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Definition: German from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The native people or inhabitants of Germany, or a person of German descent, as well as their culture and language. In eastern Germany the Sorbs (or Wends) comprise a minority population who speak a Slavic language. The Austrians and Swiss Germans speak German, although they are ethnically distinct. German-speaking minorities are found in France (Alsace-Lorraine), Romania (Transylvania), the Czech Republic, Siberian Russia, Central Asia, Poland, and Italy (Tyrol).

Summary Article: Germans
from Ethnicity in Global Focus: Ethnic Groups of Europe: An Encyclopedia

The Germans live in Central Europe, mostly in Germany (82.2 million inhabitants, of whom 75 million speak German), and in many countries around the world, both as German expatriates and as citizens of other countries who identify culturally as German and speak the language. Estimates of the total number of Germans in the world range from 100 million to 150 million, depending on how German is defined, but it is probably more appropriate to accept the lower figure. There are many German-speaking people who do not define themselves ethnically as Germans, mainly in Austria (about 8 million), Switzerland (4.9 million), and South Tyrol in Italy (345,000). The largest populations outside of these countries are found in the United States (5 million), Brazil (3 million), the former Soviet Union (2 million), Argentina (500,000), Canada (450,000), Spain (170,000), Australia (110,000), the United Kingdom (100,000), and South Africa (75,000). Most European countries have a significant German population, as do Namibia, Chile, Paraguay, and Israel. In Germany today 31 percent of the population are Catholics, 30 percent are Protestants, and 33 percent adhere to no religious faith, evidence of increasing secularization in recent decades. German identity developed through a long historical process that led, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the definition of the German nation as both a community of descent (Volksgemeinschaft) and shared culture and experience. Today, the German language is the primary though not exclusive criterion of German identity.

If we consider ethnic and national groups as fluid and impermanent today, this holds equally true for the early history of the Germans. It is conventionally believed that Tacitus described the Germanic tribes that were later to become the German nation and Volksgemeinschaft in his Germania (written around CE 100). In fact, no ethnically or culturally unified society would exist for some time. Instead a mixture of peoples and ethnicities developed through division, combination, absorption, and new developments. After the disintegration of Charlemagne's empire, the Frankenreich, upon his death in 814, the East Frankish German Kingdom arose, dominated by the Duchies of Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia, Franken, and Lorraine, and by rivalries among the aristocratic families of the Ottonen, Salians, and Staufer. The kings of the East Frankish Kingdom and later the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire all came from these dynasties. The Holy Roman Empire was not a territory under centralistic rule. At the center of the empire's constitution stood the right of the nobility to elect the king and thereby retain independence and influence, with the balance of power continuously swinging between the king and the principalities. In a series of power-political maneuvers, Otto the Great strengthened the position of the bishops and imperial abbots through land grants and the transfer of sovereign powers. The church became an important factor in politics, resulting in controversies between the pope, kings, and emperors. As a result of this increasingly important role of the church and the reform movement initiated in Cluny, a new religious fervor led to five crusades between 1096 and 1229—wars fought against “the infidels” and for the “liberation” of the Holy Land of Palestine.

Bavarian couple in Munich, Germany.


This formative phase of European nation-building was also the time of important social and economical revolutions. The German territories were subjected to manorial rule, and the free peasants disappeared. Agriculture adopted the system of three-field crop rotation along with increased market orientation. During the 12th century there was substantial population growth, and cities thrived. The period saw an increase in commercial activities, the founding of trading companies, and specialization and diversification within the arts and crafts. Equally important was German settlement in the East, starting in the 12th century, initially in the wake of military expeditions, whereas the great migrations of the 13th century into new “German” territories (Mecklenburg, East Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, Northern Moravia) were mostly peaceful.

The continued thriving of the cities throughout the late Middle Ages was accompanied by an internationalization of commerce and the rise of a self-confident patriciate. New forms of mobility arose, spearheaded by great explorations. Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing (around 1450), and a new understanding of faith and reason emerged, influencing philosophical debates and underwriting an increasingly influential science. In the German territories, the Reformation, commonly associated with Martin Luther, but also with Ulrich Zwingli and Johannes Calvin, marked the beginning of a new era.

In the years between the start of Reformation in the early 16th century and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Germany underwent fundamental changes. Initially, Reformation set off a long process of schism accompanied by witch hunts that reached their peak in Germany between 1550 and 1650. The resulting schism of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism became a lasting characteristic of Germany. While around 1500 the Holy Roman Empire was on the verge of becoming a vast empire, it now broke down into numerous smaller and middle-sized centers of power, which in the south and southwest found their artistic expression in splendid residences of princes and bishops, inspired by the aesthetic ideas developed in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The Thirty Years' War then brought unimaginable suffering, and in Germany alone the population fell from 17 to 10 million.

The Peace of Westphalia gave the seemingly disintegrating Holy Roman Empire a form that assured the continued territorial sovereignty of the German principalities while at the same time allowing for unity and coexistence. Prussia rose to power and became the counterpart of the Habsburg Empire among the German-speaking countries. The enlightenment and its consequences brought more change. The old authorities, church and state, came under criticism, and scientific, political, and social progress superseded older concepts. In Germany, these changes were not the result of popular uprisings but rather of measures taken by elites.

The French Revolution initiated a period, which in Germany has often been called “the long 19th century,” whose effects resounded until World War I. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Germany fell apart (1806) and the German Confederation was founded, with Prussia and Austria as the two dominating counterparts. Austria was excluded from the German Confederation in 1866, and in 1871, after a victorious war against France, the German Empire was proclaimed with Wilhelm I as its emperor.

The 19th century also brought modernization. The bourgeoisie was the driving power behind the social and economic changes, the key characteristics of which included industrialization (which started relatively late in Germany), capitalism, class society, secularization, and rationalization. There also emerged a fervent nationalism and militarism that was in great part responsible for the catastrophes of the 20th century.

World War I was expected to bring stability, but defeat only aggravated the tensions within German society. Though the Weimar Republic was a time of modernization of the political structures, it also gave rise to increasing antidemocratic tendencies. This period was characterized by a combination of effective modernizations (especially in the media and popular culture) along with a strong antimodern movement that called for a return to the good old times and ways. The continuity of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism along with the economic crisis of the early 1930s promoted the collective march into the catastrophe of Nazism, which was fueled by racism and blind nationalism. Nazism and the Holocaust, along with all the atrocities of the totalitarian regime and horrors of World War II, certainly constitute the darkest chapter in German history. After a period of denial, from the 1960s Germans have grappled publicly with war guilt. This can be seen in the establishment of places of remembrance (Erinnerungsorte) and museums in concentration camps, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism.

The end of World War II saw Germany not only disrobed of its delusions of grandeur, but also divided into two states, marking the frontier of a world divided into East and West. West Germany would gradually become a new society, one characterized by enormous economic growth and political openness. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, marked the start of the process of reunification of the two Germanys, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, with the official ratification of the treaty of reunification signed on October 3, 1990. This long-awaited reunification placed heavy burdens on Germans, who were nonetheless able to cope with the economic costs of the project. A more enduring difficulty was posed by the cultural differences between East and West. The remarkable differences in the voting preferences between the eastern and western parts of Germany are among the effects of this divide today.

The greatest challenge for the German society in recent years is globalization and the attendant neoliberal shift in economic policies, which have eroded the social fabric and labor market arrangements established in the postwar period. Environmental challenges, particularly, are also an important political issue. Finally, decades of immigration, which at first was promoted as a means to stabilize the economy, have led to fundamental changes in the German society. Since the 1960s, “guest workers”—especially from southern Europe—have been coming to Germany and were initially expected to return to their home countries after some years. But many of them settled, established families, and introduced new lifestyles, traditions, religious expression, and food styles into German society. The integration of most immigrants proceeded apace, but some differences—especially concerning religion—were highlighted as problems, mainly by right-wing politicians. In the meantime politicians have accepted the reality of Germany being a country with mass immigration. Recently, the citizenship law was modified to make naturalization less restrictive for those long-term residents without German ancestry.

The Catholic and Protestant churches, which each count roughly 30 percent of the population as their members, are the dominant churches in Germany. While these two churches witness a continuous loss of members, the percentage of people of Muslim faith has continuously increased and has reached 4.3 percent. People professing no faith are larger in number than any one religion. However, seasonal holidays and festivities of religious origins, above all the Christmas holidays and Easter, remain important for the great majority of Germans. Also important to German cultural life are festivities such as Carnival (Karneval, Fasching, Fastnacht), especially in the Catholic regions of the south and southwest of the country. Carnival lasts from Epiphany (Dreikönigstag) until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, with the days prior to Ash Wednesday as the culmination of Carnival. It is a complex phenomenon, which might be described by the terms tradition, amusement, power, prestige, politics, or rebellion. It is the festivity of a temporary counter-world, of irrational and ecstatic moments located beyond conventional social reality and norms. Recurring elements are copious amounts of food and drink, masquerade, music, dance, and parades. Elements of Carnival can be found in other, more regionally specific festivities, of which the Oktoberfest in Munich has gained international renown. The Oktoberfest has evolved from a typical regional popular festivity to a globally known event that bases its attraction on the streamlined presentation of stereotypes of local specifics of a popular festivity.

By European standards, Germany is a large country with much regional variation, making identification of a single German culture difficult. One important aspect of daily life for Germans is sports, in which German teams or athletes are internationally successful, foremost among them the national soccer team. Despite variation, Germans also share eating and drinking habits. Germany registers one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption, with a per capita consumption of nearly 150 liters of alcoholic beverages per year. The greater part, nearly 50 percent of that consumption, is made up of Germany's favorite beverage—beer—while wine and spirits each make up about 20 percent. Germany also tops of the list of countries with the highest number of overweight people in the European Union. Stew is a typical nationwide dish and one with a very long tradition in Germany. In the last decades, barbecuing has become very popular, mostly during summertime. Bread, especially the typical German dark bread, has gained almost mythical status among German expatriates as being the one foodstuff they miss most in their new surroundings. Migration and globalization have had an impact on the eating habits in Germany, with pizza, pasta, kebab, and various fast foods figuring on the list of favorite foods of the Germans.

In terms of high culture and science, two periods of particular importance stand out for Germans. The first is the classic period, connected to such names as J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn in the field of music and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Gottfried Herder in literature. The second one is the Romantic period, and the distinctive personalities are Caspar David Friedrich in the field of painting; Karl Friedrich Schinkel in architecture; Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich Heine, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Novalis, and the brothers Grimm in literature; and Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner in music.

There are several other well-known and characteristic aspects of German popular culture. One of them is the symbol of the forest. In a political-nationalistic sense, the forest was regarded as an expression of German culture, a reassuring symbol of enduring Germanness that was touted in times of rapid change, such as the late 19th century. The forest also harbors a strong mythological dimension, which is expressed in Romantic literature and in fairy tales but also in the worldview of ordinary people. As a symbol, the forest has retained its aesthetic meaning, but it has lost its political and mythological meaning. Words like Gemütlichkeit and Heimat are almost impossible to translate (and are therefore often used in the original German form in other languages) because they are so deeply embedded in a specifically German set of references. Gemütlichkeit is usually associated with the middle class and evokes candlelight, soft plush pillows, and naïve paintings of countryside and animals; whatever the social setting, Gemütlichkeit always connotes safety and security, and evokes the qualities conveyed by the English term “coziness. ” The term Heimat is a similar case. On the one hand it means a homeland or hometown, which offers belonging, recognition, and identity, and for which people develop a sense of place. On the other hand it refers to a scenery of wishfulness and longing related to a landscape of desire that “no one has ever been to” (in the words of Ernst Bloch), which strangely enough is used naturally in German discussions about origin, belonging, and identity.

Further Reading
  • Bausinger, Hermann. Typisch deutsch. Wie deutsch sind die Deutschen? (Typical German. How German Are the Germans?). München: Beck, 2000.
  • Borneman, John. Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, Nation. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1992.
  • Dirlmeier, Ulf, et al. Kleine deutsche Geschichte (Small German History). Philipp Reclam Stuttgart, 2006.
  • Flippo, Hyde. The German Way: Aspects of Behavior, Attitudes, and Customs in the German-Speaking World. Passport Books Lincolnwood, IL, 1998.
  • François, Etienne, and Hagen Schulze, eds. Deutsche Erinnerungsorte (German Places of Remembrance). München: Beck, 2001.
  • Moser, Johannes
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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