ETHNONYMS: Schlesien (German), Silésie, Slask (Polish), Slezko (Czech)
The name "Silesia" refers to a large, lozenge-shaped region in central Europe, mainly in the upper basin of the Oder River, which lies to the northeast of the Sudetic Mountains. The Oder River forms the northeastern border of the territory. Germany lies along its western border, and Czechoslovakia bounds it to the south. Today, this region is treated as two separate entities: Upper Silesia, which is a part of Germany; and Lower Silesia, which is part of Poland. The total number of German-speaking Poles is 1,400,000, but this figure is not broken down regionally. In the city of Opole, around which German-speaking Polish Silesia is centered, 300,000 residents registered themselves as being of German descent in 1990. In Germany's Upper Silesia, Polish speakers number approximately 100,000.
The earliest known inhabitants of Silesia were Celts who came from Bohemia and Moravia around 400 b.c. Later, Germanic and Teutonic tribes (Cimbri, Lugi, and Vandals) entered the territory from the north. One branch of these incoming groups, the Silingi, arrived in the first century a.d. and remained in the region for the next 500 years. These Silingi established permanent settlements and participated in trade relations with the Roman Empire that were maintained until well into the fourth century. The arrival of the Burgundians in a.d. 300 disrupted the trade of the region, but did not succeed in routing the Silingi people. In the sixth and seventh centuries a.d., Slavonic tribes pushed into the region from the east to settle in the fertile lowlands, and by the ninth century the region was exclusively populated by Slavs. The history of the region from this time onward was for centuries the history of wars for territory—fought between Slavs and Teutons, and between Poles and Prussians—so that the region's population came to include Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Moravians, and Wends. In the tenth century it became a wholly Polish possession, but was separated from Poland in 1163 and divided into a number of autonomous duchies ruled by branches of the Polish Piast dynastic family. Because of the custom of partitioning heritable lands practiced by Silesia's ruling families, the region became divided over time into a great many small principalities that were too small to retain their independence. Over two centuries Silesia underwent a gradual process of Germanization and was incorporated into Bohemia in 1355. Religious wars of the early 1400s also left their mark on the region. These wars most often took on the additional character of interethnic hostilities, and they resulted in the plundering and burning of many Silesian cities and towns. In 1526, Silesia became a possession of the Austrian house of the Hapsburgs, who brought a period of relative peace and stability to the area, but the Thirty Years' War again brought destruction to Silesia and forced another period of rebuilding. The First and Second Silesian Wars (1740-1745) resulted in the return of the region to German possession for a time. In 1741-1742, Silesia was conquered by Frederick the Great, and the bulk of historical Silesia was formally ceded to Prussia in 1763. From this date the history of Silesia is split between that of Upper Silesia, by far the larger portion of the territory, which was under Prussian rule, and Lower (Austrian) Silesia, now a part of Poland.
"Silesian," in today's literature, has come to refer to two distinct groups: "Polish-speaking Prussians" and "German-speaking Poles." Both these groups exist as cultural and ethnic minority enclaves within the larger political entity that serves as their host. The Polish-speaking Silesian population in Germany sought throughout the 1800s to maintain a Polish linguistic and religious identity, particularly in the face of the Kulturkampf, launched by Germany in 1872 as an effort to insulate the Reich against regionalism, ethnic nationalism, and Catholicism. In Poland, this development resulted in a closing of Polish ranks against all things German, which had the effect of sensitizing the German-speaking communities of Lower Silesia to their own ethnic and linguistic roots. In both portions of Silesia, the minority populations have, over time, become fully integrated into their respective host economies, but in both cases there remained, and remains, a high level of national consciousness and a will to resist political assimilation.
The two world wars of this century once again visited Silesia with devastation, but of the two conflicts, it was World War II that had the greater impact on Polish Silesia. When the territory was occupied by the Germans during the Nazi conquest of Poland, the German-speaking population found itself briefly raised from the national minority status it had so long known. After World War II, the region was occupied first by Soviet soldiers, later to be returned to Polish control. This postwar period is remembered among Silesians as a time of terror and looting, and the Polish policy of "verification" required that Silesian residents show proof of Polish descent to avoid deportation to Germany. Later there was a great influx of immigrants, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, brought from eastern Polish territories when their lands were ceded to the Soviet Union by the agreements at Yalta. Today, German-speaking Silesians are concentrated in the southeastern part of the region, centering on the city of Opole.
The region is rich in coal reserves, and its economy has long been based upon mining and heavy industry, with some agriculture in the fertile lands of the Oder basin. In Polish Silesia, where the German population's assimilation has been less thorough than that of German Silesia's Poles, the houses and villages retain a distinctly German flavor. The language still spoken in this small territory is derived from a German lexical base modified with Polish endings and incorporating some Czech as well. German ethnic identification here was suppressed under Communist rule, but was never crushed. With the installation of the Solidarity-led Government, there has been a resurgence in expressions of German ethnic identification among Polish Silesians.
Ties with Germany, which were never wholly severed, have been strengthened with the recent relaxation of travel restrictions between Eastern and Western Europe, enabling many young German-speaking Silesians to travel to Germany in search of work. For most German ethnics in Polish Silesia, the recent overthrow of 45 years of Communist rule has brought a sense of renewal and the hope that their German ethnic and linguistic identification may be translated into political gains.
Rose, William (1935). The Drama of Upper Silesia: A Regional Study. Brattleboro, Vt.: Stephen Day.
Wynot, Edward D., Jr. (1974). "The Case of German Schools in Polish Upper Silesia, 1922-1939." Polish Review 19(2): 47-69.
NANCY E. GRATTON