Upper Silesia's Autonomy Debate
Natalia MEDEN | 03.12.2011 | WORLD / Europe

Upper Silesia's Autonomy Debate

With discord lingering in various parts of Europe – in Silesia, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Wales, Scotland, Wallonia, and Flanders – autonomy movements permanently loom on the background of the EU politics. Poland's ethnic separatism, which is currently rising in Upper Silesia, appears to fit neatly into the existing trend but is a relatively new and in many regards distinct phenomenon. The Silesian Autonomy Movement Movement was established in 1990 and used to be seen as a fairly ridiculous gathering until it transpired during the 2002 population survey in Poland that 173,000 people chose to describe themselves as Silesians rather than Poles…

Germans were expelled from Silesia in the wake of World War II based on a resolution of the Potsdam Conference, and these days, descendants of the deportation survivors mostly reside in Germany. A number of expellee associations, including the Silesian one, came into being in Germany in the late 1940ies as a form of mutual assistance of the newcomers whom the entrenched population occasionally did not welcome amidst the post-war hardships. The West German government patronized the associations, largely because the claims to historic territory staked by former residents of East Prussia, Silesia, and the Sudetes were consonant with Bonn's policy of declining to recognize post-war borders. Nowadays, Germany has no intention to press for the return of any territories or even for compensations to those who lost real estate in Central and East Europe following World War II, but the associations are still there and continue to receive material support from the government.

Geographically, Silesia comprises two parts – Lower Silesia in the west and Upper Silesia in the east. Lower Silesia was completely taken over by Polish settlers after Germans had been displaced, and at present the region's autonomy is not on the agenda. Upper Silesia is at the moment divided between two voivodeships. One of them - the voivodeship known as Silesia proper, with the population of 4.6 million – only partially covers the historical territory of the province. The stated goal of the Movement for the Autonomy of Upper Silesia is to achieve an autonomous status no later than by 2020 within the borders of the 1922-1933 autonomy.

The former autonomy was created in the framework of the overhaul of borders which commenced after World War I. A plebiscite was held in Silesia in 1921 in compliance with the resolutions of the Versailles Conference, with 60% of the population requesting to be integrated into Germany and 40% - into Poland. The disputed province was partitioned as a result. The eventual configuration of the border between the fragments was heavily influenced by three Polish uprisings due to which Poland additionally got the industrialized regions in eastern Silesia with Katowice as the center. According to Jerzy Gorzelik, leader of the Silesian Autonomy Movement since 2003, in that distant epoch residents of Silesia thought of autonomy as a specific privilege of their province, but in today's Silesia autonomy is considered to be one of regional rights guaranteed by the EU. By the way, supporters of the autonomy demand that parts of the adjacent Opole, Malopolska, and Lodz voivodeships be bracketed with Upper Silesia.

As of today, the Silesian Autonomy Movement has for a year been represented in the regional parliament as a minor partner within the coalition formed by Polish premier Donald Tusk's Civic Platform and the Polish Peasants Party. The Movement won 8.5 of the vote in the November, 2010 local elections compared to 4.4% in 2006, meaning that its constituency practically doubled over the term of four years and rose to 120,000. The Movement has three seats in the current legislature, and Gorzelik, who supervises the region's education, cultural affairs, and international relations, prides himself in having the anniversary of the 1945 Upper Silesia tragedy inserted into the voivodeship's official calendar. At the point, one is confronted with the question: which tragedy – perhaps that of the deported Germans - is being commemorated? No doubt, their expulsion is a grim page in the German history. German historians estimate that 7.4 million Germans were driven out of the territories currently belonging to Poland (East Prussia, East Brandenburg, East Pomerania, Silesia, and Danzig, which is referred to as Gdansk in Polish), and that the death toll during the campaign reached 1.7 million people1.

In Poland, however, the expulsion is not recognized as a tragedy. Erika Steinbach who presides over Germany's Federation of Expellees since 1998 and is known to uphold compensation demands often seems to be the number one enemy from the Poles' perspective. At least, a poll conducted in 2009 by Rzeczpospolitashowed that 38% of the respondents literally feared Steinbach. Rzeczpospolitawrote in 2009 that the compensation claims from former owners of confiscated real estate located in Poland can add up to around Euro 19b. The German government made it clear that it does not back the compensation claims rolled out from the names of individual proprietors by the Prussian Trust, a corporation created specifically for the purpose. In October, 2003, Polish and German presidents penned the Gdansk Declaration on the issue of persons who were displaced, forced to flee and expelled in Europe, in which they renounced any material demands, compensation claims, or accusations in connection with the historical episode. It was stressed in the Declaration, though, that both sides would have the right to commemorate the deportation victims.

When the first meeting supposed to commemorate the Upper Silesia tragedy convened in 2011, some of the participants carried banners welcoming guests from Germany's Silesian association to their historic homeland, but remembrance of the Germans who died in the expulsion never got a line on the program3. Instead, Gorzelik focused in his address on the sufferings the population of Silesia endured … from the Red Army. His statement that thousands (!!!) of people had been sent to Gulag just for being Silesians does not merit scrutiny simply because there is no such nation as Silesians. Gorzelik's bid to have Silesians recognized as a nation was rejected by the Polish court in 2007 and later was brushed off by the European Court of Human Rights, but his priority – pressing the message that the advent of the Red Army and the liberation from fascists was a disaster for Silesia – is in any case unrelated to actual circumstances and numbers. Since the condemnations over Silesia are supposed to reflect a substantially wider agenda, the premier of upper Silesia skipped details and dwelled in his speech exclusively on the plight of the victims of the communist regime. Both addresses were cited in German media. Equating Stalin and Hitler has long become commonplace in Germany. The cover of a 2011 topical issue of Der Spiegel on the anniversary of the German aggression against the USSR, for example, featured the tile: “Hitler Against Stalin. Brothers and Sworn Enemies”.

Poland's ruling circles stick to a yet more radical stance, and in their portrayal “the winter of 1945 tragedy” bluntly overshadows the whole war along with the nightmare of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

The Silesian Autonomy Movement's outpourings of aggressive revisionism meet with virtually no criticism in Poland. The strengthening of the Movement does evoke concern in the country as a potential threat to its unity (even though formally the group is not separatist and calls for either a federative system modeled on the US or an amendment of the Polish constitution aimed at legitimizing regional autonomy). Worries also run high in Poland that the Movement helps spread pro-German influences.

A state-of-the-nation report released in the spring of 2011 by Poland's conservative Law and Justice party ignited heated debates in the country. In particular, it carried the thesis that opting for the Silesian identity is tantamount to reneging on the Polish one. The leader of the Silesian Autonomy Movement was indeed quoted by Die Welt as saying: “I am not Polish, I am Silesian”. Lloyd George, the British premier and signatory to the Versailles Treaty, is believed to have coined the phrase “You can not give a watch to a monkey because the animal will break it”, implying that the watch was Silesia and the monkey - Poland. Oddly enough for a man whose grand-grandfather took part in a 1921 anti-German uprising, Gorzelik explains provocatively that eight decades later it is clear that the monkey did break the watch4.

Another assessment contained in the above report is that the adoption of a Silesian identity should be read as a disguised expression of support for a “German initiative”. Interestingly, Germany's Silesian association offers a completely different interpretation of the phenomenon of the increasingly popular Silesian Autonomy Movement. Its co-chair Rudi Pawelka expressed the view that the growing numbers of people registering as Silesians in population surveys in Poland demonstrate that Germans are coming under pressure in the country and that those who lack the courage to admit being Germans introduce themselves as Silesians5. Descendants of Silesian Germans who currently live in Germany charge that the activities of the Silesian Autonomy Movement de facto present the German minority with problems in exercising its legitimate rights like the right to install bilingual toponyms.

It should be taken into account that prior to the expulsion of the Germans Silesia was shared by the German and Polish communities, each of them speaking a dialect of their own languages. Estimates of today's numbers of Silesian speakers vary widely as do the criteria based on which it may count as a dialect of the Polish or a particular language. German media ironically cite phrases like “Moja Oma” - a mix of German and Polish – as evidence of the typical level of command of the German language in the region. Gorzelik, on the other hand, is beaming with optimism and, in the meantime, is busy compiling a Silesian language textbook with full confidence that it will some day come handy in the would-be autonomy.


1. Reichling Gerhard. Die deutschen Vertriebenen in Zahlen. 2 Teile, Bonn1986/89. Other authors suggest higher figures: Nawratil Heinz. Die deutschen Nachkriegsverluste unter Vertriebenen, Gefangenen, Verschleppten, München - Berlin 1987, S. 27-32.

2. Umfrage: Steinbach und Putin jagen Polen Angst ein. Spiegel Online, 30.03.2009.

3. The association is a member of the Federation of Expellees

4. Ganczak Filip.Warschau fürchtet die Autonomie Schlesiens// Welt, 12.04.2011

5. Pawelka Rudi. Autonomiebewegung in Schlesien// Presseinformationen der Landsmannschaft Schlesien - Nieder- und Oberschlesien e.V. 14. April 2011.