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Ethnic Groups in Germany

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The term German can mean both an ethnicity and a nationality, so what's the difference? In this lesson we'll talk about what it means to be German, and see how this has impacted their history.

Ethnicity in Germany

Anybody want to venture a guess as to who lives in Germany? Yeah, the Germans. But is German an ethnicity, or a nationality? There's a difference. Nationality is a reference to the country of your birth and/or citizenship. So all people born in Germany are Germans in that sense. However, there is also a German ethnicity, a genealogical/linguistic commonality amongst many of the people who live in Germany. But this question of ethnicity versus nationality is something that can be difficult across Europe, which is one of the only places in the world where national borders consistently represent contained ethnic groups. So, let's take a closer look at Germany and get to know both the Germans, and the Germans.

The line between being ethnically and nationally German can be confusing
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The German Ethnic Group

In a country called Germany, you'll probably not be surprised to hear that roughly 92% of the population identifies as ethnically German. But what does this mean? To understand this we have to go back thousands of years. In Central Europe, along the lowland region just south of the Baltic and North Seas called the North German Plain, the first Germanic tribes appeared. This Neolithic (stone age) group spread out across Northern and Central Europe. Today, when we talk about Germanic people, we're talking about any of the several ethnic groups that are descendants of this larger ethno-linguistic category. By the 1st century BCE, the Germanic people settled along the Danube River, which originates in modern-day Germany, and assimilated or killed the Celtic people previously living there. These Germanic tribes would go on to continuously fight against the Roman Empire for the next several centuries, and many Germanic people were incorporated into Rome's northern territories. It wouldn't be until the late medieval era, however, that any one of these Germanic tribes started actually calling themselves Germans.

Roman column showing a war with Germanic people
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Technically, the ethnically Germanic people of Europe include Austrians, Prussians, Dutch, Icelanders, Norwegians, and even the English. Again, however, the term Germanic is now only used to describe a broad ethno-linguistic category. The only people today to consider themselves ethnically German are the people of Germany, or people who's ancestors are from the modern nation of Germany. So, ethnicity and nationality are somewhat related in this sense. Germanic people of Austria call themselves Austrians, Germanic people of the Netherlands call themselves Dutch. Only German Germans are ethnically German. Hope that clears things up.

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