views updated Jun 11 2018


SILESIA. Because of their considerable regional variety, the principalities of Silesia became important locations for power politics, and Silesia played an integral role in the political, economic, and cultural systems within the lands governed by the crown of Bohemia. It is possible to understand many of the integrating and disintegrating trends in European history through the example of Silesia. Its history contains many parallels with the development of Bohemia, but it also has important differences. For a long period the interests of the Piast, Jagiellon, Přemysl (Opava), Luxembourg, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties in the region complicated Silesia's relationship with the Bohemian crown.

In the late Middle Ages the seemingly marginal Silesian territory demonstrated its economic and strategic importance and highlighted the extent of the religious and political changes taking place in the northern part of the Czech state. Many Silesians wielded extraordinary political influence in central Europe (for example, Prince Casimir II, duke of Teschen; Victor, duke of Münsterberg; Frederick II, duke of Legnica; George, duke of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Krnov; George John Brandenburg-Krnov; John II, duke of Opole; Charles, duke of Münsterberg). On the other hand, the princes of Silesia were feudal subjects of the Bohemian king, and at times their differences with the crown drew them into the camp of Bohemia's Czech adversaries. In the sixteenth century a clear turn took place in the policy of Silesian princes and estates in their relations with the kingdom of Bohemia and the margravate of Moravia, leading to various kinds of cooperation. By compromising on religious differences (there was a religious allowance between Catholic Silesia and Hussite Bohemia), Bohemia gradually escaped from its post-Hussite provincial isolation in all spheres of life. In the power struggle against Hungarian and Polish interests, Silesia in the end maintained its constitutional place among the lands of the crown of Bohemia.

The turbulent social and political history of the estates of Bohemia involved Silesia as well. The tensions between the Habsburg Catholic minority and the Protestant opposition of the estates found expression in nearly all of the Silesian principalities, and as a result the traditional hierarchical principles of Bohemian and Silesian society and the rules of political engagement were disrupted. When Ferdinand I mounted the throne of Bohemia in 1526, Silesia was undergoing a wave of religious reformation, which, unlike the Hussite movement, was fully accepted by the majority of the population. A major role in this process was played by certain princes (the Krnov Hohenzollerns and the Piasts of Legnica-Brzeg), who through the descendants of George of Podebrady (ruled 14581471) aspired to the throne of Bohemia. In 1537 they concluded an important family contract with the Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg to secure inheritance and cooperation in protecting the Protestant religion. After 1523 the Breslau town council also introduced Lutheran preachers into the town's churches. Considered politically, these religious changes aligned Silesia with the Bohemian "heretics."

Of the Silesian princes, by the mid-sixteenth century only the bishop of Breslau, resident in Nysa, remained loyal to the Catholic faith, and he mainly concentrated on the struggle with the Polish churchmen in Gniezno to achieve the independence of his diocese. In competition with the Protestant princes, the bishops of Breslau lost their position of power at the turn of the seventeenth century, and it was only after the Thirty Years' War that they regained their preeminence.

After the uprising of the Bohemian estates in 16181620 (the Bohemian War that marks the beginning of the Thirty Years' War), and especially after the Danish units were defeated in Silesia, major social changes erupted, even at the periphery of a Bohemia that was now dominated by Habsburg absolutism, centralism, and Catholicism. The new Silesian power elites were recruited from the bureaucracy, the army, and the imperial court (such as Charles, duke of Liechtenstein; John Weikhard, duke of Auersperg; and Albrecht Wallenstein/Waldstein). For more than a century the tone of political life was set by representatives of these newly successful noble families, who patiently built up their wealth and who even more importantly had no ties to the rebellious and centrifugal noble estates of prewar Silesia-Bohemia.

From the late Middle Ages on, the cultural and religious development of Silesia was strongly influenced by German scholars and artists and by those from other neighboring countries, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Jan Hus. A decisive role was also played by the economic and social network of an area which, along with the regional capital of Breslau, was one of the most important parts of the Czech state. A wide range of religious opinions existed side by side, along with a rich variety in the realms of art and literature based on the cultural maturity of the German, Jewish, Polish, and Czech populations. Silesia's literary and artistic production testified to the fact that its society was open to the outside world, enabling it to contribute considerably to the treasury of European civilization.

The margraves and electors of Brandenburg introduced a split in Silesia during the early modern period. The Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg wanted to rule Lower Silesia and the region of Crossen, while the Ansbach line of the same house struggled to form a family enclave in the territory of Upper Silesia, especially in the regions of Opole, Racibórz, Krnov, Bytom, and Bohumín. The creation of Hohenzollern possessions in Silesia and their stabilization alongside the properties of the Opava Přemysl family, the Saxony Wettins, the Silesian Piasts, and the descendants of King George of Podebrady became a political reality. In the first half of the sixteenth century, it could not have been foreseen that the existence of the Hohenzollern power in the Oder region would become a stepping-stone for Prussian militarist expansion in the eighteenth century under Frederick II and would eventually lead to the division of Silesia after 1740 in the Wars of the Austrian Succession.

See also Bohemia ; Frederick II (Prussia) ; Hohenzollern Dynasty ; Hussites .


Bahlcke, Joachim, ed. Schlesien und die Schlesier. Munich, 1996.

Grünhagen, Colmar. Geschichte Schlesiens. 2 vols. Gotha, Germany, 18841886. Reprint, Osnabrück, Germany, 1979.

Maleczyński, Karol, ed. Historia Śląska. 3 vols. Wrocław, Warsaw, and Cracow, 19611963.

Petry, Ludwig, ed. Geschichte Schlesiens. 2 vols. Sigmaringen, Germany, 1988.

Weber, Matthias, and Carsten Rabe, eds. Silesiographia: Stand und Perspektiven der historischen Schlesienforschung. Würzburg, Germany, 1998.

Radek Fukala


views updated May 29 2018


SILESIA (Czech Slezsko ; Ger. Schlesien ; Pol. Ślask ), region in E. central Europe. The earliest documentary evidence for the presence of Jews in Silesia dates from the 12th century. The first settlers whose names are known owned land near *Breslau; among those who arrived in this period were refugees from the *Crusades. Intensive economic development of the region and its consequent need for money brought about a Jewish monopoly in moneylending. Jewish immigration from Germany throughout the 13th and 14th centuries significantly increased the population and numbers of Jewish communities. Though synodal legislation in Breslau in 1267 sought to limit their contacts with Christians, a privilege of Duke Henry iv in 1270 granted them a measure of autonomy as well as physical protection. Over the course of five centuries, more than 50 Jewish communities were established in Silesia, the largest in Breslau, Brieg (*Brzeg), Glatz, *Glogau, Goerlitz, *Liegnitz, and *Schweidnitz. Their economic activities were productive for the region but nonetheless they helped generate hatred of Jews within the Christian community. A series of fires in Breslau in 1349 and 1360 were blamed on the Jews, and they suffered accordingly. Persecution similarly afflicted Jews during 1362 in Brieg (Brzeg), Guhrau (Gora), Laehn (Wlen), Loewenberg (Lwowek Slaski), and Neisse. In the mid-14th century, jurisdiction over the Jews had shifted to the municipalities, a development that stimulated persecution and frequent expulsions. The community produced a number of significant scholars in the period, among them R. Jacob b. Judah *Weil and R. David of Schweidnitz. Both the *Hussite Wars and the preaching of John *Capistrano took their toll of Jewish communities; as a result of the latter's preaching, the expulsion of the Jews of Breslau, as well as those of Liegnitz and Schweidnitz, took place in 1453 in connection with a trial for desecrating the *Host. By the end of the 15th century there were no Jews in nearly all of Middle and Lower Silesia. In accord with a royal edict of 1582, Jews were also forced to leave Upper Silesia. Only Jews in Glogau (Lower Silesia) and in *Zuelz (Upper Silesia) survived the expulsion, and later on formed the nucleus of the reconstituted Jewish communities of Silesia. Among the significant scholars of the 16th century was R. Benjamin of Silesia, a student of Solomon *Luria and author of Masat Binyamin.

In the 17th century, Jews began to arrive in Silesia once more. After the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) and following the *Chmielnicki massacres in Poland (1648), many Jews fled westward; some settled in Silesia where, in the main, they were proprietors of country taverns. By 1700 there were approximately 200 Jewish families in Silesia, the greater part of whom lived in Glogau and Zuelz (Bialb), while the rest were on the land; some families lived in Breslau and its suburbs, despite extreme opposition from the local citizens. In 1713 the Austrian government introduced a Toleranzsteuer ("tolerance tax") for Silesian Jews. In 1737 there were about 800 such taxpayers in Silesia, in addition to those who, like the Jews of Glogau and Zuelz, were exempt from this tax. After the annexation of Silesia by Prussia (1742) there were 1,100 Jewish families in 1751, who were organized in four communities – the Glogau community, the Zuelz community, the Silesian *Landesjudenschaft, and the Breslau community, founded in 1744. While the Glogauer and Zuelz communities were led by rabbis, the rabbinate of Breslau was united with the Landesjudenschaft. Notable among the Landesrabbiner of this period were Baruch b. Reuben *Gomperz (1733–54) and Joseph Jonas Fraenkel (1754–93). From the end of the 17th century a Jewish printing press operated in *Dyhernfurth, where the Talmud was published.

Economically, Silesian Jewry consisted of three groups: the "Landjuden," who earned their living as lessees and *peddlers; the traders and merchants of Breslau, Glogau and Zuelz; and the privileged class, the wealthiest and most respected group who by their participation in supplying war materials and in the development of manufacture and industry obtained great wealth and at the same time earned the respect of the authorities. This group was also culturally the most advanced. Due to their wealth and influence, despite being a small minority, they occupied leading positions within Silesian Jewry long before the emancipation period. From their ranks came the pioneers of emancipation. In the midst of the internal struggle between traditionalists and proponents of enlightenment, the Prussian edict of March 11, 1812 gave Silesian Jews freedom on the economic and personal level. This law helped Jews even though (as in the rest of Prussia) they found difficulty in following crafts because of the opposition by the guilds. Appointment as a government official was difficult because of the unofficial religious barrier, which allowed only baptized Jews to be given such positions. A census of occupations in 1852 showed that for about 50% the major source of income was commerce, while 10% were to be found in skilled trades, and another 10% in the managing of inns. This division remained fairly unchanged even when Jews could participate in the newly established Silesian industries. On the other hand, the legal position of the Jewish communities, which in 1812 had lost their hegemony, changed. On the basis of the Prussian laws of July 23, 1847, 55 synagogal communities or synagogal districts were created: ten in the administrative area of Breslau, seven in the area of Liegnitz, and 38 in the district of Oppeln (*Opole). In 1888 the Jewish communities of Upper Silesia combined, while the synagogal communities of Lower Silesia, which included the districts of Breslau and Liegnitz, combined in 1897.

With the economic development of the area, the Silesian Jewish population also increased, from 11,500 in 1803 to 52,682 in 1880, which also brought about territorial changes. The community of Zuelz was displaced by the Upper Silesian communities, and Glogau was surpassed by Liegnitz. However, the community of Breslau became by far the most important in Silesia. Silesian Jewry made important contributions to Jewish as well as to German cultural life. Apart from famous rabbis and talmudists, there were also Hebrew writers and maskilim. For German Jewry the Breslau *Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar, founded in 1854, formed a center of Jewish culture and learning, as well as a training school for Jewish theologians.

After emancipation Silesian Jewry played an active part in the intellectual, cultural, and political life around them. One of the first Jewish poets in the German language was Ephraim Moses *Kuh (1731–1820) of Breslau, while one of the first Jewish poetesses in the German language was Esther Gad-Bernard (1770–1820), who was born in Breslau and was a granddaughter of Hamburg's chief rabbi, Jonathan *Eybeschuetz. Among the best-known modern writers from Silesia are Alfred *Kerr, Max *Tau, and Arnold *Zweig. In Silesia's scholarly life, people of Jewish descent played a prominent role. At the University of Breslau there were numerous lecturers of Jewish descent, but Jewish professors were very few in number until the Weimar Republic. Among these were the historian Jacob Caro and the botanist Ferdinand J. *Cohn. In the political parties Jews were especially active in the liberal movements. They were also prominent in political journalism. One of the first leaders of the German trade union movement, Ferdinand *Lassalle, was from Breslau. Among the more famous Silesian Jews or Silesians of Jewish descent were the Jewish historian Heinrich *Graetz, the medical researcher Paul *Ehrlich, the chemist Fritz *Haber, and the explorer Emin *Pasha (Eduard Schnitzer).

In the 20th century the Silesian Jewish community declined, numbers falling from 44,000 in 1920 to 34,000 in 1933. Under the Geneva convention, Jews were included in the minority rights guarantees for Upper Silesia. After the rise of Nazism, the Jewish community appealed to the League of Nations for aid; as a result their situation was better than that of Jewish communities in the rest of Germany. Even so, after 1933 increased emigration took place (see *Bernheim petition). In 1939 the number of remaining Jews was only 15,480, most of whom became the victims of the Nazi regime. Immediately after World War ii, with the incorporation of the whole of Silesia into Poland, the surviving Jewish partners of mixed marriages also left Silesia, and no native Jews remained. In their stead came Jews from Poland and Russia, numbering about 52,000, of whom around 10,000 settled in Breslau (now called Wroclaw). This newly constituted community made use of the Storch synagogue, which had not been destroyed during the war. A Yiddish paper also appeared. Jews also settled in other Silesian cities, among them Liegnitz (Legnica), Reichenbach (Dzierzoniow), and Waldenburg (Walbrzych). With the establishment of the State of Israel, many emigrated there. After the Six-Day War (1967) the majority of Jews left Silesia.


M. Brann, Geschichte der Juden in Schlesien (1896–1917); idem, Die schlesische Judenheit… (1913), I. Rabin, Vom Rechtskampf der Juden in Schlesien (15821713) (1927); idem, Beitraege zur Rechts-und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden in Schlesien im 18. Jahrhundert (1932); M. Krentzberger, Bibliothek und Archiv (1970), 247–51; Theokratia, Jahrbuch des Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum (1970), Bibliographie Bernhard Brilling: 191–220; P. Rosenthal, Bleter far Geshikhte (1961), 3–26; J. Stone, Regional Guarantees of Minority Rights (1933), 35–36, 220–1, 227–33; B. Brilling, in: Zeitschrift fuer Ostforschung, 15 (1966), 60–67; idem, in: mb, 11:6 (1947); 13:32 (1949); M. Rożkowicz, in: Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 50 (1964), 91–99; F. Rosenthal, ibid., 34 (1960), 3–27; S. Bronszytejn, ibid., 47–48 (1963), 59–78.

[Bernhard Brilling]


views updated May 21 2018

Silesia Historic region in e central Europe, now mostly lying in sw Poland, with the remainder in n Czech Republic and se Germany. A former Polish province, it passed from Poland to Bohemia in the 14th century, became part of the Habsburg empire, and was seized by Prussia from Austria in 1742. In World War 2, it was invaded by the Soviet Union, but in 1945 a greater part of the land returned to Poland by the terms of the Potsdam Conference. Upper Silesia is primarily an industrial region of mining and metals, based around Katowice; Lower Silesia, with a milder climate, is more agricultural.