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Fate of Isolated Minorities: Lusatia - Podlachia

Bìchmy, smy... Bud¼emy! (We Were, Are… Will Be!)

I. Rjana £u¾ica (Lusatia, the Beautiful )
Lusatia is located in the north-eastern corner of Germany; it is the place where two great currents of European civilization meet — Germanic and Slavic. Life in the borderland, at the crossroads, had a strong influence on the historical fate of the local native people, of the Lusatian Serbs (also known as Sorbs or Lusatians). Located on the western edge of Slavdom, they have not managed to gain independence or any kind of political autonomy. Today Lusatian Serbs, a people with a 500-year old literary tradition, number only about fifty thousand. And even this small splinter of a once great nation may become completely germanized in the course of few generations. True enough, such dire warnings have been expressed for several centuries, throughout the Lusatians’ ”German” history until today. Unfortunately, these fears have found no empathy on part of authorities; over time the number of Lusatian Serbs has inevitably decreased, and the territory of their settlement has shrunk to a few relatively small Slavic islands surrounded by a sea of German culture.

Observing this situation , one is struck by the thought that a similar fate may meet the Belarusians as well. At this point, one begins to grasp, that, in order to save a people, preserving their national identity including language may not be sufficient. Just as important is the opportunity for development within the boundaries of a national administrative and territorial unit.

II. Parallels of Lusatia and Podlachia
Analyzing the fate of Lusatian Serbs since the second half of the 20th century, one finds many parallels with Belarusians of the Podlachia (Padlia¹¹a in Belarusian) region in Poland. Both groups, due to the will of fate and that of ”Great Powers,” found themselves isolated and forced to rely only on themselves.

Lusatia remained in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Attempts to join culturally and geographically closer Czechoslovakia, or to gain at least political autonomy remained in the realm of dreams.

In the Belarusians’ case the transfer of Podlachia to Poland resulted in the breaking of contacts with the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR); the Belarusians of the Podlachia region were left alone to deal with the Polish majority of the Polish People’s Republic.

According to various estimates each of these ethnic groups (the Belarusians of Podlachia and the Lusatian Serbs) numbered up to half a million people, and were identified primarily according to their religious affiliation. These confessional divisions played a significant role in preserving the national identity of both groups.

Today Serbs of Upper Lusatia are predominantly Roman Catholic, centered in Budy¹in (Bautzen). Other Serb territories ( Lower Lusatia) are inhabited by Protestants, centered in Chó¶ebuz ( Cottbus). Only 100 years ago, Serbs comprised the majority of the Lusatian population. However, most of them succumbed to a comparatively quick Germanization.

The assimilation of Roman Catholic Lusatians has been slower, and has resulted in the Catholic religion becoming an important mainstay of Lusatian identity.

A similar situation may be observed in the case of Belarusians of the Podlachia region. The predominantly Roman Catholic districts of Sakolka and Aŭhustoŭ experienced rather rapid Polonization, while the Orthodox population near the towns Hajnaŭka and Bielsk managed to preserve their Belarusian identity. Thus, in the context of the Podlachia region, the terms Belarusian and Orthodox became synonymous.

III. ”From native fields, from native village”
After World WAR II, under the conditions of establishing socialist systems, the development of both ethnic groups had much in common. In pre-war Poland and in Nazi Germany Belarusians and Lusatians were treated as second-rate citizens.

However, with the arrival of Communism, both Belarusians and Lusatians gained opportunities equal to those of the ethnic majorities of the Polish People’s Republic, and the German Democratic Republic, respectively. Here, however, one should note the difference in implementation of nationalities’ policy in the Polish and German Democratic Republic.

The Lusatians were able to renew the activities of Domowina, an organizing uniting all Serb organizations, within two days of the end of the war. Thus, admittedly, the Serb movement began from below. This fact forced the East German Communists to accept the actual situation , and to work with what existed.

The situation with the Belarusians of Podlachia was quite different. At first the policy of Polish Communists did not differ much from that of pre-war Poland: they continued the process of forced assimilation (Polonization), and obstructed any attempts by Belarusians to organize their own national life. Certain steps toward liberalization were undertaken only in the 1950s. Then, on the basis of the formula ”one minority — one organization,” Poland allowed the establishment of national minorities’ organizations. One of them was the Belarusian Social and Cultural Society (BHKT) that served as an umbrella for all organizations of Poland’s Belarusians. In other words, it was ”allowed” from above, and therefore from the very beginning had to follow rules set up by Polish authorities.

However, one feature common to Lusatians and Podlachia’s Belarusians was that both Domowina and BKHT were controlled by the Ministries of the Interior of PPR and GDR respectively. Such a degree of institutionalization, combined with the complete financial dependence of minorities’ organizations on state authorities not only transformed Domowina and BKHT into enforcers of the ”party line” in their respective ethnic societies, but also created additional means of controlling the minorities. In this situation equal opportunities for cooperation between leading state elites and representatives of minorities were impossible.

However, the political factors described above should be analyzed along with those of an economic nature. Newly installed comunist regimes made possible a social emancipation of Lusatian Serbs and Polish Belarusians and opened for them opportunities equal to those of Germany’s and Poland’s titular nations. However, these opportunities were offered not to respective groups, but to individuals actiong as proponents of the current poilitical system, not of an ethnic group. Another essential factor became the post-war destruction of the traditional way of life, of Podlachia’s Belarusians and Lusatian Serbs alike, through industrialization, ”rationalization” of agriculture, secularizationa and urbanization. For a Lusatian Serb in the GDR or for a Belarusian in Poland, moving to a German or Polish-speaking city meant accelerated assimilation, often at the cost of denying one’s ethnic identity, first through the loss of one’s native language, if not on a personal level, then in succeeding generation.

In the case of Lusatians, their situation became worse due to the presence of deposits of brown coal that were, and still are, mined above ground. Mining resulted in a partial destruction of the traditional structure of settlements, especially near Chó¶ebuz and Wojerecy, which, coupled with the influx of German-speaking immigrants, accelerated the process of assimilation. Thus, both in Lusatia and Podlachia the communist governments caused a degradation of traditional social structures. Instead, the national life of minorities became institutionalized and centralized.

The only difference was that while the initially independent Lusatian Domowina became subordinated to governmental structures, the BKHT in Podlachia was directly created by them. Thus, these organizations, ”national in form and socialist in content” were used to coordinate cultural needs of respective minorities, their activities being fully dependent on government. On one hand, the creation of opportunities equal to those of representatives of the titular nations in Germany’s and Poland’s socialist societies may be considered a positive step. On the other hand, it caused further individualization of representatives of the Lusatian and Belarusian minorities. Under conditions of accelerated industrialization and urbanization and the simultaneous destruction of traditional social structures, this type of individualization actually helped to accelerate the assimilation of Lusatians in the GDR and Belarusians in Poland.

As a result, both the Belarusian and Lusatian cultures have been reduced to a kind of regional color, expressed primarily in the form of village folklore. Therefore, the most suitable description of the result of socialist policies concerning Lusatian Serbs and Podlachia’s Belarusians might be Janka Kupala’s image of the ” Dispersed Nest.”

Kiryl Ka¶cian is a Belarusian researcher of European Law, currently pursuing his PhD degree at the University of Bremen (Germany)

The article WILL be CONTINUED in the Fall 2010 issue of Belarusian Review

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 22, No. 2
Copyright 2010 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Kiry³ Ka¶cian

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