At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century a specific concept of nationality (Volk) was developed in the German-speaking countries, which was opposed to both the French and the English understanding (English/American: people, French peuple). In the American Declaration of Independence and at the time of the French Revolution the word Volk was understood to mean the society of free and equal people who claim for themselves the right and the ability to regulate their own affairs. The people is here the society of the (property-owning, male) citizens of a particular state, a Staatsvolk. German strivings towards a national state did not follow this model. Since the bourgeoisie was scarcely developed and the feudal order still strong, important conditions were lacking for the realisation of national unity via a political and social programme. Attempts at a democratic, bourgeois revolution were met with distrust and rejection because the upheaval would endanger property rights.
This background gave rise to a complex idea or perspective consisting of an ideologically exaggerated devotion to the foundation wanting for a national state. Existing social and political contradictions were glossed over. The necessary social cohesion was to be achieved by means of the fiction of a unified national identity based on the concept of the Volk. The German Volk was seen not as a political community of will in the sense of a national people, but rather as a hereditary community based on common blood. It was considered superior to all other peoples. The ideological foundation for the existence of the German Volk contained varying, partly contradictory elements: a common heredity, a common culture or the will of God, and later particularly the concept of 'race'. The Volk is unanimously ascribed a quasi natural and eternal existence, since the individual was not considered capable of survival without being bound to the Volk. Any "mixture or amalgamation" of peoples who are separated by nature was rejected; every Volk was to form its own state with Volk homogeneity. On this basis an aggressive Anti-Semitism arose, which opposed the Jewish population as a foreign and inimical race. The German Volk ideology was expressly opposed to the principles of the bourgeois democratic revolution; it was against the principle of equality because the natural inequality of different peoples was asserted, and against individual liberty because it was not the individual person/citizen but the Volk that was the central category of human development.
After the founding of the German Empire the Volk ideology, which up to then had been primarily a means of inner alignment, gained practical foreign policy effectiveness. A number of influential organisations like the "Pan-German Union" and the "Society for German Culture Abroad" were formed, which propagated the Volk ideology and used it to justify German claims to expansion and world power status. The Volk concept became the reigning ideology, supported by bourgeois liberal elements. The German cultural organisations initiated the organisation of German-speaking minorities in other countries and made use of them for territorial, political and economic expansion. By asserting the "right to self-determination" defined in terms of the Volk, annexation to the German Empire was to make possible both the weakening or dissolution of other national states and the furthering of German right to domination.
The revision of the boundaries of the German Empire was one of the central foreign policy goals of all governments during the Weimar Republic, independent of their party affiliation. They followed a strategy of support to so-called German minorities abroad, and of inciting these minorities to undermine the sovereignty of the respective country (Irredenta Policy). For this purpose a continually growing apparatus was built up under the aegis of the Foreign Office and other government offices; these were actually financed by the government and yet, as a network of formally private societies, avoided any foreign-affairs involvement for the German Empire as well as preventing potential domestic criticism. The institutional and structural framework for the pursuance of the revisionist foreign policy claims was taken over unchanged by the National Socialists. A close network of interdisciplinary research institutions drew up plans to justify the ostensible right of so-called German "Volk groups" to be incorporated into the Empire. To achieve the necessary "Volk-transformation", mass murder, particularly of Slavic peoples, and the extermination of the Jewish population were both allowed for and carried out.
In order to prevent once and for all any renewed jeopardising of existing national boundaries in Europe, Germans left in the formerly German eastern territories were resettled. Any future resurrection of claims for a "European right of Volk groups" was to be prevented. Out of the public eye but protected by state officials, however, the old Volk activists rapidly re-formed in the Federal Republic. They issued extensive publications, in which German claims to non-German territory ("the right to ones homeland") were repeatedly asserted. At the same time the reconstruction of their organisations was begun, which carried on an ancillary German foreign policy under the roof [?] of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of the Interior. Among these societies were the revived Society for German Culture Abroad (Verein fr das Deutschtum im Ausland, VDA), the Pan-European Union (PEU), and particularly the various German "societies of the expelled". By including the idea of Europe in their revisionist policy, these organisations attempted to distract from their nationalist goals and to simulate a purification of their ideological Volk basis. The boundaries created by the conflict of systems set limits to the effectiveness of this policy.
The transformation of Eastern Europe in 1989/1990 has opened new perspectives for German foreign policy. After having been unable directly to pursue its nationalistic goals in eastern Europe for forty years, it now once more has recourse to German-speaking minorities in this area. In this pursuit the "right to self-determination" is a catalyst for separatism and territorial disintegration. As was the case after World War I, German foreign policy is making use of formally independent intermediary organisations. Once more institutions are being brought into play camouflaged as "European", but only partially able to conceal their German interests. Their engagement -ostensibly for human rights in foreign countries - is made use of to further the goal of continental German hegemony. The legitimising of German interests under international law is to be achieved via a Europe-wide guarantee for the rights of minorities and Volk-groups.