Gau (plural Gaue) is a German term for a region within a country, often a former or actual province. It was used in medieval times, when it can be seen as roughly corresponding to an English shire, and was revived as an administrative subdivision during the period of Nazi Germany in 1938–1945.

The Gau in the medieval periodEdit

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The Germanic word is reflected in Gothic gavi (neuter; genitive gaujis; Luke 8:37) and early Old High German gewi, gowi (neuter) and in some compound names still -gawi as in Gothic (e.g. Durgawi "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] The German word is a gloss of the Latin pagus; hence the Gau is analogous with the pays of feudal France.

Old English, by contrast, has only traces of the word, which was ousted by scire from an early time, in names such as Noxga gâ, Ohtga gâ and perhaps in ȝôman, ȝêman (yeoman), which would then correspond to the Old High German gaumann (Grimm) although the OED prefers connection of yeoman to young.

In the Frankish 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, Lombards). After the end of the Migration period, the Hundred (centena oder hunaria, Old High German huntari) became 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).[3]

In the German-speaking lands east of the Rhine, the Gau formed the unit of administration of the Carolingian empire during the 9th and 10th centuries. Many such a territory evolved into what would become known as a Grafschaft, the territory of a Graf or count within the Holy Roman Empire; the count was originally an appointed governor, but the position became in time a hereditary vassal princedom, or fief.

The Gau during the Nazi periodEdit

The term Gau was revived in the 1920s as the name given to the administrative regions of the Nazi Party. The Gau was the main administrative region of the NSDAP (Nazi Party), created by a party statute dated May 22, 1926. Each Gau was headed by a Gauleiter. The original 32 Gaue were generally coterminous with the pre-existing Länder and Prussian provinces.

By 1938 all of Germany was divided into around thirty Gaue. Following the suppression of the political institutions of the Länder (states) in 1934, the Gaue had become the de facto administrative region of government, and each individual Gauleiter had considerable power within his territory.

With Germany's annexation of neighbouring territories beginning in the late 1930s, a new unit of civil administration, the Reichsgau, was also created. After the successful invasion of France in 1940, Alsace-Lorraine was re-annexed by Germany. The former département of Moselle was incorporated into the Gau of Saar-Palatinate, while Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin were incorporated into Baden Gau. 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.

The ReichsgaueEdit

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 civil administration.

Following the annexation of Austria in 1938, the country, briefly renamed "Ostmark", 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" (the re-named Lower Austria). Upper Austria was also re-named "Upper Danube", thus eliminating the name of "Austria" from the official map. A small number of boundary changes were also made, 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 invasion of Poland in 1939, territories lost at the Treaty of Versailles, together with some adjacent territory, were re-annexed to Germany as the Reichsgaue of Danzig-Westpreussen (which also incorporated the former Free City of Danzig) and Wartheland.

Legacy in topographyEdit

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, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and the Netherlands.

Notably, the German translation of The Lord of the Rings opted not to use Gau for the translation of the Shire, due to its Nazi associations.

See alsoEdit


  1. numerous variant spellings; gauwa, gowa, gouwa, geiwa, gauia, gawia, gowia, gaugia
  2. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch
  3. Meyers Konversationslexikon, Fourth Edition, 1885–1892.
  • Der große Atlas der Weltgeschichte (in German), Historical map book, published: 1990, publisher: Orbis Verlag – Munich, ISBN 3-572-04755-2

External linksEdit

de:Gau (Landschaft) fr:Gau (subdivision territoriale) it:Gau (suddivisione territoriale) lb:Gau nl:Gouw (Germaans) no:Gau (Tyskland) pt:Gau (subdivisão de país) ro:Gau ru:Гау sv:Gau th:เกา