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Nationalists and Ethnic Minorities in Poland

What happens when great powers redraw the map?

Breslau to Wroclaw, Danzig to Gdansk, Stettin to Szczecin. The transformed names of these central European cities wear their new names like a facelift, the scars of the past a reminder of how much brutality took place in this region. The hard, staccato consonants of the German battling against the hushed nasal tones of the Polish proving that nations and places are not static. 

What if a country just upped and moved? After the World Wars, maps were redrawn across  Europe and the world. Poland gained over 40,000 square miles of German land, from the coal mines of Silesia to the coastline of the Baltic sea, gaining the cities of Breslau, Danzig and Stettin too. In the treaties drawn up by the great powers after Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender, Poland actually lost even more land than they took, mostly agricultural land to its east.

But a map is neither the territory, nor is it reality. A redrawn map is a metaphor, hiding the brutal reality of what happens when borders move. Almost 14 million civilians, mostly women and children, fled for their lives in one of the largest forced migrations in history. The Red Army were coming, and after the cruel fighting caused by the genocidal invasion by the Nazis on the eastern front, they were not in the mood to treat German civilians with dignity. 

Not everyone could escape back to the rump of what we now know as Germany. Men, if not killed, were sent to prisoner of war camps, sometimes for many years. Women and children had a better chance of staying where they were, though a Soviet war correspondent at the time noted that “the Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty.”   

But Germans had been in these territories for hundreds of years, and many remained—an uncomfortable reminder of what had been and what had been done. The German minority in Poland consisted of 148,000 people in 2011, centered in the region of Opole (or Oppeln) in the region of Upper Silesia—before the war, there had been 900,000 Germans in Upper Silesia alone. Hidden behind the pastel buildings and cobbled streets of the market square, there are organizations with long names which aim to promote German culture and German as a minority language, as well as the offices of Ryszard Galla, the representative of the German minority in Poland’s parliament the Sejm. 

After decades of tolerance since the fall of communism in Poland—a period when German-speakers were spied upon, their language forbidden in a forced assimilation process—things are getting harder for them once again. During a reporting trip to Poland, I spoke to many people in German to hear their side of the story. 

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The hard-right nationalist Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS)—a natalist, homophobic force which made abortion illegal and which has led the Polish government continually since 2015—announced in February that constitutionally guaranteed German language classes are being cut in German minority schools, going down from three hours a week to just one. Though this might sound like an innocuous change, it could have serious long term effects, and Poland’s German minority fears the motives driving this and what it could lead to. 

Bilingual Polish/German children’s atlases of Upper and Lower Silesia. Image: James Jackson

“It’s a clear discrimination against the German minority. I never even dreamed that something like this could happen,” said Agnieszka Kała, a German teacher in a local primary school that is threatened with closure if these budget cuts are implemented. “It would be very difficult to undo. It won’t be worth it for the teachers, just teaching one hour a week. In this region there are a lot of German businesses, and the economy sucks up everything German. The teachers wouldn’t come back.” 

“It really is very bad. Thousands of school children will be affected” adds Barbara Loch, a teacher at a bilingual school.    

Kała’s school has faced these existential crises before and was threatened with closure in 2005 when the local government wanted to cut funding, but the village set up an association to fund it. These voluntary associations (Vereine) are common in Germany and among the German minority here. In her village, most people have German roots, but don’t speak German. “We had to start everything from scratch after the fall of communism,” she says. Many of the parents are effectively learning German from their kids. They too, will be impacted. 

“It’s unacceptable that in a democratic country an ethnic minority would be targeted like this. A small war is being waged, and war doesn’t lead to anything good, with small children as victims. But democracy in Poland is quite shaky,” Kała adds. This might sound ironic or even exaggerated given Germany’s history with ethnic minorities and war in the region, but the KWRiMNiE council representing Poland’s minorities (including Poles of Tartar Muslim, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Russian backgrounds among others) agree that this step is discriminatory, and 14 of its 20 sitting representatives have suspended co-operation with the government in solidarity with the Germans. 

“It is difficult to imagine in a democratic state ruled by law that the teaching of one minority would follow different rules than that of other minorities,” they wrote in a statement. “This leads to discrimination on the basis of nationality.”

Muffled criticism has also come from across the Oder-Niessen border, with Germany’s opposition the CDU/CSU calling the move “clear and unacceptable discrimination”. They have asked the federal government to investigate if it goes against the terms of a 1991 Good Neighbourship treaty between the two countries protecting minority rights. 

For their part, Poland’s PiS accuse Germany of reneging on the terms of the treaty by not providing enough support for the Polish language for Germany’s two million Polish residents. PiS claim that they will use half of the funding from educational cuts to support Polish language classes in Germany and set up an educational foundation called the Kolbe Institute to promote Polish culture internationally, similar to Germany’s Goethe Institute or China’s Confucius Institute. 

Przemysław Czarnek, the Polish Education minister who is implementing these policies, is at the same time trying to implement a new—and nationalist—curriculum, which removes the so-called “pedagogy of shame” that talks of Polish antisemitism during the Holocaust and admits that some Poles collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Czarnek prefers to promote a “pedagogy of pride” which emphasizes the number of Poles who helped Jews, risking their lives to do so, as well as those who heroically resisted the Nazis. This follows the government’s criminalization of the phrases “Polish concentration camps” and “Polish death camps”; it points out that the concentration camps were run by Germans in German-occupied Poland, and so Poles shouldn’t be blamed for them. 

But while German cultural organizations in Poland do sometimes take part in these controversial historical debates, much of the work of NGOs like Lernraum.pl and the House of German-Polish Cooperation, both based in Opole is more innocent. It comes in the form of producing bilingual magazines and regional board games to teach children German, or hosting workshops on the teachings of Medieval nun Saint Hildegard and flower arrangement according to the Austrian herbalist Maria Treben. Many of these projects have also had budget cuts, with funding from the German government also being reduced in the wake of the pandemic. 

The Polish city of Opole/Oppeln. The blue and yellow street decorations demonstrate public support for Ukrainians in Poland. Image: James Jackson

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There is more to German-Polish history in Silesia than World War II and the partition of Poland. Various towns in the region had ping-ponged between Polish and Prussian hands as empires rose and fell. The region is an example of entangled history, where areas moved between control under different governments, but often the people and cultures present have remained the same. Stories are told of Schönwald (now Bojków), a Silesian village near Gliwice where they spoke a distinctive Frankonian dialect of German, with settlers said to have come over as far back as the 13th century. When the Red Army arrived, they massacred the inhabitants and sent many of the survivors to internment camps in Russia. 

101 years ago, in the wake of World War I and the re-emergence of Poland as a state under the mustachioed social democrat strongman Marshal Piłsudski, Upper Silesia had a vote. Mandated by the treaty of Versailles, a plebiscite allowed the people of this borderland to vote for which country they wanted to be a part of. Overall, the results went about 60/40 to Germany, with 95% of the voters in Opole voting for Germany. Die Heimat gerettet wrote the Oppelner Nachrichten newspaper at the time: “the homeland is saved.” 

This plebiscite was preceded by two uprisings of local Poles, and in its aftermath came yet another: the great Silesian uprising. Germany had just been demilitarized at Versailles, so the Freikorps came to fight against the Poles. These were the same nationalist militias that had recently killed socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. After two months of skirmishes in a conflict that pit family members against each other, the League of Nations forced a ceasefire and divided up Upper Silesia, with Germany taking the lion’s share but Poland receiving much of the valuable industrial triangle of what is now Katowice, Gliwice, and Bytom. The legacy of these uprisings is still divisive: for PiS, they were early Polish freedom fighters who were commemorated last year with a monument, but the German minority find that commemorating only one side further alienates the Germans. The Mayor of Opole further inflamed tensions by claiming that any monument to German fighters, even those defending then-German towns in Silesia during World War I, would be like remembering the Nazi Wehrmacht, who attacked Poland in World War II. 

In a country that suffered horrendously from the Nazis, and which before was divided between two Germanic empires and Russia for 123 years, it is not hard to imagine that anti-German sentiment is both deeply rooted and a potential vote-winner. PiS are happy to jump on this, and have relished their role as the champions of Europe since Russia attacked Ukraine. Though conflicts between the European Union and Poland on issues of rule-of-law and the environment are long-running, one thing I learned in my time in Poland on a journalism fellowship was that PiS rarely bash “Brussels,” the capital of the EU, as they do in my native England. Their rhetorical target is always Berlin. 

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Michał Matheja, 56, a historian at the Research Center of the German Minority, can recite the results of the Silesian plebiscite county-by-county. He speaks German fluently, but with a noticeable Polish accent. When he was a child he spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who often spoke German with friends who came to visit, but they didn’t teach him Polish. “Back then people were really scared. You could be invited to the secret police for speaking German at home” he tells me after handing me two thick books about the persecution of German speakers under communism published by the Research Center. One tells the story of an old woman who, having lived in a German-speaking region all her life, was unable to learn Polish and kept speaking her mother tongue. She was summoned to the town hall, where she met the mayor, also an ethnic German. The mayor, however, had to summon an interpreter who diligently translated both ways. Not only was this mayor forbidden to speak German in office; he was forbidden to understand it too. 

So the language was practically lost. “There were no German lessons in the primary schools at all—here in Upper Silesia it was forbidden” Michał says. He talks of Grenzvolk in Silesia, border people with a mixed identity, but in “reconquered” Poland the government of the time didn’t see things this way, and pressured many remaining Germans into signing for Polish documents on spurious justifications. “They thought ‘these are our people, they might just be confused and need a bit of help understanding it.’” Michał sees a direct line from this forced post-war Polonisation to today’s school cuts. The better the German minority can speak their own language, the harder it is for Poland’s nationalist government to erase their identity. “And there are still these anti-German resentments, especially in the east, and you can simply get more votes through this. Some politicians are just being cynical while others believe it themselves, and would like that there was no German minority in Poland.”~

Author

  • James Jackson is a freelance journalist and feature-writer based in Berlin. His reporting and commentary have been published in Jacobin, the Financial Times, the Times of London, and elsewhere.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.