There are four recognised autochthonous (from the Old-Greek word for “native to the soil, the place where it is found”), national minorities.
They receive specific protection by the Federal Republic and its regions and specific support.
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”.
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.
The Sinti and Roma form a special case as they, because of historical reasons, do not live in one traditional area of settlement. The German Sinti and Roma are recognised as a minority in Germany, although they in smaller numbers live scattered across almost all of Germany.
Autochthonous, national minorities are distinguished from immigrants (sometimes called allochthonous or new minorities): minorities who did not live in Germany traditionally.