German Minorities in East and West. A Comparative Overview and Outlook

Stefan Wolff

Today German minority groups live in four countries in Western Europe and in sixteen countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Their historical origins, size, status, and degree of integration and assimilation differ greatly, not just between east and west, but also within each of these two broadly defined geographic regions. Depending mostly on these four factors, their perspectives for the future are different as well. Despite the fact that the conditions for the protection of minorities have never been as good in Europe as they are today, the question remains whether some of these German communities will have a future at all.

Between Integration and Assimilation – Ethnic Germans in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Italy

Ethnic Germans in Western Europe share the same history regarding their origin. None of the German-speaking minorities there came to their present settlement areas as migrants, as some of their ethnic kins in Central and Eastern Europe did, but they have inhabited these territories for centuries, in most cases since the end of large tribal migrations around AD 500. Their current status as national, or in the case of Alsace linguistic, minorities stems from boundary revisions carried out after the First World War and confirmed in 1945 to compensate Germany’s neighbours for the losses and suffering incurred as a consequence of the two wars and in order to increase their security from possible future German attacks.
The democratic environment in post-1945 Western Europe in combination with the relative economic prosperity in all four countries and their participation in the various projects of European and Western integration has facilitated the process of political integration of the minorities into the polities of their host-countries. None of the German-speaking populations of the four countries harbours any significant secessionist aspirations or feels discriminated against because of their different ethnic and/or cultural identity. Yet the way there was different in each country, and below the surface the results of this integration process differ as well.

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Between Fear and Hope – Ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe

For more than four decades after the end of the Second World War, the situation of German minorities in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been fundamentally different from that of the ethnic German communities in Western Europe. Subjected to deportation, forced labour, detention, and expulsion in the immediate aftermath of the war, their ability to preserve, let alone express or develop, their ethno-cultural identity was severely limited under the communist regimes of their host-countries. With the exception of Romania, members of all these minorities were subjected to various assimilation pressures ranging from the simple denial of their existence as a distinct minority group (in Poland) to the repression of their cultural, linguistic, and religious identities. Apart from the intentional neglect of the
conditions necessary for minorities in general to preserve their identities, ethnic Germans suffered additionally from the fact that it was their kin-state that had, very often with their active support, inflicted enormous suffering on the population of their host-states. Being German in Central and Eastern Europe was thus not only unpopular, but almost invited discrimination and persecution. Added to this internal pressure, the increasing opportunities over the years to use the provisions of Article 116 of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law accelerated the degree of assimilation, as the most consciously German members of the minority normally emigrated.

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