Gau (territory)

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Medieval duchies (in colour) and gaue in the Holy Roman Empire around year 1000 Heiliges Romisches Reich 1000.PNG
Medieval duchies (in colour) and gaue in the Holy Roman Empire around year 1000

Gau (German [gaʊ̯] , Dutch : gouw [ɣʌu] , West Frisian : gea [ɡɪə] or goa [ɡoə] ) is a Germanic term for a region within a country, often a former or actual province. It was used in the Middle Ages, when it can be seen as roughly corresponding to an English shire. The administrative use of the term was revived as a subdivision during the period of Nazi Germany in 19331945. It still appears today in regional names, such as the Rheingau or Allgäu.


Middle Ages


The Germanic word is reflected in Gothic gawi (neuter; genitive gaujis) and early Old High German gewi, gowi (neuter) and in some compound names still -gawi as in Gothic (e.g. Durgawi "Canton of Thurgau", Alpagawi "Allgäu"), later gâi, gôi, and after loss of the stem suffix gaw, gao, and with motion to the feminine as gawa [1] besides gowo (from gowio). Old Saxon shows further truncation to gâ, gô. [2] As a gloss of Latin pagus , a gau is analogous with a pays of the Kingdom of France, or in Lotharingia.

Old English, by contrast, has only traces of the word, which was ousted by scire from an early time, in names such as Noxga gā, Ohtga gā and perhaps in gōman, ġēman "yeoman", which would then correspond to the Old High German gaumann, [3] although the Oxford English Dictionary prefers connection of yeoman to young.

Conceptual history

In the Carolingian Empire, a Gau was a subdivision of the realm, further divided into Hundreds. The Frankish gowe thus appears to correspond roughly to the civitas in other barbarian kingdoms (Visigoths, Burgundians, or the Italian Kingdom of the Lombards). After the end of the Migration Period, the Hundred (centena or hunaria, Old High German huntari) had become a term for an administrative unit or jurisdiction, independent of the figure hundred. The Frankish usage contrasts with Tacitus' Germania, where a pagus was a subdivision of a tribal territory or civitas, corresponding to the Hundred, i.e. areas liable to provide a hundred men under arms, or containing roughly a hundred homesteads each, further divided into vici (villages or farmsteads). [4] Charlemagne, by his capitulary legislation, adopted the comitatus subdivision and appointed local rulers as deputies of the central Imperial authority.

In the German-speaking lands east of East Francia, the Gau formed the unit of administration of the realm during the 9th and 10th centuries and ruled by a gaugrave (Gaugraf i.e. "gau count"). Similar to many shires in England, during the Middle Ages, many such Gaue came to be known as counties or Grafschaften , the territory of a Graf (count) within the Holy Roman Empire. Such a count or Graf would originally have been an appointed governor, but the position generally became an hereditary vassal princedom, or fief in most of continental Europe.

Nazi period

The term Gau was revived in German historical research in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was considered an ancient administration structure of Germanic peoples. It was adopted in the 1920s as the name given to the regional associations of the Nazi Party (NSDAP). Each Gau denoted an administrative region, created by a party statute dated 22 May 1926. Each Gau was headed by a Gauleiter . The original 33 Gaue were generally coterminous with the Reichstag election districts of the Weimar Republic, based on the constituent states (Länder) and the provinces of Prussia. Following the suppression of the political institutions of the Länder in the course of the Nazi Gleichschaltung process and the appointment of Reichsstatthalter (Reich Governors) in 1933, the Gaue became the de facto administrative regions of the government and each individual Gauleiter had considerable power within his territory.


With the beginning of the annexation of neighbouring territories by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, a new unit of civil administration, the Reichsgau, was established. German-speaking territories annexed to Germany from 1938 were generally organised into Reichsgaue. Unlike the pre-existing Gaue, the new Reichsgaue formally combined the spheres of both party and state administration.

Following the annexation of Austria in 1938, the country, briefly renamed "Ostmark" between 1938 and 1942, was sub-divided into seven Reichsgaue. These had boundaries broadly the same as the former Austrian Länder (states), with the Tyrol and Vorarlberg being merged as "Tyrol-Vorarlberg", Burgenland being divided between Styria and "Lower Danube" (Niederdonau, the renamed Lower Austria). Upper Austria was also renamed "Upper Danube" (Oberdonau), thus eliminating the name of "Austria" (Österreich in German) from the official map. A small number of boundary changes also took place, the most significant of which was the massive expansion of Vienna's official territory, at the expense of "Lower Danube".

Northern and eastern territory annexed from the dismembered Czechoslovakia were mainly organised as the Reichsgau of Sudetenland, with territory to the south annexed to the Reichsgaue of Lower and Upper Danube.

Following the Axis invasion of Poland in 1939, territories of the Pomeranian and Poznań voivodeships as well as the western half of Łódź voivodeship were reannexed to Germany as the Reichsgaue of Danzig-Westpreussen (which also incorporated the former Free City of Danzig) and Wartheland. Other parts of Nazi-occupied Poland were incorporated to bordering gaus of East Prussia and Upper Silesia i.e. Zichenau (region); and Silesian voivodeship with the counties of Oświęcim, Biała respectively.

After the successful invasion of France in 1940, Germany re-annexed Alsace-Lorraine. The former département of Moselle was incorporated into the Gau of Saar-Palatinate, while Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin became part of the Gau Baden. Similarly, the formerly independent state of Luxembourg was annexed to Koblenz-Trier, and the Belgian territories of Eupen and Malmedy were incorporated into Cologne-Aachen.

Legacy in topography

The medieval term Gau (sometimes Gäu; gouw in Dutch) has survived as (second, more generic) component of the names of certain regions some named after a river in Germany, Austria, Alsace, Switzerland, Belgium, South Tyrol, and the Netherlands.

Related Research Articles

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Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia

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Ostmark (Austria)

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<i lang="de" title="German-language text">Reichsgau</i> Nazi administrative subdivision

A Reichsgau was an administrative subdivision created in a number of areas annexed by Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945.

Administrative divisions of Nazi Germany

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Gau Swabia

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Gau Bayreuth

Gau Bayreuth was an administrative division of Nazi Germany formed by the 19 January 1933 merger of Gaue in Lower Bavaria, Upper Palatinate and Upper Franconia, Bavaria. It was in existence from 1933 to 1945.

Gau East Prussia

Gau East Prussia was an administrative division of Nazi Germany encompassing the province of East Prussia in the Free State of Prussia from 1933 to 1945. Before that, from 1925 to 1933, it was the regional subdivision of the Nazi Party in that area. In 1939, Gau East Prussia expanded following the annexation of the Klaipėda Region from Lithuania and the occupation of Poland, while a sliver of territory from the gau was transferred to Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia. After Germany's attack on the USSR, the Belarusian city of Hrodna also became part of the Gau.

States of the Weimar Republic

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Reichsgau Wallonien

The Reichsgau Wallonia was a short-lived Reichsgau of Nazi Germany established in 1944. It encompassed present-day Wallonia in its old provincial borders, excluding Comines-Warneton but including Voeren. Eupen-Malmedy and Moresnet were also omitted, both of which had already been incorporated into Germany after its victory in the Battle of France in 1940.

Reichsgau Steiermark

The Reichsgau Styria was an administrative division of Nazi Germany consisting of areas in Styria, Lower Styria and southern parts of Burgenland. It existed from 1938 to 1945.

Reichsgau Kärnten

The Reichsgau Carinthia was an administrative division of Nazi Germany in Carinthia and East Tyrol and Upper Carniola in Slovenia. It existed from 1938 to 1945.

Reichsgau Oberdonau

The Reichsgau Upper Danube was an administrative division of Nazi Germany, created after the Anschluss in 1938 and dissolved in 1945. It consisted of what is today Upper Austria, parts of Southern Bohemia, and a small part of the Salzkammergut which was annexed from Styria.

Reichsgau Wien

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Reichsgau Niederdonau

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Reichsgau Tirol-Vorarlberg

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Reichsgau Salzburg

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Reichsgau Sudetenland

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Gau Hesse-Nassau

The Gau Hesse-Nassau was an administrative division of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. It was formed by the merger of two separate Gaue comprising the People's State of Hesse and the southern parts of the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau that were, from 1927 to 1933, the regional subdivisions of the Nazi Party in those areas.

Gau Upper Silesia

The Gau Upper Silesia was an administrative division of Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945 in the Upper Silesia part of the Prussian Province of Silesia. The Gau was created when the Gau Silesia was split into Upper Silesia and Lower Silesia on 27 January 1941. The Gau included territory annexed by Nazi Germany after the German invasion of Poland.



  1. numerous variant spellings; gauwa, gowa, gouwa, geiwa, gauia, gawia, gowia, govia, gaugia
  2. Deutsches Wörterbuch
  3. Deutsches Wörterbuch
  4. Meyers Konversations-Lexikon , Fourth Edition, 18851892.