Europe // Analysis

25 may 2012

Volk auf dem Weg, or Russian Germans in Germany

Olga Gulina PhD in Law, PhD of Potsdam University
REUTERS / Tobias Schwarz

According to the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, German back-settlers from Russia got the legal status of citizens, acquired the whole totality of rights and civil liberties, including the right for social security, the right for recognition of labor and professional qualifications, the right to be free from discrimination by the place of birth, language and descent, but owing to the force of circumstances as a result their massive entry to the country failed to obtain sufficient opportunities to realize the above rights and freedoms.

The paradox of history is that the fate of ethnic Germans and their descendants who left the territory of new states built on the USSR ruins and moved to their historic homeland in Germany can become an interesting example and experience worth of studying in order to successfully implement the program of voluntary resettlement of Russian nationals to the Russian Federation.

For a long time Russian political leaders have been speaking with conviction of the need to support people brought up in the Russian cultural tradition and speaking the Russian language who, owing to the force of circumstances, found themselves outside their homeland through no fault of their own or even against their own free will. This is one of the key guidelines of the contemporary Russian state development aimed at improving the demographic situation and migration climate in the country. Repatriation of Russian nationals and programs of their support became a trump card in the game of politicians and public figures; however, the calls for or pledges and a publicized program of voluntary resettlement have failed to generate a massive comeback of our compatriots to Russia. All the more striking is the German know-how which neatly organized and conducted the repatriation of more than 4.5 million ethnic Germans from Eastern and Central European countries (about 2.5 million of them lived in the former Soviet states).

We recognize our historic responsibility for the people who, being Germans, suffered from the consequences of the Second World War and found themselves in Eastern and Central Europe as well as in the states of the Soviet Union, for those who are willing to stay in their “today’s” homeland and for those who are willing to return to their historic homeland in Germany. This responsibility is especially focused on the Germans living in the countries of the post-Soviet space as they were the worst hit by ramifications of the war [1].

Traces of the Past, or Where the Homeland Begins

People on the road – Volk auf dem Weg – this is the term used in German literature to denote migrants – ethnic Germans who in the sense of Article 116 of the Basic Law of Germany fled from the German Reich as of October 31, 1937 or were once again forced to leave Germany before the Basic Law came into force in 1949 irrespective of whether the migration was voluntary or forced.

From 1990 through 2010 2,505,802 Russian Germans left the territory of post-Soviet states (including Russia), they were granted the migrant status and full German citizenship. The peak of migration was in 1990 when 397,073 people entered the country. The year 2000 registered the first drop in the number of coming migrants – less than 100,000. In 2010 3,908 people applied for participation in the resettlement program while 2,350 persons actually moved to Germany, 2,297 of them were citizens of the former Soviet republics (1,462 – from the Russian Federation, 508 – from Kazakhstan, 160 – from Ukraine etc.). That said, 26.7% of the people who moved to Germany within the program framework were younger than 20 years old, 41.2% – from 20 to 45 years old, 25.1% – from 45 t0 65 years old, and 7% – over 65 years old [2]. 29.4% of repatriates had skills of simple working professions (unskilled labor), 23.4% – skilled working professions (non-academic), 10.9 % were agricultural specialists, 4.9% – professors and academic specialists [3].

The program of resettlement of ethnic Germans to the historic homeland was launched together with the endorsement of the Federal Expellee Law of May 19, 1953. It was later supplemented by the Law on the Late Consequences of World War II (1993) and the Law on the Late Emigrant Status (2001). The above laws delineate the procedure of determining the German ethnicity, give the definition of an “emigrant” or “emigrant family member”, as well as establish the procedure and volume of the state support granted to this category of German citizens. In 2007 §27 of the Federal Expellee Law set down a new provision which ruled that annually the German Federal Administration could not issue more certificates of the late emigrant status to returnees, their spouses and/or children than the number of certificates issued in 1998, i.e. not more than 100,000 [4]. Besides, the new version of the Law delineated definite criteria of the areas of resettlement and requirements to the natural language proficiency, which entailed a substantial reduction of the number of ethnic returnees to their homeland. From the viewpoint of the resettlement program the German language proficiency, its preservation and upholding in the family are the predominant factors of establishing a German identity of a person. Over the recent years there were repeated refusals to issue an emigrant status certificate because of an “inability of an applicant to keep up adequate conversation in German”, a “failure to prove sufficient study of the German language in the family as the applicant’s mother has poor command of the language, and the applicant’s grandmother, a native speaker, emigrated to Germany when the applicant was only six years old”. Even if an applicant has relatives in Germany (both parents moved to Federal Germany as emigrants and are German citizens), “pure” ethnic parentage, good command of the language and culture, a criminal record in a post-Soviet country is an unconditional ground for a refusal to issue a certificate of a late emigrant status.

“Historic Responsibility” of the German State Shaped by Political Will of Its Leaders.

The sponsors of resettlement of ethnic Germans to their historic homeland were Christian Democrats (CDU) and their leader H.Kohl who urged “to create a new homeland” for “new citizens” embodying “a great victory of the German state and society, and not only from a demographic viewpoint”. It was Chancellor H.Kohl who on September 28, 1988 established the post of the Federal commissioner for matters related to repatriates and national minorities. The present Commissioner for matters related to repatriates, C.Bergner, welcoming resettlement to the historic homeland of more than two million ethnic Germans and their families, once noticed that in terms of numbers they could have made the population of a federal land, Thuringia for example. Bergner believes that this only comparison – in the framework of return of German repatriates (the country received a new federal land in terms of the population) – demonstrates the scale of the achievement. Relative smoothness of such a large-scale endeavor could be the proof that in the majority of instances integration of migrants into the German society has apparently succeeded, he says.

In their historic homeland the returnees are granted a whole range of rights: matters of reunification of families, employment/job placement and social welfare of this category of citizens remain problematic to this day.

Even today modern Germany is keen on compatriots living abroad. Despite doubts and skepticism toward support of German overseas communities, from 1988 to 2008 the country spent about one billion euro in support of compatriots abroad. Meanwhile, German politicians and experts are unanimous in their view that the peak of ethnic Germans’ interest to the resettlement to Germany is already gone as the economic component of lifestyle in Russian regions, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries has significantly improved. At the same time, German politicians believe that their “right and duty” is to maintain the image of Germany as the historic homeland of all Germans, and as a country where people live a beautiful and worthy life.

Other Side of “Cornu Copiae” and Current State of Affairs

In conformity with paragraph 7 of the Law on Citizenship (StAG) and pursuant to §15 parts 1 and 2 of the Federal Expellee Law migrants, their spouses and children indicated in the migrant status certificate are automatically granted German citizenship, and all rights and duties in their totality ensuing from this legal relationship between an individual and the state. An important aspect is that this state-legal relationship formalized by granted citizenship does not rule out possible discrimination. For one, the Law on equal treatment regards the affiliation to a group of migrants determined by the place of birth, name and speech accent and/or other features as a possible reason for discrimination.

In their historic homeland the returnees are granted a whole range of rights: an opportunity to change one’s name and family name, validation of the period of service in another country for retirement benefits to be received in Germany, recognition of qualification and education, lump-sum integration benefit and compensation of costs related to repatriation to the historic homeland, granting of initial financial aid, granting of unemployment benefit etc. However, matters of reunification of families, employment/job placement and social welfare of this category of citizens remain problematic to this day. For one, migrants’ spouses and children coming to Germany together with the returnee and indicated in the migrant status certificate are automatically granted German citizenship and enjoy protection of the state. By implication of the Law, other relatives of a migrant (daughter-in-law or son-in-law) as well as spouses and children coming to Germany separately from the migrant remain aliens. They can apply for citizenship through a standard procedure pursuant to the provisions of the Law for residency, occupation and integration of Foreigners in the Federal Republic of Germany, including those delineating adequate command of the German language and financial ability to live in the country.

Integration, qualification and adaptation courses for migrants and their families, transportation expenses related to the movement from home to the place of study, and scholarships for the period of learning are financed by federal/regional budgets.

Quite often migrants and their family members have to face difficulties in validating their labor and educational qualifications due to a different length of study in secondary schools and higher educational establishments, different curricula etc. Frequently the validation of migrants’ period of service for the retirement benefit calculation is “discriminatory” – up to 40% of the retirement benefit as compared to the volume of pensions paid to Germans born in the Federal Republic [5].

Apart from the flaws of the German resettlement policy, positive migration practices as regards repatriates deserve special attention. Despite the fact that statistically the number of specialists with complete higher education and/or core special education is about 220,000 people, or 5–10% of the total number of migrants from the former Soviet Union [6], Otto Benecke Foundation launched programs of professional development, re-training, job counseling and employment, established counseling, adaptation and orientation courses for migrants and their family members.

The law on residency, occupation and integration delineates the principle of the German migration policy – “support and demand” which is fully applicable to the migrants from the ex-USSR countries. Integration, qualification and adaptation courses for migrants and their families, transportation expenses related to the movement from home to the place of study, and scholarships for the period of learning are financed by federal/regional budgets.

One has to point out high social activity of young migrants, especially in major cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt on the Main etc. The migrants’ forums were launched, as well as the projects of “Migrant, Help a Migrant” (Aha Aussiedler Helfen Aussiedlern) established on the basis of regional job agencies (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). Their purpose is to promote adaptation and integration of newcomer migrants with the help of people who moved to Germany several years back and who have already integrated into the German society. Groups of support of young migrants «Kommunikationsstätte für junge Aussiedler» offer administrative assistance to young people who are seeking to establish their own community and/or who have already united into special interest groups – providing premises, covering communal costs, remunerating professionals and specialists working with such communities etc. Associations of migrants are also successful – as a rule, those of young university students supporting young people of school age in job counseling and adaptation, in doing mandatory hometasks under the German education program «Fit für Bildung – Fit für bürgerschaftliches Engagement». Besides, various Internet platforms (Facebook, XING etc.) host virtual groups of support and wider contacts among Russian-speaking migrants in Germany. Among them are the Russian Community of Berlin, Russian Community of Mannheim, Russian Community of Dusseldorf and Its Vicinity, “Migrant“ («Aussiedler») et al. The institutional unity of migrants in the Federal Republic illustrates a wide spectrum of civil initiatives, organizations of the third sector which were established and work in the interests of a given group of individuals resting upon wide institutional and financial support offered by the German state structures.

The Pandora’s Box, or Lessons from German Experience

According to German legislation, migrant Germans enjoy a high degree of legal protection, however, they actually live a difficult life and encounter problems in exercising their rights. Migrants from the former Soviet bloc turned out to be a kind of Pandora’s box to Germany. As before, their adaptation and integration demand serious efforts and financial support of the state. Repatriation of ethnic Germans to their historic homeland has always been a desirable but quite cash-stripping item of the federal budget.

More than twenty years of German experience in home-bringing of ethnic Germans could be instrumental to this country as it, in fact, replicates the process of repatriation of Russian nationals living abroad and maintaining socio-cultural, language and historic ties with Russia. In particular, this experience could be used for more systematic, well-considered and profound conduct of the repatriation of our compatriots to Russia in conformity with the Federal Law “On State Policy of the Russian Federation toward Compatriots Abroad” and State Program of Assistance to Voluntary Resettlement to the Russian Federation of Compatriots Residing Abroad.

According to German legislation, migrant Germans enjoy a high degree of legal protection, however, they actually live a difficult life and encounter problems in exercising their rights.

The state program of assistance to voluntary resettlement of Russian nationals to Russia as well as the program of return of compatriots to Kazakhstan, Nurly Kosh, is focused on the former Russian citizens living in the former Soviet republics as well as expatriates (emigrants) and their descendants from the Russian Federation, USSR and Kazakhstan. Apart from this definition, the Russian legal framework fails to present a clear-cut "portrait" of a welcome re-emigrant; the same applies to the clear understanding of a target group for the said program. The following should be done to improve the situation:

  • To introduce amendments and supplements to the legal framework of the program;
  • To work out a uniformly applied conceptual framework;
  • To introduce clear criteria and evaluation of the notions of a “compatriot”, “compatriot’s family members”, “types of state support”, “measures to realize repatriation” etc., which would correspond to the purposes of the program and meet the interests of the Russian state;
  • To promote introduction and widening of different types of state and non-government support – special foundations/structures/programs administering orientation, adaptation and integration of the returnees and their family members;
  • Inside the Ministry of Justice and/or Federal Migration Service – to establish an agency of the Commissioner on matters related to migrants who would safeguard the rights, liberties and interests of repatriates and their families, coordinate uniform application of the law and program rules in Russian regions, monitor law enforcement procedures etc.

That said, an important aspect is the understanding that such efforts are not an “overnight job”; this is a comprehensive and laborious task which can be facilitated by the analysis of negative experience and progressive achievements in repatriation of emigrants to other countries.

1. Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU, CSU und SDP: Aussage zu Migration und Integration. Berlin, 2005.

2. Migrationbericht 2010 Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. Berlin: BMI, 2011. S. 49–54.

3. Mika T., Hering L., Hochfellner D. Welche berufliche Qualifikation und Erfahrung brachten Aussiedler und Spätaussiedler bei der Zuwanderung mit // DRV-Schriften Band 55/2010. S. 143.

4. В 1998 г. было принято 103080 человек.

5. Deutsche Rentenversicherung (Hrsg.) Aussiedler und ihre Rente. 2009. № 1.

6. Maur D. Russlanddeutsche Zuwanderer mit akademischen Abschluss – eine Erfolgsgeschichte mit Hindernisse // Dettling D., Gerometta J. (Hrsg.) Vorteil Vielfalt, Herausforderungen und Perspektiven einer offenen Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden, 2007. S. 107.

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Olga Gulina, “Volk auf dem Weg, or Russian Germans in Germany,” Russian International Affairs Council, 25 May 2012,

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