Overview and

There are four recognised autochthonous (from the Old-Greek word for “native
to the soil, the place where it is found”), national minorities and ethnic groups.

The Danes
in South Schleswig

The Frisians

The German
Sinti and Roma

The Lusatian

They receive special protection and specific support in Germany through the federal government and several federal states.

On the basis of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the languages of the four national minorities (Danish, North- and Sater-Frisian, Upper and Lower Sorbian and the Romanes language of the Sinti and Roma) are protected in Germany. Also the regional language of Low German (Plattdeutsch) is protected by the Charter. The speakers of Low German do not belong to a national minority: their language Low German, however, is recognised as a regional language.

Persons in Germany are free to choose whether or not they consider themselves to belong to a minority. The available numbers are only based on estimations. One the reasons for this is the persecution of minorities during the period of Nazi tyranny, another reason are Germany’s obligations under international law. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe) determines that “every person belonging to a national minority shall have the right freely to choose to be treated or not to be treated as such and no disadvantage shall result from this choice”.

Self-conception minorities

What do we understand by an autochthonous,
national minority?

To the autochthonous, national minorities belong the minorities that came into being as a result of developments in European history, as a result of the changes of state borders and other historical events. To the autochthonous, national minorities also the peoples of Europe belong who have never established a state and who live as a minority in the territory of a state.

The Charter for the autochthonous national minorities in Europe of FUEN (Federal Union of European Nationalities), the umbrella organisation of the minorities in Europe, provides the following definition:

An autochthonous, national minority should be understood as a community,

  • that is resident in an area of a state territory or scattered around a state territory,
  • that is of smaller number than the rest of the state population,
  • the members of which are citizens of that state,
  • the members of which have been resident in the area in question for generations,
  • that is distinguishable from the state’s other citizens by reason of their ethnic, linguistic or cultural characteristics and who wish to preserve these characteristics.

Autochthonous, national minorities are distinguished from immigrants (sometimes called allochthonous or new minorities): minorities who did not live in Germany traditionally.

The Sorbian people lives in Upper Lusatia (Free State of Saxony), where they are known as Upper Sorbs, and in Lower Lusatia (State of Brandenburg), where they are known as Lower Sorbs/Wends. Alongside German, they speak Upper and Lower Sorbian respectively. There are currently about 60,000 Sorbs/Wends.

The German Sinti and Roma live throughout the federal territory. Estimates suggest that about 60,000 German Sinti and about 10,000 German Roma live in Germany today. Alongside German, they speak the Romanes minority language.

The Danish minority lives in northern Schleswig-Holstein, along the border with Denmark. About 50,000 members of the Danish minority have Danish as their native language as well as German.

The Frisian ethnic group in Germany lives along the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, in north-western Lower Saxony and in the Cloppenburg District. An estimated 60,000 people identify as Frisians. The North Frisians come from the North Friesland district and the island of Heligoland. They speak nine different local dialects on the mainland and the islands. The East Frisians live in the rural districts of Aurich, Leer, Friesland and Wittmund, the independent towns of Emden and Wilhelmshaven and parts of the rural districts of Cuxhaven and Wesermarsch. They speak an East Frisian form of Low German. The Sater Frisians inhabit the north-west of the rural district of Cloppenburg and the independent community of Saterland. Around 2,000 people continue to identify as Sater Frisians and speak Sater Frisian.