Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: German (state language), minority languages (Danish, North and Sater Frisian, Lower and Upper Sorbian), regional language – Low German (Plattdeutsch), other languages including Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Kurdish, Polish, Russian and Turkish
Main religions: Lutheran Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Islam
Germany has four recognized national minorities, namely Danes 50,000 (concentrated in Schleswig-Holstein state), Frisians 60,000-70,000 (based in Eastern and Northern Frisia), Sorbs 60,000 (primarily in Saxony and Brandenburg) and Roma / Sinti (estimated at 105,000 by the Council of Europe, though this includes community members without German citizenship; other estimates have previously suggested that there are around 60,000 Sinti and 10,000 Roma who are German citizens while the total number including non-German citizens has been put at 70,000 Sinti and 40,000 Roma).
There is no official data collection on ethnicity in Germany. Statistics on migration are often used as a proxy. Those considered to have a ‘migration background’ include individuals who migrated to Germany after 1949, foreign nationals born in Germany and German nationals with one parent not born with German citizenship, so encompassing foreign nationals, naturalized German nationals and others. According to 2018 micro–census data from the Federal Statistical Office, some 20.8 million (around a quarter of the population) have a migration background according to this broader definition. Just over half (52 per cent) of those with a migration background have German citizenship.
Out of the 13.5 million who were not born in Germany but had migrated there, approximately 9 million are of another European origin with 5.3 million people coming from elsewhere in the European Union (EU). The largest EU migrant community are Poles: 1.7 million are from Poland. Other larger European groups include those with Turkish (1.32 million) and Russian (1.1 million) backgrounds.
The 13.5 million with a personal experience of migration includes many refugees. Those coming from Syria (813,000), Iraq (291,000) and Afghanistan (267,000) currently represent the largest refugee communities. Germany’s relatively open asylum regime during the 2015-16 large-scale influx meant that the number of people from conflict-affected countries such as Syria has risen rapidly in the last few years.
By 2040, it is predicted that around one in three of the German population will be migrants themselves or have a migrant background.
Germany is home to a relatively small Jewish community, although numbers have rebounded significantly since the devastation wrought by the Holocaust. By 1945, only 15,000 Jews had survived of the more than 500,000 living in the country in the 1930s. Germany’s current Jewish population is thought to comprise approximately 200,000 people; 105,000 are registered members of the official Jewish community and a similar number are thought to be unaffiliated. The majority either migrated or are descendants of migrants from what was then the Soviet Union.
Updated June 2020
Germany continues to be overshadowed by its history between 1933 and 1945 when, under Nazi rule, the country pursued a brutal campaign of racial segregation, military invasion and genocide against Jewish, Roma and Sinti minorities across Europe. Though the conflict led to the deaths of tens of millions of civilians, these minorities and other groups deemed ‘inferior’, such as persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people were systematically eradicated by the regime. In total, approximately 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Roma were killed. Within Germany, three-quarters of the Roma population – amounting to 15,000 people – were killed.
The legacy of this era is still felt in different ways today. On the one hand, Germany has made sustained efforts to acknowledge and confront these crimes, with a focus on education, public acknowledgement and human rights protections. Consequently, Germany is now a leading champion within Europe for tolerance and inclusion, reflected for instance in its initial response to the tens of thousands of refugees who streamed through Europe in 2015. At the same time, German society has also had to contend with a growth in hate speech and racism in recent years, reflected in particular in the mobilization of far-right and extremist groups against asylum seekers and their perceived supporters among mainstream politicians. In February 2020, a far-right extremist carried out a mass shooting at two shisha bars in Hanau, killing nine people. The choice of locations was deliberate – at least five of the victims were Turkish nationals. Shortly before, 12 men had been arrested for planning attacks on mosques with the aim of sparking a violent backlash.
A number of mayors have been threatened or attacked for their sympathetic stance towards refugees, including Walter Lübcke, mayor of Kassel, who was shot dead in June 2019. Minority politicians with migrant backgrounds are particularly vulnerable. In January 2020, the Halle office of Karamba Diaby, Germany’s only black MP, was strafed by bullets. The shooting was followed by an anonymous death threat, warning him that he could expect the same fate as Lübcke.
Germany was notable for its relatively open attitude when the influx began in 2015, welcoming in more than one million refugees in that year alone, four times the number received in 2014. Since then, however, the government’s policies have become more restrictive, in response to changing popular sentiment. The public debate became more fraught as a consequence of a series of violent incidents, including a knife attack by an Afghan teenager in Würzburg in July 2016 and a suicide bombing by a Syrian in the city of Ansbach less than a week after. Neither incident led to any fatalities, although many were injured, but in December 2016 a rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia killed 12 and wounded many more by driving a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin. The German authorities responded by rolling out a strategy to accelerate deportations of rejected asylum seekers, particularly to Afghanistan. While the number of violent incidents involving foreign nationals has been relatively limited, far-right groups have used them as a way of gaining publicity and support.
Though Germany has a number of laws in place intended to curb anti-Semitism – Holocaust denial, for instance, is a crime in German law – there are concerns that it is nevertheless on the rise, demonstrated by an attack on a synagogue in Halle by a far-right extremist in October 2019. The attacker had tried to break into the synagogue to massacre worshippers; when he failed, he killed two by-standers and left two others injured. Anti-Semitism is no longer confined to the far-right. Only a few days before the shooting, a Syrian man had attempted to enter a synagogue in Berlin with a knife to attack worshippers there. In the aftermath of the Halle attack, recognizing that many Jewish Germans no longer felt safe, the government announced it would revise the country’s current legislation to designate anti-Semitism as a specific hate crime.
Like the Jewish population, Roma and Sinti have suffered a long history of persecution in Germany and continue to be the victims of violent racist attacks and harassment, particularly those without German citizenship. Surveys and studies have consistently shown high levels of intolerance in German society towards Roma and Sinti. Discrimination in the housing market remains a significant problem, with many still segregated from mainstream German society. While there have been programmes to rehouse Roma and Sinti since the 1980s, these have mostly been carried out without consulting the community. The result has been ghettoes with poor-standard, often temporary housing with inadequate facilities. Families who were temporarily accommodated in trailer-homes or prefabricated housing containers often ended up remaining there for decades.
The German federal authorities have included efforts to combat manifestations of anti-gypsyism as part of its preventive measures against extremism. One important milestone in this sphere was the adoption of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020.
Updated June 2020
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 rise of Nazism and the Second World War
The National Socialist Party, which ruled from 1933 to 1945, persecuted the Jews, the Roma and Sinti, LGBTQ+ people, persons with disabilities 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 of the Holocaust was to eradicate Europe’s 11 million Jews; 6 million were killed in concentration camps. Roma and Sinti fled to Austria in the 1930s, but they were persecuted there after the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. Hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, with some estimates reaching up to 1.5 million, were killed in the genocide, described as the Porajmos or ‘Devouring’ in the Romani language.
In 1945, the 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 Nazi persecution) in both.
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, 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.
After the re-unification of Germany, the country has become the largest economy within the EU and one of its leading political actors. Migration has also resulted in an increasingly diverse German society, though migrant communities do not enjoy the rights established within the country’s legal framework for national minorities.
During 2015-16, Germany was significantly affected by the European refugee influx, receiving over one million refugees, more than any other country in Europe. While the government’s open–door policy was welcomed by many, anti-migrant sentiment also intensified among right-wing parties and organizations. There have also been signs of growing anti-Semitism in recent years: in 2018, the German authorities launched the post of the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism to tackle this issue.
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 Federal Republic of Germany ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) on 10 September 1997. The ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages followed on 16 September 1998. As a result, Germany recognizes four ethnic groups as its national minorities. These groups are officially referred to as the Danish minority, the Frisian ethnic group, the German Roma and Sinti, and the Sorbian people. Within the meaning of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Danish, Upper and Lower Sorbian, North and Sater Frisian, and the Romany language of the German Roma and Sinti are recognized as minority languages in Germany. Additionally, Low German enjoys the status of a regional language.
Measures aimed at the promotion and protection of minorities and speakers of the regional language are being implemented at the federal, Länder and municipal levels in Germany. Among the bodies dealing with minority issues, there is the Federal Government Commissioner for Matters Related to Ethnic German Resettlers and National Minorities within the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community, which is the primary contact point at the central level in minority-related issues. The Ministry maintains four consultative committees focusing on the issues of each of the four recognized national minorities in Germany. All of them are chaired by the Federal Government Commissioner. In addition to this office, the position of the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism was established in 2018 within the Ministry to address the needs of the Jewish community and counter manifestations of anti-Semitism in the country.
Another institution is the Minority Secretariat, created in 2005 to serve as a liaison office between the central institutions and the umbrella organizations of Germany’s recognized minorities. This is a state-funded institution supported by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community. The Secretariat provides organizational support to the activities of the Minority Council, which consists of the representatives of the umbrella organizations of the four national minorities of Germany and represents the interests of these minorities before the federal executive and legislative bodies. The meetings of the Minority Council are organized at least twice a year.
Finally, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency is the primary point of contact in cases of discrimination. It was established in 2006 in compliance with the General Equal Treatment Act. It also conducts research on the patterns of inequality and discrimination in Germany, including those faced by vulnerable communities such as Roma and Sinti.
There are also Federal-Länder conferences with the minorities which involve representatives of minorities and public authorities of different levels, as well as the Discussion Group on National Minorities at the German Bundestag, which brings together MPs and representatives of organizations of the national minorities.
Due to the geographic concentration of Germany’s national minorities and country’s political organization, much of the minority-related issues are attributed to the Länder level and are targeted at a specific minority.
The gastarbeiter system, agreed between Germany and the governments of the workers’ countries of origin, allowed for temporary residence and employment with the understanding that the workers would ultimately return home. 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 by making social security contributions.
Updated June 2020
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-mannheim.de/publications/wp/wp-66.pdf
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: http://isurvived.org/TOC-I.html#I-1
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: http://isurvived.org/TOC-I.html#I-7_Romanies
Roma Books (online Roma bookshop), URL: http://www.romabooks.com/
Minorities and indigenous peoples in