Silesians

Silesians

The term Silesian refers to four distinct ethnic groups that are closely associated with the territory of Silesia, which is de-fined as the area from the Oder River (from its sources in the Tatra Mountains) to, roughly, its conjunction with the Lusa-tian Neisse. Since 1945, when the borders of Poland were significantly revised, al-most all of Silesia has been within Poland. (There is some discussion about whether the land immediately west of the Lusatian Neisse, which lies within Germany, should be considered a part of Silesia or of Lusa-tia.) Moving from west to east, Lower Sile-sia, extending from the Lusatian Neisse to approximately the Glatzer Neisse, was in-habited until 1945 by monolingual speak-ers of German, the descendants of medieval settlers from western German territories. Most of this population was Lutheran, though some were Roman Catholic. They were displaced to the two Germanies fol-lowing the end of World War II; their de-scendants maintain ethnic organizations devoted to culture and politics there.

At the same time, Poles displaced from terri-tories absorbed into the Soviet Union set-tled in Lower Silesia. Some members of the postwar generations now claim Sile-sian as their regional identity, while oth-ers identify simply as Polish. East of the Glatzer Neisse, Silesia can be divided into two further regions, Opole Silesia, centered on the city of Opole, and Upper Silesia, centered on the city of Katowice (German sources usually conflate the two, while Polish sources distinguish them). Silesians in both regions are multilingual, with distinct dialects of Polish, German, and standard Polish in use. These Sile-sians share the Roman Catholic faith of their Czech and Polish neighbors. Exten-sive emigration to the industrial heart-land of western Germany has resulted in a substantial diaspora of Opole Silesians and Upper Silesians there. Because ethnic identification is a vexed issue for all four groups, it is not possible to estimate the number of members of any one of them; however, their combined population does not exceed several million.

The multilingual population of contem-porary Opole and Upper Silesia traces its origins to West Slavic-speaking peoples who inhabited Silesia prior to the first consolidation of Poland as a kingdom, under the Piast dynasty in the 10th cen-tury. Silesia came into a western politi-cal orbit when Casimir the Great reunified Poland and ceded Silesia to the Bohemian sovereign, John of Luxembourg (1339). Silesia thus became Czech, which in turn became Austrian (in 1526); from 1740 to 1742, Prussia wrested Silesia from Aus-tria in the War of the Austrian Succession. This was one of the first political moves by which Prussia consolidated territories into what became modern Germany. Prior to the 10th century, Lower Silesia was also populated by West Slavic speakers; how-ever, the Piast monarchs as well as their Czech, Austrian, and Prussian successors all encouraged immigration from western German territories, and German-speaking communities slowly replaced Slavic ones from the west eastward.

The replacement of Slavic speakers slowed in the mid-18th century, and did not extend into the eastern reaches of Silesia (Opole and Upper Sile-sia). However, the eastern, Slavic popula-tion came under heavy German influence with the development of industry, rail transportation, primary education, and military service.The German-speaking Silesians of Lower Silesia slowly developed their own, distinct dialect of German. The West Slavic Silesian dialects are considered transitional Polish-Czech dialects at base, sharing enough defining characteristics with Polish that they are usually classified as Polish dialects. However, by the early 20th century they exhibited heavy Ger-man influence in vocabulary and grammar; Silesian-German bilingualism had also become almost universal by then. Since 1945, many of these German words have been replaced by standard Polish words, and standard Polish has been added to the linguistic repertoire.

The boundary between multilingual, Slavic Silesians and monolingual, German Silesians largely corresponded to a Roman Catholic/Lutheran divide, and this had im-plications for folk practices and dress. When the monolingual German-speaking population was displaced and replaced by monolingual, and Roman Catholic, Pol-ish speakers, the significant differences became those concerning folk Catholic practices, cultural attitudes toward house-hold and agricultural management, and language. In the east, the boundary be-tween Opole Silesians and Upper Silesians formed, and continues to focus, on differ-ing economic bases: Upper Silesians are industrial workers and city dwellers, while Opole Silesians rely on a mixed econ-omy of industrial work, agriculture for subsistence and a local market, and service sector work.

Since the mid-18th century, both groups have engaged in labor migra-tion and emigration to western Germany, and continue to do so. There are also lin-guistic differences between Upper Silesian dialects and Opole Silesian dialects that are significant enough to inhibit communi-cation, though the similarities are obvious enough that speakers of both sets of dia-lects easily recognize the other as Silesian. Additionally, the fact that Upper Silesia was awarded to Poland after World War I, while Opole Silesia remained in Ger-many, has meant that Upper Silesians tend to see Silesian identity within the context of Polish identity, and to focus their politi-cal energies on attaining greater regional autonomy within Poland; Opole Silesians, on the other hand, tend to see their iden-tity as an inherently mixed one, and to focus their energies not only on Silesian distinctiveness, but also on maintaining their cultural, linguistic, and political ties to Germany.

In the immediate postcom-munist period, this emphasis on continuing ties to Germany led to considerable inter-ethnic tension in Opole Province between indigenous and postwar immigrant popula-tions; however, close cooperation between the German consulate and the provincial government with regard to public educa-tion and reassurance avoided the escala-tion of this tension beyond harsh words and graffiti. In Opole Silesia and Upper Silesia, the boundary between Silesians and Poles is also reinforced by the greater mobility within the European Union af-forded to Silesians by virtue of dual Polish- German citizenship. This high rate of dual citizenship among Silesians places them in a different relationship to the immigration and labor migration laws of Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, to cite three preferred destinations.

Elizabeth Vann

Further Reading

Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland . New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Mach, Zdzisław. “Case Study: Migration to a Deserted Land.” In Symbols, Conflict and Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, 184 –210.

Rose, William. The Drama of Upper Silesia.Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Daye Press, 1935.

Tooley, T. Hunt. National Identity and Weimar Germany: Upper Silesia and the Eastern Border, 1918–1922 . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.