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Sorbs in Germany

  • Profile

    The Sorbian people (Sorbisches Volk / Serbski ludis the official designation of the Sorbian community in Germany. Sorbs are the smallest Slavic ethnic group and are concentrated in the region known as Lusatia, administratively divided between the Federal States of Saxony (Upper Lusatia) and Brandenburg (Lower Lusatia). The number of Sorbs is estimated as approximately 60,000, with two thirds located in Saxony and the remainder in Brandenburg.  

    There are two closely related Sorbian languages, the Upper Sorbian (hornjoserbšćina) spoken in Saxony and the Lower Sorbian / Wendish (dolnoserbšćina) spoken in Brandenburg. There is also the Schleife/Slepo dialect (Slepjanska narěč/Slěpjańska narěc) spoken in the northern parts of Saxony adjacent to Brandenburg, which is considered a transitional vernacular between the two Sorbian languages. The number of the speakers with a good command of the two languages is estimated at just over 30,000 speakers, with around 25,000 speakers of Upper Sorbian and at most 7,000 speakers of Lower Sorbian, making the latter critically endangered. The southern areas of Sorbian settlement are dominated by agriculture, while the northern are regions characterised by the brown coal open-cast mining industry. The Roman Catholic areas in Upper Lusatia are considered to be the stronghold of Sorbian language and identity: the number of Roman Catholic Sorbs is estimated as 15,000 persons, who mostly live in rural areas.  

    Historical context

    The first records about the ancestors of today’s Sorbs in the territory of Germany dates back to 1,500 years ago. At that time the area dominated by Slavic tribes was much bigger than today and stretched through the territory of the former German Democratic Republic and some adjacent areas in Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Over the centuries the territory shrank due to wars and assimilation policies. 

    The territory of Sorbs was divided in 1815 between Saxony and Prussia. From then on, the Sorbian language area decreased, while the effect of Germanization policies increased. One of the oldest Sorb associations is the academic society Maćica Serbska/Maśica Serbska, which was founded in 1857. In 1912, Domowina was founded; it is based in Bautzen/Budyšin and serves as an umbrella organization of various Sorbian organizations, as well as the body which represents the community in its relations with the authorities and other entities in Germany and abroad.  

    After the First World War there were calls for an independent Lusatia, or for the territory to be incorporated into Czechoslovakia. Germanization became an overt form of repression under the Nazis, who refused to recognize Sorbs as anything but Slavic-speaking Germans. Maćica Serbska/Maśica Serbska was banned in 1937 and revived only in 1991. There was renewed action for separation after the Second World War, but this was denied. The right of Sorbs to equality and their culture was written into the Constitutions of Saxony and Brandenburg in 1948. The governments put up bilingual signs and financed Sorbian language schools.  

    Many Germans expelled from territories incorporated into post-war Poland were resettled in Lusatia and the proportion of Sorbs in the region consequently decreased. The decline of agriculture and rural communities further contributed to the erosion of Sorb culture – so did reunification of East and West as rising unemployment caused many Sorbs to leave their homeland.  

    The German Unification Treaty of 1990 upheld Sorbian rights, including their right to use their language in court. However, legislative texts and legal documents are not published in Sorb. In 1991 the governments of Saxony and Brandenburg passed schools acts providing uniformity in their approach to the two state governments set up departments of Sorbian Affairs. In 1991, the Foundation for the Sorbian People (Sorbian: Załožba za serbski lud) was set up with the support of the federal and state governments to help prevent the decline of the culture.  

    The Roman Catholic Church has played a major role in keeping Sorbian language and culture vibrant in the post-war years.  

    Current issues

    The umbrella organization of the Sorbian people is the Domowina – Federation of Lusatian Sorbs (Domowina – Zwězk Łužyskich Serbow / Domowina – Zwjazk Łužiskich Serbow). It is a legally recognized representative of this minority in its relations with the state authorities at various levels, as well as with other entities in Germany and abroad. The Domowina is involved in the work of the Minority Council of the four national minorities of Germany as the representative of the Sorbian people. 

    The Sorbian area of settlement (Serbski sydlenski rum / Serbski sedleński rum) is legally defined by the laws of the Lands of Saxony and Brandenburg. In these areas, Sorbian languages have co-official status along with German (Upper Sorbian in Saxony and Lower Sorbian / Wendish in Brandenburg). In public administration Sorbian is used by Sorbs and others involved in Sorbian affairs at the federal level and state levels. In local administration, the use of Sorbian depends on the proportion of Sorbian-speakers in the relevant administrations. However, according to Domowina, a significant part of the population is unaware of their right to use Sorbian. There is no use of Sorbian in the law courts because most Sorbs speak German and legal and commercial documents are not routinely issued in Sorbian. Sorbian culture is supported by the governments of the Federal States of Brandenburg and Saxony. However, Sorbian is not a business language and its use in business is confined to local communities.  

    Access to Sorbian-language education is provided from nursery level to higher education and teacher training, with a number offering it as a language of instruction and others include it as a voluntary subject only. Instruction about Sorbian culture is now given at some adult education centres. The University of Leipzig has an Institute of Sorbian Studies and offers undergraduate and Masters degrees in Sorbian. However, according to Domowina, Sorbs face lack of teachers and are, therefore, dependent on alternative education models to train them in sufficient quality. Official 2016 data suggested that in Saxony alone, 99 new teachers will be needed by 2025 to maintain the Sorbian school system at its current level. 

    Sorbs have their own media. This includes daily Serbske Nowiny in Upper Sorbian and weekly Nowy Casnik in Lower Sorbian with some texts in German, as well as several periodicals published fully or partially in Sorbian. Domowina publishes books in Sorbian. The state governments also subsidize theatre productions in Sorbian as well as cultural and musical events in Lusatia and elsewhere in Germany. Their main organization for promoting Sorbian culture is the Foundation for the Sorbian People (Sorbian: Załožba za serbski lud), based in Bautzen/Budyšin. 

    The northern parts of the Sorbian area of settlement have long been affected by brown coal open-cast mining, which has at times involved resettlement of Sorbian villages: some 100 villages are estimated to have been destroyed and 20,000 people displaced during the 20th century to accommodate mining. The environmental and cultural impacts on the Sorbian community have been very destructive. Germany’s commitments to abolish coal-based power will therefore have direct implications for the Sorbian population: notwithstanding the considerable benefits a halt in mining will bring the area, the resulting shift in the structure of the regional economy will require the authorities to maintain and develop adequate infrastructure and jobs in order to avoid a mass outflow of the younger population from the region. This issue is currently being discussed by the involved stakeholders, including the federal authorities and the governments of Brandenburg and Saxony. The Domowina is a part of this debate to ensure further promotion of the Sorbian culture, traditions and language in the areas directly affected by these structural changes.  

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