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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Germany

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Germany, 2007, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Germany is in central Europe and borders Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark. The borders of Germany were redrawn several times in the twentieth century, including its division into East and West and subsequent reunification. Mostly Germany lost territory and some of its people to neighbouring countries, notably Poland, Czech Republic, France and Belgium. Many German-speakers have returned from the east, especially from Poland. Germany has been a front-line country for new immigrants from former East European communist countries.


Modern Germany came into existence in 1871 when 25 German states formed the German Empire with the Prussian King Wilhelm 1 as its Emperor. After the First World War, Germany faced economic ruin and lost territory as a result of its defeat, but then regained its economic strength sufficiently to dominate most of continental Europe during the Second World War.

The National Socialist Party, which ruled from 1933 to 1945, persecuted the Jews, the Roma and Sinti, homosexuals and others they deemed inferior. Jews were prominent in finance, business, education and the professions. Many fled abroad in the 1930s. Jews and Roma/Sinti were stripped of their citizenship from 1935. Their property was seized. Conditions for Jews in Germany and the territories conquered by the Nazis, where many German Jews had fled, became rapidly worse until the Nazi extermination campaign was launched in 1941. The aim was to eradicate Europe's 11 million Jews and 6 million were killed in concentration camps. Sinti fled to Austria in the 1930s, but they were persecuted there after the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. Up to 1.5 million were killed in the Holocaust.

In 1945 invasion by American, British and French forces from the west and Soviet forces from the east ended the war and led in 1949 to the division of Germany into the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Both states had historic minorities: Danes and Frisians in West Germany, Sorbs in East Germany, and Roma and Sinti (those who had escaped the persecution) in both.

Post-war migration

The post-war German governments sought to give some protection to their established minorities. Both enacted laws against the revival of National Socialism. The rights of the Sorbs were recognized by law in Saxony in 1948 and in Brandenburg in 1950. The rights of the Danes and Frisians in Schleswig-Holstein were also recognized. A 1955 joint declaration between the West German and Danish governments paved the way for the legal rights of the Danish minority to be introduced in Schleswig-Holstein, while the German minority in Denmark was similarly protected.

In West Germany the first phase of post-war immigration comprised 'ethnic Germans' expelled from Poland or fleeing from East Germany. This mainly political migration averaged 200,000 people a year, and had reached 9 million by 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, forcing West Germany to turn to other sources of labour. Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Tunisia and, in greatest numbers, from Turkey were recruited for low-paid industrial work. East Germany recruited foreign workers from Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola and Cuba.

Although the gastarbeiter were originally supposed to be temporary and not to bring in their families, employers preferred to keep an already trained workforce and save further recruitment costs. When primary immigration was halted in 1973, family reunification increased as workers anticipated further restrictions, and a settled community of non-citizens was established in Germany.

In 1968 Italians, and in the 1980s and 1990s Greek, Spanish and Portuguese gastarbeiter attained the right to live and work in Germany as citizens of the European Union (EU).


In 1990 the two Germanies were reunited under the West German federal system, following the collapse of the communist regime in East Germany. The 11 West German Länder (states) expanded to become 16, and the population increased by 16 million to 78 million. The unravelling of the communist economic system in East Germany caused recession there and widespread unemployment.

Reunification was preceded and followed by an influx of record numbers of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe. This, and the pressures of reunification, fuelled the rise of the far right and violent racist attacks across Germany, while also increasing support in eastern Germany for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the revamped Communist Party.


Main languages: German, Danish, Frisian, Sorbian

Main religions: Lutheran Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Islam

Minority groups include Turks and Kurds 1.9 million (2.3%), former Yugoslavs 1.1 million (1.3%), Italians 609,784, Greeks 359,361, Poles 317,603 and Roma/Gypsies/Sinti 170,000-300,000. Others including Jews (est. 103,000), Danes (50,000-60,000), Frisians (60,000-70,000), Sorbs (est. 60,000), Vietnamese (87,207), Spanish, Tunisians, Portuguese and Mozambicans total 285,792.(1)


The 1949 Basic Law (constitution) states that all citizens are equal before the law. It also sets out that in all public institutions there should be no discrimination on the basis of gender, descent, race, language, origin, belief, handicap, religious and political views. In addition, criminal law bans the dissemination of information which incites hatred or glorifies violence and bans the use of anti- constitutional symbols (such as swastikas). The Basic Law enabled Jews and other minorities who fled abroad to escape Nazi persecution, and who took other nationalities, to have their German nationality reinstated. It also provided the 'right of return' and citizenship for German-speakers from Eastern Europe who could prove their German descent.

The 1955 Declaration on the Rights of the Danish Minority enshrines their rights to use the Danish language in law, administration and education in Schleswig-Holstein, and to be represented politically in this state. Official minority recognition was granted to the Friesians in Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony, and the Sorbs in Saxony and Brandenburg, and, since 1997, to the Roma/Sinti throughout Germany.

The European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) came into effect in 1998 and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in 1999. As a result, Commissioners for Minority Affairs were set up by the federal government and the state government of Schleswig-Holstein. Minorities in Saxony and Brandenburg and elsewhere have to address complaints to the federal Commissioner.

In 2004 the European Commission referred the German government to the European Court of Justice for its failure to implement EU directives on Racial Equality and Employment Equality. The Equal Treatment Act came into effect in August 2006, making discrimination at work on the grounds of race, ethnic origin, gender, religion and belief, disability, age or sexual orientation illegal. In addition to this, it prohibits harassment and sexual harassment of employees.

The gastarbeiter system, agreed between Germany and the governments of the workers' country of origin, allowed for temporary residence and employment with the understanding that the workers would return to their country of origin. Active recruitment ended in 1973 except for certain categories of workers, notably nurses, IT workers and seasonal agricultural workers. Families have been allowed to join established migrants. Some gastarbeiter are now German citizens. Others are citizens of other EU countries and have the right to work and live in Germany and to draw welfare to the extent that they qualify from making social security contributions.

Immigration policy and asylum seekers

Immigration policy has been increasingly restrictive, especially regarding asylum, but was not enshrined in law until 2005. The controversial new law maintains the 1973 ban on recruitment, but offers further exemptions to scientists and allows foreign students to remain for one year after their studies have ended. Foreign entrepreneurs are allowed in on temporary permits only if they invest at least euro;1 million and create at least 10 jobs. They are allowed to apply for citizenship after three years of residence. Immigrants can attend federally funded German- language lessons to help them integrate, a measure not open to them previously. Non-EU immigrants are obliged to attend.

From 2000, children born in Germany automatically become German if at least one parent has lived legally in Germany for at least eight years. The child can hold dual nationality until age 23, when he or she must make a choice. If they abandon German nationality, they can be deported. The 2000 law reduces the time period for foreign nationals to qualify for German citizenship from 15 years to eight.

Germany's increasingly restrictive approach to asylum legislation has influenced European Union policy. For example, the 1994 Dublin Convention allows asylum seekers to be returned to the EU country where they arrived. Germany made bilateral agreements with Central and Eastern European countries, enabling it to return asylum seekers in exchange for preferential trade terms. The European Parliament condemned this 'refugee trading' and singled out for criticism a 1992 agreement between Germany and Romania. However, some of these countries are now members or prospective members of the EU. The government has not stated when it will allow free movement to Germany of workers from the countries which joined the EU in 2004, but it will be obliged to do so in 2011.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Sources and further reading


Brown, A.J., 'The Germans of Germany and the Germans of Kazakhstan: A Eurasian Volk in the twilight of diaspora', Europe-Asia- Studies, vol. 57, no. 4, 2005, pp. 625-34.

Kogan, I., A Study of Employment Careers of Immigrants in Germany. Working Papers 66, 2003 Mannheimer Zentrum fur Europaische Sozialforschung, URL (accessed November 2006): www.mzes.uni-

MRG (ed.), Minorities and Autonomy in Western Europe, London, MRG, 1991.

MRG (ed.), Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, London, MRG, 1993.

Ostergaard-Nielson, E., Transnational Politics: Turks and Kurds in Germany, London, Routledge, 2003.

Soysal, Y.N., Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Holocaust Survivors Network Website:


Kenrick, D. (ed.), In the Shadow of the Swastika: The Gypsies during the Second World War, Hertfordshire: Collection Interface, Centre des Recherches Tsiganes, University of Hertfordshire Press, 1999.

Liegeois, J. and Gheorghe, N., Roma/Gypsies: A European Minority. London, MRG, 1995.

Lucassen, L., Zigeuner: Die Geschichte eines polizeilichen Ordnungsbegriffes in Deutschland 1700-1945, Köln, Böhlau Verlag, 1996.

Matras, Y., Romani: A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Mihok, B., Zurück nach Nirgendwo: Bosnische Roma-Flüchtinge in Berlin. Berlin, Metropol, 2001.

Tebbutt, S. (ed.), Sinti and Roma: Gypsies in German-Speaking Society and Literature, New York, Berghahn Books, 1998.

Zimmermann, M., Verfolgt, vertrieben, vernichtet

Holocaust Survivors Network, URL: 7_Romanies

Roma Books (online Roma bookshop), URL:

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