Poland: The rise of an “unexpected” minority

From the ashes of the Second World War, Poland – which for previous few centuries was home to about a dozen nationalities – emerged as a one-nation state. Yet with the fall of Communism, members of one “ethnically distinct group” – the Silesians – started to pronounce their own identity as different from Polish ethnic model. Is Poland ready for this?

Foto: Creative Commons/ Krzysztof Duda


The list of potential demands from new minorities can be long. Bilingual street names and classes at school? Regional autonomy and local governance of economy and finances? There are no answers to these questions yet. But even more important is the question about the attitude of the majority of Poles to these emerging issues. For example, are Poles ready to tolerate the sudden appearance of a strong minority which potentially can become a major power in the industrialized Silesian region? And how much of this “emancipation” are they prepared to accept?

The Holocaust, the post-war expulsion of Germans, and the influx of Poles from the “Eastern Borderland” (so-called Kresy) taken by the Soviet Union, reduced the number of “aliens” in Poland to some 3-4 percent of the population. The new situation may require big changes – not just in law, but also in social attitudes.

Law and identity: what we can declare

No census held in Poland between 1946 and 2002 asked respondents about their nationality and when this question was finally asked (in the censuses of 2002 and 2012), the effects seemed to many quite shocking. True, Poland is still a one-nation state, as the entire number of non-ethnic Poles is still close to 3 percent. But the two largest groups on the list of declared nationalities turned out to be communities that are not even officially recognized as minorities in Poland – namely, the Silesians and the Kashubians, two nations living historically on the Polish-German cultural border. They are treated by Polish authorities as “distinctive identity groups” but the authorities refuse so far to grant the legal status of nationhood. And the number of both “illegal nations” is growing rapidly. Eleven years ago, 173,153 Polish citizens declared themselves Silesians and 5,062 Kashubians. Last year, the numbers were 846,719 for Silesians and 232,547 for Kashubians. Part of the reason for such a high number is methodology: the census of 2012 for the first time allowed for a person to declare a double nationality. Thus over 92 percent of Kashubians declared themselves last year also as Poles. In the case of the Silesians, however, the picture is completely different: only half of them declared themselves simultaneously as Poles.

The relations between ethnic Poles and Kashubians seem to be relatively good – only a marginal part of Kashubian activists propose “separation from the Polish culture” and even the current Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, is Kashubian. The seaside region near Gdańsk inhabited by Kashubians is marked by bilingual place- and street-names, which apparently are no problem for the local ethnic Poles.

Silesians: aims and expectations

Silesians have chosen a different approach than Kashubians. For many years, despised by authorities in Warsaw as “camouflaged Germans,” they decided – or at least a significant part of them did – to be more radical in their demands. In the early 90s, they asked for Silesian autonomy (with its own treasury, parliament and prime minister), a status they claim to have enjoyed in the years 1920-39. The autonomy granted to Silesians between the First and the Second World War was, however, only a political manoeuvre of the Warsaw government, trying to attract the loyalty of Silesians, torn between Germany and Poland. A similar offer was earlier proposed to the Silesians by Berlin. Yet in the turmoil after the First World War (which saw three consecutive pro-Polish uprisings, where often young men fought against their own fathers and brothers) and due to general aversion towards Germans, about two-thirds of the Upper Silesia was granted by the Treaty of Versailles to Poland. An independent Upper Silesia, as pproposed by some Silesians, was rejected as an unrealistic idea by the Allies.

Perhaps the most bitter words to Poles were those pronounced by one the leaders of the “Silesian renaissance,” Jerzy Gorzelik, referring to the famous opinion of David Lloyd George, British prime minister in the years of 1916-1922, who said: “Giving Silesia to Poland is like giving a watch to a monkey.” Gorzelik commented on it: “Now, after 80 years, it is obvious that the monkey broke the watch.” The sense of being exploited by Poland, which used Upper Silesia mainly as a source of coal,  without investing in its future, is strong among Silesians, inhabitants of a land that used to be a “jewel in the crown” and is nowadays plagued by unemployment and poverty. Some of the statements of Warsaw-based politicians seem to give a good ground for such belief. Radosław Sikorski, for instance, who is currently the foreign minister of Poland and a member of the ruling liberal party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska PO), said in 1996 that: “”Poland would have been easier to reform if its exhausted industrial regions like Silesia could have been abandoned.” Today he probably regrets his words; nevertheless, he said then what many politicians and common people in Poland think, which doesn’t help to reconcile the two nations.

In the last local elections in 2010, the autonomists won 8.5 percent of the vote in the whole Upper Silesia region, the largest conurbation in Poland, inhabited by about 3 million people. Their organization – the Silesian Autonomy Movement (Ruch Autonomii Śląska RAŚ), set up in 1990 – managed to attract even some ethnic Poles who live in Silesia and are proud of their region. Some RAŚ activists are known for their good relations with the currently governing Civic Platform, so a future coalition of the two in the local Silesian government seems quite likely, especially if RAŚ manages to gain more votes in the next local elections.

National opinion polls show, however, that the leader of the next parliamentary elections in 2014 could be from the xenophobic and conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS) party, which – at least for now – does not seem to be willing to enter any cooperation with Silesian autonomists. The leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, said once publicly that Silesianhood is de facto “a German option,” which most Silesians considered an insult. If PiS manages to form a  government in 2014, the relations between Warsaw and Silesia will probably sour. Which, paradoxically, is only likely to produce more Silesians – local inhabitants, often of vague or none-Silesian ethnic origin, who are simply tired of being treated by Polish authorities as second-class citizens, inhabitants of a post-industrial region which by many Poles is believed to cause more and more economic, ecological and infrastructural problems.

The Silesian case and its German aspect

Identification with Germans and the accusation by the authorities of collaborating with Hitler’s Germany in the years of the Second World War was an efficient muzzle for any Silesian activism in communist Poland. In 1945 and subsequent years, Polish authorities put many people known for their Silesian background in prisons or forced labor camps, often installed in the very same facilities set up by the Nazi regime. Many such prisoners died, including women and children. Estimates vary from several thousands to several tens of thousands – and it is only in the last years that they have been commemorated.

Most Silesian activists distance themselves from Germany and German heritage. The German minority in Poland – 147,814 persons in the last census, out of which almost 64,000 declared also Polish nationality – inhabits mostly the region of Opole, to the west of Upper Silesia and has problems of its own. In 1990, their candidate was close to winning a seat in the Polish senate and only a concerted and panicked campaign managed to provide enough support for an ethnically Polish candidate to win. For most Silesians, however, relying on German heritage is not an option – their identity was born in the process of confronting both the German and the Polish cultures.

Many Silesians have family members or friends living today in Germany – they migrated there either at the end of the Second World War or in the economically difficult communist times. Their number is difficult to estimate, as German censuses used the category ‘people born in Silesia,’ regardless of their ethnicity. In 1970, there were some 2.4 million such “Silesians.” With a sizeable Silesian community in Germany, the issue has the potential to become an international one.

How to say it?

Currently, one of the most acute problems is the status of the Silesian language, officially not-recognized as a separate language by the Polish authorities, who claim it is only a dialect or a mixture of Polish and German. Unlike in the case of Kashubian (which is recognized by linguists and politicians as a separate language), in Upper Silesia you do not see bilingual street names (although you will find them in many privately owned shops and businesses). Nor can you run classes at school in the local language.

This deficiency is, however, quickly being made up for by Silesian language enthusiasts. There is a rapidly growing number of Silensian-language books, newspapers and even radio stations, and websites. In 2000, a major part of the  Bible was translated into Silesian and is available to readers in bookstores and book-stands organized in some Catholic churches, which also hold services in Silesian. A group of Silesian University academics plans to translate into the local language major works of world literature, starting with the Greek tragedies. They lack funds for their activities and must conduct their work as a personal hobby.

With the further progress of the “Silesian phenomenon,” the problem of financing will most likely play a more important role. One of RAŚ’s demands is the creation of a local tax collection system, which would retain most of the revenues collected locally sending only a fraction of them to the state treasury. Currently, almost all revenues are transferred to Warsaw, and local authorities obtain only a marginal part of them, including property and road taxes. This idea is, for the moment, absolutely unacceptable to any of major Polish political parties. But, if the process of self-identification of Silesians keeps going with the current pace, in 10 or 15 years these could be very real problems which any authority in Warsaw will have to approach seriously.

Stanisław Tekieli

Stanisław Tekieli

is a journalist, translator and researcher, specializing in ethnic issues in Central and Eastern Europe. He is a former head of the Central European department of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland.