The Germans (German: die Deutschen) is a nation in the meaning an ethnos (in German: Volk), defined more by a sense of sharing a common German culture and having a German mother tongue, than by citizenship or by being subjects to any particular country. In the world today, approximately 100 millions have German as their mother tongue.
The concept of who is a German has varied. Until the 19th century, it denoted the speakers of German, and was a much more distinct concept than that of Germany, the land of the Germans. The Dutch and the Swiss had already split off and shaped separate national identities. Swiss Germans, however, retained their cultural identity as German, albeit as a specific German subculture.
In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the Holy Roman Empire (of the German nation), Austria and Prussia would emerge as two opposite poles in Germany, trying to re-establish the divided German nation. In 1870, Prussia attracted even Bavaria in the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire as a German nation-state, effectively excluding the multi-ethnic Austrian Habsburg monarchy. From this and on, the connotation of Germans came to shift gradually from "speakers of the German language" to "Imperial Germans."
Before World War II, most Austrians considered themselves German and denied the existence of a distinct Austrian ethnic identity. It was only after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II that this began to change. After the world war, the Austrians increasingly saw themselves as a nation distinct from the other German-speaking areas of Europe, and today, polls indicate that no more than ten percent of the German-speaking Austrians see themselves as part of a larger German nation linked by blood or language.
Ethnic Germans form an important minority group in several countries in central and eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania) as well as in Namibia and in southern Brazil. In the United States, 60 million people are fully or partly of German ancestry, forming the largest single ethnic group in the country. Most Americans of German descent live in the Mid-Atlantic states (especially Pennsylvania) and the northern Midwest (especially in Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and eastern Missouri.)
The Germans are a Germanic people, that is held to have expanded from Jutland and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea before the Migrations Period. Their Indo-European ancestors may before that have migrated slowly from the Black Sea region, and arrived in southern Scandinavia. Assimilation with other peoples is postulated, both with the prior inhabitants of Scandinavia and with peoples encountered on their way from Asia. Then Celtic peoples were assimilated during the expansion southwards from the Baltic.
After the Migrations Period, Slavonics expanded eastwards at the same time as Germans expanded westwards. The result was German colonization as far East as in Romania and Slavonic colonization as far west as to present-day Lübeck, at the Baltic Sea, Hamburg (connected to the North Sea) and along the rivers Elbe–Saale further South. After Christianization, the superior organization of the Catholic Church lent the upper hand for a German expansion on the expense of the Slavs, giving the medieval Drang nach Osten as result. At the same time, naval innovations led to a German domination of trade in the Baltics and Central–Eastern Europe through the Hanseatic League. Along the trade routes, Hanseatic trade stations became centers of Germanness where German urban law (Stadtrecht) was promoted by the presence of large, relatively wealthy German populations and their influence on the worldly powers.
Thus people whom we today often consider "Germans", with a common culture and worldview very different from that of the surrounding rural peoples, colonized as far north of present-day Germany as Bergen (in Norway), Stockholm (in Sweden), and Vyborg (now in Russia). At the same time, it's important to note that the Hanseatic League was not exclusively German in any ethnic sense. Many towns who joined the league were outside of the Holy Roman Empire, and some of them ought not at all be characterized as German.
Also the "German" Holy Roman Empire was not in any way exclusively German, and its course became much different than that of France or Great Britain. The Thirty Years War confirmed its dissolution; the Napoleonic Wars gave it its coup de grâce.
The reaction evoced in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars was a strong ethnic nationalism that emphasized, and sometimes overemphasized, the cultural bond between Germans. Later alloyed with the high standing and world-wide influence of German science at the end of the 19th century, and to some degree enhanced by Bismarck's military successes and the following 40 years of almost perpetual economic boom (the Gründerzeit), it gave the Germans an impression of cultural supremacy, particularly compared to the Slavs.
The Divided Germany
The idea that Germany is a divided nation is not new and not peculiar. Compared to the neighbors France, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark it was obvious and true. Since the Peace of Westphalia, Germany has been "one nation split in many countries". The Austrian–Prussian split, confirmed when Austria remained outside of the 1871 created Imperial Germany, was only the most prominent example. Most recently, the division between East Germany and West Germany kept the idea at life.
The beginnings of the divided Germany may be traced back much further; to a Roman occupied Germania in the west and to Free Germania in the east. Starkly different ideologies have many times been developed due to conquerors and occupiers of sections of Germany. Poets talked of Zwei Herzen in einer Seele (Two hearts in one soul).
The thought of a weak split nation gave birth to the idea of the advantage by unification. With Prince Bismarck as the great example, the Nazis went all the way and wanted to unite "all Germans" in one realm, which met a certain resistance among the Flemish and the Austrians, and much more so among the Swiss and the Dutch, who mostly were perfectly content with their perception of separate nations established in 1648.
Bavarians, like earlier Prussians, are large sub-groups of Germans, often keen on their own nationality — or in any case on their distinctiveness.
Protestant Reformation started in the German culture, and Germans are both Protestants and Catholics. The late 19th century saw a strong movement among the Jewry in Germany and Austria to assimilate and define themselves as à priori Germans, i.e. as Germans of Jewish faith. In Conservative circles, this was not always quite appreciated, and for the Nazis it was an anathema. After the Nazi rule led to the annihilation of all domestic Jews, the controversy today is over the Gastarbeiter and later arrived refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, who often are Muslims.
In recent years, the German-speaking countries of Europe have been confronted with demographic changes due to decades of immigration. These changes have lead to renewed debates (especially in the Federal Republic of Germany) about who should be considered German. Non-ethnic Germans now make up more than 8 percent of the German population, mostly the descendants of guest workers who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. Turks , Italians, Greeks, and people from the Balkans in southeast Europe form the largest single groups of non-ethnic Germans in the country. Germany is now also home to thousands of non-white and racially-mixed people as well. While most ethnic minorities in the country remain non-citizens, thousands have gained German passports. The majority of Germans maintain the view that an individual needs to have at least one ethnic German parent to be considered "German"; this view allows some visible minorities to be considered German, especially children of mixed heritage. Recent changes in citizenship laws and the increased visibility of ethnic minorities would seem to indicate that the concept of who is a German is slowly moving away from one that centered on ethnicity and heritage (jus sanguinis) to a concept based more on nationality, citizenship, and cultural identification (jus soli), although the term Germans in Germany of today often is used specifically to exclude immigrants.
Jus sanguinis still has a strong position in German law, but in the public debate it's increasingly argued support for jus soli along the line that immigrant-children are no immigrants themselves, why they should be considered Germans of equal rights and value as other Germans. Hence a growing number of Germans are of Muslim faith.
Historical persons like Kafka and Copernicus might be called Germans, or might not. Some would hold that they belong to the German culture, which is what decides if someone is considered a German or not, at least in certain contexts. Similarly, Händel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven may be considered to have been central within the German culture. But Germans also know that Austrians, Poles or Czechs see things differently, and many Germans would consider it improper and arrogant vis-à-vis the Austrians to claim Mozart being a German.
The Dutch and the Flemish have another standard language, so they constitute no real problem.
With regard to present-day conditions, many, probably most, Germans consider Austrians and the Swiss to have nationalities of their own, although their ethnicity may be defined as German.