Dislocation and Reorientation in the Sorbian Community (1945-2008) by Peter Barker

This article by Dr. Peter Barker first appeared in: Dislocation and Reorientation. Exile, Division and the End of Communism in German Culture and Politics, ed. Axel Goodbody, Pól Ó Dochartaigh Denis Tate, German Monitor No. 71, Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, 2009, pp. 179-195.


This chapter will highlight three particular points in the post-war social development of Sorbian communities in Lusatia after the Second World War. It will firstly highlight the demographic and social changes which took place in Sorbian villages in both Upper and Lower Lusatia as a result of post-war migration into Lusatia in 1945-47. Secondly it will examine the effect of the industrialisation of Middle Lusatia from 1955 on Sorbian identity and culture. Many Sorbian villages were destroyed to make way for open-cast mining and its inhabitants relocated to nearby towns such as Weiß­wasser and Hoyerswerda. Sorbian identity suffered a dramatic decline as a result of resettlement into urban German-dominated environments. Finally it will look at the latest phase in the erosion of Sorbian identity post-1990 caused by the reduction in employment prospects in eastern Saxony and south-east Brandenburg. The last two points will be discussed in the context of ‘modernisation’ theory and the policy of the Catholic and Protestant Churches.

The Sorbs of Upper and Lower Lusatia are the last remaining representatives of the Slavonic tribes which moved westwards beyond the Oder and established settlements in the area up to the Elbe and beyond in the fifth or sixth century. During their subsequent history, marked by close proximity to Germans, they have been subject to a number of dislocations, which have influenced directly their demo­graphic structure and ethnic identity. During the course of the tenth century they, along with other Slav tribes, were defeated by the Franks and henceforth lived in a state of submission to the dominant German political and economic power. Only two Slav groups managed to main­tain a separate cultural and linguistic identity to the present day: the descendants of the two main Sorbian tribes, the Upper and Lower Sorbs in Lusatia. They have been able to maintain their linguistic and cultural identities into the twenty-first century.

            Subsequent major dislocations came with the Thirty Years’ War, which had a devastating effect on the Sorbian area, resulting in a reduction of over fifty per cent in the Sorbian population by the end of the war. The Congress of Vienna (1815) also had a profound effect: since 1648 most of Lusatia had been ruled by Saxony, but in 1815 Saxony was forced to cede Lower Lusatia and parts of Upper Lusatia to Prussia; eighty per cent of Sorbs were now under Prussian rule. This division of the Sorbian population administratively proved to be of great significance for its development, since Prussian policy towards the Sorbs and their language and culture was in most instances more repressive than that of Saxony. Lower Lusatia was also subject to much stronger economic pressures during the process of industrialization in the latter part of the nineteenth century, which led after the First World War to the destruction of many Sorbian communities. In 1924 the first Sorbian village was destroyed to make way for open cast lignite mining. The census of 1925 showed a steep drop of over thirty per cent in the number of Sorbs compared with the previous census of 1910. Also, nearly ninety per cent now declared themselves to be bilingual, whereas in 1900 about two-thirds still regarded themselves as monolingual. The effects of the First World War can be clearly seen here, since many Sorbian men were called up, and some found themselves for the first time in their lives in a purely German environment. The Nazi period completed the process of repression with the banning of Sorbian organizations in 1937, the forced removal of Sorbian teachers and priests from Lusatia and the persecution of Sorbian individuals perceived to be ‘nationalist’. The lowest point in modern Sorbian history was reached just before Lusatia was overrun by Soviet, Polish and Ukrainian troops in April 1945. It is no wonder that many Sorbs, in stark contrast to the German population, greeted the troops as liberating Slav brothers, although in most instances the Sorbian population was treated as badly as the German population by the occupying forces.


            The end of the war in 1945 did represent a turning point for the Sorbs in terms of their relations with the German majority culture; the social, economic and material dislocations which accompanied the end of the war were particularly acute in Lusatia. From the middle of April it was caught up in the last great battle for Berlin, which led to fierce fighting in towns like Bautzen. After the ceasefire the area was also directly affected by the agreements made by the wartime allies. The eastern part of Görlitz was put under Polish administration, and towns such as Zittau, Görlitz and Cottbus became frontier towns, losing their hinterland to Poland. The Germans from these areas started immediately coming over the Neiße, although almost all the bridges had been destroyed, and remained in these towns for the next few months. All the towns suffered from one common problem, namely the chaos in the supply system, and many were also victims of indiscriminate actions of destruction by Soviet troops. Lusatia, therefore, had to endure severe material damage as well as the human suffering experienced by its population in the form of widespread rapes, summary executions and indiscriminate maltreatment by the occupation forces.


In this first period after the war this region was particularly affected by the drawing of the new frontiers and its close proximity to Poland and Czechoslovakia, as the region from the Baltic coast in the north to Zittau in the south was the first to be forced to accommodate the huge waves of refugees, and then soon after the first victims of the ‘wild’ expulsions, which occurred before the Potsdam Conference agreed on a planned programme. The stretch of land 200 km to the east of the Oder/Neiße was one of the first areas after the ceasefire from which Germans were expelled. In this first period of expulsions over 300,000 Germans were driven out of Silesia and the expulsions were swiftly reactivated in August after the end of the Conference, even before the plan of ‘organised’ expulsions under the supervision of the Control Council was signed on 17 October.[1]

‘Wild’ expulsions from the Sudetenland also took place in May and June 1945. According to the census of October 1946 the Soviet zone took just on forty per cent of all refugees and expellees. By 1948 the resettlers (‘Umsiedler’), the official term for refugees and expellees in the Soviet zone after the establishment of the Central Administration for Resettlers (‘Zentrale Verwaltung für Umsiedler’) in September 1945, accounted for just under a quarter (24.2%) of the population of the Soviet zone. This dramatic change in the demo­graphic structure of the Soviet zone had a particular effect on Lusatia because of the bilingual communities in the eastern parts of Lower and Upper Lusatia, which were either Sorbian-German or German-Sorbian. From October 1945 to March 1946 Saxony was not desig­nated as a reception and resettlement area for expelled Germans, only as a transit state to further administrative areas, eastern Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. However, the situation could not be controlled by purely administrative measures, and many refugees succeeded in settling in Saxon villages. By the end of 1946 17% of the population in Saxony were refugees, which was nevertheless a much lower figure than that of 43.4% in Mecklenburg.[2] Only villages and small towns were designated to take these large numbers of refugees and expellees, because the need for workers was greatest in the countryside. More than half of those resettled in the Soviet zone were accommodated in villages and small towns with less than 2,000 inhabitants. In March 1946 the Soviet Military Administration (SMAD) altered its decree and designated Saxony as a settlement area for deported Germans. The majority of the bilingual villages lay in Saxony, and they were especially badly affected by this measure. In 1946 the Sorbian umbrella organisation, the Domowina, put together sets of statistics for the Sorbian area. It is clear from these statistics that the refugees who were accommodated in the villages of the Sorbian language area often made up more than twenty per cent of the population; in some villages the proportion had soon reached over fifty per cent.[3] The head of the Domowina, Paul Nedo, had already warned in 1945 of serious economic and cultural consequences for the bilingual area: in his view the Germanization process, which was already far advanced in some areas, would be accelerated by these demographic changes.[4]

From 1946 policy in the Soviet zone went in the direction of inte­gration. In general, this process of integration proceeded successfully on an economic and social level through the 1950s and beyond, but in the bilingual areas the process was made more difficult by the linguistic and cultural differences. Many refugees and expellees were at first unaware of the fact that they had arrived in an area inhabited by a Slav ethnic group. Very few of them were previously aware of its existence and only registered the different language and dress of the Sorbs/Wends when they arrived in the Lusatian villages. Many were initially confused about whether they were on German or Polish territory. In its assessment of the situation from 1947 the Domowina spoke in a memorandum to the allies of widespread tension between the two ethnic groups:

Der Hass der Umsiedler gegen Polen und die Tschechoslowakei wendet sich in starkem Maße auch gegen die sorbische Bevölkerung als ein den Polen und Tschechen verwandtes Volk und ruft nationale Spannungen und politische Unzuträglichkeiten unter der Bevölkerung hervor.[5]

There was also tension between different religious groups, espe­cially in the Catholic villages of Upper Lusatia, where there were no German-language services for German Catholics. German-language services were introduced very quickly in Protestant villages such as Hochkirch to the east of Bautzen, to the annoyance of the Sorbian inhabitants.[6] The greatest problem concerned the language used in the Sorbian villages where the Sorbian language had survived intact. Most adults from refugee families acquired at best a passive knowledge of Sorbian, but did not learn to speak it, which led in certain circum­stances to social exclusion, particularly in the Catholic villages of Upper Lusatia, because they could not take a full part in certain public events: ‘Unser Vater konnte nirgendwo hingehen, weil er nichts verstand. Das fing mit der Elternversammlung in der Schule an und endete im Wirtshaus. (Frau C. aus Niederschlesien)[7]

The children adapted fastest to the new situation. Shared experi­ences with local playmates, common experiences at school and in the workplace, and not least choosing a marriage partner from the region, led to faster adaptation than in the older generation. In the core Sor­bian area children picked up Sorbian on the street in social interaction with children of the same age, which led later to the forging of voca­tional and family links. However, in other villages, for example in Hochkirch, a Protestant village on the eastern border of the Sorbian language area, interaction between the children followed a different course. The language of the street used by the children started to change, in that German increasingly became the general means of communication.

 Aber 1945, in dem Moment, als die Umsiedler von Polen usw. rübergekommen sind, also die deutsche Bevölkerung zugenommen hat, in dem Moment ging das eigentlich los, dass wir als Kinder auf der Straße nicht mehr sorbisch gesprochen haben, und mit anderen Kindern, die nun dazukamen, wurde deutsch gesprochen. Und es war auch so üblich, sobald ein Deutscher dabei war, wurde deutsch geredet. (Frau M.)[8]

In her research project about resettlers in the bilingual area who married into Sorbian families, Ines Keller adopted three patterns from a Bavarian study published in the 1990s,[9] which ran alongside generational differences. These ranged from loose, private links to Sorbian culture to complete integration at family and work levels. The first pattern is characterised by a strong adaptation to the Sorbian social environment, both in private life and at work. Those Germans who had been educated and worked in Sorbian institutions had to have an active command of Sorbian for their careers. If in addition you also had a Sorbian partner, and Sorbian remained the language of the family, especially with the children, then the process of adaptation was accelerated. In the second pattern refugees worked in Sorbian institutions, but they did not adapt so strictly to the Sorbian environ­ment. This applied above all to men: according to the interviews, where the marriage was between a Sorbian man and a German woman, Sorbian was generally the language of the family, while in families in which a German male refugee had married into a Sorbian family German mostly became the dominant language.

Most of those interviewed in the project can be put into the third category, in which the German refugee only had a relationship with Sorbian culture and language as a result of marrying a Sorbian partner, while his/her workplace required no knowledge of Sorbian. In most cases almost all had memories from their childhood of using Sorbian and were still able at a private level – mostly in the context of family occasions with Sorbian relatives – to converse in Sorbian, but in public contexts, they prefer to use German. Very often the marriage partners used German to communicate with each other, so that the children generally only heard Sorbian at home as the language of their grandparents, or they learnt it as a second language at school.[10]

It has, however, to be admitted that the majority of refugees and deportees who settled in Lusatia, had little or no direct contact with the Sorbian language and culture. While there were those who were directly confronted on arrival with Sorbian culture and then learnt Sorbian, many others took hardly any notice of the existence of Sorbian culture in Lusatia. This was particularly the case in Lower Lusatia where the language and culture were only still alive in a small number of villages near Cottbus. In this area intermarriage between Sorbs and German refugees played an insignificant role. Resettlers did not take part in Sorbian events, nor did their children take part in Sorbian lessons at school. This also applied to a large extent to the Protestant areas of Silesian Upper Lusatia where Sorbian culture had already been dying in many villages during the Weimar Republic. By 1945 there were only a few areas and villages around Schleife and Hoyerswerda where a living Sorbian culture still existed.

So how far were the fears expressed by the Domowina between 1945 and 1947 that these waves of refugees and expellees would lead to more rapid Germanization of the Sorbian population justified? There can be no doubt that there are numerous examples in the Sorbian area where this happened. There were German-Sorbian families created through intermarriage in which the Sorbian language disappeared completely after some time. There were also Sorbian villages in which the attitude of the refugees towards the Sorbian population was essentially negative from the outset, and did not change. However, using the interviews conducted by Ines Keller as a basis, it is clear that tendencies in the other direction also developed. The majority of her interviews were with refugees who came into Lusatia as children. Most of them were forced to take part in Sorbian lessons at school. This was the period in the 1950s when the bilingual system was being built up. Almost all interviewees reported that they had to take part in Sorbian classes because no separate groups had been organised for German children. From the beginning of the 1960s this was no longer the case because Sorbian was no longer an obligatory subject. This first generation, however, now possessed at least basic oral and written skills in Sorbian. These in turn made it easier for them to follow a professional vocational path in Sorbian institutions. A large section of the interviewees took this path, for example as teachers of Sorbian. They were therefore directly involved in the foundation and extension of Sorbian institutions and social life which experienced a dramatic boost in the period after the end of the Second World War. The need for Sorbian speakers was great to build up Sorbian schools and other institutions. These Germans who had acquired a knowledge of Sorbian culture and language therefore represented what has been termed by Ines Keller as a ‘modernising potential’,[11] which ultimately provided an enrichment to Sorbian cultural life. The personnel requirements in the Sorbian area offered them, on the other hand, a professional career, which very often was not available to them in a German context. To achieve this, they were frequently required to perfect their oral and written skills in Sorbian. The interviewees were therefore exposed to assimilatory pressures in the opposite direction to the general trend, to which they nevertheless willingly and consciously submitted in many cases.

The cultural socialisation of refugee children was ultimately sealed in the private sphere. Intensive assimilation to Sorbian culture resulted most frequently when refugees had both a professional and private involvement. In this context particular gender patterns played an important part, which however went in the opposite direction to the traditional pattern of roles, in which the woman as mother was primarily responsible for the preservation and passing on of the Sorbian language within the family. In this context it was generally the attitude of the husband, which was decisive when it came to the question of which language was used in the family. If the husband was Sorbian then it was often he who ensured that Sorbian remained the language of the family. In marriages in which only the wives were of Sorbian origin the Sorbian language was mostly not given this high status. In this context it was often the case that both German and Sorbian were spoken in the family. Whether children visited A- or B-classes[12] did not depend solely on the family situation. Other factors played a significant role here, for example the prevailing linguistic environment, when the family lived outside the so-called ‘core’ Sorbian area in Upper Lusatia.

            The dislocations of 1945 therefore had a mixed effect on the Sorbian ethnic community. It was clear that the influx of German refugees had changed the ethnic composition of large areas of Lusatia. Lower Lusatia had been subject to strong Germanisation pressures from the latter part of the 19th century and by the 1930s Lower Sorbian language and culture was in steep decline. In central Lusatia and eastern Upper Lusatia the ethnic substance was still strong, but by the end of the Second World War the irreversible decline had set in which is apparent today. Nevertheless, there was an overall feeling of optimism after the passing of a Sorbian Law in 1948 in Saxony and similar legislation three years later in Brandenburg, that the new political structures provided opportunities of support for Sorbian culture and language. These were to a certain extent realised by the policy of the SED in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which established limited cultural autonomy through the creation of a bilingual school system and institutions such as the Sorbian People’s theatre in Bautzen, the Sorbian State Ensemble for Music and Dance and the Institute for Sorbian Ethnic Research. But the economic and political policies of the SED in the 1950s created further dislocations. The collectivisation of agriculture into LPGs ultimately destroyed the only work unit, the private farm, where the Sorbian language was in everyday use. Also, it did not allow the formation of purely Sorbian LPGs. The most important development, however, was the decision by the SED to industrialize the central part of Lusatia in order to exploit the GDR’s only major energy source, lignite.

The industrialization of Lusatia required the influx of a large number of German workers from other parts of the GDR. At the centre of this development was the construction of the huge energy complex, Schwarze Pumpe, in a Sorbian area near Hoyerswerda, which in 1955 was a small town of 7,700 inhabitants, just under 1,000 of whom were Sorbs. By the end of the 1950s Hoyerswerda had a population of over 20,000, with the Sorbian population now a small minority, and it was intended that the town should grow to 70,000. According to the only detailed analysis of the demographic structure of Lusatia, carried out in the GDR by Ernst Tschernik in 1955-56, more than a third of the population outside the towns in Lusatia at this time was Sorbian-speaking, although Sorbian speakers, in total 80,346, accounted for only 13.8% of the total population of the area investigated, when the towns were included.[13] The building of Schwarze Pumpe, together with several other large energy complexes, was to have a profound effect on the population structure in the central region of Lusatia, so that by the 1980s only a tenth of the rural population was Sorbian-speaking, a result of the influx of Germans, the general move from countryside to town, and of the destruction of Sorbian villages through open cast mining, with the subsequent transfer of the Sorbian population into nearby towns.

            During the period of the GDR lignite became the major source of energy production, especially after the oil crisis of 1973. One of the major areas of lignite production lay in Lusatia – by 1990 about 65% of the lignite production of the GDR came from here – and since the coal was recovered by open cast mining, it presented a serious threat to the Sorbian way of life. During the period from 1945 to 1989 over 22,000 people, both German and Sorbian, were forced to resettle, usually in neighbouring towns. In all, 71 villages were destroyed, and 42 villages partially destroyed.[14] The area that was most affected was Lower Lusatia, south of Cottbus, and the central part around Schleife and Hoyerswerda, areas where Sorbian cultural identity was under the greatest threat. These were the very areas which had been most affected by the demographic changes after 1945. The resettlement of Sorbs from the areas affected weakened further the cultural and linguistic substance. It was only in the middle of the 1980s that threatened populations started to protest openly against resettlement; for example the village of Klitten ran a campaign from 1986 against destruction which resulted in a reprieve in February 1990. However, the campaign to save the village of Horno failed, resulting in its destruction in 2005. Opposition to what was seen as a needlessly destructive and wasteful energy policy in the GDR was supported by Sorbian intellectuals and writers, above all Jurij Koch and Kito Lorenc, who made the destruction of the Sorbian way of life into a central theme in their works of the 1970s and 1980s. Jurij Koch continued his opposition in the post-unification period.

            The fact that Sorbian cultural identity and the Upper Sorbian language remained strongest in the Catholic Sorbian villages can be attributed to a number of factors. The core Upper Sorbian area in the Catholic villages to the north-west of Bautzen did not contain lignite reserves, so was unaffected by open cast mining. Also, the policy of the Catholic Church in the Upper Sorbian villages required German refugees in 1945 to adapt to the specific ethnic conditions, while the Protestant Church bent over backwards to accommodate the German newcomers. In all Protestant parishes German services were intro­duced or increased in order avoid splitting the congregations. The negative effect that this had on the Sorbian population was only acknowledged in 1989 by the Protestant Church in Brandenburg:

 Wir haben die Bedeutung der Muttersprache im Gottesdienst und beim Beten unterschätzt. Der Hauptgrund für unser Handeln war die grosse Anzahl deutscher Umsiedler in den Gemeinden. Diesen Zugezogenen sollte eine neue Heimat gegeben werden. […] In so einer Situation die Dorfbevölkerung in Deutsche und Sorben aufzuteilen, wurde damals von seiten der kirchlichen Behörden als schädlich angesehen, als eine Zersplitterung der Gemeinden.[15]

It has, however, to be recognised that in most of the Protestant areas the situation of the Sorbian parishes in 1945 was irretrievable. The administration was separated into three structures: Lower Lusatia belonged to the Landeskirche Berlin-Brandenburg; the former Prussian part of Upper Lusatia was now part of the Lower Silesian Church administered from Görlitz; the southern part of Upper Lusatia belonged to the Saxon Church. The policies of these three administra­tions were different. The Berlin-Brandenburg Church had attempted to overcome the lack of Sorbian-speaking priests by putting on courses in the Lower Sorbian language in the 1930s, but essentially their policy was to replace Sorbian-speaking pastors with Germans. The last Sorbian-speaking priest retired under pressure in 1941. Although the Church recognised that it should take into account the linguistic needs of its parishioners, not a single Sorbian-speaking priest was installed during the GDR period in Lower Lusatia and the first Lower Sorbian service after 1941 did not take place until 1987. It actively blocked the transfer of the only Lower Sorbian-speaking priest, Pastor Herbert Nowak, to a parish in Lower Lusatia. The Lower Silesian Church in Görlitz also recognized the problem, especially in Schleife and Hoyerswerda, and attempted to put on language courses after 1945 for priests, but the policy failed, mostly as a result of a lack of pastors prepared to learn or improve their Sorbian language skills. In 1983 Oberkonsistorialrat Fichtner wrote to the Landeskirchenamt (LKA) in Dresden asking for help:

 Zu unserem großen Bedauern verfügen wir seit Jahren so gut wie nicht mehr über sorbisch sprechende Pastoren, die Dienste in sorbischer Sprache in den Gemeinden, in denen diese sprachliche und kulturelle Tradition zumindest in Gruppen noch lebendig ist, übernehmen können.[16]

But the Lower Silesian Church had also actively blocked the return of Sorbian-speaking priests after 1945 to Sorbian-speaking parishes, such as Schleife, and like the Berlin-Brandenburg Church, criticised the Saxon Church for being too ready to accede to Sorbian demands.

            It was only in Saxony that a consistent effort was made to accommodate the particular wishes of the Sorbian parishes. In October 1948 the Synod passed a Church Law, not without opposition, which established a Sorbian Superintendent. But this Superintendent had no executive, only advisory, functions, and had to work alongside the German Superintendent in Bautzen. Nevertheless it was an important position, which has survived to the present day. Unfortunately it came too late; in 1969 the Sorbian Superintendent, Gerhard Wirth, reported to the Synod on the situation in the Sorbian parishes 20 years after the Law. In 1948 there were 23 Sorbian parishes and 17 pastors who conducted 580 Sorbian services; by 1958 this number had shrunk to 20 parishes with 14 pastors and 410 services; in 1968 there were only 17 parishes left with 12 pastors who conducted 275 Sorbian services.[17] In the space of 20 years the number of services had shrunk to half, a clear indication of the rapidly diminishing Sorbian population. Super­intendent Wirth retired in 1978 and it took 6 years for the Saxon Church to replace him. When Siegfried Albert was finally installed as Superintendent in 1984, there were only three Sorbian speaking pastors left; today there is only one, the present Superintendent, Pastor Johannes Malink.

            The comparison with the Catholic Church is interesting. Over the course of the twentieth century the Catholic Church took over the leadership in Sorbian cultural life, although it still only represented 20 per cent of the Sorbian population in 1900. The Church was seen as the centre of Sorbian cultural life, even during the general ban on the use of Sorbian in public life during the Third Reich. In 1941 the Sorbian Catholic priests were transferred out of Lusatia and replaced by German-speaking Franciscans, but when the war ended the Catholic priests returned and during the lifetime of the GDR provided a refuge from the atheist state for their parishioners. The Protestant Church fulfilled a similar role, but, as has been shown, the Sorbian Protestant population was in steep decline, while the Catholic parishes maintained their position into the post-unification period. The Catholic Church was able to maintain social and ethnic control over its parishioners. It took note of who went to church, and whether Sorbs went to Sorbian or German services. It also put pressure on parents to send their children to Sorbian schools and campaigned against mixed marriages. The Catholic Church was able to maintain this position until recent times, but is now struggling against the economic and social pressures of the post-unification period. Recent studies have shown that this control is starting to break down.[18]

          Unification with West Germany in 1990 represented the third major dislocation for the Sorbian Community The GDR was a closed environment, particularly in this south-eastern part of the GDR where no West German television could be accessed. It was said that emigration by Sorbs to West Germany before 1989, when the frontier was opened, was lower than the German population, although there are no reliable statistics available. The GDR had also created and financed the institutional structures of the bilingual school system and the other cultural institutions. These have continued post-unification, although they are coming under increasing financial pressure as the German government tries to reduce public spending. Also the lower birth rate after 1990 has meant that several Sorbian mother-tongue schools have been closed. The Stiftung für das Sorbische Volk was created in 1991 to provide the finance for Sorbian institutions with joint funding by central government and the states of Saxony and Brandenburg. but central government is attempting to reduce and ultimately withdraw, claiming that cultural matters are the preserve of the individual states. Constitutionally Sorbian interests are protected by the protocol to Article 34 of the Unification Treaty and the relevant articles in the constitutions of Saxony and Brandenburg. So on the surface little seems to have been lost as a result of unification. The real danger of a decline in the position of Sorbian lies in the general social and economic situation. The use of the language as part of everyday life and communication is disappearing rapidly under the pressure of the swift changes since unification, except amongst the approximately 15,000 Catholic Sorbs of Upper Lusatia. It is difficult to estimate accurately the number of Sorbian speakers overall – there has been no general demographic survey since the 1950s – but the figure of approximately 80,000 from then has probably declined to no more than 45,000.


The Sorbian organizations have survived the institutional and financial insecurity of the immediate post-unification period, but the most difficult area will be psychological survival. The experiences of Sorbs during the GDR did not lead to a strengthening of their national consciousness, but there are still significant numbers of Sorbs with a strong national identity; whether they will be able to withstand the intensification of Germanization pressures after 1990 is questionable. In 1945-46 the atmosphere was one of hope. These hopes were disap­pointed during the lifetime of the GDR and although there was a slowing down in the assimilation process, despite the increase in mixed marriages between 1945 and 1990 compared to the period 1918 to 1945,[19] the cynicism which prevailed in 1989 in relation to GDR policy meant that Sorbs entered the new conditions in a united Ger­many in a pessimistic frame of mind. After having led a very closed existence up to 1990, even more so than German citizens of the GDR, they find themselves having to compete to protect their separate identity against ever stronger pressures from outside. High rates of unemployment have also meant that for the first time since the waves of migration in the first half of the nineteenth century large numbers of Sorbs, particularly the young, are leaving Lusatia. This develop­ment, combined with the falling birth-rate in eastern Germany as a whole, means that there is a real question mark over the ability of the bilingual educational system to produce a new generation of Sorbs educated in their own language.

            Although German chauvinistic behaviour towards Sorbs was never fully eradicated in GDR times, the resurgence of German nationalist feeling after unification, especially in areas close to the Polish border, has been particularly difficult for Sorbs. The strong reaction against any Slav influence after the experiences of Soviet occupation and a Soviet-style government, as well as the activities of some Poles ex­ploiting the new economic circumstances, have led to a resurgence of anti-Sorb feeling, especially in towns such as Cottbus and Bautzen. In the federal election campaign of 1998 an extreme right-wing party, the ‘Deutsche Volksunion’, put up anti-Sorb posters in various parts of Lusatia. The temptation to hide or play down your ethnic identity in such circumstances is very strong. The benefits of unification, greater individual and collective freedom, easier contact with other autochtho­nous minorities in Germany and Europe as a whole, access to the pro­tection of Europe-wide conventions,[20] have to be weighed against the dis­advantages of exposure to market forces which can threaten minority institutions and weaken an already threatened sense of national identity.

            It has been argued that the dislocations that the Sorbian community has suffered since 1945, in particular the industrialization of the 1950s and 1960s and the entry into a post-socialist society after unification, are part of entering into a modern, secular world. It is ironic that the Churches, in particular the Catholic Church, are finding the secular pressures in an open society more difficult to withstand than in an atheist society such as the GDR. Despite certain groups, such as students and intellectuals, regarding the prospect of Sorbs living in a more open society as an opportunity to gain real equality in a demo­cratic German society, other factors again conspired to undermine the positive aspects of a second new beginning. Like the rest of the population of the GDR the Sorbs were protected from the pressures of a competitive market economy and found themselves under-prepared for the economic challenges of post-unification society. High rates of unemployment have meant that large numbers of young Sorbs are leaving Lusatia, although the level of migration to other parts of Germany is lower in the Catholic villages.[21] Very few are prepared to train as teachers of Sorbian, even though they are likely to be able to obtain jobs. We could now be experiencing the final stages of assimilation, in which the core Sorbian community is reduced to under 20,000 people, at which point it will be extremely difficult to continue to protect its identity. The difference in policy between the two Churches has played a role, however. The Protestant Church was never able to exercise the same social and ethnic control as the Catholic Church, which in part explains why the Sorbian language in the Catholic villages has survived relatively intact, while the decline in the use of the Sorbian language in the Protestant villages has been severe since 1945. By 1990 there were only small groups of Protestant Sorbs, mostly in the middle and older generations, who attended services in Sorbian, which were usually only held once a month. Protestant Church policy only started to attempt to counteract the assimilatory tendencies of the state in the post-1945 period, by which time it was too late. Whether it is fair to describe the Protestant Church as the ‘Totengräber des Wendentums’ as some nationalist Sorbs described it in the 1920s, is, however, questionable. The social and economic processes against which ethnic minorities such as the Sorbs have to fight are so strong that it is hardly possible for any measures to be implemented to counteract them. The Catholic ‘core’ area was able to protect itself to a certain extent, but even here the belated modernisa­tion and secularisation processes are starting to take effect. The sudden and unexpected entry of the GDR in 1990 into the ‘modern’ world of late capitalism was difficult enough for the majority of the population of the GDR, but it was especially difficult for an ethnic minority such as the Sorbs. The post-1945 demographic and social changes were also more keenly felt, as the sudden influx of Germans into Slav communities irreversibly changed their demographic structure, communities which were already in a fragile state, after being subjected to the actively repressive policies of the Third Reich, which even went as far as threats of deportation. Finally, the quirk of fate that the richest deposits of lignite lay under the Sorbian villages provided further impetus to the process of assimilation.


[1]               Philip Ther, ‘Expellee Policy in the Soviet Zone and the GDR’, in David Rock and Stefan Wolff (eds), Coming Home to Germany? The Integration of Ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe in the Federal Republic, New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2002, p. 58.

[2]               Ibid, p. 60.

[3]               ‘Sorbenstatistik 1946’, assembled by the Domowina, in Sorbisches Kulturarchiv (SKA), MS/XVII/3, held in the archive of the Sorbian Institute in Bautzen.

[4]               Memorandum from Paul Nedo on the German-Sorbian relationship, in the Nachlass of Mik∏aw‰ Krjeãmar, SKA/ZM XXIII/26 E.

[5]               Memorandum to the Foreign Ministers’ Conference in Moscow, March 1947, in SKA/D II/1.5 C.2.

[6]               Ines Keller, Sorbische und deutsch-sorbische Familien, Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 2000, pp. 92-4.

[7]               Ines Keller, ‘Flüchtlinge und Vertriebene in der Lausitz’, in: Susanne Hose (ed.), Raum-Erfahrungen. Nazhonjenja z rumom. Leben in der Lausitz, Dresden/Husum: Verlag der Kunst, 2004, p. 47

[8]               Ibid.

[9]               Michael von Engelhardt, ‘Generation und historisch-biographische Erfahrung. Die Bewältigung von Flucht und Verteibung im Generationenvergleich’, in Dierk Hoffmann/Marita Krauss, Michael Schwartz (eds), Vertriebene in Deutschland. Interdisziplinäre Ergebnisse und Forschungsperspektiven, Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2000, pp. 331-58.

[10]             Ines Keller, ‘Flüchtlinge und Vertriebene in der zweisprachigen Oberlausitz nach 1945’, in E. Pech and D. Scholze(eds), Zwischen Zwang und Beistand. Deutsche Politik gegenüber den Sorben vom Wiener Kongress bis in die Gegenwart, Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 2003, p. 220.

[11]             Ibid., p. 222.

[12]             A-classes are designed for children who are mother-tongue speakers, while B-classes are for children whose primary language is not Sorbian.

[13]             Ernst Tschernik, ‘Abschlußbericht’, p. 13. The individual tables for each district are published in the appendix to Ludwig Elle, Sprachenpolitik in der Lausitz, Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 1995, pp. 244-65.

[14]             Figures taken from F. Förster, Verschwundene Dörfer, Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 1995, pp. 18-19.

[15]             Translation by Madlena Norberg from Pomogaj Bog, Lower Sorbian supplement to the Upper Sorbian monthly newspaper of the Protestant Church Pomjah Bóh, April 1989, p. 2, cited in: Madlena Norberg, ‘Die Evangelische Kirche in Brandenburg und die Sorben’, Jahrbuch für Berlin-Brandenburgische Kirchengeschichte, 1999, p. 12.

[16]             Letter from Oberkonsistorialrat Fichtner to the LKA in Dresden, 23 September 1983, Betr.: Betreuung sorbisch sprechender Gemeindemitglieder, LKA Dresden, 2/334, p. 180.

[17]             Figures taken from Superintendent Wirth’s report to the 25th session of the 19th Landessynode of the Saxon Church on 16 March 1969, LKA Dresden, 1/391, p. 49.

[18]             See, for example, Martin Walde, ‘Das katholische Milieu im Umbruch. Untersuchungen am Beispiel der Lausitz und des Eichsfelds’, Lûtopis, 47:2 (2000), 95-119.

[19] On the question of diminishing resistance to mixed marriages, see Ludwig Elle, Sorbische Kultur und ihre Rezipienten. Ergebnisse einer ethnosoziologischen Befragung, Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 1992, pp. 31-2.

[20]             Germany ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, lodged with the Council of Europe on 1 November 1998, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities which came into force in February 1998.

[21]             On the lower level of migration to other parts of Germany from the Catholic area see S. Buchholt, ‘“Wende” und Gemeinschaft: Transformationsprozeß und soziale Veränderungen in einem Dorf der katholischen Lausitz’, Lûtopis, 45:2 (1998), 63-84.


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