Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2011 census, there were 74,464 Germans in Poland who cited German as their primary nationality, and 147,814 as their primary or secondary nationality. However, some estimates have put the size of German community in Poland as much higher, with some suggesting the total could be closer to 350,000.
On the eve of World War II, there were about 1 million ethnic Germans within Poland’s borders, who made up 3.5 per cent of the country’s population. The German territories, east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, over which Poland gained control after the war, had been inhabited before 1939 by some 10 million people. The dispossession and expulsion of Germans after the war led to tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths, as affected Germans lacked shelter and food. There is no agreement on the number of Germans who were left in Poland after the end of the mass transfer of the German population in 1945–49. During the 1950s, the Polish authorities maintained that no more that 250,000 ethnic Germans remained in Poland, while West German sources put the size of the minority at 1.7 million people.
This discrepancy is partly explained by the fact that many ethnic Germans were viewed by the Polish authorities as ‘autochthones’ – original inhabitants of the region whose equivocal ethnicity qualified them as prospective Poles. Bilingualism and mixed family background had always been common in the borderlands.
Some 290,000 people were allowed to resettle in Germany between 1956 and 1959 under a family reunion scheme. Polish authorities used these transfers as a justification for the closure of all German-language schools, church services, newspapers and radio broadcasts. From about 1960, Poland denied the continued existence of a German minority within its borders. Following the normalization of relations between Poland and West Germany in 1970 to 1990, about 970,000 people were allowed to leave Poland.
From 1989, Germans were able to reassert their ethnic identity in a new political climate. The Polish–German Treaty of Good Neighbourhood and Cooperation, signed in July 1991, inter alia secured the right of ethnic Germans ‘freely to express, preserve and develop their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity, both individually and collectively’.
In the 1991 parliamentary elections, the German minority secured seven seats in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, and one in the Senate.
The Federation of German Socio-cultural Associations, the main German organization, is represented in 16 of Poland’s 49 provinces. Following October 2007 elections, there was only one German representative in the Sejm, and none in the Polish Senate.
In both the 2011 and 2015 elections one German representative in the Sejm was retained.
Updated March 2018