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German historians in the 19th century used the term Völkerwanderung (pronounced: 'fœl ker 'van der ung), or the "wandering of the peoples" to describe the migrations of the Goths, Vandals, Franks and other Germanic peoples associated with the incursions of the Huns. They saw these migrations as a contributory factor leading to the break-up of the Roman Empire.

The expansion of Germanic peoples into Central Europe, France, Russia, England, Northern Italy and elsewhere allegedly indicated the energy and dynamism of those so-called "barbarian" peoples. This became associated with 19th century German nationalism and the Eastern expansion of Germany (Drang nach Osten), and later helped form the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum, or "living space", the theory that the Germans had an ethnic right to expand their population beyond the national borders of Germany.

Modern historians divide the migrations into two phases. The first phase, between 300 and 500 AD, set in motion Germanic, Turkish and other peoples and resulted in putting Germanic peoples in control of the societies of the former Western Roman Empire. See also: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Langobards, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Suebi, Alamanni.

The second phase, between 500 and 900, saw Slavic, Turkish and other peoples on the move, re-settling Eastern Europe and gradually making it predominately Slavic. See also: Avars, Huns, Arabs, Vikings, Varangians. The last phase of the migrations saw the coming of the Hungarianss to Pannonia.

Other migrations that happened later in the history of Europe generally did not give rise to new states (except for Turkey, for example) and comprised mainly temporary invasions.