The Smallest Slavonic Nation by Dr Gerald Stone

The Smallest Slavonic Nation is the best read about the people called Wends or Sorbs. It can be purchased from Amazon. The Introduction to this fascinating book can be read below.



Location and Distribution

The people forming the subject of this study have been known variously in English as Wends, Lusatians orSorbs. They constitute a national minority inhabiting a small piece of territory in the German Democratic Republic to the south-east of Berlin. The Sorbs are Slavs, but unlike all the other Slavonic peoples they do not form a separate political unit, though their existence is given official recognition and they are accorded certain important rights as a minority by the state in which they live. They are distinguished from many other national minorities in Europe by the fact that they do not form part of a larger ethnic unit based in another state. The entire Sorbian people in fact constitutes a minority and does not look beyond the German frontier to some spiritual homeland elsewhere.

The area occupied by the Sorbs, which is situated in the part of Germany known as Lusatia, has no precisely defined boundaries, natural or otherwise. The northern limits are encountered roughly 50 miles (80 km) south-east of Berlin. Sorbian territory then extends southwards for some 56 miles (90 km) and is roughly half that distance in width at its widest point measured from east to west. In the south, Sorbian is separated from Czech by a broad band of territory where for centuries past only German has been spoken. In the east, on the other hand, there are places where Polish and Sorbian are (or were but recently) separated by little more than the waters of the river Neisse, though the most easterly dialect, that of Mužakow (Muskau), is now virtually extinct. Indeed, it is not long since Sorbian territory extended considerably further to the east, beyond the Neisse into what is today Polish territory; but the right bank of the Neisse had been completely germanized before the establishment of the new Polish frontier following the Second World War. Before the new frontier was set up, of course, the Sorbs were very much further from their Polish neighbors than they are today.

Writing in 1883 W. R. Morfill likened the Sorbs to a little Slavonic island in a German sea,[1]and this description conveys vividly the essential isolation of their position. Quite apart from the fact that the island is now very much closer to the Slavonic mainland than it was in Morfill’s day, however, the distribution of the population has changed considerably since that time and the island is now occupied by a mixed population of Germans and Sorbs. Most of the towns, in fact, have been predominantly German ever since their foundation, but until recently the villages were predominantly or entirely Sorbian. Owing to changes in the composition of the rural population, however, the Sorbs now live in an area of mixed nationality and, like almost any national minority in the modern world, they are constantly subject to assimilatory pressures from the majority in whose midst they live. How long they will preserve their identity is a matter for speculation. There can be no doubt that the numbers are declining. Until 1945 there were some villages with almost 100 per cent Sorbian population, the only Germans being officials, such as the police. But in that year and subsequently, many of the Germans expelled from territories beyond the Oder-Neisse line and from the Sudetenland were resettled in Lusatia, causing far-reaching changes in the national composition of the population.

Economic changes too have affected the Sorbs, hastening the processes of germanization. A key factor in the economic planning of the GDR is the exploitation of the brown coal resources which it possesses in abundance. The Black Pump Combine, which is the world’s largest plant for processing brown coal and producing gas and electricity, is situated in the middle of Lusatia between Grodk (Spremberg) and Wojerecy (Hoyerswerda). Here there are vast brown coal deposits, probably the largest in Europe, and nearby the new town of Neu­Hoyerswerda has been built specially to house the combine’s workers, together with their families. The once predominantly Sorbian character of this region has changed within a matter of only a few years.

Sorb, Wend, or Lusatian

The name Lusatia, which has long since ceased to have any political significance, vaguely designates an area stretching southwards from just south of Berlin as far as the Czechoslovak [Czech Republic] border. The river Spree (U. So. and L. So. Sprjewja) runs through the entire length of Lusatia from south to north. The part containing the upper reaches of the river is known as Upper Lusatia; that containing the lower reaches as Lower Lusatia. In Lower Lusatia, in the part known to Germans as the Spreewald (Spree Forest) and to Sorbs as the Błota (Marshes), the river splits up into a network of separate streams. Water is a dominating feature of the Lower Lusatian landscape. The central area, where Upper and Lower Lusatia meet, contains the Serbska kola (Sorbian Heath), which is interspersed with coniferous forest and includes the brown coal deposits. The soil here is poor and sandy.

Further south, Upper Lusatia is more fertile, but less picturesque, than either the Heath or the Spree Forest. The land here is mostly flat, but there are hills in the extreme south. To the north of these bills, though well within sight of them, lies Bautzen (U. So. Budysin), a town of about 44,000 inhabitants. Of these not many more than 1000 are Sorbs, but Bautzen is the home of a number of important Sorbian institutions, and the Sorbs of Upper Lusatia traditionally regard it as their capital. It is a charming medieval town, standing above the Spree, with narrow streets, pleasantly shaded walks and many architectural treasures. The earliest historical reference to the town is from the year 1018, when the Peace of Bautzen was concluded. At that time it was already an important Slav settlement.

Cottbus (L. So. Chośebuz), which with a population of nearly 80,000 is the main town of Lower Lusatia, is also situated on the Spree. It is an important economic centre, much bigger than Bautzen, and almost entirely German.

The area inhabited by the Sorbs constitutes only part of Lusatia. Nevertheless, the name Lusatia (Ger. Lausitz, U. So. Łužica, L. So. Łužyca) has been particularly associated with its Slavonic inhabitants. Consequently, in some languages derivatives of the name Lusatia have been used to refer to the Sorbs and their language. In Polish, for example, the language is called język łużycki and the people are Łużyczanie. In German, however, the words Lausitzer and lausitzisch have never been applied specifically to the Slavonic part of the population and its language. Instead, the terms Wende and wendisch were, until recently, the terms normally used. These terms may still be heard in use, but are nowadays avoided in all East German official publications, being replaced by Sorbe and sorbisch. The words Wende and wendisch were officially abandoned for two reasons:


(1) They were imprecise and vague, since they were applied also to other Slavs with whom Germans had come into contact, such as the Polabians. Terms were required which referred specifically to the Slavs of Lusatia.

(2) They had frequently been used with a derogatory connotation and were the source of unpleasant puns based on their identification with the verb wenden ‘to turn’ and the plural of die Wand ‘wall’-die Wände.

The terms Sorbe and sorbisch had, of course, been used before 1945, but their use was then comparatively rare. Nowadays, however, they are officially the only proper terms in German, Wende and wendisch being restricted to the vernacular in the GDR and to German-language sources originating outside its boundaries. In both Upper and Lower Sorbian the word for a Sorb is Serb. The adjective is serbski.


In English the terms ‘Wend’ and ‘Wendish’ have been used in the past, but it would seem proper to abandon them now, even though they have obviously not acquired the same derogatory connotations as their German equivalents. Use has also been made of the word ‘Lusatian’ in English scholarship, but its use raises certain problems since it does not refer specifically to the Slavs of Lusatia. It is not clear, for example, whether ‘a Lusatian’ is a Slavonic or German inhabitant of Lusatia. Nor is it clear whether ‘a Lusatian dialect’ means a dialect of Sorbian or of German. In any case, the arguments in favor of the use of the word ‘Sorbian’ in English scarcely need to be enumerated, for the overwhelming majority of relevant publications have already established it as the normal term. Very little, it is true, has been written on the Sorbs in English, but there are many comparative works which make reference to them, usually using the words ‘Sorb’ and ‘Sorbian.’ Even in the nineteenth century ‘Sorb’ and ‘Sorbish’ were being used in English (in addition to ‘Wend’ and ‘Wendish’).

Another term which has been occasionally used in English is ‘Lusatian Serb’, the awkwardness and ambiguity of which are self-evident, particularly when references to the Serbs of Serbia occur in the same context. 


National status

The Sorbs have occupied their present homeland since the beginning of recorded history. They are in fact the last survivors of the Slavonic tribes which once occupied most, if not all, inhabited territory between the rivers Elbe and Oder. It is the Sorbs who represent the earlier population of Lusatia, whereas their German-speaking neighbors are the heirs of successive waves of German invaders and colonists who, from the eighth century onwards, began to press eastwards across the Elbe into the lands held by the Slavs. This German pressure eastwards, however, which has been maintained for nearly twelve centuries, has affected not only the Sorbs but many other Slavonic nations lying in the invaders’ path. The full significance of Sorbian national survival can only be appreciated when viewed in the context of this centuries-old conflict of German and Slav, which reached its apogee in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Both linguistically and in other respects the Sorbs are closely related to their nearest Slavonic neighbors, the Poles and the Czechs. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt at all of their separate national and linguistic status, even though they lack the political institutions, and hence the separate political status, of the other Slavonic peoples. They have their own history, folklore and cultural traditions. Most important of all – they have their own language and sense of nationality. Throughout recorded history they have constituted a separate ethnic entity. In many important respects then, despite small numbers and inferior political status, the Sorbs have the right to be regarded no differently from the other Slavonic nations.

Sorbian studies

Slavonic linguists, of course, have long been conscious of the peculiarities of the Sorbian language. It occupies a large section in R. G. A. de Bray’s Guide to the Slavonic Languages, where it is dealt with on an equal footing with the other ten members of the Slavonic group.[2] In other respects, however, the Sorbs are little known outside Central Europe, and even their language, despite de Bray’s valuable survey, remains something of which many Slavists are only vaguely aware.

In Germany itself one does not have to move far outside Lusatia to find people who have never heard of the Sorbs. Even among their Slavonic neighbors in Poland and Czechoslovakia [Czech Republic] such ignorance, though rare, is not unknown. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that in Great Britain, even in circles normally well informed in such matters, total ignorance of the existence of the Sorbs is not unusual. Despite this, however, English scholarship has made its modest contribution to Sorbian studies. Professor de Bray’s Guide has already been referred to. Another British Slavist whose name has already been mentioned, who even in the nineteenth century was well acquainted with the language and literature of the Sorbs, was W. R. Morfill, who included in his book on the Slavonic literatures a chapter entitled ‘The Wends in Saxony and Prussia’.[3]

The fact that in the West there is widespread ignorance on the subject unfortunately means that it is possible to make the most far-fetched statements about the Sorbs without fear of being challenged. An otherwise useful book on the GDR, for example, says that the Sorbs ‘usually converse in German among themselves,’ and refers disparagingly to ‘their supposedly native tongue.’[4] It describes Bautzen as ‘the make­believe capital of a Red wonderland of symbolism’ and asserts that ‘most people in the area regard the whole thing as a huge joke.’[5] It can only be hoped that reliable information on the present-day position of the Sorbs will eventually become sufficiently widespread for statements of this kind to be received with the incredulity they deserve.[6]

In Central and Eastern Europe, as is only to be expected, the study of the Sorbs, their history, language and culture has a well­established, though modest, place in the general framework of Slavonic studies. Elsewhere, even in the United States, despite the tremendous expansion of Slavonic studies in general over the past few years, little attention has been paid to Sorbian studies so far. It is evident that Sorbian matters are unlikely ever to occupy any but a peripheral position in the study of the Slavonic peoples and languages, but it is equally evident that there are certain features of the Sorbian situation likely to attract the interest of many who are not primarily concerned with the study of the Slavs. As Morfill puts it, ‘even so obscure a people as the Lusatian Wends may be found to yield a treasure to those who are curious in these matters’.[7]

[1] W. R. Morfill, Slavonic Literature, London: 1883, p. 240.

[2] R. G. A. de Bray, Guide to the Slavonic Languages, 2nd revised edition, London and New York: 1969, pp. 673-789.

[3] Morfill, op. cit., Chap. IX, pp. 240-246.

[4] Franz von Nesselrode, Germany’s Other Half, London/New York/Toronto: 1963, p. 137.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dr Frido Mětšk, Das lnteresse der Ostforschung des westdeutschen Imperialismus an den Sorben, Bautzen: 1968 (Schriftenreihe für Lehrer and Erzieher im zweisprachigen Gebiet 1/68), deals with a host of inaccuracies encountered in West German publications. Such inaccuracies would, of course, be more readily recognized for what they are, if more detailed information on certain questions such as the size and distribution of the Sorbian population were forthcoming from East German sources.

[7] Morfill, op. cit., p. 246.


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