The Sorbs

I’d heard of Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken by a minority in what was then the GDR, while I was studying for my uncompleted PhD. But I didn’t know much about them nor exactly where they lived.

But now I’ve just been in Cottbus in Lower Lusatia (Niederlausitz), about 130 km south-east of Berlin and seen the dual language street names, which whetted my appetite to learn more.

My sole source so far is a detailed description on Wikipedia, which provides a number of additional sources that I shall investigate (almost all the information below is from that source).

The Sorbian speaking population live in Upper and Lower Lusatia, each region having its distinct Sorbian dialect, the lower Lusatian containing more imported words from German. Practically all, if not all, Sorbs speak German as well and there are now many people of Sorbian origin, especially in Lower Lusatia (the region around Cottbus), who no longer understand Sorbian. Among religious Sorbs, Lutherans predominate in Lower Lusatia and Roman Catholics in Upper Lusatia.

The pressure on the Sorbs to assimilate increased in the nineteenth century, especially after the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, reaching a peak in the Nazi period, which denied the existence of the Sorbs as a distinct Slavic people but regarded them as Sorbian-speaking Germans. According to Wikipedia, this substantially spared them from ethnic cleansing although expressions of Sorbian culture were still sharply discouraged, organisations closed down and individuals persecuted. Checking on another source about the Sorbian writer Mina Witkojc (1893 to 1975), she was prohibited from exercising her profession (berufsverbot) by the Nazis.

In the post-war period under the GDR, the Sorbs were able to re-establish the Domowina, a political and cultural organisation serving as an umbrella organisation for Sorbian associations.  However, there were points of conflict relating to resistance to collectivisation of agriculture and religious practices. Wikipedia mentions an open uprising at Blot but gives no details.

The development of open cast mining of lignite (brown coal) affected the area where the Sorbian speakers lived, leading, among other things, to the abandonment of villages.

The number of Sorbs is given as 145,000 in 1945 and 40,000 today indicating a substantial decline in the past seventy five years (although perhaps the 1945 figure should be treated with caution, given conditions in Germany at that time). I have also seen larger estimates of the number of Sorbs today up to 60,000-80,000 (presumably hard to estimate exactly as the overwhelming majority are German citizens so the numbers are an estimate of cultural and linguistic affiliation).

A long-standing demand of Sorbian organisations is for the Sorbs to be united in one administrative area, for example in one federal state. At present, they are divided between two federal states, Upper Lausatia in Saxony and Lower Lausatia in Brandenburg. This administrative division goes back at least to the Congress of Vienna (1815) when Lausatia was divided between Saxony and Prussia.

These calls have not been heeded by the German government after re-unification, regardless of the Sorbs status as a recognised national minority.

The Sorbs have also been historically known as Lusatians or Wends. I’m not sure of the exact definition of Wends but it does not seem to refer to a specific people but to be a general term referring to people of  Slavic origin living in close proximity to the German-speaking population.

The term Sorb seems to be related to the word Serb, the Serbs apparently being referred to in Sorbian as South Sorbs (I’ve not checked this).

Before the second World War, there was once a much more complicated patchwork of interspersed nationalities in Germany and Eastern Europe. However, despite the activities of the Nazi regime, there are still at least remnants of numerous groups left. I’d like to learn more about these, among others the Sorbs and the Kashubians in Poland.

There is some material available in English. Gerald Stone’s book from 2015 “Slav Outposts in Central European history” looks like a good starting point. Much more is available in German. Works by Mina Witkojc mentioned above, who has been translated from Lower Sorbian to German but also by Jan Skala, who was active in an organisation for national minorities in Germany before it was dissolved by the Nazis. There’s a book about him “Jan Skala – ein Sorbe in Deutschland” by Peter Kroh from 2009.

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