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Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) is a historical term that the German government started using in the early 20th century to describe ethnic Germans living outside of (or more precisely, born outside) the Reich. This is in contrast to Imperial Germans (Reichsdeutsche), German citizens living within Germany. The term also contrasts with the modern term Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad), which generally denotes German citizens residing in other countries.

This is the loosest meaning of the term, used mainly during the Weimar Republic regime. In a stricter sense, under Hitler and the Nazis, "Volksdeutsche" was used to mean ethnic Germans living outside the country but without German citizenship, i.e., the juxtaposition with "Reichsdeutsche" was sharpened to denote difference in citizenship as well as residence.


Origin of the term

According to the historian Doris Bergen, Adolf Hitler is reputed to have coined the definition of "Volksdeutsche" which appeared in a 1938 memorandum of the German Reich Chancellery. In that document, the Volksdeutsche were defined as "people whose language and culture had German origins but who did not hold German citizenship."

For Hitler and other Germans of his time, the term "Volksdeutsche" also carried overtones of blood and race not captured in the common English translation "ethnic Germans". According to German estimates in the 1930s, about 30 million Volksdeutsche and Auslandsdeutsche (= German citizens residing abroad, see McKale 1977: The Swastika Outside Germany, p. 4) were living outside the Reich. A significant proportion of them were in eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, where many were located in villages along the Danube. Many of their ancestors had migrated to such areas of eastern Europe in the 18th century, invited by governments that wanted to repopulate areas decimated by the Ottoman Empire occupation and sometimes by disease.

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