Up to 1871, ancestors of today's Germans lived in different states.

What did they call themselves in those times? What did Germans call themselves in the 18th century?

Did they call themselves "Deutsche" or did they use names derived from names of states like Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, et cetera?

When did Germans start to call themselves "Deutsche" en masse?

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    I think you should ask at the German stack since your question is about the German language...
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 9:43
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    @NeMo I don't think it is suitable for DESE as this is about historical evolution of a Demonym and national perception rather than etymology.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 10:08
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    @OP: You might find wiki page on German Nationalism helpful in this regard.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 10:14
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    I am talking about modern times, when a lot of documents are available. So I am talking about 18-19 centuries.
    – AndrewV
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 10:36
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    @RadovanGarabík Again it is not "Etymological" i.e. "What's the root word of Deutsche?". It is rather, when did Germans start calling themselves Deutsche as a nation and if they used demonyms specific to their states before 1871. So it is more suited to History SE than any other SE.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 13:21

7 Answers 7


There is a text written by Luther called "an den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation" (exact spelling!). So the word "deutsch" is very old. However, even from the 1848 revolution on (short-living foundation of a German Democracy that was supposed to overcome the small monarchies ("Kleinstaaten")) or from 1871 on (Foundation of the 2nd Reich), Germans didn't consider themselves as Germans at once.

Yes, it was the same German Empire, with the "Kaiser der Deutschen" from 1871 on, but people still identified themselves strongly with their Land and their respective King (Württemberg, Sachsen, Bayern, Hessen ...) or City (Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck) that constituted the federally organized Reich. One interesting source is the author Karl May: In his adventure stories, he gave Germans mostly positive roles, but among them, all German heros were Saxonian (as the author himself). Maybe it is similar for Americans form the US: Being American but being Texan (etc.) as well.

So there was a slow transition that was not equally fast. This transition came to an end in the years around 1933. I once read that from that time on German mountaineers wrote "deutsch" as their nationality in the summit logs much more often. Previously, they preferred "bayrisch" or "sächsisch" etc. This is an interesting source because summit logs are for the voluntary mountaineering community only, so it is not influenced by the authorities claiming their citizens.

  • and even today many German consider their Bundesland and its identity very important in my experience. Distinctive cultures, local languages, cooking, all much more practiced than the regional differences in other European countries (except maybe Spain).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 5:55
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    German here. @jwenting not sure about that. Separation in Netherlands and Britain seems to be rather strong. I see some relevance of larger regions (east, south, north) in Germany, but not so much of Bundeslander. Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 7:43
  • @JensSchauder there's hardly any real regional mentality in the Netherlands, except for some in Friesland and a cultural difference between the north and south of the rivers that stems mostly from the north being majority prostestant and the south majority catholic historically.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 7:48

The word Deutsch itself has deep roots. The name Dutch is a cognate. If you're willing to reach way back, the word's ancestry can be traces to the proto-Indo-European word tewtéh [1] meaning people, tribe or the ruler of a tribe. Its English cousin would be the word thede, also meaning people or kinfolk. In Irish Gaelic you can find 'tuath,' with the same meaning. The word Teuton arose from this root as well.

The question, in my view, isn't when the word Deutsch started to be used as much as when did it take on this particular spelling and become imbued with a modern understanding in the sense of nation states. The other answers here seem to clarify that question.

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/tewt%C3%A9h%E2%82%82


The term has evolved gradually, with the root phrase being listed in Wikipedia:

Theodiscus is a Medieval Latin term literally meaning "popular" or "of the people".

Later in the same entry it states:

However, in German, the use of the term referring to Germans specifically as opposed to people speaking Germanic languages in general evolves during the Early Modern Period and it is in the late 17th and 18th century that the modern meaning of Deutsch is established.

L. Weisgerber, Deutsch als Volksname 1953

  • @can-ned_food That's pretty much covered on the wiki page listed, and isn't really the question here. I cited that mainly as background for the term indicating self-identification of individuals as belonging to 'the people'. (This is actually the 'definition' of many groups self-identity name.)
    – justCal
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 14:23
  • I guess I'm not accustomed to the sort of answers expected here. Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:32
  • If I were to focus on the Etymology of the word, it would be off topic to this forum, belonging instead, as pointed out above in the comments, in Linguistics or German Language forums. The question, as I see it, is when the specific word Deutsch began to be used in the discussed context.
    – justCal
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 17:06

The term must definitely have been in common use by 1863, at the very latest, as it is used in the inscription on the floor of the Hall of Liberation. There, it was still spelled Teutsche, however.

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    TEUTSCHEN seems to be related to Teutonic
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:23
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    @NSNoob teutschen is the inflected form of teutsch which is an archaic spelling of deutsch. It seems related because the name Teutones was derived from the same Proto-Germanic root, meaning "the people".
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 11:14

I am a german student and the theme in history last semester was the founding of Germany.

In the war against France, before 1871 students and poets started saying that we the Germans have to fight together against France (they wore black, red and gold which became the colors of the flag). This was the time when most people called themselves German.

Before they used the state name and being German was more defined about the language (Luther translated the Bible to german therefore the german language got more equality in this time) than the border.

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    Sources would greatly improve this answer. Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 21:47

King Ludwig (806-976), now called "der Deutsche" in modern german history-books, was labeled as ruling "Teutschlandt" in the year 1500. So, the word was in use as early as this. But at this time it probably meant the land of the people who spoke "teutsch".


When Otto the great became holy emperor of Rome the Italians began calling the ethnic group comprised of German people "teutsche" jokingly and they adopted the name.

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    Sources to support your assertion would greatly improve this answer. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 3:17
  • @sempaiscuba: what Leah wrote seems quite plausible. There seems to have been a quote by Pope Gregory VII, who insisted on using the derogatory term Teutonicorum Rex ("King of the Germans"). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_of_the_Romans Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 7:52
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    @DenisdeBernardy Actually, that article states that the title Regnum Teutonicum wasn't used by contemporary sources until the eleventh century. Given that Otto was emperor in the tenth century that would make a source for the assertion even more helpful. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 13:40

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