Volksdeutsche — District of Galicia’s "fifth column"

ID: 219
The racial policy of Nazi gave privileged status to those, who had German roots. Who were the Volksdeutsche? What was the attitude towards them among the local population? 

This story elaborates on the theme Collaboration, that was prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

To carry out the Nazi plans in the East and in the occupied territories, an important element used by the Nazi leaders was the separation and use of people with German roots who were not citizens of the Reich, the so-called Volksdeutsche, as a base component of the future society.

According to historian Doris Bergen, the term "Volksdeutsche" was first formulated as an independent political term in a 1938 memorandum issued by the Reich Chancellery. This term encompassed people who had German roots but were not German citizens. First of all, the Reich meant the descendants of German colonists who settled in Europe since the Middle Ages and as a result of migration waves in the 17th-19th centuries. The 20th century brings a new idea of biological and racial theory to Europe. In accordance with this idea, the nation is seen not only as a social phenomenon but as a large family and, to strengthen the German presence at the local level, not only ethnic Germans with preserved identities but also representatives of the German nation, who had been “dissolved” in other national environments, were considered by the Nazis their distant "relatives"; in the case of Galicia, they were Polonized or, less frequently, spoke Ukrainian. That is, the Volksdeutsche included people who had one or two indirect German ancestors; sometimes a German surname was enough. These people often did not speak German and did not identify with the German national community.

At the beginning of World War II, about 40,000 ethnic Germans lived in Galicia. The vast majority of the German population lived in colonies, but a significant part also lived in Lviv, a city that was one of the major centers of German life in the region.

Under the German-Soviet population exchange agreements concluded in 1939 and 1940, the German government was granted the right to relocate the Volksdeutsche from the Soviet-occupied Polish territory to the Reich. In total, in the winter of 1939–1940, almost 29,000 people left the territory of Western Ukraine for the territories occupied by the Reich.

Despite the fact that the memoirs of Lviv residents of Ukrainian origin often mention mostly Poles as Volksdeutsche, it should be noted that in the winter of 1939-1940, along with people of German descent, up to 10,000 Ukrainians left Galicia, who either managed to prove their mixed origin to the transfer commissions or provided other compelling arguments. One such family was the family of Andriy Paliy, the director of the Maslosoyuz Ukrainian dairy cooperative, who enlisted the help of his German friend, Abwehr officer Alfred Bisanz. This is how his daughter, Lida Paliy, described it in her memoirs:

My father explained that Alfred Bisanz had visited him suggesting that we travel with the German colonists, who were allowed to leave Western Ukraine, and assuring that no one would check whether we were really Germans and that no one would be forced to become a German citizen.

Bisanz was originally a German colonist in Galicia, who had known my father since the times of the Ukrainian Galician Army in which Bisanz served as a colonel. […]

At the station where we were to gather, a surprise awaited us. Almost exclusively Ukrainian families, mostly those of intellectuals and public figures, could be seen there. There were the Kupchynskys, Sheparovychs, Khraplyvys, Milianychs, Fedusevychs there, as well as many others, I don't remember all of them.

We did not realize then that this was the last chance to leave the USSR. […] It is still unclear to me how it happened that the Soviet authorities allowed a large part of the Ukrainian intelligentsia to leave Lviv under the pretext that they were Germans.

After leaving the USSR, the Ukrainians were placed in temporary camps in Germany, some accepted German citizenship, but most declared themselves Ukrainians and joined the Ukrainian life of the General Government, with the assistance of the District of Krakow Governor, Otto Gustav von Wechter.

After the mass exchange, which ended in June 1940, the vast majority of ethnic Germans left the territories occupied by the Soviet Union. Those who had remained were now, as individuals of the "Nordic race", to become the basis for building a "new society" according to the master plan "Ost", which envisaged the complete Germanization of the region in the course of several decades. During the first five years in Lviv, as an important economic and industrial center, it was planned to displace (and exterminate) the local population and increase the share of Germans to 20-25%, in particular due to the resettlement of Russian Germans to Lviv, one of the city districts being assigned for their settlement in February 1943. It was Lviv that was to become the stronghold of the first phase of German colonization of Galicia. However, the implementation of these ambitious plans was hampered by events at the front.

In the autumn of 1941, the Central Bureau of the German People (Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle) began its active work in Lviv at vul. Teatralna 22. Announcements were posted in the city, where the need to register persons of German nationality and the registration advantages were announced in three languages. The functions of the Central Bureau included the identification, registration and further supervision of persons of German descent.

To get on the so-called Volksliste, a special registration list, it was necessary to go through a certain procedure: to prove one’s German origin; in the absence of birth certificates, it was enough to get a confirmation of one’s German origin from two already confirmed Volksdeutsche. Much attention was also paid to personal information: for each registered person, a special form was opened in which basic information was entered, the registered person’s genealogy to the third generation with a percentage of "German blood", the level of knowledge of spoken and written German. Such forms had to contain positive or negative characteristics and habits of the registrant (neatness, cleanliness, etc.), which could affect his or her status and were entered in the form after checking the applicants for the Volksdeutsche status by a special commission. This is how Yevhen Nakonechny describes the process of changing the status of a family of his acquaintances in his book The Shoah in Lviv:

We learned that the Ofmans had succumbed to pressure and persuasion and applied to be included in the Volksdeutsche list. Their grandfather turned out to be German and there was something German about their mother. The procedure for granting the Volksdeutsche status lasted for some time. It ended with an inspection of their apartment by a special commission. One day, three cars approached our house. A group of respectable civilian Germans got out. One of them wore a gilded badge of the National Socialist German Workers' Party — "NSDAP" (this was the official name of Hitler's party) on the lapel of his jacket. There were also some concerned, serious elderly German women among the party members. The commission inspected the Ofman family's apartment in detail for order and hygiene. It was said that the commission members inspected the kitchen and closets with women’s underwear with special meticulousness. It was believed that a real German family should cultivate perfect cleanliness. The conclusion of the commission was positive for the Ofmans.

After checkings and the registration procedure, the citizen was entered in the relevant section of the register. There were four sections in the register, where surnames were entered depending on the share of "Nordic blood" in the registered person. Persons in the first and second categories of the Volksliste register received blue certificates (cards), and persons in the third and fourth categories received green and white certificates, respectively. As a result of the 1939–1940 population exchange, when mostly blue card holders left Lviv, in Lviv the majority of registered Volksdeutsche fell into the third or fourth section. The holders of the green card were persons who had a sufficient percentage of "German blood", while the holders of the white certificate had to prove by their behavior that they were worthy of being called Volksdeutsche and that they were motivated to register due to their awareness of their German origin and desire to be better and not because of the economic and social preferences guaranteed by the new status.

In general, among the reasons that motivated people to obtain the status of Volksdeutsche, there are several main ones, including survival strategy, self-identification and social status.

Regarding survival strategy, it should be noted that the Volksdeutsche status was actually a chance to save one’s life, especially when it came to Jews. There were cases when Jews with "Aryan" appearance, as well as surnames very similar to German ones, tried to obtain "Aryan papers". The story of Erna Klinger, a Jewish teacher from Boryslav, who managed to escape to Lviv thanks to Aryan papers, where she, as an "Aryan", was imprisoned on ul. Łąckiego for hiding a Jew who was in fact her husband, is quite illustrative. The woman survived.

There were problems in Galicia with the second factor, namely identification. Persons of German descent who remained in Lviv were highly integrated into the Polish and, less frequently, into the Ukrainian environment. The German command was aware of this, so most attention was paid to the largest group of Volksdeutsche, namely, the fourth category, which included persons of German descent living with "foreigners", children from mixed marriages, persons under the influence of Roman Catholicism and the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (as Polish religious structures), persons who renounced their German status as a result of obtaining a title (nobles, magnates, clergy), persons who lost their German identity due to isolated living in a Polish-speaking environment, and most of those who used their German origin in order to improve their financial situation. In order to awaken their "Germanness", according to the Central Bureau, these people had to be separated from the foreign-speaking environment.

Realizing that the Germanization process took time, the German authorities focused on working with young people. By order of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of Galicia, all children of German descent were required to attend separate German schools and to be actively involved in the Hitlerjugend. The results of such a policy could only be seen in the long run, so it is difficult to say how successful this policy was and how important the self-identification factor became.

In practice, according to the Central Bureau reports and eyewitness accounts, Volksdeutsche remained Poles (or, less commonly, Ukrainians) in daily life, while their Volksdeutsche status was used to achieve a certain social level and for economic preferences.

These preferences were significant, as the Volksdeutsche, unlike the rest of the population, were patronized by relevant agencies and local authorities and were provided with housing, household items, and work. After registration, these individuals gained access to scarce goods (footwear, clothing, meat, white bread), were exempt from a number of taxes that burdened the local population (primarily the housing tax), and had the opportunity to enjoy benefits intended "only for Germans." Yevhen Nakonechny recalls as follows:

Soon, dramatic changes took place in the lives of our neighbours. The eldest son began to wear a Tyrolean hat with feathers and to work in the Lviv criminal police. […] The watchmaker was immediately appointed director of the workshop. He no longer had to sit, as before, behind the window, in front of passers-by. Kateryna became a secretary in a German institution. And most importantly: as Volksdeutsche, they were assigned to a special German shop. From there they brought white bread, butter, hams, sausages, Dutch cheese, French wines, canned fish and similar products, inaccessible to the people of Lviv. In addition, the food was given in a proper amount. Moreover, they were given clothes, footwear, etc. And, of course, they had different privileges.

Soon they were given a new apartment on ul. Tarnawska [...] Now the Ofmans occupied an entire floor in a solid house from Austrian times. They had tall, spacious rooms full of beautiful furniture.

However, in order for the "registered persons of German nationality and German origin to be patronized [like that] in all areas of life," it was necessary to have a source of housing, necessary household goods and food. And one of such sources was the apartments, household items, clothing, property confiscated from other citizens, especially Jews. The scale of the use of Jewish items confiscated during ghetto rallies is evidenced by an official note of March 3, 1943, from the Commissioner for the Strengthening of the German People in the District of Galicia, SS-Obergruppenführer Lips to his subordinate Kobzlynsky in which he reminded that the task of the Central Bureau of the German People was not "managing Jewish property and sorting old Jewish rags..." but, first and foremost, "caring for people of German blood."

As early as the beginning of October 1941, as a result of the active work of the Central Bureau of the German People, the number of registered Volksdeutsche reached 3,000, then increased to 4,800, and during the entire period of the Nazi occupation, 9,400 Lviv residents were included in the Volkliste, according to reports on the successful Germanization policy.

In addition to financial assistance, the Volksdeutsche status also provided for new employment opportunities: the door was opened to new positions in administrative bodies, the police, and so on. Under conditions of preferences for one group and restrictions for others, this led to total corruption, paying off old personal scores and, as a consequence, increased tensions in the already difficult relations between different national groups.

The attitude towards the Volksdeutsche among the local population was rather negative, and the local Poles and Ukrainians were, surprisingly, quite unanimous here. Given the fact that in Lviv the status of Volksdeutsche was granted to persons who used the Polish or Ukrainian language on a daily basis, they were considered traitors and time-servers. It was during the Nazi occupation that Lviv’s city folklore was enriched by another piece, reworked from the patriotic poem by Władysław Bełza "Kto ty jesteś? Polak Mały" (Who are you? A little Pole):

Kto Ty jesteś?
Volksdeutsch mały.
Jaki znak twój: chlebuś biały;
Kto cię stworzył: zawierucha;
Jaka śmierć twa: gałąź sucha;
Jaki grób twój: ziemia równa;
Jaki pomnik: kupa g…

Who are you?
A little Volksdeutsch.
What is your sign: white bread;
Who created you: troubled times;
What is your death: a dry bough;
What is your tomb: level ground;
What is your tombstone: a heap of sh…

While the policy of deepening the self-identification of people of German origin was generally unsuccessful, the acquisition of social and material privileges by the Volksdeutsche and the active use of their position in relations with representatives of other nationalities separated this group from the Lviv community and tied them, in the minds of most residents of the city, to the Nazi occupation regime with the brand of collaborators. Therefore, it is not surprising that this group was one of the first to actively leave Lviv as the front approached. Before the Soviet rule was reinstituted, about 7,000 people with the Volksdeutsche status were moved from Lviv to Germany. Most of those who could not or did not want to leave were repressed by the Soviet authorities.

In general, the issue of the presence and use of a population with German roots arose in most European countries during World War II. As a result of the disintegration of the multinational Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the approval of new borders in Eastern Europe, entire enclaves of the German population remained part of the newly formed states. A clear example of the use of the German-speaking population was Czechoslovakia, where the Germans actively demanded their rights under Woodrow Wilson's “fourteen points”; it was the protection of this population that gave Hitler a formal reason to annex first the Sudetenland and later the whole of Czechoslovakia. In the case of the Czech Germans, self-identification was an important factor.

The Nazi policy towards the Volksdeutsche in Lviv was similar to the measures implemented in other occupied territories and aimed to strengthen German influence. In Galicia, people of German descent were mostly part of the Polish-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking environment in the third, fourth, and fifth generations, and it was only with the onset of the Nazi occupation that they were faced with the choice of remembering their German roots. Outside of the Nazi occupation period, the Volksdeutsche phenomenon did not exist. Therefore, given the specific situation of Galicia, it can be argued that the social status of the Volksdeutsche in Lviv confidently defeated the factor of self-identification. In Lviv, the Volksdeutsche were representatives of not so much a national as a social group, and, given their privileged status, they were unanimously included in the category of citizens whose behaviour became a clear manifestation of the survival and collaboration strategy, both in Soviet and modern Polish and Ukrainian historiography.

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Vul. Teatralna, 22 – The House of Officers (former Peoples’ House)

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Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Masliukh