Mixed Identities in Upper Silesia

24-10-2003

The constant shifting of Silesia across Polish and German borders over several centuries has created a unique ethnic mix and a regional self-consciousness. The dominant spoken language is a Germanised dialect of Polish. But whatever their ethnic origins, the Silesians themselves have developed a separate identity that borrows liberally from both Polish and German.

Around 180 thousand people in the Upper Silesian province of Opole, southern Poland declare they are ethnic Germans. Over the past 60 years or so the group has survived the downfall of the Third Reich, post-war expulsions and discrimination under communism... because of their ethnicity. But after the fall of communism in 1989, they were able to express their long pent-up feelings of national identity.

Ethnic German revival in the Opole province has led to the opening of the Social and Cultural Association of Germans in Upper Silesia. It groups numerous urban and rural chapters of German unions. Zuzanna Donat Kasiura of the German Association's office in the locality of Gogolin is proud to stress that ethnic Germans hold many provincial offices and parliamentary seats, so they are able to resolve their own problems. She explains what national and regional identity means to Silesian Germans:

"We are Silesians but we are also Germans. A Bavarian, when asked, says he is a German but he lives in Bavaria, which is his homeland - his Heimat. Then comes Germans - the Fatherland. Like for Bavarians, Germany is also our fatherland but Silesia is our homeland - close to our hearts".

Silesia is also close to the hearts of the non-ethnic Germans of Silesia too. Quite many of them, disappointed with the slow pace of economic improvement and arrogance - they say - of the ruling elite in Warsaw are demanding that Upper Silesia be granted autonomy just like some other provinces in the European Union. Twenty-seven year old Bartlomiej Swiderek of the Movement for Silesian Autonomy, set up in 1991, says in a recent regional census the Movement was given proof of support by over 170 thousand local people, who declared they were neither German nor Polish but Silesian.

"It's not any succession, it's not any struggle for national or ethnic purity of the region. What we want to achieve is the welfare of the people who live here in the region".

Like his German Silesian neighbours, Bartlomiej Swiderek says the love of tradition, the Silesian tongue and family bonds are the main components of his regional identity. But what exactly is the difference today between the two communities, which share the same turbulent history, and the same homeland? A leading sociologist from the Opole University Danuta Berlinska explains:

"German Silesians are a well organized group and German identity is used in public life to demand some rights. Silesians identity is private identity realized on the level of community. We have now multiple identities. People can acquire different cultural codes or core values and they can identify it with different cultures and different ethnic groups".

History has left a residue of prejudice - even today, some local people, chiefly immigrants from other parts of Poland, resent ethnic German revival on Polish soil. But these 9-year old Silesians girls, who sing in their native language, have no quarrel with any nation. They simply know that there are good and bad people in this world.

24-10-2003