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Title: Sorbs  
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Subject: Slavs, Stanislaw Tillich, Ethnic groups in Europe, Saxony, Serbian–Sorb relations
Collection: Ethnic Groups in Germany, Slavic Ethnic Groups, Sorbian People
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Serby, Serbja, Sorben

Sorbian Flag (in Pan-Slavic colors, introduced 1842) Logo of Domowina, often used as Sorb coat of arms
National costume of female Lusatian Sorbs, as traditionally worn in the northern part of Lusatia (Spreewald)
Total population
60,000[2]-70,000[3] (est.)
• 40,000 Upper Sorbs
• 20,000 Lower Sorbs
Regions with significant populations
Germany 60,000
Czech Republic 2,000[4]
Sorbian (Upper Sorbian, Lower Sorbian), German
Majority Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism
Minority Eastern Orthodoxy

Sorbs (; ; also known as Wends, Lusatian Sorbs or Lusatian Serbs) are a Western Slavic people of Central Europe living predominantly in Lusatia, a region on the territory of Germany and Poland. In Germany they live in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony. They traditionally speak the Sorbian languages (Wendish, Lusatian) – closely related[5] to Polish and Czech – officially recognized and protected as a minority language of Germany. Due to a gradual and increasing assimilation between the 17th and 20th centuries, virtually all Sorbs also spoke German by the late 19th century and many of the descendants of Sorbs no longer speak the Sorbian languages. They are predominantly Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

Sorbs are divided into two geographical groups:

The dialects spoken vary in intelligibility in different areas. Genetic studies have shown Sorbs to be genetically closest to Czechs and Poles.[8] The Sorbs are theorized to have contributed significantly to the Ashkenazi Jewish population of Europe from the 9th century.[9]

Tribal division

Lusatian tribes are noted in the work of the Bavarian Geographer. The document contains a list of the tribes in Central-Eastern Europe east of the Elbe and north of the Danube to the Volga rivers to the Black and Caspian Sea most of them of Slavic origin.[10][11] Having settled by the Elbe, Spree and Neisse in the 6th century, Sorbian tribes divided into two main groups, which have taken their names from the characteristics of the area where they had settled. Sorbs living on the swampy broads of the Lower Spree have taken their name from the word marsh. The Milceni (ancestors of Upper Sorbs) settled on fertile soil around Upper Spree, the name derives from the word měl’ (loess soil). The two groups were separated from each other by a wide and uninhabited forest range. The rest of the tribes settled themselves between the Elbe and Saale. Among the many Slavic tribes, the Bavarian Geographer also noted a few Lusatian tribes:


Slavic tribes between Elbe and Vistula in the Early Middle Ages (beige), Sorbs are lower left
The reconstructed Lusatian gord (fortification) of Raduš (Raddusch), near Vetschau in Lower Lusatia
Small region where the Sorbs still live in Germany, an area that used to be much larger in the past
Map of area inhabited by Sorbians
The close-up map of the Sorbian area
"House of the Sorbs" (Serbski dom) in Bautzen

Middle Ages

Sorbs arrived in the area extending between the Bober, Kwisa, and Oder rivers to the East and the Saale and Elbe rivers to the West during the sixth century A.D. In the North, the area of their settlement reached Berlin. The earliest surviving mention of the tribe was in 631 A.D., when Fredegar’s Chronicle described them as "Surbi" and as under the rule of a Dervan, an ally of Samo. The Annales Regni Francorum state that in 806 A.D. Sorbian Duke Miliduch fought against the Franks and was killed. In 840, Sorbian Duke Czimislav was killed. In 932, Henry I conquered Lusatia and Milsko. Gero II, Margrave of the Saxon Ostmark, reconquered Lusatia the following year and, in 939, murdered 30 Sorbian princes during a feast. As a result, there were many Sorbian uprisings against German rule. A reconstructed castle, at Raddusch in Lower Lusatia, is the sole physical remnant from this early period.

During the reign of Boleslaw I of Poland in 1002-1018, three Polish-German wars were waged which caused Lusatia to come under the domination of new rulers. In 1018, on the strength of peace in Bautzen, Lusatia became a part of Poland; however, it returned to German rule before 1031. From the 11th to the 15th century, agriculture in Lusatia developed and colonization by Frankish, Flemish and Saxon settlers intensified. In 1327 the first prohibitions on using Sorbian in Altenburg, Zwickau and Leipzig appeared.

Early modern period

Between 1376 and 1635 Lusatia was part of the Czech Crown lands, under the rule of the Luxembourgs. From the beginning of the 16th century the whole Sorbian area, with the exception of Lusatia, underwent Germanization. From 1635 Lusatia became a fiefdom of Saxon electors. The Thirty Years' War and the Black Death caused terrible devastation in Lusatia. This led to further German colonization and Germanization.

In 1667 the Prince of Brandenburg, Frederick Wilhelm, ordered the immediate destruction of all Sorbian printed materials and banned saying masses in this language. At the same time the Evangelical Church supported printing Sorbian religious literature as a means of fighting the Counterreformation. In 1706 the Sorbian Seminary, the main centre for the education of Sorbian Catholic priests, was founded in Prague. Evangelical students of theology formed the Sorbian College of Ministers.

Late modern period

The Congress of Vienna, in 1815, gave part of Upper Lusatia to Saxony, but most of Lusatia to Prussia. More and more bans on the use of Sorbian languages appeared from then until 1835 in Saxony and Prussia; emigration of the Sorbs, mainly to the town of Serbin in Texas and to Australia, increased. In 1848, 5000 Sorbs signed a petition to the Saxon Government, in which they demanded equality for the Sorbian language with the German one in churches, courts, schools and Government departments. From 1871 the whole of Lusatia became a part of united Germany and was divided between two parts; Prussia (Silesia and Brandenburg), and Saxony.

From 1871 the industrialization of the region and German immigration began; official Germanization intensified. Although the Weimar Republic guaranteed constitutional minority rights, it did not practice them.

Contemporary history

Throughout the Third Reich, Sorbians were described as a German tribe who spoke a Slavic language and their national poet Handrij Zejler was German as well. Sorbian costume, culture, customs and even the language was said to be no indication of a non-German origin. The Reich declared that there were truly no "Sorbs" or "Lusatians", only Wendish-Speaking Germans. As such, the cultivation of "Wendish" customs and traditions was to be encouraged in a controlled manner and the Slavic language would decline due to natural causes. Young Sorbs enlisted in the Wehrmacht and were sent to the front. Entangled lives of the Sorbs during World War II are exemplified by life stories of Mina Witkojc, Měrčin Nowak-Njechorński and Jan Skala.

The first Lusatian cities were captured in April 1945, when the Red Army and the Polish Second Army crossed the river Queis (Kwisa). The defeat of Nazi Germany changed the Sorbs’ situation considerably: those to the east of Neisse and Oder were expelled or assimilated by Poland. The regions in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) faced a large influx of expelled Germans and heavy industrialisation, which both forced Germanization. The East German authorities tried to counteract this development by creating a broad range of Sorbian institutions. The Sorbs were officially recognized as an ethnic minority, more than 100 Sorbian schools and several academic institutions were founded, the Domowina and its associated societies were re-established and a Sorbian theatre was created. Owing to the oppression of the church and forced collectivization, however, these efforts were severely affected and consequently over time the number of people speaking Sorbian languages decreased by half.

Sorbs caused the communist government of East Germany (GDR) plenty of trouble, mainly because of the high levels of religious observance and resistance to the nationalisation of agriculture. During the compulsory collectivization campaign, a great many unprecedented incidents were reported. Thus, throughout the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany, violent clashes with the police were reported in Lusatia. An open uprising took place in three upper communes of Błot.

After the unification of Germany on 3 October 1990, Lusatians made efforts to create an autonomous administrative unit; however Helmut Kohl’s government did not agree to it. After 1989 the Sorbian movement revived; however, it still encounters many obstacles. Although Germany supports national minorities, Sorbs claim that their aspirations are not sufficiently fulfilled. The desire to unite Lusatia in one of the federal states has not been taken into consideration. Upper Lusatia still belongs to Saxony and Lower Lusatia to Brandenburg. Liquidations of Sorbian schools, even in areas mostly populated by Sorbs, still happen, under the pretext of financial difficulties or demolition of whole villages to create lignite quarries.

Faced with growing threat of cultural extinction the Domowina issued a memorandum in March 2008[12] and called for "help and protection against the growing threat of their cultural extinction, since an ongoing conflict between the German government, Saxony and Brandenburg about the financial distribution of help blocks the financing of almost all Sorbian institutions". The memorandum also demands a reorganisation of competence by ceding responsibility from the Länder to the federal government and an expanded legal status. The call has been issued to all governments and heads of state of the European Union.[13]

On 28 May 2008, the Sorbian politician Stanislaw Tillich, member of the governing Christian Democrats, was elected as Minister President of the State of Saxony.


Development of the Sorb population since 1700:[14]
Year 1700 1750 1880 1900 1945
Population 250,000 200,000 166,000 146,000 100,000

Language and culture

Bautzen, German-Sorbian folk theatre

The oldest known relic of Sorbian literature originated in about 1530 - Bautzen townsmen’ oath. In 1548 Mikołaj Jakubica – Lower Sorbian vicar, from the village called Lubanice, wrote the first unprinted translation of the New Testament into Lower Sorbian.

In 1574 the first Sorbian book was printed: Albin Mollers’ songbook. In 1688 Jurij Hawštyn Swětlik translated the Bible for Catholic Sorbs. In 1706-1709 the New Testament was printed in the Upper Sorbian translation was done by Michał Frencel and in Lower Sorbian by Jan Bogumił Fabricius (1681–1741). Jan Bjedrich Fryco (a.k.a.Johann Friedrich Fritze) (1747–1819), translated the Old Testament for the first time into Lower Sorbian, published in 1790.

Other Sorbian Bible translators include Jakub Buk (1825–1895), Michał Hórnik (Michael Hornig) (1833–1894), Jurij Łušćanski (a.k.a. Georg Wuschanski) (1839–1905).

In 1809 for the short period of time, there was the first printed Sorbian newspaper. In 1767 Jurij Mjeń publishes the first secular Sorbian book. Between 1841 and 1843, Jan Arnošt Smoler and Leopold Haupt published two-volume collection of Wendish folk-songs in Upper and Lower Lusatia.

From 1842, the first Sorbian publishing companies started to appear: the poet Handrij Zejler set up a weekly magazine, the precursor of today’s Serbian News. In 1845 in Bautzen the first festival of Sorbian songs took place.

Stamps from the GDR period

In 1875, Jakub Bart-Ćišinski, the poet and classicist of Upper Sorbian literature, and Karol Arnošt Muka created a movement of young Sorbians influencing Lusatian art, science and literature for the following 50 years.

Similar movement in Mato Kósyk (Mato Kosyk) and Bogumił Šwjela.

In 1904, mainly thanks to the Sorbs’ contribution, the most important Sorbian cultural centre (the Sorbian House) was built in Lusatia; Nazi German authorities confiscated the Sorbian House, other buildings and crops.

On May 10, 1945, in Germanization of Sorbian youth as a means of incorporating them into the system of "building Socialism". Sorbian language and culture could only be publicly presented as long as they promoted Socialistic ideology.

For over 1000 years the Sorbs were able to maintain and even develop their national culture, despite escalating Germanization and Polonization, mainly due to the high level of religious observance, cultivation of their tradition and strong families (Sorbian families still often have five children).

In the middle of the 20th century, the revival of the Domowina, though, and did not wish to split from Germany. Claims asserted by the Lusatian National movement were postulates of joining Lusatia to Poland or Czechoslovakia. Between 1945–1947 they postulated about ten petitions[15] to the United Nations, United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, however, it did not bring any results. On April 30, 1946, the Lusatian National Committee also postulated a petition to the Polish Government, signed by Pawoł Cyž – the minister and an official Sorbian delegate in Poland. There was also a project of proclaiming a Lusatian Free State, whose Prime Minister was supposed to be a Polish archaeologist of Lusatian origin- Wojciech Kóčka. The most radical postulates in this area (" Na swobodu so ńečeka, swobodu so beŕe!")[16] were expressed by the Lusatian youth organization- Narodny Partyzan Łužica.

Bilingual names of streets in Cottbus

Similarly, in Czechoslovakia, where before the Potsdam Conference in Prague, 300,000 people demonstrated for the independence of Lusatia. The endeavours to separate Lusatia from Germany did not succeed because of various individual and geopolitical interests.

The following statistics indicates the progression of cultural change among Sorbs: by the end of the 19th century, about 150,000 people spoke Sorbian languages. In 1920 almost all Sorbs mastered Sorbian and German to the same degree. Nowadays the number of people using Sorbian languages has been estimated to be no more than 40,000.


Zapust is the most popular tradition of the Sorbs, deeply linked to the working life of the community. Traditionally, festivities would last one week ahead of the spring sowing of the fields and would feature traditional dress, parade and dancing.[17]

The Pisanici are a Slavic Easter tradition maintained by Sorbs since the 17th century.[18]

Regions of Lusatia

There are three main regions of Lusatia that differ in language, religion and customs.

Region of Catholic Lusatia

The Flag of Upper Lusatia

Catholic Lusatia encompasses 85 towns in the districts of Bautzen, Kamenz, and Hoyerswerda, where Upper Sorbian language, customs, and tradition are still thriving. In some of these places (e.g., Radibor or Radwor in Sorbian, Crostwitz or Chrósćicy, and Rosenthal or Róžant), Sorbs constitute the majority of the population, and children grow up speaking Sorbian.

On Sundays, during holidays, and at weddings, people wear regional costumes, rich in decoration and embroidery, encrusted with pearls.

Some of the customs and traditions observed include Bird Wedding (25 January), Easter Cavalcade of Riders, Witch Burning (30 April), Maik, singing on St. Martin's Day (Nicolay), and the celebrations of Saint Barbara’s Day and Saint Nicholas’s Day.

Region of Hoyerswerda (Wojerecy) and Schleife (Slepo)

In the area from Hoyerswerda to Schleife, a dialect of Sorbian which combines characteristic features of both Upper and Lower Sorbian is spoken. The region is predominantly Protestant, highly devastated by the brown coal mining industry, sparsely populated, and to a great extent germanicized. Most speakers of Sorbian are over 60 years old.

The region distinguishes itself through many examples of Slavic wooden architecture monuments including churches and regular houses, a diversity of regional costumes (mainly worn by elderly women) that feature white-knitting with black, cross-like embroidery, and a tradition of playing bagpipes. In several villages, residents uphold traditional festivities such as expelling of winter, Maik, Easter and Great Friday singing, and the celebration of dźěćetko (disguised child or young girl giving Christmas presents).

Region of Lower Lusatia

The Flag of Lower Lusatia

There are 60 towns from the area of Cottbus belonging to this region, where most of the older people over 60 but few young people and children can speak the Lower Sorbian language; the local variant often incorporates many words taken from the German, and in conversations with the younger generation, German is generally preferred. Some primary schools in the region teach bilingually, and in Cottbus there is an important Gymnasium whose main medium of instruction is Lower Sorbian. The region is predominantly Protestant, again highly devastated by the brown coal mining industry. The biggest tourist attraction of the region and in the whole Lusatia are the marshlands, with many Spreewald/Błóta canals, picturesque broads of the Spree.

Worn mainly by older but on holidays by young women, regional costumes are colourful, including a large headscarf called "lapa", rich in golden embroidering and differing from village to village.

In some villages, following traditions are observed: Shrovetide, Maik, Easter bonfires, Roosters catching/hunting. In Jänschwalde (Sorbian: Janšojcach) so-called Janšojki bog (disguised young girl) gives Christmas presents.

Lusatian anthem

in Lower Sorbian

New Lower Sorbian - Brandenburg Flag
Rědna Łužyca
Rědna Łužyca,
spšawna, pśijazna,
mojich serbskich woścow kraj,
mojich glucnych myslow raj,
swěte su mě twoje strony.
Cas ty pśichodny,
zakwiś radostny!
Och, gab muže stanuli,
za swoj narod źěłali,
godne nimjer wobspomnjeśa!

in Upper Sorbian

New Upper Sorbian - Saxon Flag since 2006
Rjana Łužica
Rjana Łužica,
sprawna přećelna,
mojich serbskich wótcow kraj,
mojich zbóžnych sonow raj,
swjate su mi twoje hona!
Časo přichodny,
zakćěj radostny!
Ow, zo bychu z twojeho
klina wušli mužojo,
hódni wěčnoh wopomnjeća!

The Sorbs and Poland

Lusatia was part of the Polish state between 1002 to 1031 under the rule of Bolesław I.

Bolesław I had taken control of the marches of Lusatia (Łużyce), Sorbian Meissen (Miśnia), and the cities of Budziszyn (Bautzen) and Meissen in 1002, and refused to pay the tribute to the Empire from the conquered territories. Bolesław, after the Polish-German War (1002–1018), signed the Peace of Bautzen on 30 January 1018, which made Bolesław I a clear winner. The Polish ruler was able to keep the contested marches of Lusatia and Sorbian Meissennot as fiefs, but as part of Polish territory.[19][20]

One of the pioneers of the cooperation between the two nations was Polish historian Greater Poland (Polish: Wielkopolska, a district of western Poland). After the creation of East Germany, Prołuż was dissolved, and its president historian from Poznań Alojzy Stanisław Matyniak was arrested.[21]


According to a study published in May 2011, Sorbs show the greatest genetic similarity to Czechs and Poles, consistent with their West Slavic language.[8] They show subtle evidence of genetic isolation but less than Sardinians and French Basques.[8]


During the 1840s, many Sorbian émigrés travelled to Australia, along with many ethnic Germans. The first was Jan Rychtar, a Wendish Moravian Brethren missionary who settled in Sydney during 1844.[22] There were two major migrations of Upper Sorbs and Lower Sorbs to Australia, in 1848 and 1850 respectively. The diaspora settled mainly in South Australia – especially the Barossa Valley – as well as Victoria and New South Wales.

Many Wends also migrated from Lusatia to the United States, especially Texas.[23]

Relationship to Ashkenazi Jews

In his much discussed book The Ashkenazic Jews,[24] the Israeli linguist Paul Wexler suggests that Ashkenazi Jews are to a significant extent descendants of Sorbs who mixed with Jews with Middle Eastern origins and that the Yiddish language structure provides "compelling evidence of an intimate Jewish contact with the Slavs in the German and Bohemian lands as early as the 9th century."[9] Wexler has theorized that the Sorbian language may have been the ancestor of Yiddish from the genetic linguistic perspective, although it became “re-lexified” with Germanic-derived words between the 9th and 13th centuries due to the contacts with neighbouring German populations.[25]


  • Filip Gańczak Mniejszość w czasach popkultury, Newsweek, nr 22/2007, 03.06.2007.
  • W kręgu Krabata. Szkice o Juriju Brězanie, literaturze, kulturze i językach łużyckich, pod red. J.Zarka, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego, Katowice, 2002.
  • Mirosław Cygański, Rafał Leszczyński Zarys dziejów narodowościowych Łużyczan PIN, Instytut Śląski, Opole 1997.
  • Die Sorben in Deutschland, pod red. M.Schiemann, Stiftung für das sorbische Volk, Görlitz 1997.
  • Mały informator o Serbołużyczanach w Niemczech, pod red. J.Pětrowej, Załožba za serbski lud, 1997.
  • Dolnoserbske nałogi/Obyczaje Dolnych Łużyc, pod red. M.Stock, Załožba za serbski lud, 1997.
  • "Rys dziejów serbołużyckich" Wilhelm Bogusławski Piotrogród 1861
  • "Prołuż Akademicki Związek Przyjaciół Łużyc" Jakub Brodacki. Polska Grupa Marketingowa 2006 ISBN 83-60151-00-8.
  • "Polska wobec Łużyc w drugiej połowie XX wieku. Wybrane problemy", Mieczkowska Małgorzata, Szczecin 2006 ISBN 83-7241-487-4.
  • "A Rock Against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends". Charles Wukasch. Austin: Concordia University Press, 2004.
  • "Sorbs," David Zersen, in Germans and the Americas: Culture, Politics and History, 3 vols., edited by Thomas Adam. ABC-CLIO, 2005.

See also


  1. ^

External links

  • The Domowina Institution
  • SERBSKE NOWINY - Sorbian Newspaper
  • SERBSKI INSTITUT - Sorbian history and culture
  • - independent Sorbian internet magazine
  • WorldHeritage in Upper Sorbian (hsb)
  • Sorbian emigration into Australia
  • Project Rastko - Lusatia, Electronic Library of Sorbian-Serbian Ties
  • Texas Wendish Heritage Society
  • Wendish Heritage Society of Australia
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