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A Rock Against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends by Charles Wukasch

Thursday 07 May 2015 at 06:13 am.

A Rock Against Alien Waves can be purchased at the museum of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society at Serbin, Texas or online at www.texaswendish.org. The Foreward and Introduction are printed her for your enjoyment and interest.


The first thing a victorious people does to a vanquished people is to disarm them-take away their weapons and take over their lands. This is bad enough, but then there follows something far worse: the theft of the psyche of the people. The English knew the Highlands of Scotland would never be "pacified" until the Gaelic language of the natives was destroyed. This suppression of Gaelic has gone on for over 400 years and continues to this day. Gaelic survives at the present time only in the most remote places of the Highlands and offshore islands of Scotland.

While researching and writing this book, I came across the above quote from Bunge (376-77). It struck me that one could say something very similar about the Sorbs of Germany. After all, Sorbian survives at the present time only in a relative handful of villages in southeastern Germany. And long before that, the dominant German population took over their lands. The only difference between the plight of the Sorbs of Germany and the Gaelic-speaking Scots of Great Britain is that the Sorbs have experienced political and linguistic oppression for almost twice the period of time which the latter group has. (1)

The story behind the writing of this volume is as follows: Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus of Concordia University at Austin, a university founded largely by Missouri Synod Lutherans who were descendants of the 1854 immigration, showed interest in publishing the manuscript through the Concordia University Press. Dr. Zersen has shown a great deal of interest in the Sorbs, and has now established himself as a Sorabist in his own right. His work on Mato Kosyk, the Lower Sorbian poet who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the 19th century, is of the highest quality. I finished the revisions of the manuscript in May 2004, and I wish to thank Dr. Zersen and the Concordia University Press for publishing my history.

I hope that both scholars and laypersons will find it of interest. One may ask why a history of the Sorbs is needed. First, although there are several excellent histories of the Sorbian immigration to Texas, there is no recent book length history in English of the Sorbs of Germany. Second, with the increasing interest in multiculturalism, ethnic relations, etc., a history of this tiny group of people should help fill out the mosaic of the human family.

I am a Sorb myself on my father's side of the family. I actually did not know what a Wend was until I was 13 or 14. I had always thought of my paternal ethnicity as German, but my father told me one day that I was not German, but rather Wendish. My first scholarly knowledge of the Wends was acquired from reading Anna Blasig'sThe Wends of Texas. Using her book as my source, I wrote a paper my senior year in high school for a competition sponsored by Junior Historians, the youth affiliate of the Texas State Historical Association, and was proud to earn one of the prizes which were awarded.

Since then, 1 have kept up my interest in the Sorbs. 1wrote my M.A. thesis on the language, then spent the spring semester of 1965 in the Sorbian Institute of Karl Marx University, Leipzig, German Democratic Republic. (One of the many changes which resulted from glasnost and perestroika was that the university was renamed the University of Leipzig.)

Unfortunately, there has been relatively little Sorbian scholarship outside of Germany; but maybe this is not surprising, given the tiny number of speakers of the language. In 1993, I published A Practical Grammar of Upper Sorbian (Wendish) for scholars who wished to have a grammar of the more widely-spoken of the two Sorbian languages. My articles, reviews, and papers at conferences have dealt with the language, literature, and folklore of the Sorbs, both those in Germany and in Texas.

The writing of this book would not have been possible without access to the scholarship of other specialists on Sorbian. The Smallest Slavonic Nation: The Sorbs of Lusatia (1972) by the British Sorabist, Dr. Gerald Stone, is by far the best general study of the Sorbs in Germany in English. (Further, I believe that before the publication of my book, it was the only detailed history of the Sorbs of Germany in English.) The Smallest Slavonic Nationcontains a wealth of information, its only weakness being the obvious one of not reflecting the changes resulting from reunification. (Peter Barker's Slavs in Germany--The Sorbian Minority and the German State since 1945 is a solid study of the Sorbs in post-World War II Germany.)

George C. Engerrand's The So-Called Wends of Germany and Their Colonies in Texas and in Australia contains valuable material on the Sorbs of Germany. Although my book only touches on the Sorbian immigrations of the 19th century, 1 wish to mention George R. Nielsen's In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration (1989). In Search of a Home is undoubtedly the best study of the Sorbian diaspora; it can serve as a good companion volume to my work. My book stresses the history of the Wends in the "old country:" Dr. Nielsen's emphasizes the history of the Wends who emigrated from Germany in the 19th century.

Jan Soha served as the general editor of the four-volume Geschichte der Sorben; it is by far the most comprehensive work on the Sorbs in German. (It appeared in an identical Upper Sorbian edition.) One hopes that Soha will publish a fifth volume to cover the current post-reunification period. Fortunately, Sorbian scholarship in Germany has not suffered as a result of reunification, and numerous excellent works are continuing to appear. Domowina's series Schriften des Sorbischen Instituts includes at least one topic which would have been taboo during the years of the German Democratic Republic: the destruction of Sorbian villages by the coal industry.

Some may criticize Soha and other Sorabists of the GOR for analyzing events through the prism of Marxism. As Kirschbaum (1) puts it: "The events in the autumn of 1989 in Central Europe did more than just put an end to the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain; the collapse of the Communist regimes meant the end of the exclusive hold of Marxism in the social sciences there." However, I am a cynic. With the possible exception of mathematics and the sciences, I doubt that one can ever approach a subject with pure objectivity.

This includes me. I believe that the preservation of minority languages and cultures is a good thing, not because society may be strengthened by diversity (although this may, in fact, be the case), but because languages and cultures are valuable in and of themselves. In other words, to paraphrase the statement about why the mountain climber climbed the mountain, languages and cultures are worthy of preservation "because they are there." I disagree strongly with those individuals who refuse to speak a minority language to their children because they fear that it may retard their children's assimilation into the dominant culture. Conversely, I also disagree strongly with those children who refuse to speak the minority language and/or uphold the traditions of the minority culture, thereby rejecting their parents' attempts to make them bilingual and/or bicultural.

My philosophy can be summed up in the words of Hardgrave and Hinojosa (3) in their study of bilingual education:

Bilingual education, from a pluralistic perspective, emphasizes the equal value of the two languages and cultures. It seeks ideally to facilitate two way access between Hispanic and Anglo cultures - to enable the Anglo to understand, appreciate, and enter into the culture of the Mexican American at the same time that the Mexican American finds entrance into the dominant Anglo culture. Each retains his own culture, but is broadened and enriched by a bilingual-bicultural educational experience that enables him to function effectively in the other culture. This goal is reflected in a school curriculum that not only uses both languages as media of instruction but that contains substantive content drawn from both cultures.

Merely substitute German for Anglo, and Sorb/Sorbian for Mexican American/ Hispanic, and you can understand my viewpoint on how bilingual/bicultural education in Germany should function.

I extend special thanks to my colleagues in Germany (not all of them Sorbs) who sent me books and other publications and communicated with me by letter and email in answer to my inquiries about topics of interest. Dr. Christian Prunitsch kindly read over the manuscript and made numerous suggestions as to how it could have been improved. Dr. Gerald Stone suggested the title for this work, a reference to a Bart-Cisinski poem. Dr. David Zersen saw the book through to publication. He has been patient with me when I got behind in revising the manuscript; more importantly, he has carefully proofread the manuscript, finding both typos and suggesting stylistic improvements, and commenting on content. He has also pointed out facts which I was not aware of, for exarnple, that there are attempts to beatify Fr. Andricki, one of the martyrs to the Nazis.

Tschernokoshewa, writing in 1995, states (7) that "Die Sorben befinden sich heute an einem Wendepunkt." (2) ("The Sorbs find themselves today at a crucial junction.") Actually, the Sorbs have found themselves at crucial junctions in many periods of their history; this is merely the most recent and may not in fact be the last.

In 1927, Josef Pata, a Czech Slavist with an interest in the Sorbs, called Lusatia a "neznámá zeme ve stredu Europy" ("an unknown land in the middle of Europe") (Zeil 8). It is my hope that the present book will make this tiny but fascinating people in the middle of Europe a bit less unknown.

Charles Wukasch

Austin Community College

August 2004


(1) Sadly, this oppression is continuing today under the new German government, with funding cutbacks for educational and cultural institutions (e.g., the closing of the Sorbian school in Chrósćicy [G Crostwitz]). It is interesting that one of the charges leveled against the Serbs to justify NATO's bombing in 1999 was that they had reduced funding for Albanian language education in Kosovo. To paraphrase Orwell's famous statement from Animal Farm, "some minorities are more equal than others."

(2) Tschernokoshewa makes an (I assume) inadvertent pun on the word Wende ("Wend" and "turning point" - the pun is lost in English).

Note on abbreviations and Sorbian vs. German

US = Upper Sorbian

LS = Lower Sorbian

S = Sorbian (where there is no difference between US and LS)

G = German

E = English

C = Czech

P = Polish

Regarding proper names, I initially give both the Sorbian and German names, then afterwards, only the Sorbian. However, I use Bautzen, Cottbus, and Hoyerswerda in lieu of the less familiar Sorbian forms Budyšin, Chośebuz, and Wojerecy.

Note to Second Printing

I have made a few revisions and have corrected a few typos in this second printing. If anyone wishes to discuss the book and/or point out further factual errors or typos, please feel free to contact me at accprof@att.net or write me at Austin Community College, Northridge Campus, 11928 Stonehollow, Austin, TX 78758.

Charles Wukasch

June 2008




In the southeastern corner of Germany lives the smallest and least known of the Slavic peoples, the Sorbs. Living in the shadow of the far more numerous and powerful Germans for most of their recorded history, it is nothing short of miraculous that the Sorbs have preserved their language and culture until the present. (1)

It will be instructive to begin this introductory chapter with a definition of the term Sorb, and a broad classification of the Slavic peoples to which they belong. The Sorbs belong to the West Slavic branch of the Slavs, the other West Slavic peoples being the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks.(2) The Sorbs actually consist of two closely related sub-branches: the Upper Sorbs and the Lower Sorbs. The other Slavic subgroups are the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians), and the South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Bulgarians). The Slavic languages actually form a group within the larger Indo-European language family. Thus, they are distantly related to German and English (Germanic languages), French and Spanish (Romance languages), Hindi (an Indic language), etc.

Actually, one can differentiate three groups of Sorbs: the Lutheran Upper Sorbs, the Catholic Upper Sorbs, and the Lower Sorbs (virtually all Lutheran). This dichotomy between the Upper Sorbian Catholics and Lutherans comprises not only the obvious difference in religion, but also linguistic and folkloric differences. Examples are differences in the archaic Gothic script, the positing of a Catholic dialect of Upper Sorbian, and the still extant custom of the Easter Riders (US Križerjo, G Osterreiter), which is found only among the Catholic Upper Sorbs.(3)

The term Sorb (adj. Sorbian) may be confusing to the non-Slavist. First, it should not be confused with the terms Serb/Serbian, which refer to one of the principal peoples of former Yugoslavia. (lnterestingly, the word for Sorb in Sorbian itself is serb.) Second, the Sorbs are also termed Wends; however, this term is in more common use today in the Sorbian diaspora in the United States and Australia.(4) Finally, to complicate matters even further, one encounters Lusatian in the scholarly literature.(5) The preferred term which Slavists use to refer to the Slavic minority of southeastern Germany, and the term which I use in this book, is Sorbian.

Lusatia (adj. Lusatian) is actually a geographical concept; it refers to that part of present day Germany where the Sorbs live. The two main cities of Lusatia are Bautzen and Cottbus (US Budyśin and LS Chośebuz); these are the cultural centers of Upper and Lower Lusatia, respectively. Both are situated on the Spree River (S Sprjewja). The total area of Lusatia is approximately 6000 square kilometers.

As mentioned above, there are actually two groups of Sorbs, the Upper and Lower Sorbs, each speaking a language which Slavists recognize as distinct from the other. The languages are closely related and mutually intelligible. Whether the Upper and Lower Sorbs really constitute different peoples and speak separate languages can be debated. The question of what constitutes a dialect is a tricky one, and probably has more to do with politics than linguistics.(6) When necessary (e.g., when the history of Upper and Lower Lusatia is different or when the development of their respective literatures is under discussion), 1will differentiate the two groups. Otherwise, the term Sorb (or Sorbian) will apply in a more general sense.

Unlike their West Slavic neighbors, the Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles, the Sorbs have never constituted an independent state, at least not in the way one normally defines statehood. This lack of a historical precedent for statehood, combined with their miniscule numbers and the reality of their geography, has precluded any realistic chance for independence in the new Eastern Europe. Unlike the republics of the former U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the best the Sorbs can hope for is financial support or at least tolerance for their linguistic and cultural institutions.

Tied in with the matter of statehood are certain key definitions. What is the meaning of such terms as nation, nation-state, ethnic group, and state? How can one define the Sorbs? How are their experiences similar to or different from those of other minorities? This work deals with such questions.

The present study gives an overview of Sorbian history and culture, beginning with the earliest times for which there is evidence and continuing to the present. The emphasis is on the history of the Sorbs in this century. The book does not concern itself to any significant degree with the immigration of the Sorbs to the United States and Australia. The Sorbian emigration from Germany and the diaspora which resulted have been researched in depth by various competent authors, and I have nothing to add to their excellent studies.(7)

Chapters I and II deal with the history of Lusatia and the Sorbs from ancient times through the Middle Ages and Reformation, and continues to the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike those of the larger Slavic peoples, Sorbian written records date for all practical purposes only from the l6th century. Therefore, sources for Sorbian history before the Reformation are relatively scarce, and are found in the records of other peoples. Chapter I covers a lengthy period, from the time of the Lusatian Culture of Central Europe (1300 to 400 BCE) through the Reformation in the 16th century CE.

Chapter II begins with the Counter Reformation and continues through the 19th century. This was the era of the Enlightenment and Pan-Slavism, philosophical and social phenomena which influenced both European history and thought in general and also that of the Sorbs. The 19th century represents an especially rich period of Sorbian culture. This was the Golden Age of Sorbian literature, the time when the great poets like Handrij Zejler, Jakub Bart-Cisinski, and Mato Kosyk flourished.

Chapters III and IV are concerned with the 20th century. Chapter III treats the first third of the century (e.g., the Weimar Republic), plus one of the darkest periods of Sorbian history, the time of the Nazi era (1933-45). Although the Sorbs never experienced genocide like the Jews, and their suffering was minor in contrast to that of, say, the Poles and Russians, they were victims of cultural oppression.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Sorbs achieved a limited form of nationhood. Chapter IV thus deals with the rebirth of the Sorbian people and their culture. Whatever the faults of the German Democratic Republic, it did at least furnish the Sorbs some degree of nationhood, supported their educational and cultural institutions, and placed the Sorbian language on a somewhat equal degree of footing with German in those areas where the Sorbs constituted a majority or at least a significant percentage of the population.

Chapter V deals with how the momentous event of German reunification in 1989 has affected the Sorbs. Unlike some of the other former socialist countries of Eastern Europe (the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia are the primary examples), the former German Democratic Republic was fortunately spared ethnic conflict after it merged with its more powerful German neighbor to the west.

Finally, the Conclusion asks the key question: What does the future hold for the Sorbs? Without a state of their own, the long-range outlook for the preservation of the Sorbian language and Sorbian culture appears bleak. Like small minorities in any country, there will be increasing pressure on the Sorbs to assimilate to the dominant language and culture. However, the Sorbs have persevered for centuries; maybe they will continue to persevere for centuries to come. Also, in this age of the fragmentation of countries, should they not have a right to a homeland of their own, too?

In the early part of the 20th century, the Sorbian nationalist Jurij Deleńk uttered the stirring words: "We are subjects of the German Reich, but not of the German people" (de Bray 346). Deleńk's uplifting quote can be taken in a sense as the basis for the theme of this book. How have the Sorbs managed to persevere for centuries, finally becoming citizens of Germany instead of subjects of the Germans?


(1) Stone (Smallest Slavonic Nation, 2) quotes Morfill as using a geographical metaphor to describe the Sorbs: "a little Slavonic island in a German sea." Stone continues the metaphor by showing that, due to the border changes which occurred after World War II, "the island is now very much closer to the Slavonic mainland than it was in Morfill's day."

(2) Concerning language, some Slavists consider Cassubian a separate language, not merely a dialect of Polish. Because of the breakup of former Yugoslavia, Bosnian nationalists have now posited the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian as a separate language. For a detailed discussion of Sorbian's place within the West Slavic subgroup of languages, and whether Upper and Lower Sorbian are in fact two separate languages, see the chapter "Language" in Stone (Smallest Slavonic Nation).

(3) For an example of an aspect of culture which has a three-way breakdown, see Stone ("Sorbian Hymn").

(4) For discussions of the terms Sorb and Wend, see Stone (Smallest Slavonic Nation, 4-5) and Adam. Concerning the pejorative connotations of the term Wend, some Sorbs have now "reclaimed" the word and refer to themselves in German as Wenden. (There is no equivalent in Sorbian itself.)

(5) For example, consider the following by de Bray (333): "As the name 'Serbs' can cause confusion with the Yugoslav Serbs of Serbia, while the term 'Wend' or 'Sorb' does not readily indicate a nationality at all to the English mind, we propose using the term 'Lusatian' here." He continues, "It is true, that there are also many Lusatian Germans, but we hold that to the English mind Lusatian will mean a Slav inhabitant of Lusatia." Examples of other terms are Slavo-Lusatian and Serbo-Lusatian (Engerrand 25).

(6) As I put it in my review of Pynsent (723), "Tied in with ethnicity is, of course, the question of language. What is the relationship of language to national identity? How does one define a language, as opposed to a dialect?" A colleague of mine once said half-seriously, half-jokingly, "It all depends on who's holding the gun."

(7) The most recent work in English is George R. Nielsen's In Search of a Horne: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration (1989, TAMU Press). Another recent study is Gertrude Mahling's (US Trudla Malinkowa's) Ufer der Hoffnung (1995, Bautzen, E The Shores of Hope). The US edition of Mahling's book is K Brjoham Nadiije.

two comments

Charles Wukasch

Dr. David Zersen asks me, “I note that in Gerald Stone’s new book, ‘Slav Outposts in Central European History,’ in the section on the Reformation, he always uses the word ‘Wend.’ And in your book ‘A Rock Against Alien Waves,’ you always use the word ‘Sorb’ in your section on the Reformation. Would you be able to give me a short paragraph as to why those differences appear?”

We say Wend/Wendish here in the U.S. However, the preferred scholarly term is Sorb/Sorbian. Of course, this can cause confusion because people may think of the Serbs of former Yugoslavia and of today’s independent country of Serbia. I joke that we’re not the people whom Clinton was bombing back in the late 90’s. We’re Sorbs, not Serbs.

To make it even more confusing, the word in Sorbian (Wendish) is Serb/serbski. For example, Wón je Serb. He’s a Sorb/Wend.
Serb (from Serbia, i.e., former Yugoslavia) is Južny Serb and the language is serbišćina.

The terms Wend/Wendish can have pejorative connotations today. As one of my Sorbian (Wendish) friends e-mailed me recently “it doesn’t sound very polite.” Again, to make it confusing, my friend and fellow Sorabist, Dr. Gunter Schaarschmidt, says that the Lower Sorbs have “reclaimed” the word.

From an on-line dictionary: A reclaimed or re-appropriated word is a word that was at one time pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage—usually starting within the communities that experienced oppression under that word, but sometimes also among the general populace as well.

Finally, one can encounter the older term Lusatian for Sorb or Wend, for example, “He’s a Lusatian.” I would use this term only in a geographical or archaeological sense, e.g., (from an on-line dictionary) “The Lusatian culture existed in the later Bronze Age and early Iron Age (1300 BCE – 500 BCE) in most of today’s Poland, parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, parts of eastern Germany and parts of Ukraine.”

I hope this helps. No, jokes now, like “it’s as clear as mud.”

Charles Wukasch - 03/9/2017 11:03
Gunter Schaarschmidt

As you can see from the passage below by change.org the term Wendish that after the “Wende” (the end of the GDR) was used for Lower Sorbian is now used in the same way as “Sorben”. In the past, the term “Wenden” was associated with Heinrich Himmler’s “Wendenfrage” during the Third Reich. The term “Wenden” or “Winden” in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a derogatory term for all the Slavs east of the Rhine River. The term Sorbenwenden was also used in the 19th century – perhaps to distinguish the Sorbs (Serbs) in Germany from the Serbs in Southern Europe. “Wend” is based on Latin “Veneti” that referred to the Slavs in Eastern Europe. That’s probably too detailed an answer for your simple question…

“Dieser Umstand der Unterdrückung und Verachtung unserer Sprache und Kultur führte dazu, dass wir seit zwei, drei Generationen zusehends zu einem Volk ohne Sprache wurden. Wie Marion und uns geht es vielen Sorben und Wenden: Und trotz des Verlustes unserer Sprache sind wir Sorben (Wenden).” Here “Sorben” refers to Upper Sorbs; and “Wenden” to Lower Sorbs. Perhaps the term “lower” is a bit offensive, so they prefer “Wends”.

Gunter Schaarschmidt - 03/9/2017 17:35

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