German People’s List
The term Volksdeutscher (in Polish also spelled phonetically as folksdojcz) means “an ethnic German”. It was first used in an official context in 1938, in a memorandum issued by the Reich Chancellery and signed by Adolf Hitler. Volksdeutschers were defined in this document as follows: “German-speaking people of German ancestry who do not hold German citizenship”.
In Poland, Volksdeutschers lived in the territories of the former Prussian Partition (mainly in the provinces of Poznań, Pomerania, and Upper Silesia), and also in the area of Łódź and Warsaw. They were Evangelicals. Before the outbreak of the War, they attended German schools. In the census of 1931, 740,000 people – 75,000 of whom lived in the province of Warsaw – stated that German was their mother tongue. The majority were affluent peasants and landowners, but they also included workers of various trade cooperatives. In Warsaw itself – which was a stronghold of Polishness – the Germans were Polonized.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the community of German craftsmen and farmers, affected by the economic crisis, came to appreciate Nazi Germany. Many parents removed their children from Polish schools and enrolled them in German educational facilities. In September 1939, self-defense battalions – the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz –were formed using the organizational structures of the Young German Party (Jungdeutsche Partei), which had been active since the 1930s. The main objective of the organization was to protect Polish citizens of German descent and their property on territories directly incorporated into the Reich. Members of the Selbstschutz would be called Volksdeutschers, oftentimes interchangeably. Polish society treated them as Gestapo informers, blackmailers (szmalcowniks), German gendarmerie collaborators, and denouncers. Some of the people commonly referred to as Volksdeutschers served in the SS, Sicherheitspolizei, and Sicherheitsdienst. First and foremost, Poles hated active Volksdeutschers. There were cases of lynching, and a number of death sentences were passed by Home Army courts. In retaliation, the occupier applied collective responsibility, and in effect many civilians perished.
The term Deutsche Volksliste (DVL; in Polish also spelled phonetically as folkslista) was used from 12 September 1940, pursuant to Heinrich Himmler’s decree “on the screening and segregation of the population in the incorporated Eastern territories”.The term denoted the German People’s List, also known as the German national list. The Volksliste was introduced in Polish territories annexed by the Third Reich during Second World War by a decree of 4 March 1941. Germanization of ethnic Poles in the incorporated territories meant that Upper Silesians, Silesians, Mazurians, and partially also Kashubs were classified as so-called intermediary strata. The aim was to prove that the territories of Pomerania, Silesia and the Greater Poland were inherently German, and their Polish inhabitants were in fact a national minority. The Volksliste was not actually “signed”, but being listed usually entailed undergoing administrative proceedings at the request of the person concerned. The process consisted in proving one’s ancestry and, if possible, active membership of German and pro-German organizations. The applicant would fill in 14 sections of the Questionnaire for acquiring German citizenship in the incorporated territories, in which he or she had to answer questions about, among others, citizenship, military service (in the German, Austrian-Hungarian, or Polish army), and membership of German organizations and trade unions, assure of having no Jewish ancestors, and pledge allegiance to the German nationality.
Among the four categories of the German People’s List, the first was reserved for those Germans who had actively supported the Third Reich before the outbreak of the War. The second category included persons who declared themselves Germans, spoke German as their primary language, cultivated German culture, and were active in German institutions. The third stratum comprised Polonized Germans viewed as susceptible to rapid Germanization, while the fourth grouped persons of German descent who were Polonized and had cooperated closely with Polish authorities in the inter-war period or participated in the activities of Polish social and political organizations. Persons classified under the first and second category enjoyed a privileged status: they were automatically granted citizenship of the Reich, although they were subject to compulsory military service in the Wehrmacht. Persons assigned to the third group were given German citizenship for a period of ten years, while those in the fourth category could be granted German citizenship only by way of exception. Refusal to fill in the questionnaire on the basis of which an official decision was made as to which DVL category applied in a given case could result in the whole family being incarcerated in a concentration camp or deported to the General Government. During street round-ups, Volksdeutschers were always released.
Towards the end of 1942, the Volksliste comprised 3,124,000 names: 1,450,000 from Upper Silesia, 1,153,000 from the province of Danzig-West Prussia, 476,000 from the Reichsgau Wartheland, and 45,000 from East Prussia. For humanitarian reasons and because of the real threat to the lives of people in Silesia who refused inclusion in the Volksliste, the Polish Government-in-Exile supported those who decided to apply for recognition of their German origin. Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski even issued a special directive, which was broadcast over the radio. Polish independence movements and the Catholic Church shared the same approach. The Communists, in turn, took the view that acceptance of the Volksliste was tantamount to treason.
The Aftermath of the Fall of the Third Reich
Towards the end of the war, many Volksdeutschers fled Poland, while others did not survive the advance of the Red Army into occupied Poland or died at the hands of their neighbors, thirsting for revenge. Those who still remained in the liberated territories in 1944 were subjected to criminal liability for their war-time deviation from nationality. Arrests were effected by functionaries of the Security Office and the Citizens’ Militia. The detainees were incarcerated in camps and prisons. On 28 February 1945, the State National Council issued a decree concerning Volksdeutschers, titled On the Exclusion of Hostile Elements from Polish Society, while the Polish Committee of National Liberation by its decree of 12 September 1944 established nine special criminal courts for Fascist-Hitlerite criminals, which prosecuted offences jointly termed “German crimes” (pursuant to the provisions of the decree of 4 November 1944 on protective measures against traitors to the nation and the above-mentioned decree of 28 February 1945). Under the Act of 6 May 1945, a municipal court could rehabilitate persons classified under the third and fourth category of the Volksliste. Persons listed under the first and the second category were not subject to rehabilitation.
Communist propaganda was the first to brand people who “signed” the Volksliste as traitors to the Polish nation. It was only through the Act of 20 July 1950 that the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic rehabilitated Polish citizens who had declared German nationality or German descent during the War and had not been rehabilitated otherwise.
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Kaczmarek Ryszard, Polacy w Wehrmachcie, Kraków 2010.
Pospieszalski Karol Marian, Hitlerowskie „prawo” okupacyjne w Polsce, vol. 1: Ziemie „wcielone”, Poznań 1952, p. 114–118.
Sobczak Janusz, Hitlerowskie przesiedlenia ludności niemieckiej w dobie II wojny światowej, Poznań 1966.
Zapomniani kaci Hitlera. Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz w okupowanej Polsce 1939–1940. Wybrane zagadnienia, ed. Izabela Mazanowska, Tomasz Sylwiusz Ceran, Bydgoszcz–Gdańsk 2016.
Dr. Monika Tomkiewicz – a historian and archivist at the Gdańsk Branch of the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation (since 2000). Her research interests center on contemporary history, with a special focus on the war-time history of the former Wilno province and Pomerania. She has authored, among others, Zbrodnia w Ponarach 1941–1944 (Warsaw 2008), Gdynia w latach 1939–1945 w świetle źródeł niemieckich i polskich. Aresztowania, egzekucje, wysiedlenia ludności cywilnej narodowości polskiej (with Elżbieta Rojowska; Gdynia 2009) and Profesor Rudolf Spanner (1895–1960). Naukowiec w III Rzeszy (with Piotr Semkow; Gdynia 2010). She is currently preparing the publication of her post-doctoral thesis, titled Więzienie na Łukiszkach w Wilnie 1939–1953.