germanic stock originated. Germanic is one of the many branches of the Indo-European family of languages, and the splitting-off of this branch dates to the second millennium B.C.E. By the mid-first millennium B.C.E., Germanic tribes had spread to the West (Flanders in Belgium), to the North (southern Norway and Sweden) and to the East (valley of the Vistula). The impression that we have of the concentration of Germanic tribes in Scandinavia reflects the reality of a secondary movement of Germanic populations from central Europe to the North.

German ethnicity originated out of a fusion process in which various West Germanic tribes were involved. In the eighth century, this conglomerate of Germanic populations became known by the name diutisc (in Old High German) which originally meant ‘relating to the people; ethnic’. This medieval name is the source for the Germans’ self-denomination: Deutsch/Deutscher. In the Nordic languages, the name for the Germans is derived from the same source (i.e. Danish, Swedish, Norwegian tysk) as is the name in Italian (i.e. tedeschi ‘Germans’). In other European languages, the Germans are known by different names which make reference to the medieval tribal distinctions; e.g. French Allemands (referring to the Alamanni), Finnish saksalaiset (referring to the Saxons). The English name Germans refers in general terms to the population of Germanic stock in central Europe.

Statehood in the land of the Germans emerges not as an expression of political consolidation of an individual ethnic group (like in France, Hungary or Poland) but rather as the result of dynastic struggles over territory and succession. The Frankish kingdom that Charles the Great (d. 814) had united and which had been reigned by his son, Ludvig the Pious, into the 830s, disintegrated in the fights among his sons over succession to the throne. In 842, an agreement was reached by Ludvig the German, Lothar and Charles the Bald. The agreement (the “Oaths of Strasburg”) is written in the form of oaths in Old French and Old High German. Each of the involved parties received a part of the Frankish kingdom which was split among the grandsons of Charles the Great. Lothar I (reigned 843 - 855) ruled the Middle Kingdom whose territory extended from the shores of the North Sea to Italy (Gulf of Gaeta) and included the two imperial cities of Aachen (where the coronation of Charles the Great as emperor took place in 800) and Rome. The Middle Kingdom became known as the Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation (‘the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation’). The border between the Middle Kingdom and the western part of the Frankish kingdom developed into the border between Germany and France in later periods.

Gradually, German political power was imposed on the Slavic population east of the river Elbe. Already Charles the Great had fought against the Obodrits, but a systematic expansion, in a prolonged process, was initiated by emperor Otto I, the Great (reigned 936 - 973). The resistance among the Slavs against German hegemony and the spread of the Christian faith brought setbacks to the colonization movement. The rulers of the duchies on the eastern periphery of the German lands fought many battles with the Slavs. One of them was Henry the Lion (since 1142 duke of Saxony and since 1154 duke of Bavaria; d. 1195) whose heraldic animal (i.e. the lion) stands, as a sculpture, in the courtyard of his castle in the town of Braunschweig, facing East, the direction of German expansion.

In the course of several centuries, ever more Germans settled down in east central Europe. In the twelfth and thirteenth century contacts with the (--->) Poles in the East intensified and German merchants and craftsmen became residents in Polish towns. In some towns, the German population came to dominate like in Danzig (Gdansk in Polish) which was granted the rights of a free town in 1240. The initial opposition of the two ethnic groups, Germans and West Slavs, was dissolved in time and changed to social contacts and cooperation. Many people in eastern Germany have German as well as Slavic ancestors. The Slavic heritage lives on in a multitude of names of places, rivers and landscapes, and in surnames of Slavic coinage. Some local Slavic populations maintained their language and cultural heritage beyond the period of German colonization in the East. The westernmost groups were the Dravens (mentioned as Drevani in documents of the eleventh century) and Polabs who settled west of the Elbe in the area of Dannenberg. The Polabs still spoke their language until the beginning of the eighteenth century when they assimilated into their German surroundings. Those who have preserved their Slavic identity up to the present are the (--->) Sorbs in Southeast Germany.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German nation continued to exist until 1806 when it was conquered and dissolved by Napoleon. Despite its overarching unifying denomination the Empire had been split up, for centuries, into smaller political units, of kingdoms (such as Prussia, Saxony or Bavaria) and of numerous local duchies. That was a state of political affairs when Germanness was still a concept too abstract to have any practical value for a national self-identification. Well into the nineteenth century, self-awareness among the Germans was a matter of loyalty to the local state. From these experiences stem the marked patterns of ethnic particularism that are still valid today. There are the Saxons, Thuringians, Swabians, Bavarians, Rhinelanders, and others. There also was a consciousness of local identity among the East Prussians and the Baltic Germans (in Latvia and Estonia). The latter groups were among the 12 million fugitives who had to leave their homes at the end of World War II and in the post-war era, and they were scattered all over Germany where they eventually merged with the other Germans and lost their former local identity.

The era of Napoleonic hegemony in central Europe ended in 1814, and the experience of Europe’s traditional political order having been shaken up opened the way for new perspectives that had been cherished in circles of German intellectuals and the learned élite since the Age of Enlightenment. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 - 1803) had created the concept of language-oriented national identity in his seminal work Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (‘Treatise on the origin of language’), written in 1770 and printed in1772. The idea of language as the major marker of Germanness was adopted by enlightened philosophers and further elaborated as an instrument for achieving political unity. The representatives of the German Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century revived the memory of the cultural heritage of antiquity, the ideal of Greek democracy for one. Their eyes lay on Greece and they followed the founding of a national state for the (--->) Greeks in 1823 with nostalgia. A political ideal was coined for the German case: one state for all Germans and all Germans in one state. As a political scheme this was utopia given the many German-speaking groups scattered throughout Europe.

In the post-Napoleonic era, Prussia developed into the most influential unit in the mosaic of German particularism. The chancellor of the king of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 1898), became the architect of a unified Germany. He earned the epithet “Iron Chancellor” because he would use any means to achieve his goals, and for him, war was a legitimate instrument of political power-play. In three wars - against Denmark (1864), Austria and its ally, Bavaria (1866), and France (1870-71) - Prussia forcefully paved the way for the unification of Germany. France lost the war and this outcome of events had long-term consequences. Prussia could humiliate the adversary by misusing the Hall of Mirrors in the castle of Versailles - the icon of French royal glory - for the declaration of the founding of the German Empire as whose first emperor was chosen William I (reigned 1871 - 1888), King of Prussia. The extended German state was somehow incomplete since “the 1871 Empire stood halfway between a Prussian dynastic and a modern nation-state. This point was expressed symbolically. The eventual flag of Imperial Germany - only introduced twenty years after the foundation of the Empire - merely took over the old Prussian colors (black and white) and added red, rather than adopting the black-red-gold of the populist nationalist movement from the time of the wars of liberation” (James 1989: 89).

As long as Bismarck was in office and served as the most important adviser to the Kaiser (‘emperor’), Germany secured its position through a network of political alliances, the most significant being the Dreikaiserbund (‘union of the three emperors’), of Germany, Austria and Russia (1881-87). However, after Bismarck’s leave in 1890 und during the following years of the reign of William II (reigned 1888 - 1918), Germany isolated itself. As its only ally remained the dual monarchy Austria-Hungary. France got its revenge in World War I (1914 - 18) and humiliated the loser Germany with a Peace Treaty, signed at Versailles in June 1919, that was labeled a “twenty-years truce” by the commander of the allied forces, the French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch. He was to become a prophet of his words because, twenty years later, in September 1939, World War II began with the attack of the Wehrmacht on Poland.

The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh: the loss of all overseas colonies, the separation of German territories from the motherland and their annexation by neighboring states (i.e. Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Denmark), the obligation to pay huge amounts of reparations, reduction of the German army to a minimum. The consequences were a surge of national sentiments among the Germans, and the “humiliation of Versailles” was instrumentalized by radical political parties for their aims. One of them was the NSDAP, the National-Socialist Democratic Party of German Workers, with its leader Adolf Hitler. In an explosive mixture of radicalism and populism, Hitler promised the Germans the restoration of German pride and the successful deconstruction of mass unemployment that had hit Germany, as a consequence of the global economic recession, in the early 1930s. Irony of history: the Führer (‘leader’) Adolf Hitler was not assigned his leadership as the result of elections because the German voters had no saying in his rise to power. Paul von Hindenburg, president of Germany from 1925 to 1934, appointed Hitler to the office of chancellor in January 1933, as successor to Schleicher. Hitler was already in power and had made preparations for orchestrating totalitarian rule when general elections were held in March 1933. Since Hitler enjoyed the trust of the popular and charismatic figure of Hindenburg many Germans followed suit so that Hitler’s party won the last elections before the closing-down of the system of parliamentary democracy in Germany.

As is well-known from the pages of world history Hitler deceived the Germans and brought disaster over Europe. He succeeded in establishing his dictatorship which was based on a totalitarian control over German society with the help of a selected crowd of Nazi activists and ideologists, the Hitlerists, who knew how to mobilize the economic and military resources to satisfy Hitler’s utopia of the political reorganization of Europe. There was another dictator who was as keen on reorganizing Europe, Stalin. The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation (also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact or German-Soviet Pact), concluded in August 1939, gave both dictators a carte blanche for the materialization of their dreams, at least some of them. “Given Stalin’s blessing, Hitler reckoned that he could deal with Britain and France single-handed and greatly strengthen Germany in the process; ... Given Hitler’s blessing, Stalin reckoned that he could clean up the states of Eastern Europe single-handed, and greatly strengthen the USSR in the process” (Davies 1996: 996).

What followed was the greatest disaster in Europe’s modern history, World War II, with all its ineffable destruction, atrocities and suffering for millions and millions of people. Events that should have never happened and millions of people lost their lives, Jews, Russians, Germans and many others in occupied territories: Katyn (in April 1940; ---> Poles), the siege of Leningrad (1941-43), the genocide of European Jews and other crimes against humanity committed by Hitlerists, Stalingrad (1942-43), the bombing of Dresden (in February 1945), the flight and expulsion of 12 million German civilians from the eastern parts of Germany between 1945 and 1947, and many other instances of human suffering.

Europe continued to be divided along political-ideological lines in the post-war era, but without Germany’s active decision-making. The existence of two German states, West Germany (since 1949) and East Germany (1949 - 1989) reflected the extremes that German statehood had experienced in its pre-war history: parliamentary democracy and totalitarianism. The internal border, the dividing-line between the German states marked the boundary separating two worlds with oppositional worldviews and the military alliances of West Germany in NATO and of East Germany in the Warsaw Pact kept raising tensions in central Europe. The city of Berlin with its infamous wall (---> sidebar 1) became the symbol of a world divided by ideology and a threatening military arsenal. When relaxation gained ground with the program of perestroika, proclaimed by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the East German government remained in a state of grim immobility. For a short span of time, the course of history was directed by ordinary citizens who expressed their will in peaceful demonstrations and, in November 1989, the communist regime collapsed and the wall was demolished.

The unification of the two German states in one was to become a costly issue and to this day, German tax payers have to support the modernization of the former East Germany by paying a “fee of solidarity” to the fiscal authorities. Seemingly, the price of solidarity is worth it since the unified Germany, as a member of the European Union and a promotor of the democratic integration movement, has assumed the role of a stabilizing political factor in the heart of Europe.

German is a West Germanic language to which also belong Frisian, Dutch, English, Afrikaans and Yiddish. Among these languages German is closest related to Frisian and Yiddish, the latter being a derivation from medieval German. The oldest written sources in German date to the eighth century. In the early phase of literary German most of the texts were translations of religious literature from Latin originals. In the history of the German written language, four main periods are distinguished: Old High German (c. 760 - c. 1050); Middle High German (c. 1050 - c. 1350); Early New High German (c. 1350 - c. 1750); Modern German (since c. 1750).

During the Middle Ages a unified written version of German did not exist. Due to the prevailing political particularism various chancery languages and literary varieties with local range were in use in the regions of the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. regiolects). The religious movement of Protestantism whose most active promoter in German lands was Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) brought about a change in perspective. For those who aimed to reform the conditions of the ordinary Christian it was imperative to have the contents of the Scripture become available in the vernacular, that is, in the mother tongue of the local people. Until then, the biblical texts were only accessible to the learned clergy who knew Latin or Hebrew and who retained the privilege to interpret the contents of the Bible according to papal doctrine to people in their parishes. Demanding the translation of the Bible into the vernacular was one thing, making the right choice among the various existing varieties of German was quite another. As the linguistic basis for his translation, Luther opted for a variety of the German language that could be widely understood in most parts of the German Empire, the German chancery language of Bohemia (with Prague as its cultural and political center; ---> Czechs). His German version of the New Testament was completed in 1522 and, in 1534, the whole Bible in German became available. With this translation Luther achieved a record: no other literary work had spread so widely and in such a high number of copies before in German lands as his translation of the Scripture. Luther’s masterful command of the German language and his vivid style provided the orientation for a new stage in the history of German: a fully developed New High German.

Germany’s society has been multiethnic and multilingual for centuries. In the past, the multiethnic character concerned the relation between indigenous minorities and the German majority. Since the 1960s, an ever-increasing number of immigrants - of Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Albanian and other provenance - to West Germany has gradually changed the ethnic composition of the population. The flow of asylum-seekers in the 1990s and 2000s has further added to the multicultural impression, especially in urban environments. The big cities in Germany are today as cosmopolitan as in Britain, France or Belgium.

German is official language in six states: in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland (as one of four official languages of the country), in Belgium (in the German-speaking region of eastern Belgium), in Italy (in the autonomous region of Southern Tyrol, Bolzano-Alto Adige). On the level of administration and working contacts in the institutions of the European Union, German ranks third after English as the most frequently used language and French, ranking second.

Harald Haarmann

Further Reading

Childs, David. Germany in the Twentieth Century. New York: Icon Editions, 1991 (3rd ed.).

Clyne, Michael. The German Language in a Changing Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dale, Gareth. Popular Protest in East Germany, 1945 - 1989: Judgements on the Street. London & New York: Routledge, 2005.

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fulbrook, Mary. A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 (2nd ed.).

James, Harold. A German Identity 1770 - 1990. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Roelcke, Thorsten. History of the German Language (in German). Munich: C.H. Beck, 2009.

Schulze, Hagen. Germany: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Young, Christopher and Thomas Gloning. A History of the German Language Through Texts. London & New York: Routledge, 2004.

Print Email Download Reference This Send to Kindle Reddit This

Share This Essay

To share this essay on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ just click on the buttons below:

Request Removal

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please click on the link below to request removal:

Request the removal of this essay.


More from UK Essays