Slav Outposts in Central European History by Dr. Gerald Stone

Dr Stone produced his latest book, Slav Outposts in Central European History: the Wends, Sorbs and Kashubs in 2016. It can be purchased through Bloomsbury Publishing. The introduction to the book is reprinted below.

Slav Outposts in Central European History


Wends, Sorbs, and Kashubs


This is a history of the westernmost Slavs. It is set in the wide, fluctuating frontier area of contact between the German language and its Slav neighbors, extending, roughly speaking, from the rivers Elbe and Saale in the west to the upper Oder and lower Vistula in the east. In the latter part of the first millennium AD, these lands (referred to in this book as Trans-Elbia) were the home of a conglomeration of pagan Slav tribes. The Latin sources record them collectively as Sclavi, Slavi (and the like), or as Winedi, Venedi (and the like), but when Latin is replaced by German, they appear mainly as Wenden (rarely as Winden)The English equivalent  Wends is the term used here.

The medieval habitations of the Wends were the western outposts of the Slavs. To their west they faced the Kingdom of the Franks. Along the Baltic coast they extended to the lower Vistula, where their eastern neighbors were the Prussians (Prusai), speakers of a Baltic language. Eventually, the fate of all the west Slav peoples was drawn, to a greater or lesser extent, into the vortex of German history, but the Wends lay in the direct path of Frankish (later German) expansion. In the east, they and the Prusai stood in the way of Polish access to the Baltic Sea. Today, what was once their homeland lies mainly in Germany and partly in Poland. Borders have been drawn and redrawn many times.


The Wends survive, even today, as the Kashubs in northern Poland (to the west of Gdansk in the Województwo Pomorskie) and as the Wends and Sorbs in parts of Brandenburg and Saxony. They are among the European linguistic minorities of whom political frontiers take no account. One of the medieval Wendish tribes, located in 782 AD between the Elbe and Saale, was identified in Latin as the Sorabi. From this name, centuries later, the German analogue Sorben was devised and occasionally applied to those Wends in Brandenburg and Saxony who in their own language used the self­ designatory noun, Serb. In the late 1940s, Sorben was given official approval and in Saxony, at least, Wenden fell out of fashion, except in topography (e.g. Wendische Straße). In this book, therefore, the English analogue Sorbs is also used, when appropriate.

The Wends of the Baltic coast too were in German called Wenden until the eighteenth century, since when Kaschuben has prevailed. In this book, they are generally referred to as Kashubs, but in translations from German, Wenden is always conveyed as Wends. The Wends may be defined as those western Slavs who have never had their own state. Although it is clear from both translations and contexts that medieval Latin Sclavi and Slavi are usually the equivalents of German Wenden/Winden, in all the quotations in this book, Latin Slavus/Sclavus is translated as ‘Slav.’

In present-day German, the variant Winden refers to the Slavs south of the Alps who are better known as Slovenes (and who regard the form Winden as derogatory). But it is only since the nineteenth century that the distinction between Wenden, wendisch (West Slavs) and Winden, windisch (South Slavs) has been stabilized. Before that usage was erratic. The history of the Slovenes is outside the scope of this book.


 Germany to the east of the Elbe and Saale is colonial territory. taken by conquest as part of the process that was once seen as ‘the advance of culture toward the east during the Middle Ages, based upon the superiority of the older and higher culture …’(M. Weber 1906/1974: 384). The German colonization of the east (Ostsiedlung) was then regarded as ‘the greatest exploit of the German people in the MiddleAges’ (Widu. Gesch. 1935: 63). For the Wends, however, it was their downfall, and their subsequent history has been a tale of decline. Since their subjugation they have remained outside the mainstream of European history and have never succeeded in malting a mark on the political map. At the same time, however, their history is a tale of survival.

The Wends still survive in the east German psyche. Opening the Wendish Museum in Cottbus on 3 June 1994, Dr Manfred Stolpe, prime minister of the state of Brandenburg, said that ‘every true-born Brandenburger has a Wendish great-grandmother’ (NC 1994:4), and similar claims could be made about the other inhabitants of Trans-Elbian Germany. Centuries after the subjugation the Elbe-Saale line remained a cultural boundary. The condition of the peasantry beyond the Elbe, even as the feudal order approached its end, has been judged ‘far more onerous and far more degrading than the vestigial serfdom of western Europe’ (Blum 1978: 38-9), and this may have been so because Trans-Elbia was a zone of comparatively recent German settlement (Clark 2006: 161). The Trans-Elbian mind is said to have been perceptible even in the nineteenth century as a ‘subservient mentality which passively accepted the actions and encroachments of the state,’ forming ‘a kind of psychic pendant to the authoritarian political system’ (Wehler 1985: 129). A special feature of the Trans-Elbian sociological landscape were the Junkers, endowed with land expropriated from the Wends (Taylor 1945: 28-9).

Before the Wends

 The Slavs appear late in European history. Tribal names ostensibly referring to Slavs (Sclaveni, Sclavini, Antes, and Veneti) are found no earlier than the mid-sixth century in the works of the last historians of the ancient world, Procopius of Caesarea and Jordanes. Jordanes in his history of the Goths (c. 552 AD) places the Slavs (Venethi, Sclavini, Sclavi, and Antes) in an area taking in the Black Sea coast, the eastern Alps, and the west Carpathians. It includes the upper Vistula, but says nothing of the space between the Oder and the Elbe (MPH, 1: 1-2). The Germanic tribes located by Tacitus (in his Germania) and others in the first two centuries AD in the space between the Vistula and the Elbe had by the eighth century been replaced by Slavs, and, because there is no record of invasion or conquest by them, their arrival is presumed to have been a peaceful process. It is estimated to have taken place between 600 and 700 AD, as the Slavs moved into land which was unoccupied, having been deserted by its Germanic inhabitants before 500 AD (Blaschke 2003: 68-9).

The ‘German colonization of the East’ was once a prominent issue in German history textbooks and a matter of pride. It was claimed that the medieval incursions into Slav land were justified because the invaders and colonizers from the west were reoccupying land that had previously been theirs. They called it the German re-occupation (deutsche Wiederbesiedlung) of the east, a notion that eventually bolstered the idea of Lebensraum, affecting political policy (Blaschke 2003: 66). Reinforcement was provided by the anachronistic use of the term Deutschland, as in connotations like ‘The immigration of the Slavs into north Germany’ (Die Einwanderung der Slawen in Norddeutschland) (Montelius 1899: 127). The 1935 Nazi textbook Widukind (not to be confused with the tenth-century chronicler Widukind of Corvey) was merely repeating received opinion, when it referred to: ‘The German east, land of the German people since time immemorial, having been surrendered to the Slavs after the time of the great Germanic migration […]’ (Widu. Gesch. 1935: 71).

The two assumptions (i) that the Wendish lands beyond the Elbe were re-occupied (rather than simply occupied) and (ii) that Germany existed before the Wends arrived are mistaken, because the Germanic tribes who are thought to have occupied these lands in the third and fourth centuries were not German (deutsch). By 500 AD, at which time Germany (Deutschland) did not yet exist, they had withdrawn to a position west of the Elbe-Saale line (Blaschke 2003: 68). The trap of equating Germania with Germany is always open and the task of explaining to tourists, for example, the presence in Germany today of the Wends and Sorbs is fraught with the temptation to oversimplify. A brochure for tourists, published in Bautzen, once wrote: ‘From the sixth century Slav tribes colonized large parts of central and north Germany’ (Sorben 2000: 1). This was corrected in later editions.

The notion of ‘re-occupation’ is also present in the Polish term Ziemie Odzyskane‘ Recovered Territories,’ the name given to the German territory east of the Oder-Neisse Line annexed by Poland in 1945, but the inhabitants of much of this land in the Middle Ages, before it fell victim to German expansion, had been not Poles but Wends. The history of the Wends therefore extends into parts of what is today Poland (Pomerania, eastern Lusatia). 


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