Sorbs of East Germany

Alternative name: Wends
Location: Lusatia in the German Democratic Republic (DDR)
Population: 70,000 (est.)
% of population: 0.4%
Religion: Catholic
Language: Sorb, German

The Sorbs, formerly known as Wends, are the indigenous inhabitants of Lusatia (German: Lausitz) — a region situated about 80 kilometres to the south-east of Berlin on the borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia. They are the survivors of the Slavonic tribes which once occupied most of the territory between the Elbe and the Oder and are related to the Poles and Czechs. Despite their small numbers, never more than a few hundred thousand, and lacking political status since the eleventh century, they have been a clearly recognizable ethnic group throughout their history.

Invaded by Germans, Poles and Czechs, they survived the religious conflicts of the Reformation. Divided between Saxony and Prussia by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars, the Sorbs failed to develop the same degree of national consciousness as most other Slavonic peoples and remained a largely rural population throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. A major event in their history was the opening in 1904 of the Serbski Dom, the headquarters and library of the Macica Serbska, Lusatia’s principal cultural organization, which soon became the principal symbol of national pride.

After World War I, during which many Sorbs had served and died in great numbers, many believed that the defeat of Germany meant independence for all minorities who had been under Prussian control. However despite Czech demands for Sorbian independence at the 1919 Peace Conference, the Sorbs were not mentioned in the final treaties. Under the Weimar Republic every opportunity was taken to strengthen the German elements in Lusatia. With the rise of Hitler, the minority’s institutions were closed down and, in 1935, publications in Sorb were banned. Only Catholic publications were allowed due to the Nazi Concordat with the Vatican. The contents of the Macica Serbska were confiscated and private Sorbian books seized and burnt. Many intellectuals and public figures were arrested and some sent to concentration camps. During World War II, there were plans to transplant the entire community but the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad before they could be implemented.

In the wake of the Soviet advance, a Sorbian National Council was set up in Prague demanding political independence for Lusatia, a seat in the United Nations, Sorb language schools and land reform. The first Sorb newspaper was published in 1946 and the first Sorb-language secondary school opened in the following year.

The government of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), since 1948, has clearly done a great deal to protect the identity of the minority: the principle of the “Law for the Protection of the Sorbian Population’s Right”, passed on March 23 of that year, providing for instruction in Sorb, has not been fundamentally changed. There are many schools with Sorb as the language of instruction at all levels, and a course in the language and history of Lusatia at Karl Marx University in Leipzig. The constitution of the DDR (Article 11, October 7, 1949, and Article 40, April 6, 1968) states that the Sorbs’ development must not be hindered but encouraged in every possible way and these guarantees exist de jure and de facto. Sorb is specifically authorized in local government, in law and in all official documents, while Sorbs can again use their original names which were banned under the Nazis. The State Council has one statutory Sorbian member, while there are four Sorbian deputies in the Volkskammer, nine in the Council of Dresden and 18 in Cottbus. The Ministry of the Interior has a special department for Sorbian affairs.

Sorbian culture has continued to flourish with many books in Sorbian published. There is also a professional theatre company and a daily newspaper in Sorb, as well as a variety of magazines. The language is rarely heard on television but some 25 hours a week are broadcast on radio. The Domowina sponsors concerts, films, plays and folk evenings, sporting events, exhibitions and festivals.

However, a gradual assimilation is taking place and numbers have declined from 166,000 in 1868 to about 70,000 according to official DDR figures (West German sources give a lower figure). The language is much better preserved in country areas than in towns, especially in Upper Lusatia. Bautzen, a town with about 45,000 inhabitants, now has only a thousand Sorb-speakers and most of its other areas are linguistically mixed. Many of the Germans expelled after the war from territories beyond the Oder-Neisse line and from the Sudetenland were re-settled in Lusatia with profound effects on the linguistic composition of the area. German workers continue to be attracted there by the development of brown coal resources. The highest concentration of Sorbs is around Kamenz, still a predominately Catholic village. In central areas the process of Germanization is complete: where the language survives at all in these parts it is usually spoken by the old. How Jong the remaining Sorb speakers will be able to preserve their identity is a matter for speculation.