If you’re traveling in southeast Germany, in the area between Berlin and the Dreiländereck where Germany, Poland, and Czechia border one another, you might start to notice a curious phenomenon. In the towns and villages you pass through, signs are written in two languages: German, and a Slavic language that looks a lot like Czech or Polish. Except it’s neither. It’s Sorbian.
Sorbian is a Slavic language indigenous to Germany. To many, that’s a surprise: to the extent people consider minorities in Germany, they tend to focus on the Turkish diaspora or recent immigrants. But the Sorbs have lived in this part of Germany for over a millennium, and despite attempts to force them to assimilate, they have retained their rich and unique cultural heritage. In persevering, they ask important questions about what it means to be a minority in contemporary Europe.
Sorbs, a Slavic minority at the heart of Germany
Chief among these questions is preservation of a distinct national identity. Like other such groups living in Germany, Sorbs have had to contend with a larger society that occasionally embraces — and occasionally rejects — their identity. Sorbs have recently suffered ethnically-motivated attacks, though according to Dr. Hauke Bartels of the Sorbian Institut, assimilation is the “greater danger”. It’s easy to see why he’s worried: the Sorbian national costume is still broadly referred to as the “Spreewaldtracht”, a term invented by the Nazis to “Germanize” an ethnically Slavic tradition.
But German history is Sorbian history, and Sorbs are as much a part of modern Germany as beer and bratwurst. Even the name Berlin does not come from the German word for “bear”, as popularly assumed, but rather the Slavic word for swamp, bestowed upon it by the tribes that settled in the area. One of these tribes was the Sorbs, who left their original settlements north of the Carpathian Mountains and settled in the south-eastern Lausitz region of modern Germany.
Throughout the thousand-plus years following that settlement, the Sorbs suffered wave after wave of oppression and conquest, and saw both their population and geographic footprint shrink. Despite these repressions, Sorbian culture survived, in no small part thanks to neighboring Slavs, particularly in the Czech Republic. “Whenever we’ve had problems, the Czechs have helped”, says Marcel Braumann of the Domowina, a civic society organization dedicated to promoting Sorbian interests in politics and culture.
The history of cooperation with Slavic neighbors dates to 1706 with the founding of the “Wendische Seminar” and continued throughout the 20th century, including after the Second World War when the Czechoslovak state played an important role in preserving Sorbian culture and education in the war’s aftermath. The ties to Slavic neighbors remain important—Dr. Bartels notes that in recent years teachers from Poland and Czechia have helped mitigate a shortage of Sorbian teachers.
An inevitable decline?
Sorbian education is tightly intertwined with the issue of language. The Sorbian population has been declining for decades, from around 166,000 in 1885 to only 60,000 today. Correspondingly, the Sorbian language – which has two dialects, upper and lower – is also threatened, with lower Sorbian “extremely threatened” according to Dr. Bartels. The “loss of speaking areas”, notes Braumann, is one of the greatest challenges Sorbs face.
Nowhere is this felt more acutely than the digital realm: the software and websites that have come to dominate modern life seldom offer support for such a tiny language, so Sorbs are forced to build it themselves – to the extent they are able. For Dr. Bartels, “the danger is that daily culture continues to digitalize, and when the next generation can’t speak Sorbian in this way, they’ll have to speak German or English”.
Despite this threat, Sorbs are optimistic that, in Braumann’s words, “the low point has been passed”. He sees language and culture on the rebound, especially in Upper Lusatia where the birth rate is higher among the region’s Catholics, for many of whom Sorbian is the daily language. Dr. Bartels agrees: “Upper Sorbian is especially strong, because the Catholic Church has taken on such an important role”.
Sorbian is also receiving a makeover for the modern age. Young Sorbs like Matej Zieschwauck of the band Astronawt are committed to showing that “Sorbian is a language of the 21st century”. For Zieschwauck, this means creating contemporary music and music videos – but in Sorbian. Through his work, he’s showing that Sorbs should have every opportunity to enjoy modern culture – from rap to video streaming – in their native language.
Other factors support growing optimism. The Sorbian homeland, the Łužica (German: Lausitz), has historically been a mining center, but falling coal demand has prompted a pivot to new industries. While the loss of mining jobs has hit Sorbian communities hard, they’re no longer losing villages to mine expansion (over a hundred villages have been lost since the start of mining, says Braumann). The German government has provided up to €26 billion to help ease the transition. The shift from coal has also signaled a shift towards an economy that could give Sorbs a distinct advantage: tourism. Once again, the Sorbs’ connections to their Slavic neighbors are an asset, with many visitors coming from Poland and the Czech Republic to enjoy the familiar language and culture.
Building on ethnic tourism
Of course, tourists come from many places and travel for many reasons. Of these reasons, the opportunity to experience an authentic Sorbian festival firsthand plays a key role. Sorbs are well known for their hospitality and their colorful festivals, such as the Osterreiten, which takes place yearly and involves horseback processions from village to village in traditional Sorbian costume. These culturally unique celebrations have been critical in successfully marketing the region’s tourism opportunities to visitors from across the globe.
In addition, there is a renewed focus on education, given how few people are aware of the region’s special heritage. Dr. Bartels points out that “many people have Sorbian names and don’t even know it… almost no city in eastern Germany doesn’t itself have a Sorbian name.” Initiatives like the “Linguistic Landscape Schleife” seek to make visitors aware of the region’s multicultural history. Dr. Bartels adds that “if the Sorbian culture is to play an important role for regional identity, it must be easily available.”
That’s where the work of Braumann and the Domowina come in. Founded in 1912, the Domowina has dedicated itself to advancing Sorbian political and cultural interests—though it is not itself a political party. Braumann himself came back to the region after living elsewhere in Germany in order to help his fellow Sorbs address the issues they face. One of the main issues Braumann has had to come to grips with is the divided nature of the area in which Sorbs live. Their settlement area is split between the federal states of Saxony and Brandenburg, adding layers of bureaucracy and politics that make projects like a language center in Hoyerswerda difficult to get off the ground. But he hopes that with the German government’s focus on reversing the economic effects of coal’s decline, the “Łužica will finally be seen as a single region.”
Sorbs look towards a brighter future
In this regard, Braumann can look forward to building on existing political successes. The former Governor of Saxony, Stanisław Tillich, is a Sorb. Sorbs are active at local and state levels of government, and have also represented parts of Łužica in Germany’s Bundestag. Still, not all political developments are positive. A series of questions recently put to mayoral candidates by the Sorbian community in Hoyerswerda was answered by all major parties except the far-right AfD.
Besides political engagement, the Domowina is also heavily involved in preserving the Sorbian language. Braumann speaks of a need to present a “modern” face to the language: “that’s what we’re mainly working on.” It helps, in his opinion, that the EU supports small languages. Recently, the Domowina has been involved in initiatives including legal protections for the use of Sorbian in workplaces and government. “It’s about being able to use the language in everyday life.” Zieschwauck agrees: “To speak the language daily is the most beautiful thing for a Sorb”.
Speaking to members of the Sorb community, it’s hard not to get the impression that the old narrative of a forgotten and shrinking group is quickly being replaced by that of a newly confident minority finding its place in the border regions of Central Europe. Sorbs, like Braumann, appear to believe that “the time of decline has passed”, and they are looking forward to a better future. What could this future mean for Germany, and for Central Europe as a whole? Given Germany’s influence in the region, the fate of its Slavic minority may be more significant than it would first appear.
As ethnicity continues to play a major role in the politics of the Visegrad Four, it’s worth understanding the experience of a national minority in a neighboring country. Here, the Sorbs have demonstrated, as Dr. Bartels puts it, “an art for combining tradition with an openness towards the future.” And, despite all the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding these questions, Sorbs have shown how to balance pride, tolerance, and success. In the words of Braumann, it’s all about demonstrating that it is “possible to cultivate the language and culture without excluding people from it.” In a time of rising tension, it’s a lesson worth remembering.
By Jefferson Sinclair
Jeff is a freelance writer focused on Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. His work has previously appeared in VoxUkraine and The Daily Yonder. When not writing articles or traveling throughout the region, he works in corporate finance.