The Poles in Germany, 1919-1939

Article excerpt

Since the conclusion of World War II, Polish and non-Polish authors alike have written exhaustively on the subjects of German-Polish diplomatic relations during the decades between the world conflicts, as well as the position of the German population included within the borders of the resurrected Polish state following the Versailles settlement. However, the fate of the Polish minority living within the truncated German state has not received an equal amount of balanced treatment. To be sure, Polish scholars and writers have focused considerable attention on this population group, in the process producing a body of literature occasionally overwhelming in its minute details. German scholars have displayed far less interest in the Polish minority, and when it appears in English-language works, it does so either as a sub-theme in a broader study of German-Polish foreign relations or, as in the recent work by Richard Blanke on the German minority in Poland, as a factor influencing intergovernmental minority policy.(1)

This paper attempts to fill that apparent gap in scholarship by providing an overview of the Polish minority in inter-war Germany. After presenting its demographic profile, the paper will offer a survey of the population's social, cultural and economic life, as well as its political activities within Germany. Considerations of time and space require only a cursory discussion of the highlights in each category, and the omission of any treatment of its role in international relations.


Any scholar attempting to profile population groups in inter-war Central and Eastern Europe must preface the discussion with a caveat regarding the validity of figures drawn both from official government sources and from claims made by specific ethnic groups concerning their "actual" (as opposed to "reported") numbers. The case of the Poles in Germany is no exception. The official government censuses in 1925 and 1933 differentiated the population by nationality according to language.(2) These totals found 301,968 Polish-speakers in 1925, but only 113,010 in 1933; when bilingual speakers (Polish-German, Polish-Mazurian) were added, the totals rose to 1,525,556 (1925) and 440,168 (1933). In either case, the government noted a clear decrease in its Polish population over less than one decade. Predictably, both contemporary and post-war Polish observers have contested those figures. Starting with the last pre-war German census of 1910 and limiting it to the final post-war borders as set in 1922, they have arrived at dramatically higher totals. Using natural population growth rates combined with migration trends, they calculate that in 1925 ethnic Poles (irrespective of language spoken) totaled 1,414,000 - a figure that had risen to 1,593,000 by 1935 and projected to 1,658,000 on the eve of World War II.(3) Splitting the difference gives an approximate figure of 1,000,000 Poles in Germany that is probably close to reality.

Whatever its actual size, the German Polish population was internally differentiated in terms of both geographical dispersal and socio-economic profile. By far most lived in areas that adjoined the Polish Republic. The largest segment (600-800,000) lived in German Upper Silesia.(4) Most were rural dwellers (approximately 80%), mainly smallholding peasants without any defined sense of national identity, while the remainder lived in cities as industrial workers, craftsmen or small shopkeepers; the urban residents tended to be heavily Germanized. Next in size came the Mazury-Warmia-Powisle area of East Prussia, with a Polish population estimated in the 400550,000 range.(5) This group tended to be the most diverse in Germany, including in its ranks a few large landowners and small groupings of intellectuals, craftsmen and industrial workers, although once again, most were smallholding peasants or farm workers. The Lower Silesian Poles (60,000) tended to concentrate in and around the city of Breslau/Wroclaw, where they were either industrial workers, craftsmen, farm workers or smallholders. …


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