Germanisation (also spelled Germanization) is the spread of the German language, people and culture. It was a central plank of German conservative thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries, during a period when conservatism and nationalism went hand-in-hand. In linguistics, Germanisation also occurs when a word from the German language is adopted into a foreign language.
Under the policies of states such as the Teutonic Order, Austria, the German Empire, and Nazi Germany, non-Germans were often prohibited from using their native language, and had their traditions and culture suppressed. In addition, colonists and settlers were used to upset the population balance. During the Nazi era Germanisation turned into a policy of ethnic cleansing and later into the genocide of some non-German ethnic groups.
Historically there are different forms and degrees of the expansion of the German language and of elements of German culture. There are examples of complete assimilation into German culture, as happened with the pagan Slavs in the Diocese of Bamberg (Franconia) in the 11th century. An example of the eclectic adoption of German culture is the field of law in Imperial and present-day Japan, which is organised according to the model of the German Empire. Germanisation took place by cultural contact, by political decision of the adopting party, or by force.
In Slavic countries, the term Germanisation is often understood to mean the process of acculturation of Slavic- and Baltic-language speakers – after conquest by or cultural contact with Germans in the early Middle Ages; especially the areas of modern southern Austria and eastern Germany to the line of the Elbe. In East Prussia, forced resettlement of the "Old" or "Baltic" Prussians by the Teutonic Order as well as acculturation by immigrants from various European countries – Poles, French and Germans – contributed to the eventual extinction of the Prussian language in the 17th century. Since the flight and expulsion of Germans from Central and Eastern Europe however, the process of Germanisation has been stopped or reversed in most of these territories.
Another form of Germanisation is the forceful imposition of German culture, language and people upon non-German people, Slavs in particular.
Early Germanisation went along with the Ostsiedlung during the Middle Ages in Hanoverian Wendland, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Lusatia, and other areas, formerly inhabited by Slavic tribes – Polabian Slavs such as Obotrites, Veleti and Sorbs. Early forms of Germanisation were recorded by German monks in manuscripts such as Chronicon Slavorum.
The proto-Slovene language was spoken in a much larger territory than modern Slovenia, which included most of the present-day Austrian states of Carinthia and Styria, as well as East Tyrol, the Val Pusteria in South Tyrol, and some parts of Upper and Lower Austria. By the 15th century most of these areas had been gradually Germanised. The northern border of Slovene-speaking territory stabilised on a line from north of Klagenfurt to south of Villach and east of Hermagor in Carinthia, while in Styria it closely followed the current Austrian-Slovenian border. This linguistic border remained almost unchanged until the late 19th century, when a second process of Germanisation took place, mostly in Carinthia.
The rise of nationalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Pomerania, Lusatia, and Slovenia led to an increased sense of "pride" in national cultures. However, centuries of cultural dominance by the Germans left a German mark on those societies; for instance, the first modern grammar of the Czech language by Josef Dobrovský (1753–1829) – Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der böhmischen Sprach (1809) – was published in German because the Czech language was not used in academic scholarship. From the high Middle Ages until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 German had a strong impact on the Slovene language and many Germanisms are preserved in contemporary colloquial Slovene.
In the Austrian Empire
Holy Roman EmperorJoseph II (r. 1780–90), a leader influenced by the Enlightenment, sought to centralise control of the empire and to rule it as an enlightened despot. He decreed that German replace Latin as the Empire's official language.
Hungarians perceived Joseph's language reform as German cultural hegemony, and they reacted by insisting on the right to use their own tongue. As a result, Hungarian lesser nobles sparked a renaissance of the Hungarian language and culture. The lesser nobles questioned the loyalty of the magnates, of whom less than half were ethnic Hungarians, and many of these had become French- and German-speaking courtiers. The Hungarian national revival subsequently triggered similar movements among the Slovak, Romanian, Serbian, and Croatian minorities within the Kingdom of Hungary.
Germanisation in Prussia occurred in several stages. The Old Prussians, originally a Baltic ethnic group, were Germanised by the Teutonic Knights. Germanisation efforts were pursued by Frederick the Great in territories of partitioned Poland. There was an easing of Germanisation policy in the period 1815–30, followed by an intensification of Germanisation and a persecution of Poles in the Grand Duchy of Posen in 1830–41. Germanisation ceased during the period of 1841–49 and restarted during years 1849–70. Bismarck intensified Germanisation during his Kulturkampf against Catholicism and Polish people. There was a slight easing of the persecution of Poles during 1890–94. A continuation and intensification of activity restarted in 1894 and continued until the end of World War I. It was the policy of the Kingdom of Prussia to seek a degree of linguistic and cultural Germanisation, while in Imperial Germany a more intense form of cultural Germanisation was pursued, often with the explicit intention of reducing the influence of other cultures or institutions, such as the Catholic Church.
Following the partitions of Poland the Germanisation effort previously pursued by Frederick the Great in Silesia was extended to the newly gained Polish territories. The Prussian authorities settled German speaking ethnic groups in these areas. Frederick the Great settled around 300,000 colonists in the eastern provinces of Prussia. He aimed at a removal of the Polish nobility, which he treated with contempt, describing Poles in newly reconquered West Prussia as "slovenly Polish trash" similar to the Iroquois. From the start of Prussian rule Poles were subject to a series of measures against their culture: the Polish language was replaced by German as the official language; most administrative positions were filled by Germans. Poles were portrayed as "backward Slavs" by Prussian officials who wanted to spread German language and culture. The estates of the Polish nobility were confiscated and given to German nobles.
Situation in the 19th century
You also have a Fatherland. [...] You will be incorporated into my monarchy without having to renounce your nationality. [...] You will receive a constitution like the other provinces of my kingdom. Your religion will be upheld. [...] Your language shall be used like the German language in all public affairs and everyone of you with suitable capabilities shall get the opportunity to get an appointment to a public office. [...]
Concerning the spread of the German language it is most important to get a clear understanding of the aims, whether it should be the aim to promote the understanding of German among Polish-speaking subjects or whether it should be the aim to gradually and slowly Germanise the Poles. According to the judgement of the minister only the first is necessary, advisable and possible, the second is not advisable and not accomplishable. To be good subjects it is desirable for the Poles to understand the language of government. However, it is not necessary for them to give up or postpone their mother language. The possession of two languages shall not be seen as a disadvantage but as a benefit instead because it is usually associated with a higher flexibility of the mind. [..] Religion and language are the highest sanctuaries of a nation and all attitudes and perceptions are founded on them. A government that [...] is indifferent or even hostile against them creates bitterness, debases the nation and generates disloyal subjects.
In the first half of the 19th century, Prussian policy towards Poles was based on discrimination and Germanisation. From 1819 the state gradually reduced the role of the Polish language in schools, with German being introduced in its place. In 1825 August Jacob, a politician hostile to Poles, gained power over the newly created Provincial Educational Collegium in Poznan. Across the Polish territories Polish teachers were removed, German educational programmes were introduced, and primary schooling was aimed at the creation of loyal Prussian citizens.
In 1825 the teacher’s seminary in Bydgoszcz was Germanised. Successive policies aimed at the elimination of non-German languages from public life and from academic settings, such as schools. For example, in the course of the second half of the 19th century, the Dutch language, historically spoken in what is now Cleves, Geldern and Emmerich, was banned from schools and the administration and ceased to be spoken in its standardised form by the turn of the century.
Later in the German Empire, Poles, together with Danes, Alsatians, German Catholics and Socialists, were portrayed as "Reichsfeinde" ("foes of the Empire"). In 1885 the Prussian Settlement Commission, financed by the national government, was set up to buy land from non-Germans and distribute it to German farmers. From 1908 the committee was entitled to force the landowners to sell the land. Other means of oppression included the Prussian deportations from 1885–1890, in which non-Prussian nationals who lived in Prussia, mostly Poles and Jews, were removed; and a ban issued on the building of houses by non-Germans. (See Drzymała's van.) Germanisation in schools included the abuse of Polish children by Prussian officials. (See Września.) Germanisation stimulated resistance, usually in the form of home schooling and tighter unity in minority groups.
In 1910 Maria Konopnicka responded to the increasing persecution of Polish people by Germans by writing her famous song entitled Rota; it immediately became a national symbol for Poles, with its sentence known to many Poles: The German will not spit in our face, nor will he Germanise our children. An international meeting of socialists held in Brussels in 1902 condemned the Germanisation of Poles in Prussia, calling it "barbarous".
Prussian Lithuanians experienced similar policies of Germanisation. Although ethnic Lithuanians had constituted a majority in areas of East Prussia during the 15th and 16th centuries – from the early 16th century it was often referred to as Lithuania Minor – the Lithuanian population shrank in the 18th century. Plague and subsequent immigration from Germany, notably from Salzburg, were the primary factors in this development. Germanisation policies were tightened during the 19th century, but even into the early 20th century the territories north, south and south-west of the Neman River contained a Lithuanian majority.
Polish coal miners in the Ruhr Valley
Due to migration within the German Empire as many as 350,000 ethnic Poles made their way to the Ruhr area in the late 19th century, where they largely worked in the coal and iron industries. German authorities viewed them as a potential danger as a "suspected political and national" element. All Polish workers had special cards and were under constant observation by German authorities. Their citizens' rights were also limited by the state.
In response to these policies, the Polish formed their own organisations to maintain their interests and ethnic identity. The Sokol sports clubs, the workers' union Zjednoczenie Zawodowe Polskie (ZZP), Wiarus Polski (press), and Bank Robotnikow were among the best-known such organisations in the Ruhr. At first the Polish workers, ostracised by their German counterparts, had supported the Catholic centre party. During the early 20th century, their support shifted increasingly towards the social democrats. In 1905 Polish and German workers organised their first common strike. Under the Namensänderungsgesetz (law of changing surnames), a significant number of "Ruhr-Poles" changed their surnames and Christian names to Germanised forms, in order to evade ethnic discrimination. As the Prussian authorities suppressed Catholic services in Polish by Polish priests during the Kulturkampf, the Poles had to rely on German Catholic priests. Increasing intermarriage between Germans and Poles contributed much to the Germanisation of ethnic Poles in the Ruhr area.
During the Weimar Republic, Poles were recognised as a minority in Upper Silesia. The peace treaties after the First World War contained an obligation for Poland to protect its national minorities (Germans, Ukrainians and other), whereas no such clause was introduced by the victors in the Treaty of Versailles for Germany. In 1928 the Minderheitenschulgesetz (minorities school act) regulated the education of minority children in their native tongue. From 1930 onwards Poland and Germany agreed to treat their minorities fairly.
Under the Third Reich
Germanisation in the east
The east – Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia – was seen as the lebensraum that the Nazis were seeking, to be filled with Germans. Hitler, speaking with generals immediately prior to his chancellorship, declared that people could not be Germanised, only the soil could be.
The policy of Germanisation in the Nazi period carried an explicitly ethno-racial rather than purely nationalist meaning, aiming for the spread of a "biologically superior" Aryan race rather than that of the German nation. This did not mean a total extermination of all people in eastern Europe, as it was regarded as having people of Aryan/Nordic descent, particularly among their leaders. Himmler declared that no drop of German blood would be lost or left behind for an alien race. In Nazi documents even the term "German" can be problematic, since it could be used to refer to people classified as "ethnic Germans" who spoke no German.
Inside Germany propaganda, such the film Heimkehr, depicted these ethnic Germans as persecuted and the use of military force as necessary to protect them. The exploitation of ethnic Germans as forced labour and persecution of them were major themes of the anti-Polish propaganda campaign of 1939, prior to the invasion. The bloody Sunday incident during the incident was widely exploited as depicting the Poles as murderous towards Germans.
In a top-secret memorandum, "The Treatment of Racial Aliens in the East", dated 25 May 1940, Himmler wrote "We need to divide Poland's different ethnic groups up into as many parts and splinter groups as possible". There were two Germanisation actions in occupied Poland realised in this way:
- The grouping of Polish Gorals ("Highlanders") into the hypothetical Goralenvolk, a project which was ultimately abandoned due to lack of support among the Goral population;
- The assignment of Pomerelian Kashubians as Deutsche Volksliste, as they were considered capable of assimilation into the German population – several high-ranking Nazis deemed them to be descended from ancient Gothic peoples.
Selection and expulsion
Germanisation began with the classification of people as defined on the Nazi Volksliste. The Germans regarded the holding of active leadership roles as an Aryan trait, whereas a tendency to avoid leadership and a perceived fatalism was associated by many Germans with Slavonic peoples. Adults who were selected for but resisted Germanisation were executed. Such execution was carried out on the grounds that German blood should not support non-Germanic people, and that killing them would deprive foreign nations of superior leaders. The intelligenzaktion was justified, even though these elites were regarded as likely to be of German blood, because such blood enabled them to provide leadership for the fatalistic Slavs. Germanising "racially valuable" elements would prevent any increase in the Polish intelligenstia, as the dynamic leadership would have to come from German blood. In 1940 Hitler made it clear that the Czech intelligentsia and the "mongoloid" types of the Czech population were not to be Germanised.
Under Generalplan Ost, a percentage of Slavs in the conquered territories were to be Germanised. Gauleiters Albert Forster and Arthur Greiser reported to Hitler that 10 percent of the Polish population contained "Germanic blood", and were thus suitable for Germanisation. The Reichskommissars in northern and central Russia reported similar figures. Those unfit for Germanisation were to be expelled from the areas marked out for German settlement. In considering the fate of the individual nations, the architects of the Plan decided that it would be possible to Germanise about 50 percent of the Czechs, 35 percent of the Ukrainians and 25 percent of the Belarusians. The remainder would be deported to western Siberia and other regions. In 1941 it was decided that the Polish nation should be completely destroyed. The German leadership decided that in ten to 20 years, the Polish state under German occupation was to be fully cleared of any ethnic Poles and resettled by German colonists.
In the Baltic States the Nazis initially encouraged the departure of ethnic Germans by the use of propaganda. This included using scare tactics about the Soviet Union, and led to tens of thousands leaving. Those who left were not referred to as "refugees", but were rather described as "answering the call of the Führer". German propaganda films such as The Red Terror and Friesennot depicted the Baltic Germans as deeply persecuted in their native lands. Packed into camps for racial evaluation, they were divided into groups: A, Altreich, who were to be settled in Germany and allowed neither farms nor businesses (to allow close supervision); S Sonderfall, who were used as forced labour; and O Ost-Falle, the best classification, to be settled in the occupied regions and allowed independence. This last group were often given Polish homes where the families had been evicted so quickly that half-eaten meals were on tables and small children had clearly been taken from unmade beds. Members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were assigned the task of overseeing such evictions and ensuring that the Poles left behind most of their belongings for the use of the settlers. The deportation orders required that enough Poles be removed to provide for every settler – that, for instance, if twenty German master bakers were sent, twenty Polish bakeries had to have their owners removed.
Settlement and Germanisation
This colonisation involved 350,000 such Baltic Germans and 1.7 million Poles deemed Germanisable, including between one and two hundred thousand children who had been taken from their parents, and about 400,000 German settlers from the "Old Reich". Nazi authorities feared that these settlers would be tainted by their Polish neighbours and warned them not to let their "foreign and alien" surroundings have an impact on their Germanness. They were also settled in compact communities, which could be easily monitored by the police. Only families classified as "highly valuable" were kept together.
For Poles who did not resist and the resettled ethnic Germans, Germanisation began. Militant party members were sent to teach them to be "true Germans". The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls sent young people for "Eastern Service", which entailed assisting in Germanisation efforts. Germanisation included instruction in the German language, as many spoke only Polish or Russian. Goebbels and other propagandists worked to establish cultural centres and other means to create Volkstum or racial consciousness in the settlers. This was needed to perpetuate their work; only by effective Germanisation could mothers, in particular, create the German home. Goebbels was also the official patron of Deutsches Ordensland or Land of Germanic Order, an organisation to promote Germanisation. These efforts were used in propaganda in Germany, as when NS-Frauen-Warte's cover article was on "Germany is building in the East".
In Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union
On 6 April 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis Powers. Part of the Slovene-settled territory was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Gestapo arrived on 16 April 1941 and were followed three days later by SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who inspected Stari Pisker Prison in Celje. On 26 April Adolf Hitler, who encouraged his followers to "make this land German again", visited Maribor. Although the Slovenes had been deemed racially salvageable by the Nazis, the mainly Austrian authorities of the Carinthian and Styrian regions commenced a brutal campaign to destroy them as a nation.
The Nazis started a policy of violent Germanisation on Slovene territory, attempting to either discourage or entirely suppress the Slovene language. Their main task in Slovenia was the removal of part of population and Germanisation of the rest. Two organisations were instrumental in the Germanisation: the Styrian Homeland Union (Steirisches Heimatbund – HS) and the Carinthian People's Union (Kärtner Volksbund – KV).
In Styria the Germanisation of Slovenes was controlled by SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Steindl. In Carinthia a similar policy was conducted by Wilhelm Schick, the gauleiter's close associate. Public use of the Slovene language was prohibited, geographic and topographic names were changed and all Slovene associations were dissolved. Members of all professional and intellectual groups, including many clergymen, were expelled as they were seen as obstacles to Germanisation. As a reaction, a resistance movement developed. The Germans who wanted to proclaim their formal annexation to the "German Reich" on 1 October 1941, postponed it first because of the installation of the new gauleiter and reichsstatthalter of Carinthia and later they dropped the plan for an undefinite period because of Slovene partisans. Only Meža valley became part of Reichsgau Carinthia. Around 80,000 Slovenes were forcibly deported to Eastern Germany for potential Germanisation or forced labour. The deported Slovenes were taken to several camps in Saxony, where they were forced to work on German farms or in factories run by German industries from 1941–1945. The forced labourers were not always kept in formal concentration camps, but often vacant buildings.
Nazi Germany also began mass expulsions of Slovenes to Serbia and Croatia. The basis for the recognition of Slovenes as German nationals was the decision of the Imperial Ministry for the Interior from 14 April 1942. This was the basis for drafting Slovenes for the service in the German armed forces. The number of Slovenes conscripted to the German military and paramilitary formations has been estimated at 150,000 men and women. Almost a quarter of them lost their lives, mostly on the Eastern Front. An unknown number of "stolen children" were taken to Nazi Germany for Germanisation.
Later Ukraine was targeted for Germanisation. Thirty special SS squads took over villages where ethnic Germans predominated and expelled or shot Jews or Slavs living in them. The Hegewald colony was set up in the Ukraine. Ukrainians were forcibly deported, and ethnic Germans forcibly relocated there. Racial assignment was carried out in a confused manner: the Reich rule was three German grandparents, but some asserted that any person who acted like a German and evinced no "racial concerns" should be eligible.
Plans to eliminate Slavs from Soviet territory to allow German settlement included starvation. Nazi leaders expected that millions would die after they removed food supplies. This was regarded as advantagous by Nazi officials. When Hitler received a report of many well-fed Ukrainian children, he declared that the promotion of contraception and abortion was urgently needed, and neither medical care nor education was to be provided.
When young women from the East were recruited to work as nannies in Germany, they were required to be suitable for Germanisation, both because they would work with German children, and because they might be sexually exploited. The programme was praised for not only allowing more women to have children as their new domestic servants were able to assist them, but for reclaiming German blood and giving opportunities to the women, who would work in Germany, and might marry there.
"Racially acceptable" children were taken from their families in order to be brought up as Germans. Children were selected for "racially valuable traits" before being shipped to Germany. Many Nazis were astounded at the number of Polish children found to exhibit "Nordic" traits, but assumed that all such children were genuinely German children, who had been Polonised. Hans Frank exhibited such views when he declared, "When we see a blue-eyed child we are surprised that she is speaking Polish." The term used for them was wiedereindeutschungsfähig—meaning capable of being re-Germanised. These might include the children of people executed for resisting Germanisation. If attempts to Germanise them failed, or they were determined to be unfit, they would be killed to eliminate their value to the opponents of the Reich.
In German-occupied Poland, it is estimated that 50,000 to 200,000 children were removed from their families to be Germanised. The Kinder KZ was founded specifically to hold such children. It is estimated that at least 10,000 of them were murdered in the process as they were determined unfit and sent to concentration camps. Only 10–15% returned to their families after the war.
Many children, particularly Polish and Slovenian, declared on being found by Allied forces that they were German. Russian and Ukrainian children had been taught to hate their native countries and did not want to return.
In contemporary German usage the process of Germanisation was referred to as Germanisierung (Germanicisation, i.e., to make something German-ic) rather than Eindeutschung (Germanisation, i.e., to make something German). According to Nazi racial theories, the Germanic peoples of Europe such as the Scandinavians, the Dutch, and the Flemish, were a part of the Aryan master race, regardless of these peoples' own acknowledgement of their "Aryan" identity.
Germanisation in these conquered countries proceeded more slowly. The Nazis had a need for local cooperation and the countries were regarded as more racially acceptable. Racial categories for the average German meant "East is bad and West is acceptable". The plan was to win the Germanic elements over slowly, through education. Himmler, after a secret tour of Belgium and Holland, happily declared the people would be a racial benefit for Germany. Occupying troops were kept under discipline and instructed to be friendly in order to win the population over. However, evident contradictions limited the policies success. Pamphlets, for instance, enjoined all German women to avoid sexual relations with all foreign workers brought to Germany as a danger to their blood.
Various Germanisation plans were implemented. Dutch and Belgian Flemish prisoners of war were sent home quickly, to increase the Germanic population, while Belgian Walloon ones were kept as labourers. Lebensborn homes were set up in Norway for Norwegian women impregnated by German soldiers, with adoption by Norwegian parents being forbidden for any child born there. Alsace-Lorraine was annexed; thousands of residents, those loyal to France as well as Jews and North Africans, were deported to Vichy France. French was forbidden in schools; intransigent French speakers were deported to Germany for re-Germanisation, just as Poles were. Extensive racial classification was practised in France.
After World War II
In post-1945 Germany and Austria the concept of Germanisation is no longer considered relevant. Since the loss of the former German eastern territories and the Polonisation of these regions, the concept has lost its meaning. Danes, Frisians, and Slavic Sorbs are classified as traditional ethnic minorities and are guaranteed cultural autonomy by both the federal and state governments. There is a treaty between Denmark and Germany from 1955 regulating the status of the German minority in Denmark and vice versa. The north German state of Schleswig-Holstein has passed a law aimed at preserving the Frisian language. The cultural autonomy of the Sorbs is enshrined in the constitutions of both Saxony and Brandenburg. Nevertheless, almost all Sorbs are bilingual and the Lower Sorbian language is regarded as endangered, as the number of native speakers is dwindling, even though there are programmes funded by the state to sustain the language.
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