The Sorbs (Wends)

The Sorbs, as they always wanted to be called, or Wends, as the Germans, called them, descended from the Slavs.  Numerically, the Slavs are the largest linguistic group in Europe, numbering some two hundred million people.  The geographical origin of the Slavs has always been problematic.  Their history pre-dates the Christian era.  Roman historians, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus, in the first century A. D., and the Greco-Egyptian geographer, Ptolemy, in the second, used Venedi to identify the Slavs.  Much speculation surrounds the origin of the word Venedi.  The least questionable appears to be the dark-haired Celts used the term Uindo for the white-haired primitive Slavs.  Uindo, which has reference to white or blond, derivated to Venedi, used by the early writers.  Later, the Germans adopted Venedi in the form of Wenden (Wends) to identify all Slavs who lived in Germany.  The Slavs never referred to themselves as Venedi, but called themselves Sclaveni or a similar name.

Early writers placed the Venedi inhabiting the area north of the Carpathian Mountains at the source of the Vistula River.  During the barbarian, sometimes called the German migrations (Völkerwanderung), during the second through the fifth centuries, there were tremendous population movements throughout Europe.  Many Germanic tribes vacated the area between the Vistula and Elbe Rivers and only small remnants of former inhabitants remained.  The Slavs drifted north toward the Baltic Sea, west toward the Elbe River and south toward the Danube River.  The southerly movement is well-documented, while the northerly and westerly movements are rather sketchy.  There were no early Slavic writers and available records come from other sources.

At first the Slavs had a common language but, as they spread out in all directions, occupied new territory and came into contact with other people, new dialects developed.  In time these dialects became distinct Slavic languages.  These are usually classified as East Slavic: Russian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian;  South Slavic: Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Old Church Slavonic; and West Slavic: Slovakian, Czechish, Polish and Sorbian.

Jordanes, the historian of the Goths, wrote that by the sixth century Slavs had moved westward in great numbers.  They had already settled the area from the Elbe River in the west to the Don River in the east and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Aegean Seas in the south.  Vibius Sequester, a sixth century geographer, specifically mentions the Elbe River as the border between the Slavs and the Germans.  Slavs often lived as neighbors to other races.  There was much intermixture with other people, causing infusions of alien blood.  Some Slavs were assimilated by their neighbors while other people were assimilated by the Slavs.  Some Slavs even became the slaves of other people.  North of the Danube River the marauding, nomadic Avars, a tribe of cruel, plundering Asiatics, subjugated the Serbic tribes.  Some historians believe that the Avars caused a division of the Serbs into two groups.  One group, the Serbs, went to the Balkans.  The second group, the Sorbs, first drifted toward the north and west and eventually came to Lusatia, settling in the area between the Lusatian Neisse River in the east and the Saale River in the west, and the Lusatian Mountains in the south  and the northern boundary of Lower Lusatia in the north.  Einhard, an eighth century Frankish historian, names the Saale River as the frontier between the Thuringians, a German tribe, and the Sorbs.

When the Slavs first came into contact with the Germans they called the Germans Nemci, that is, the dumb ones whom they could not understand, their speech being incomprehensible.  This meeting could very well have been in the vicinity of Mount Zobten, also know as Mount Siling, about thirty miles southwest of Breslau.  Before World War II Breslau was the capital of the German province of Silesia (Schlesien).  Breslau is now called Wroclaw and that part of Silesia that lies east of the Oder-Neisse line is now under Polish administration.  Silesia got its name from the Silingen tribe of the Germanic Vandals.  It is known that at least a remnant of this tribe remained in this area after the barbarian migrations.  At the foot of Mount Zobten (Sobótka in Polish) is a town called Nimpsch (Niemcza in Polish) and it is believed that this is the place where the Slavs and the German first met.

There are towns and villages with similar names farther to the west but since this one lies farthest to the east it is more likely to be the original meeting place.  It is interesting to note that among the Texas Wends we have the family name of Niemtschk which means German in Wendish.

Fredegar, a Frankish historian, first mentioned the Sorbs by name in 631 as being well-established along the Saale River.  In 805, Charles the Great (Charlemange), the greatest ruler of the Franks, established a fortified boundary between his kingdom and the Slavs called Limes Sorabicus in Latin, which ran west along the Danube River from Linz (Austria) to Regensburg, then cross-country to Forchheim to Bamberg, north to Erfurt to Magdeburg to Braunschweig (Brunswick) and to Bardowiek on the Elbe River.  Three years later the line was extended from the Elbe southeast of Hamburg to the vicinity of Kiel.

Some historians divide the Slavs that drifted into Germany into four nations: Sorbs, in western Silesia  and  Saxony; Obodrites, in Holstein  and Mecklenburg; Luthicians, north of the Sorbs and east of the Obodrites, mainly in western Prussia; and Pomeranians, east of the Luthicians and south of the Baltic Sea between the Oder and Vistula Rivers.  There were, of course, other tribes and some researchers classify them differently than the ones listed.  Two fragments of the Pomeranians, the Slovinci and Kashubes, survive in modern Poland.  The rest have all been completely Germanized with the exception of the Sorbs.  This is why there are so many family names in eastern Germany that are of Slavic origin.

Historians  identified a number of individual Sorbian tribes in the 9th and 10th centuries.  Some of these were called Daleminzi (also known as Glomaci), Nizici, SIiusli, Chutici, Luzici and Milcenti.  These are given in the Latin form.  There were at least twice that many, but all the rest were smaller than the ones mentioned.  Even though there has been constant pressure to Germanize, remnants of the Luzici in Lower Lusatia still speak the Lower Sorbian language and remnants of the Milceni in Upper Lusatia still speak Upper Sorbian.

The Sorbs were practically unhindered in their development as a nation from the 6th through the 8th centuries.  It was during this time that they reached the zenith of their strength and vitality.  Then began a period of warfare during the 9th and 10th centuries.  The few times that the Sorbian tribes united under common leadership, they were formidable warriors and they were even referred to as the “mighty” Sorbs.  However, they were usually not united and remained under individual tribal leadership.  Thus they became easy prey for the Franks and, later, the Saxons.  Single tribes could not withstand the incessant onslaughts from the west.

In 806, the son of Charles the Great, Karl, defeated the Milceni and burned  their fortress, Budyšin  (Bautzen).  In 838  and  839 the Milceni  fought to regain their independence and  by 843 they were free again.

In 919 Henry the Fowler, a Saxon, became the German king.  In 921 he started a campaign against various Sorbian tribes.  Individual tribes were unable to defend themselves even though they put up heroic resistance.  In 932 the Milceni and Luzici  were forced into paying tribute.

Otto the Great succeeded his father, Henry the Fowler, in 936.  Even though the Sorbs had to pay tribute, they were not a part of the feudal German state.  Otto decided to feudalize the Sorbs into the German state and also to Christianize them.  At that time it was considered proper to spread Christianity by the sword.  Otto assigned Gero as margrave on the eastern frontier.  Gero was a brutal taskmaster and the Sorbs rebelled.  As a sign of peace he invited 30 Sorbian princes, mostly from the Luzici, but also a few from the Milceni, to a banquet.  During the night, while they were intoxicated, he had them all murdered.  This atrocity in 939 caused a general uprising among all the Elbian Slavs.  The Luzici  were crushed but were able to remain relatively free.  By 950 new attacks were again directed at various tribes and continued for years.  In 963 Gero completely subdued the Luzici and they lost their independence never to regain it again.

The  Milceni  remained independent until 990.  After that Margrave Ekkehard I defeated them. Then following  a short uprising, Henry II entered  the Milzenerland and by means of a  horrible  massacre completely subdued  them  never to be free again.  The Milceni, the Sorbian  people of Bautzen and vicinity, are the historical ancestors of the Wends who came to Texas, and were the last of the Sorbian tribes to loose their independence.

At the beginning of the 11th century, Boleslaw the Brave of Poland, seized Upper and Lower Lusatia  from the Germans.  This conquest  was  confirmed by the Treaty of Bautzen in 1018.  In 1032 the Germans re-gained Lusatia.

In 1076, King Wratislaw of Bohemia, married the daughter of King Henry IV of Germany.  The dowry  was Lusatia.  For the next 550 years, Lusatia, except for some short intervals, belonged mostly to Bohemia.  Since Lusatia was often divided, it was ruled, as a whole, or in part, from Prague, Meissen, Brandenburg, Görlitz and Bautzen.  Times were relatively peaceful until the end of the 14th century.  In 1429 the Hussites attacked Bautzen but were defeated.

Matthias Corvinius, the Hungarian king, conquered Lusatia in 1469, but it was returned to the former rulers after his death in 1490.

Most of Lusatia became Lutheran after the Reformation.  Some historians believe that one reason why the Sorbs or Wends were relatively easy to convert to Lutheranism was because of the brutality with which they were Christianized centuries before the Reformation.  Also, the Reformation emphasized the freedom of the individual which always appealed to the Sorbs.

Then came the Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648.  This horrible war took its toll in Lusatia, in  life and property.  Several villages in the vicinity of Bautzen were destroyed and never re-built.  It took many years to  re-build  and  re-populate Lusatia.  It is probable that at this time there was an influx of Germans who settled  among the Wends.  In 1635, Lusatia became a part of the Electorate of Saxony [an elector had a vote to elect the German emperor], which later became the Kingdom of Saxony.  While Lusatia  was  recovering from the Thirty Years War they had peace for about 100 years.

Upper Lusatia  became a battlefield during the Seven Years War (1758 to 1763).  During this war a big battle was fought at Hochkirch, not far from Bautzen.  So many soldiers were killed on the street on which the church is located that it is still called Blutgasse (Blood Street) to this day.

The Battle of Bautzen was fought on 20 and 21 May 1813, when Napoleon invaded Upper Lusatia.  During this war many villages were burned down, including Guttau, Broesa, Nostitz, Trauschwitz and others.

And then came two World Wars.  One correspondent from east Germany wrote: Krieg und immer wieder Krieg (War and always more war).  Since the Sorbs lost their independence, they fought and bled and died next to their German neighbors for nearly 1000 years, even though they were often  regarded  as second-class citizens.  In World I the number of Sorbian troops killed fighting in the German army  was fearfully high and out of proportion to the number of Sorbs in the total population of Germany.  Casualties were particularly high at the Battle of Verdun in France.

Ever since the Sorbs lost their independence nearly 1000 years ago, they lived under constant pressure to completely Germanize.  When the Sorbs demanded  independence after World War I, the Weimar Republic never ceased to keep a watchful eye on Lusatia.  A Wendenabteilung (Wendish Department)  was formed.  Some of  the goals of this unit were: [1] to strengthen the German element in the “Wendish” territories and oppose the threat of “Wendish irredentism” (this has reference to a territory historical or ethnically related to one political unit but presently subject to another);  [2] to emphasize the treasonable nature of all Sorbian national aspirations; and [3] to expose all Sorbian national consciousness as hostile to the Reich.

During the Nazi period (1933-1945), the pressure reached its zenith.  All Sorbian organizations  were  banned and all Sorbian  periodicals  were prohibited.  Many Sorbian intellectuals and public figures were arrested, released and re-arrested.  Others landed in concentration camps.  Many never returned.  The German expression Spurlos verschunden (disappeared without a trace) was not an uncommon expression heard in Germany after the war.  In 1945 and 1946, when the writer worked in a prisoner-of-war camp in southern Bavaria, he frequently ran across German prisoners-of-war, who served in the Africakorps in North Africa.  Many of them spent their imprisonment in America, some in Colorado.  It was not unusual when a service record (Soldbuch) had the notation Politisch unzuverlässig  (politically unreliable).  The writer noticed that quite a few came from the German east.  Many had names that were of Slavic origin.

The Nazis seized Sorbian property and much of it was destroyed, including the Wendische Haus (Wendish House) in Bautzen.  The Sorbian library, Macica Serbska, in Bautzen, was also destroyed.  There were plans to disperse the entire Sorbian population but these were never carried out.  All Wendish church services were banned and Wendish pastors were transferred to German parishes elsewhere.  One of these was the late Pastor Gustaw Mjerwa (Mjerwa  is Sorbian for Moerbe, although his name is spelled Muerbe in German), pastor at Hochkirch.  He was re-instated after the war and, before his  retirement, also served as the superintendent of the Sorbian church in Lusatia.

When the Russian army captured Lusatia many of the Sorbs did not flee like the rest of the population but stayed home.  Some of the leading figures of the Sorbs, before the nazis banned everything Sorbian, negotiated with the Russians and soon  many of the organizations, etc., were re-instated.  In spite of the efforts that have been made, there is a steady decline in Sorbian consciousness.  An effort was made to revive Sorbian church services, after some of the old  pastors have passed from the scene, by installing young Sorbian pastors, such as, Jan Mahling, at Gröditz, now in Bautzen.

After World War II Germany was divided  into two nations.  East Germany was known as the “German Democratic Republic” (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and  was  one of  the eastern block of nations that embraced communism.  West Germany was known as the “Federal Republic of Germany” (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and was politically orientated toward the west.

The Sorbian minority, predominately rural, was protected by the East German constitution and  had representation in the government.  The Sorbian language was taught in school, especially in rural areas.  They were encouraged to develop as a people within the framework of the communistic country.

In 1972, when  the writer visited  East Germany, it appeared  that the economy was  beginning to stabilize even  though they were at least 10 years behind West Germany.  In 1982, on the second visit, the economy  had  gotten worse instead  of  better.  The so-called “workers paradise” had deteriorated enormously.

As time went on demonstrations against the governments of various eastern block nations were launched.  In East Germany demonstrations started in Leipzig and soon spread to other cities.  The uprisings resulted in toppling the government headed by Erich Honecker and the Berlin wall came tumbling down  on November 9,  1989.  All of a sudden  there was talk of uniting West and East Germany.  The two Germanys became one nation on 3 October 1990.  The official name of the united  nation is the “Federal Republic of Germany.”  Naturally, the unification had a great impact on all the people of East Germany, including the Sorbs.  Replacing a state-controlled (communistic) economy with a market economy is no easy task.  Very hard times fell on the people.  Contacts in Lusatia expressed their dismay, fear and uncertainty of the future.  Letters reported much unemployment, bankrupt agricultural collectives, loss of life’s savings, etc.  One person put it this way: “The West Germans  lost  only one war while the East Germans lost two wars (World War II and the Cold War) and now we are paying the price the second time.”

The Sorbs of Lusatia are in the middle of another crisis.  The German federal government assured them that they could continue, unhindered, the use of their language and customs.  However, this assurance does not provide employment,  revitalize agriculture, supply the  necessities  of a decent living, neither does it create economic stability.  It will take time, a lot of hard work, governmental aid and outright determination to improve conditions.

It is believed that at the time our Wendish ancestors came to Texas there were about 150,000 people in Germany who spoke Sorbian.  Over the years the number has steadily declined so that today there are only an estimated 20,000.

Maps I and II were taken from “Die Slawen in Deutschland” (The Slavs in Germany), edited by Joachim Herrmann.  Map I  shows the distribution of groups, tribes, sub-tribes, etc., and  the direction  of  migration  of Slavic people west of the Oder and Lusatian Neisse Rivers (the eastern boundary of modern Germany) in the early Middle Ages.  There was no Slavic writing when the Slavs came into contact with the Germans.  Most early historical records were written by clergymen of the German church and appear in Latin.  Starting in the north they are the following:

German                                 Latin                           English

Obodriten                              Obodritzi                    Obodrites

Wilzen                                    Wiltzi                          Wilzians

Havel-Spree-Stämme                                             Havel-Spree (Rivers) Tribes

Mittelelbe-Stämme                                                  Middle Elbe (River) Tribes

Lusizer*                                 Luzici                         Lusatians

Sorben*                                 Surbi                          Sorbs (Sorabians)

Milzener*                               Milceni                       Milchanes

The spelling of tribal names by historians and geographers vary greatly.  The map on page 10 identifies the many Slavic groups, tribes, sub-tribes, etc., that inhabited north central Europe after drifting  in from  the east to fill the vacuum left by the barbarian migration (Völkerwanderung).  Many Germanic people left this area during this time so that only remnants of former inhabitants remained.

*Many historians identify the above Sorben (Sorbs) as the Lusizer, Zliuvini, Daleminzier (Daleminzi) or Glomaci, as seen on Map II, and combine the three tribes Daleminzi, Lusici and Milceni, together with the Nisanen and Besunzanen, as the Sorbian nation.  These Sorbs inhabited the southern  part  of  the region as shown on the two maps.  Only tribal remnants of the Sorbian Milzener (Milceni) in Upper Lusatia and Lusitzer (Luzici) in Lower Lusatia are still in existence today.  All other tribes have been assimilated by the German population and their languages have disappeared. Traces of  these former Slavic speaking people are preserved in surnames and place names all over the area they once inhabited.

Please note Budissin in the lower right side of Map II.  This is one of several ways Bautzen was spelled in Sorbian.

Map III shows the area in Upper and Lower Lusatia in which Sorbian is still spoken today.

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