German is an Indo-Germanic language of the Germanic language family. The so-called East Germanic is a generic term for the dialects of the North Germanic tribes who left their Scandinavian home and settled in the area of today’s eastern Germany and Poland. The migration took place during the 400 years known as “Common Germanic Time”. One of these Vandalic tribes was the Lugii [Lygians] who came to Silesia in about 100BC and repelled the local Celts. The Vandalic tribe of the Silingi is said to be the origin of the name for Silesia. In 800, under Charlemagne, the word ‘German’ emerged as a denomination and a coherent language area was created. In the 13th century Silesia became part of the Kingdom of Bohemia and thus of the German language area. As from the 18th century, after the Silesian Wars, Silesia was no longer part of this area.
Over the centuries, the language contact between German and Polish caused interference and transference. During Old High German and Middle High German times words were already borrowed from German in Polish. However, most of the borrowings in Polish derive from the Early New High German and New High German and belong to the fields of trade, craft, construction, military and seafaring. Due to the widespread bilingualism among the German settlers, Polish also influences the German vernaculars – especially in East Prussia and Silesia. In the Silesian vernacular, Polish equally influences the vocabulary, phonetics and grammar. For example, Polish influences become evident in the word order: Hab ihm gestern gesagt [“told him yesterday”, rather than the usual “I told him yesterday”]. Another typical feature of German in Silesia is the common use of reflexive verbs: sich spielen, sich gehen [play oneself, go oneself]. Even before World War II, Polish speakers in Upper Silesia were often exposed to German influences through the education system and administration the Polish Silesian vernacular (e.g. the famous vernacular ‘Water Polish’ [Wasserpolnisch]) has characteristics which do not occur in the Polish standard language or other Polish vernaculars. After World War II the influence of Polish on the German language in Poland increased. For many young people German has become a foreign language and this has made way for the trilingualism of local vernacular, regional variation of the German standard language and Polish.
Originally, Silesia was inhabited by the East Germanic tribes of the Silingi and Lugii. During the migration of nations, the East Teutons moved to the South and the Slavs settled in Silesia in the second half of the 5th century. In 1138 the empire of the Piasts was divided; an independent Silesian line emerged. The Silesian Piasts linked themselves to the German West from within through marriages with daughters of German sovereigns, e.g. the marriage of Henry I (1202-38) with Hedwig von Andechs who was canonised in 1267 and is still admired as the country’s patron saint.
The settlement of German peasants, craftsmen, traders and miners, most of them from the Thuringia-Upper Saxony region, was increasingly promoted by the territorial lords. Modelled on the cities of Magdeburg and Halle, German law ruled in the 120 towns until mid 14th century. In 1458 the Hungarian king Corvinus succeeded in gaining the Bohemian crown and thus the divided Silesia. As his successors remained without a male heir he concluded a marriage agreement with Emperor Maximilian I for the latter’s grandchild Ferdinand. In this way, from 1526 onwards, Silesia belonged to the Habsburgs for 200 years. In 1740 King Frederic II of Prussia invaded the barely protected Silesia with his army. In the Peace of Breslau (1742) Maria Theresia had to cede Silesia, and after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the province was extended to parts of the Saxon Upper Lusatia [Oberlausitz] with the towns Lauban, Görlitz and Hoyerswerda. In the 19th century Silesia experienced strong economic improvement. Apart from state initiatives – in Malapane the first machine factory in Prussia called Königliche Hütte [Royal Smelter] was built – active private entrepreneurs created the basis for a thriving coal-mining district. Many “Water Polish”-speakers from rural areas took this dialect, which was different from the advanced standard Polish, with them when moving to the rapidly growing cities. It contained many German borrowings while German peasants and miners used many Polish expressions. This coexistence only started to break up in the second half of the 19th century due to national distinctions which were also enforced by the “germanisation” policy of the German Empire. A simplification was made by equating ‘Polish’ with ‘Catholic’ as well as ‘German’ or ‘Prussian’ with ‘Protestant’. With the Treaty of Versailles, the whole of Upper Silesia was ceded to Poland after World War I. As of 1939 Silesia served as a concentration area for Hitler’s offensive armies. In 1945 Soviet troops conquered Silesia. At the Yalta Conference (February 1945) it was agreed that the Silesian territories up to the Oder and Neisse rivers would fall under Polish administration. On 21 June 1990 both the German parliament and the GDR People’s Parliament consented − in the context of the German Unification Treaty − to maintain the border of 1945 as the western Polish border.
According to the 2002 census there were 152,897 persons of German and 173,153 persons of Silesian nationality. In the same census 204,573 persons declared German and 56,643 declared Silesian as their home language. Estimates from various sources indicate a total of 300,000 to 400,000 German speakers (Association for Civic Media 2003; Handbook of Contact Linguistics 1996).
Until 1990, Poland was the only Central European country which did not officially acknowledge the German minority. At this time, the German minority, with a few exceptions, was not allowed to exercise activities in connection with its folk culture. Although article 35 of the Polish Constitution grants Polish citizens of national or ethnic minorities the freedom to preserve and develop their own language, customs, traditions and culture this regulation does not apply for the Silesians in the German language minority; they are not included in the three categories of regional and national minority groups of the Polish authorities. The Polish government and the Supreme Court refuse to acknowledge national or ethnic minority status for Silesians; e.g. they also do not acknowledge the Verband der Bevölkerung Schlesischer Nationalität [Union of People of Silesian Nationality] founded in 1887. The European Court of Human Rights confirmed this national decision in its judgment on 17 February 2004 (application no. 44158/98).
Despite this rather weak legal status there have also been some positive developments for the status of the German language minority, which were launched by the state visit of the German Chancellor Kohl in 1989. Apart from establishing several representations for their national group, members of the German language minority were successful in local, regional and to a lesser extent in national elections. Currently the minority is represented by two members of the Polish parliament.
It can also be noted that the Polish Council of Ministers, which, according to the draft minority act, is responsible for finding a comprehensive solution for the issue of official town names in Silesia, will not be able to do so due to inconsistent language use. Moreover, it will be utterly impossible to establish a denomination which was abolished 70 years ago and is barely known or used by the people. It seems that the only feasible way to deal with these issues is on a case by case basis with community referendums.
In the school year 2002/2003 there were 261 primary schools as well as 63 grammar schools and one secondary school with German as language of instruction (Source: Section for national minorities of the Ministry of the Interior 2004). However it must be kept in mind that no distinction can be made between classes in German as a foreign language and classes in German as a minority language. Most schools obviously tend to teach German as a foreign language as many teachers are trained for this (e.g. by the Goethe-Institut). There are almost no efforts to introduce German or Polish dialects in schools.
Only 20% of teachers in the Opole and Silesia districts speak German fluently. Therefore, since 2002, language courses have been offered in order to strengthen the German language. At primary and secondary level the German language proficiency of the teachers is better; 80% of them are fluent in German. Teaching material is generally available for German, history and geography classses. Some secondary schools also offer bilingual classes.
People who do not speak Polish are allowed to call a German-speaking interpreter (see country report ).
Since Polish is the official language, German does not play a significant role in public authorities or on a local level in general. The language is only of certain relevance in unofficial contacts (see country report ).
There are no daily newspapers in German. Weekly periodicals published only in German are: Schlesien Heute [Silesia Today] and Der Oberschlesier [The Upper Silesian] with a print run of 2,500 copies each. Partly bilingual or German periodicals are: the weekly Schlesisches Wochenblatt [Silesian Weekly], monthly publications such as Hoffnung [Hope], Masurische Storchenpost [Masurian Stork Mail] or Mitteilungsblatt [Bulletin]. Das Informations- und Kulturbulletin [The bulletin for information and culture] is published bimonthly and the Kulturelles Bildungsnotebook [Cultural Education Notebook] quarterly.
Schlesien Aktuell [Silesia up-to-date] is a radio programme for the German minority in the Opole region which is broadcast from Monday to Thursday between 5.30pm and 5.55pm on the public station Radio Opole, frequency 103.2 FM, which is the most popular station in the Opole region. Schlesien Aktuell was first broadcast on 15 April 1998 and the editorial team is composed of young people. Their aim is to put together a modern information programme and to report on important activities of the German minority and German-Polish topics. The programme boasts news, reports, interviews, information on events and German music and is very popular with the audience. This is not only confirmed by numerous calls and letters but also by concrete figures; the audience rating of Schlesien Aktuell is as high as for the Polish programme broadcast at the same time. Further private radio stations include Radio Plus, Radio Vanessa and Radio Park which are broadcast exclusively in German.
The local TV station in Opole broadcasts a 10-15 minute programme for the German language minority called Schlesien Journal [Silesian Journal], which is produced by an independent team. The programme Schlesische Wochenschau [Silesian Newsreel] is broadcast by the Polish television every other week.
Currently no efforts are made to support the German minority in the field of new media. However, there is one website for the German minority provided by the Verband der deutschen Sozial-Kulturellen Gesellschaften in Polen [Association of the Social and Cultural Societies in Poland] in German and Polish.
Most cultural activities in German take place in Silesia. For example, the cultural initiative for the Caritas library network in the Opole region was launched in 1992 by the representative of the Catholic Church for the German minority. Since then two library busses visit about 150 villages. 34 additional stationary libraries have now been established and with financial help from the German-Polish Foundation, the central library Joseph von Eichendorff was opened in Opole. The voivodship library, which has sought to preserve the stocks from German times for many years now, also continues to collect German literature. In addition, it operates another branch with German books – the ‘Austrian library’ in Opole.
Annual German-Polish symposia on Silesia take place in the Kamień Śląski castle [Schloss Groß Stein]. Professors and persons involved in the cultural sector who come from the East and West and feel attached to Upper Silesia (mostly they have their origins there) take part as speakers. The various talks are mainly intended for priests, teachers, librarians and journalists.
The Haus der Deutsch-Polnischen Zusammenarbeit [House for German-Polish Cooperation] in Gliwice was set up in 1998. It is based on the first registered association and its contributors are both German and Polish.
According to experts, 12 books were published in German in 2003; according to public authorities there were none. Most publications are textbooks, poetry and religious books. However, the natives are to a great extent unaware of German literary works which would make them feel more rooted in their homeland. Only very few of these local books are translated. Examples are the bilingual work Der goldene Schlüssel [The Golden Key] by Hans Niekrawietz and several texts by Eichendorff. Horst Bieneks has published novels about Gliwice. Other authors mostly remain unknown: e.g. Hans Lipinsky-Gottersdorf, Heinz Piontek and especially August Scholtis.
In the cultural field a variety of traditional folk music is produced and cultural festivals are organised, e.g. Regionales Erntedankfest der Diözese [Regional Thanksgiving of the Diocese] on St. Anna hill, Künstlersommer der nationalen Minderheiten [Summer of Artists of National Minorities] in Olsztyn, Chortreffen [Choir Encounter] in Walce, Treffen der Folkgruppen und Orchester [Encounter of the Folk Groups and Orchestras] of the German minority in Leśnica, Ausstellung Schlesischer Artistikkreationen [Exposition of Silesian Artistic Creations] in Dobrodzień and Dobrzeń as well as Masurische Gespräche [Masurian Talks] in Mrągowo. Preservation of culture also includes the maintenance of material cultural goods which are no longer found very often in Silesia.
According to article 27 of the Constitution German is of no importance in the business world as an official language. For the German language this means that regulations on consumer protection in Silesia, for example, have to be issued not only in German but also in Polish (see country report). The low status of German however does not imply that the language has no importance for business on local and regional level. Thus German may be required for jobs in commercial enterprises or schools – however, this is only true on a private level. Silesia’s economy is characterised by coal mining which has been undergoing a crisis for several years. Thus about 60,000 jobs in mining and trade based on mining were abolished.
In the 2002 census 196,841 Polish citizens declared using German at home within their families. In the same census 56,426 Polish citizens indicated Silesian as their family language. However, only 147,094 Poles stated German nationality whereas 172,682 persons were of Silesian nationality. Unfortunately, the census did not provide information about the homogeneity of the various groups or the reasons for these changes.
In the Opole district German is currently used by a culturally motivated minority and it can be noted that since 1990 the migration of many people to Germany has a negative influence on the reproduction of the language. Nevertheless, in many regions German speakers are considered to have a higher social status or to be more advanced.
To a great extent the German language minority is Roman-Catholic and attends church regularly. Only in Silesia near Cieszyn there is a majority of Protestant German speakers whose services are mostly held in German. However, the Catholic clergy has a rather low command of German so that many Catholic masses are not said in German (50% according to official and 80% according to minority organisations).
With democratisation setting in, the degree of organisation within the German minority has changed drastically since 1989/1990. Until the end of the 1980s the only official organisation was the Deutsche Sozio-kulturelle Gesellschaft [German Socio-cultural Society] in Walbrzych. With the increasing democratisation of Poland the extent of organisation of the German language minority also increased. There are currently 40 such organisations, many of which are organised within the Verband der deutschen Sozial-Kulturellen Gesellschaften in Polen [Association of the German Social and Cultural Society in Poland] which provides a website containing a list of links with all German-speaking organisations (last update 4/2004) which is regularly updated. The association has more than 200,000 members as well as ten organisations as permanent members and eight as associated members.
The European dimension is considered very important: since Poland has signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, it is widely expected that the country will also ratify the Charter, which will have a positive influence on language policy.
The current situation of the German language minority, as is the case for the other minorities, is marked by a weak position after World War II and a revival due to the democratisation of Poland. However, along with the Ukrainian minority (see language report Ukrainian), the German minority experienced special repressions in Socialist Poland. A current problem is that after the political change of 1989/1990, many German speakers left Poland: this destabilised the demographic basis of the minority. Especially now that Poland has joined the EU, relations between Poland and Germany must be treated sensitively due to the common history of both countries.
The role of the German speakers during the Second World War is still very present both in the minority’s perception of itself and others’ perception of them. This causes ambiguous statements on nationality and language use in the family, for example in the 2002 census.