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Germans, great ethnic complex of ancient Europe, a basic stock in the composition of the modern peoples of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, N Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, N and central France, Lowland Scotland, and England. From archaeology it is clear that the Germans had little ethnic solidarity; by the 7th cent. B.C. they had begun a division into many peoples. They did not call themselves Germans; the origin of the name is uncertain. Their rise to significance (4th cent. B.C.) in the history of Europe began roughly with the general breakup of Celtic culture in central Europe. Before their expansion, the Germans inhabited N Germany, S Sweden and Denmark, and the shores of the Baltic. From these areas they spread out in great migrations southward, southeastward, and westward.

Although the earliest mention of the Germans is by a Greek navigator who saw them in Norway and Jutland in the 4th cent. B.C., their real appearance in history began with their contact (1st cent. B.C.) with the Romans. The chief historical sources for the culture and distribution of the Germans are Tacitus' Germania and Agricola and the remnants in later ages of early Germanic institutions. Apart from describing their barbarity and warlikeness, Caesar's Commentaries tell little. As the centuries passed the Germans became increasingly troublesome to the Roman Empire. The Vandals in the west and the Ostrogoths in the east were the first to attack the empire seriously. The Ostrogoths were a part of the Gothic people, often called the East Germanic, whose language (Gothic) was the first written Germanic language. The Goths apparently moved SE from the Vistula River to the Balkans, thence W across Europe.

German Tribes

The chief German tribes included the Alemanni, the Angles (see Anglo-Saxons), the Burgundii (see Burgundy), the Lombards, the Saxons, and the Visigoths. The many Scandinavians included the Icelanders, who produced the first Germanic literature (see Old Norse literature). Many other Germanic tribes appeared in various ancient periods. The Chamavi were in the 1st cent. N of the Rhine and SE of the Zuider Zee; by the 4th cent. they had moved southward and joined with the Frankish people. The Cimbri appeared in Transalpine Gaul late in the 2d cent. B.C. and fought Roman armies; c.103 B.C. they migrated to Italy with some Helvetii and Teutons and were crushed by Marius in 101 B.C. The Heruli, or Eruli, possibly stemming from Jutland, inhabited the shores of the Sea of Azov, E of the Don, in the 3d cent. A.D. They fought with the Goths against the Huns, joined Odoacer in his attack on the Roman emperor, and settled in N Lower Austria. In the 6th cent. their kingdom was destroyed by Lombards, and they disappeared as a group.

The Gepidae, a Gothic people, moved southward from the Baltic at Vistula into the Hungarian plain W of the Danube. Overwhelmed by Attila, they survived only to be defeated in 489 by Theodoric the Great and in 566 by the Lombards and Avars. They disappeared soon after. The Marcomanni, probably originally part of the Suebi, lived N of the Danube in Germany in the 1st and 2d cent. A threat to the Roman border, they were defeated by Marcus Aurelius in the Marcomannic War (166–180). They moved into the country of the Celtic Boii and probably expanded into Bavaria, where they seem to be the Baiuoarii, or Boiarii, ancestors of the Bavarians.

The Suebi, or Suevi, mentioned by Tacitus as a central German people, gave their name to Swabia. They probably included a number of smaller tribes, of whom the Alemanni and the Marcomanni were two. Others were the Semoni, the Hermunduri, and the Quadi. The Suebi lived near the Elbe c.650 B.C.; thence they spread S into Germany. By 100 B.C. they no longer constituted a political unit, although Tacitus maintained that they retained cultural and religious unity. The Teutons, who were allied with the Cimbri in 103 B.C., were crushed (102 B.C.) by Marius at Aquae Sextiae (present-day Aix-en-Provence). By an extension of the name of that tribe the Germanic peoples are sometimes called Teutonic.

See Germanic laws; Germanic religion; Germany.


See F. Owen, The Germanic People (1960); A. Schalk, The Germans (1971).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the principal population of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; more than 56 million people; estimates here and below for 1972), the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 17 million), and West Berlin (2.1 million). Large groups of Germans also live in a number of European countries, as well as in the USSR, the USA, Canada, various Latin American countries, Australia, and South Africa. They speak German. In addition to the literary language, there are numerous dialects, which are used in everyday conversation. A number of regional features dating from the remote past have been preserved in the material and cultural life of the Germans. The strongest regional differences are those distinguishing the northern Germans from the southern Germans. In addition to the general designation “Germans,” a number of regional designations are used, including “Bavarians,” “Swabians,” and “Saxons.” In the GDR the majority of religious believers are Lutherans, and in the FRG, Lutherans and Catholics.

At the end of the first millennium B.C. and during the first centuries of the Common Era, ancient German tribes mingled with part of the more ancient population of the territory of Germany. In the west and southwest they intermarried with the Celts, and in the south, with the Rhaetians. The Roman conquests influenced the cultural development of the Rhine Germans and accelerated the dissolution of primitive communal relations among them. Tribal unions (for example, the Franks, Saxons, Bavarians, Alemanni, and Thuringians), which had developed by the middle of the first millennium A.D., constituted the Germans’ ethnic foundation. Some instances of German unity are found even in the tenth century. The appearance of the terms teutoni, teutonicus, and Lingua teodisca (a folk [Teutonic] language) provides evidence of the birth of national self-consciousness at this time. The formation, as a result of the partition of the Carolingian Empire in 843, of the East Frankish kingdom, with a predominantly German-speaking population, is further evidence of the rise of national self-consciousness.

Certain West Slav and Baltic tribes (Prussians and related Lithuanian tribes), whose lands were seized by German feudal lords from the tenth through 13th centuries, became part of the formative German people. The national consolidation of the Germans was retarded by the protracted feudal fragmentation and economic division of the country, which lasted until the 19th century. The development of capitalist relations required the elimination of customs, financial, and other barriers. Unification took place under the aegis of Prussia in 1871, after which the formation of the German nation (natsiia, nation in the historical sense) was basically complete. Industrialization and the subsequent movement of the population to the cities contributed to the leveling of population in an ethnologic sense.

In 1949, two states with opposing social systems were established on the territory of Germany. Socioeconomically and culturally, the development of the two Germanies has been completely different. A socialist German nation is developing in the GDR.


Engels, F. “K istorii drevnikh germantsev.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19.
Engels, F. “Frankskii period.” Ibid.
Engels, F. Krest’ianskaia mina ν Germanii. Ibid., vol. 7.
Engels, F. “Revoliutsiia i kontrrevoliutsiia ν Germanii.” Ibid., vol. 8.
Narody Zarubezhnoi Evropy, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964. (References.)
Kolesnitskii, N. F. “Ob etnicheskom i gosudarstvennom razvitii srednevekovoi Germanii.” In the collection Srednie veka, fasc. 23. Moscow, 1963.
Seydewitz, M. Germaniia mezhdu Oderom i Reinom. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from German.)
Axen, H. “O razvitii sotsialisticheskoi natsii ν GDR.” Kommunist, 1973, no. 18.
Hugelmann, K. G. Nationalstaat und Nationalitatenrecht im deutschen Mittelalter, vol. 1: Stamme, Nation und Nationalstaat im deutschen Mittelalter. [Würzburg, 1955.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
(12) On Jacob's novella and its relation to Roi Bombance, see Eruli (153-156).
The question of the influence of Ubu Roi on Roi Bombance looms large over the criticism of Marinetti's play; see in particular Eruli (who is, however, mostly concerned with demonstrating the superiority of the French writer over his Italian epigone) and Gobin.