History of the Sorbs (Wends)

Sorb People (Brandenburg and Saxony, Germany)
Sorben, Wenden

Remnants of ancient serbs who stayed in their homeland/domovina after the rest of serbs settled in today's Dinaria/south east europe.
Smallest Slavonic nation that has been aggressively germanized but nevertheless kept it's identity.


Sorbian flag

Domowina amblem

National costume of Lusatian Sorbs as worn in the northern part of Lusatia

The history of the Sorbs

In the 6./7. century slavonic tribes settled in the area between Elbe/Saale and Oder/Queiss in the course of the people migration. In the following centuries they came under fixed German state rule, among them also the tribes of the Milzener (today upper sorbs) and Lusitzer (today lower sorbs/Wends). Starting from the 12. century, due to the increasing colonizing of the Lausitz of German settlers, also began the gradual christianisation of the "Wends", as the at that time living Slavonics were also called by the Germans. In the year 1815, after the Viennese congress, it came to a territorial re-allocation of the Lausitz. The Lower Lausitz fell to the Prussian province Brandenburg and the southwest of the Upper Lausitz remained in Saxonia. The reason that today in the Lower Lausitz the sorbian language strongly decreased is to search in the rigorously led policy from Prussia against the Sorbs at that time, in contrast to Saxonia. In addition it comes that with the industrialization after 1871 and in consequence of the general increase of the German influence more and more village municipalities changed to the language of the majority. Only the catholic area in the Upper Lausitz remained unaffected of it to a large extent. With the establishment of the DOMOWINA as umbrella organisation of sorbian associations in the year 1912 the fight for preservation and promotion of the sorbian language and culture strengthened crucially. It were banned in 1938, sorbian clergymen and teachers were posted into German areas. Since the establishment of the GDR the Sorbs were promoted stronger, however at the same time the DOMOWINA was pushed into the political dependency of the SED. After the political turn in 1989 also the restructuring of the DOMOWINA took place, so that today it again functions as umbrella organisation of sorbian associations.

The Subjugation

Around the year 600 slavonic tribes - among them also the Sorbs - settled in the area between Elbe/Saale and Oder/Queiss. Since the "Wends", as they were called by the Germans, did not succeed in forming their own state, they got subjugated by the German empire in the course of the following centuries.
In the 10. and 11. century also the two sorbian tribes, the Milzener (today Upper Lausitz) and the Lusizer (today's Lower Lausitz), firmly came under German rule, whereby the Upper and Lower Lausitz became the matter of dispute of the territorial powers Meissen, Brandenburg and Boehmen for longer time. First the new rulers restricted themselves to the protection of the military supremacy and the economic utilization of the acquired estates. It seems that in contrast to the tribes in the north there was no serious resistance of the Sorbs against the subjugation.
Around the year 1200 the development of ecclesiastical structures began by the wide spreadened establishment of new church comunities; at the same time the colonizing of the few populated peripheral areas of the Lausitz took place by German settlers from the western regions. In the low jurisdiction the Sorbs seem to have kept a certain autonomy. A sign for strong tensions between Germans and Slavonics is the definition of the Saxonia mirror that no German against the Slavonics and no Slavonic against a German should give certification before court.
It began the natural assimilation of the slavonic tribes, which was completed by open compulsion. In order to attain as fast as possible a linguistical uniform territory, language prohibitions and limitations for the move into cities were pronounced, some kind of ghettos in form of "Wends lanes" were created and prohibitions for the Sorbs for the entry into guilds were issued.
With the beginning of the 16. Century the conquered area in the east of Germany except the Upper and Lower Lausitz, the on them bordering areas and the Lueneburger Wendland had essentially become German-language.
The culture of the Sorbs manifested itself almost excluding as village people culture. Only few Sorbs succeeded in rising into the European scholar world, from which Jan Rak, known under the latin name Joannes Rhagius Aesticampianus, should be representatively mentioned, who in his poems also has sung about the Lausitz. From the time before 1500 of written documents in sorbian language only some commentaries and a citizen oath are preserved.

The Effects of the Reformation

The Reformator Martin Luther from Wittenberg was not a friend of the Sorbs, but made disparaging remarks about »the worst of all nations« in his speeches at meals. Philipp Melanchthon was more tolerant and was proud on the fact, that his son-in-law Kaspar Peuker, a native Bautzener, also used the sorbian language at his meals. However, not the personal tendencies of the Reformators were crucial, but their programmatic demands and the effects of their work.
From 1490 to 1635 the Upper and the Lower Lausitz were bohemian feud with their own constitution in each case, except the district Cottbuss, which belonged to Brandenburg. Due to these rule conditions the principle of the Augsburger Reich parliament of 1555 "cuius regio, eius religio" ("whose country, whose religion") could not completely gain acceptance. After partially violent arguments, 90 per cent of the Sorbs became evangelist, while in the areas, which were subordinated to the cathedral foundation ST. Petri in Bautzen and the monastery Marienstern, some municipalities with approximately 10000 souls, remained catholic.
Starting from the middle of the 16. Century some Protestant of clergyman - taking up the reformatorian principle of the sermon in the native language -, began to create their own sorbian religious literature, by translating the core works of the protestantism, Bible, Catechism and songbook, out of the German. Thus the sorbian writing language developed. In 1548 Miklaws Jakubica translated Luther's New Testament into Sorbian, without that a printing took place. In 1574 appeared Luther's Catechism, in conjunction with a songbook, in the lower sorbian translation of the Albin Moller, in 1597 Wjaclaw Warichius published Luther's Catechism in upper sorbian language.
These and other private initiatives of sorbian clergyman were interrupted by the thirty-years-war, and in the following the bohemian areas of the Lausitz fell at Saxonia.
Only in the last third of the 17. Century the edition activity for the sorbian religious bibliography was resumed. That happended fewer in the Lower Lausitz, where the Luebbener Konsistorium let prepare a memorandum in 1668, "How could the complete abolishment of the wendish language in local estates of the margraves be supported best" and where the cure prince of Brandenburg arranged for his rule area in 1667 "the complete abolishment of their wendish preachers", as rather in the Upper Lausitz. Here prominent representatives of the pietistic movement such as Philipp Spener, Nikolaus count of Zinzendorf and later August Hermann Francke engaged themselves for the spreading of religious bibliography in sorbian language. At the same time The competition of the denominations in the Upper Lausitz led to an edition contest, in order to develop the section of the own denomination or at least to hold it. In this connection also the approximately 700 Taler are to be seen, with those the Protestant dominated upper lausitzer land statuses subsidized from 1668 to 1728 the publication of sorbian church books: "so that the wendish subjects do not drop back into unchristian superstition and catholicism". Nevertheless these funds may be regarded as the first supporting measure of a German authority in favor of the Sorbs. Vice versa also the catholic cathedral foundation St. Petri in Bautzen went into the publisher offensive. In 1704 the complete Bible was translated by the catholic clergyman H. Swàtlik for the first time, however were not edited; in 1728 appeared the Protestant Bible translation.
In the future in the Upper Lausitz also appeared secular sorbian printed publications: Patents and decrees of the authorities, hygiene regulations, readers; first fruits of a scholarly literature and at the end of the 18. Century the first magazine. At the same time beginnings of an institutionalizing of sorbian interests can be proven. Starting from 1666 the sorbian preachers conference worked, in 1716 the wendish preachers society "Sorabia" in Leipzig was established and in 1728 the wendish seminar in Prague for the formation catholic clergyman.
Also in German circles the interest in the Sorbs strengthened. G. E. Lessing created for the first time a sorbian stage figure in his "Young Scholars", in 1767 wrote Chr. Knauth of "Those upper lausitzer Sorberwenden complicated church history", and in 1784 J. G. Herder drew a epoch-making picture of the early history of the Slavonics in Germany in the "Ideas for the philosophy of the history of mankind".
The German policy varied between suppression, tolerance and careful promotion. In the Lower Lausitz was stronger aligned to germanisation, but there also were periods of obligingness by the authorities.
The most important result of the after reformation age was the emergence of the sorbian writing language, however in three versions: lower sorbian, upper sorbian evangelist and upper sorbian catholic.

The national Movement in the 19. Century

In 1815 the territorial re-allocation of the Lausitz took place: The Lower Lausitz fell to the Prussian province Brandenburg, the northeast of the Upper Lausitz to the Prussian province Schlesien, and the southwest of the Uper Lausitz remained with Saxonia. Prussia arranged its politics towards the Sorbs essentially parallel to the policy towards the Poles living in its area, i.e. it mostly preferred a harder procedure. Since 1818 in Brandenburg the regulation of the Frankfurt government was valid, that if necessary permitted the use of the sorbian language for the first school years and applied the duty to the teachers to do what they can for a "thorough spreading of the German language if possible". In Saxonia a liberal point of view succeeded in the school question about an intervention of the sorbian evangelist religiousness. With the school law of 1835 the mandatory sorbian reading and religious education were introduced into sorbian municipalities.
For the further sorbian self understanding became crucial the forties of the 19. Century, because in this period a broad sorbian people movement developed, the sorbian civil culture began to develop and a independant national consciousness had its break-through (serbske wozrodzenje - sorbian rebirth). The emergence of the sorbian national movement is to be due to several factors. On the one hand the thoughts of the German romance and the German nationalism, which had developed as a result of the napoleonic wars, were transferred to the sorbian area. On the other hand they took up the idea of the slavonic romance of the "slavonic mutuallity" and understood themselves as a part of the large slavonic people family. At third the prominent sorbian intellectuals succeeded in aligning the people movement of the Vormaerz to national requests.
In the revolution of 1848 the sorbian movement sympathized partially with the radical-democratic, partially with the moderate liberal hill. Jan Arnost Smoler, the leading head of of the sorbian movement, who had studied both with Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the author of the Germany anthem, and with the Czech professors Purkynè and Celakovský as well, turned to Robert Blum, in order to achieve the coding of the minority rights in the constitution of the Paulskirche. The Macica Serbska wrote a petition to the Saxonian government, which concerned the national demands on school and church section. A similarly stored peasant petition also contained social demands.
The sorbian side did not follow the revolutionary fights, although the Russian Bakunin Smoler tried to convince of it. After striking down the Dresdener rebellion the Saxonian Sorbs got a small part of their demands fulfilled, for instance the demand for sorbian lessons at the Bautzener High School or for sorbian services in the state capital Dresden.
The Lower Lausitz was reached by the national renewal movement only in a small measure. Worth for emphasizing is the establishment of the "Bramborski serbski Casnik", the lower sorbian weekly paper, which appeared from 1848 with some interruptions, and the establishment of the sorbian high school student association in Cottbus in 1849. In the after-revolutionary years the national movement first flagged. Around 1870 the young sorbian movement began, which oriented itself at the Czech models and headed for a renewed people movement. Their most important representatives were the philologist Arnost Muka and the clergyman and the poet Jakub Bart-Cisinski.
Politically both the young sorbs and the older generation as well were on conservative soil. However this did not prevent that substantial attacks of the German siede against the sorbian national movement were led (Panslavonicdebate 1881 to 1884). In Saxonia they increasingly realized the state-receiving character of the sorbian movement and essentially left it in the school question by the legal regulations of the year 1834. In Prussia repeatedly the use of the sorbian language in school and church was substantially obstructed.
In the last third of the 19. Century began - independently of both the national movement and the efforts of germanisation as well - an intensified assimilation of the Sorbs in the evangelist areas of the Upper and Lower Lausitz. The industrialization after 1871 led to the collaps of the grown agrarian structures. Due to the almost exclusively German school lessons the majority of the Sorbs became bilingual, so that due to the general increase of the German influence more and more village communities changed to the language of the majority. First only the catholic area remained unaffected by the assimilation.

The Fight for Receipt and Promotion in the 20. Century

In the year 1912 the Domowina was created as umbrella organization of sorbian associations. After the defeat of Germany in the First World War some prominent representatives of the Sorbs propagated the thought of an own sorbian administrative unit, which should be attached as close as possible to the developing Czechoslovakia, but these plans missed of any real-political sense. The Weimar constitution granted a free development to the non-german ethnic groups under refering to the constitution of the Paulskirche, but it was missing the conversion of the constitutional law to appropriate laws.
In that Weimar time the Sorbs did not succeed in forming a uniform political protection of interests. Side by side the Macica Serbska, the Domowina, the Lausitzer people's party, the Lausitzer farmer federation and the 1926 established national council worked. Contacts to the other groups of peoples in Germany were structured. The Sorbe Jan Skala drew up the »culture resistance«, the magazine for minority questions in Germany.
In the first months after the National Socialist seizure of power there was an attempt to synchronise the Sorbs with force. As the only organization with a broader base between the people the Domowina survived, which was restructured under the skillful lead Pawol Nedos to the federation of Lausitzer Sorbs. It opposed all attempts to integrate the Sorbs as "wendish speaking Germans" into the National Socialist rule structure. Protests in the slavonic countries and consideration to their rights and customs emphasized of germans living abroad forced a more moderate procedure of the NSDAP for the years 1934 to 1936 against the Sorbs. In the spring 1937 the Domowina was forbidden, soon thereafter the sorbian press had to stop their publications. All sorbian activities were considered as anarchist. The prominent men of the sorbian movement were expelled from the Lausitz or arrested. However there was no complete prohibition of the sorbian language, so that in some churches, in particular within the Saxonian area, the tradition of sorbian services were reduced very strong, but not completely interrupted. In the offices Heinrich Himmler they drew up evacuation plans for the Sorbs for the time after the final victory.
The collapse of the National Socialist rule was welcomed of the Sorbs as release. A reconstruction of the national movement began. Since there was no uniform program for the future development, struggles for power and direction began under different groupings. The Sorbian national committee with seat in Prague persued the detachment of the Lausitz of Germany and the connection to Czechoslovakia. The Domowina, again under the direction of Pawol Nedo, aimed to a global autonomy of the Sorbs in the Lausitz. The KPD/SED, whose base was infinitesimal between the sorbian people, fought to integrate the Sorbs into the developing rule structure and for it promised to them an extensive national support. The extensive promotion of the Sorbs from Prague (holiday camps, High School, printering, broadcast transmissions, financial assistances to the Domowina), which lasted until 1948, was for Germany's communists a constant challenge. In 1948 the Saxonian federal state parliament accepted due to intensive efforts of the Domowina the law for the keeping the rights of the sorbian population.
In December 1950 a change of the leadership of the Sorbs, which is not cleared up until today. Under the pressure of the SED Pawol Nedo withdrew as a chairman of the Domowina, to his place came the old communist Kurt Krjenc. The Domowina became more and more in stronger measure the transmission committee of the SED, in order to enforce their power monopoly between the Sorbs. Against the arbitrary and ahistorical allocation of the Lausitz in the districts Dresden and Cottbus there was no considerable resistance. Parallel to it a generous network of sorbian institutions was structured, which was annually subsidized with high sums: the institut for sorbian people research, the national ensemble for sorbian people culture, the house for sorbian people art, the Domowina publishing house, the sorbian editorship of radio GDR, several primary schools with lessons in sorbian language, two extended high schools, the Sorbian Institut for teacher education, the sorbian folk theatre, sorbische departments of the Ministries of culture, of the interrior and for national education.
The price for this promotion unique in German history was the complete political integration of the Sorbs. In particular in the fifties and the sixties there were a set of detentions and professionals disqualification for nationalconscious Sorbs. All bibliography was subject to the censorship, almost exclusively leading positions were filled by members of the SED, which essentially bent themselves to the party discipline. Nevertheless also in this period cultural and scientific achievements developed.
Despite all promotion the assimilation process could not be stopped, to which the evangelist and in the beginning also the catholic Sorbs were exposed. Dozens of Lausitzer villages were sacrificed for the brown coal production, several ten thousand workers were led into the sorbian area, which was always welcomed by the Domowina leadership.
Signs of the beginning upheaval were to be detected with the Sorbs approximately in 1985. The writer Jurj Koch became a speaking leader of a movement against the predatory exploitation of the Lausitzer cultural landscape by the brown coal mining. Sorbian students began with the publication of a uncensored student newspaper, which was forbidden by the Domowina leadership on behalf of the SED political office.
When in October 1989 the autumn revolution began, in whose consequence the SED rule broke down and the unity of Germany was reestablished, also the Sorbs had to stand themselves to the request of the political upheaval. In November 1989 assembled the sorbian popular assembly, whose target was the structural, programatic and personnel renewal of the Domowina and the representative of sorbian rights in the public.
After heavy internal arguments the renewal movement became generally accepted: The Domowina was restructured referring to the structures of the twenties by a centralistic organization in an umbrella organization of sorbian associations. With the acceptance of a new program, the entry of weighty sorbian federations and the election of a new chairman, the composer Jan Pawol Nagel, the renewal process seems to have found a certain termination in June 1991.
Parallel to the renewal process of the Domowina the sorbian efforts ran for the further national promotion and the keeping of the rights of the Sorbs. Carefully expressed expectations, the regional reorganization could bring the unity of the Lausitz in a common state of the federal republic, were disappointed, since the Lower Lausitz fell at Brandenburg, while the Upper Lausitz came closed to Saxonia. On initiative of the popular assembly a memorandum of the sorbian people for the accommodation of an article of group of peoples was formed in the Basic Law.
In the agreement contract warranties were fixed for the protection and the promotion of the sorbian culture. The on this basis granted financial assistance of the federation essentially protected the network of the sorbian institutions created in the GDR. With the state chancelleries of the states of Brandenburg and of Saxonia referates for affairs of the Sorbs were formed. Since October 1991 a »donation for the sorbische people« exists, in which the national promotion for the Sorbs is summarized.


In the course of their thousand-year life under German sovereignty the Sorbs did not succeed in attaining their own administrative unit for their area. Most they lived in several German territorial units, in which they were always a minority.
The German attitude against the Sorbs varied between suppression, tolerance and promotion. With all relapses (e.g. 1937 to 1945) altogether an increasing liberalisation tendency is to be determined. Beginnings of a national promotion of the Sorbs can be prooved since the end of the 17. Century. More support took place until 1948 from the Czech side; 1949-1989 the Sorbs were strongly promoted with complete political integration.
Due to Germanisation and assimilation the sorbian part of the Lausitzer population constantly decreased, particularly strong since the last third of the last century. First the catholic Sorbs remained unaffected by the assimilation process.
Since the midth of the last century a denomination-spreading national movement exists, in whose consequence the civil sorbian culture developed.
With all single criticism the respective sorbian leadership behaved basically loyal in relation to the state-basic forces. Exceptions were the demands for separation in the years 1919 and 1945-1947 as well as the refusal of the synchronising of the Domowina in 1937.
The most important achievements of the Sorbs exists in their efforts of the receipt of language and tradition, of culture and science. With its literary, musical, philological, historiographical or folklore like works the Sorbs contributed to the European culture as hardly another people of comparable order of magnitude.