Prior to World War II, well above ten million ethnic Germans lived in Central and Eastern Europe. They constituted an important minority far into Russia. Many of them were killed or subjected to ethnic cleansing as a result of World War II. Tiny remnants of the ethnic German community remain in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. There is also a small surviving German community in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in Romania.
The Nazis popularized the terms Volksdeutsche and also exploited this group for their own purposes. As a result the term is controversial, and many belonging to the group prefer other designations, for example names that more closely associate them with their earlier place of abode (such as Wolgadeutsche, the ethnic Germans living in the Volga basin in Russia).
In Poland during World War II Polish citizens of German ancestry, often identifing themselves with the Polish nation, were confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign the Volksliste, the list of Germans living in Poland. This included ethnic Germans whose families had lived in Poland proper for centuries and Germans (who after 1920 were citizens of Poland) from the part of Germany that had been given to Poland as the Polish Corridor after World War I.
Often the choice was either to sign and be regarded as a traitor by the Polish, or not to sign and be treated by the Nazi occupation as a traitor of the Germanic race. After the collapse of Nazi Germany these people were persecuted by the Polish communist authorities. Even now, in Poland, the word Volksdeutsch is regarded as an insult, synonymous with the word "traitor".
In some cases, individuals consulted Polish resistance first, before signing the Volksliste. Volksdeutsche played important role in intelligence of the Polish resistance, that at times were primary source of information for the Allies. Having been a collaborator of the Polish non-communist resistance didn't give anybody any benfits in the eyes of new communist government after 1945. Some of the double side Volksdeutsche were also persecuted.
Both groups, Volksdeutsche by signing the list, and Reichsdeutsche retained German citizenship during the 50 years of allied military occupation and the establishment of East Germany and West Germany in 1949, later Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
Volksdeutsche translates to "German folks", German people or ethnic Germans as they would be called today.