Poland and the Silesians: Minority Rights à la Carte?1

By Kamusella, Tomasz | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Poland and the Silesians: Minority Rights à la Carte?1


Kamusella, Tomasz, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


The Silesians are an ethnic or national group that coalesced in the nineteenth century. During the subsequent century, they survived repeated divisions of their historical region of Upper Silesia among the nation-states of Czechoslovakia (or today its western half, that is, the Czech Republic), Germany, and Poland, which entailed Czechization, Germanization, and Polonization, respectively. The ideal of ethnolinguistic homogeneity, a typical goal of Central European nationalism, was achieved in post-war Poland. After the end of communism (1989) and the country's accession to the European Union (2004), this ideal is still aspired to, though it appears to stand in direct conflict with the values of democracy and rule of law. The Silesians are the largest minority in today's Poland and Silesian speakers are the second largest speech community in this country after Polish-speakers. Despite the Silesians' wish to be recognized as a minority, expressed clearly in their grassroots initiatives and in the Polish censuses of 2002 and 2011, Poland neither recognizes them nor their language. This inflexible attitude may amount to a breach of the spirit (if not the letter) of the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, both of which Poland signed and ratified. The case of the Silesians is a litmus test of the quality of Polish democracy. In order to resolve the debacle, the article proposes a genuine dialogue between representatives of Silesian organizations and the Polish administration under the guidance of observers and facilitators from the Council of Europe and appropriate international non-governmental organizations.

Keywords: census, ethnolinguistic nationalism, linguistic rights, minority rights protection, misuse of statistics, non-recognition, Poland, Silesian language, Silesians

The article presents the little known issue of present-day Poland's largest minority (817,000), the Silesians, who remain unrecognized in their home country to this day, and their language (spoken by 509,000 persons), which suffers the same fate of non- recognition'. The goal is to draw the attention of the international community of researchers and human rights observers to the subject, so that more studies and polls could be devoted to the Silesians. At present, due to the lack of such studies, there is a profound lack of clarity regarding how the Silesians emerged as a group, what they may think of their situation nowadays, and what change (if any) they may desire. Until very recently, the history and even the very agency of the Silesians were a priori subsumed either in the Czech, German or Polish national master narrative. Thus, in the article, I attempt to provide a tentative historical overview of the group's past before focusing on the efforts for regaining agency for and by the Silesians as a group in their own right.

As a backdrop to the analysis, I first delve into the logic of the ideology of nationalism that determines the processes of nation-state building and maintenance in the modern world and age of globalization. Second, I focus on the nature and paradoxes of the exclusivist ethnolinguistic nature of the Polish nation-state founded in 1918. The upheavals of the Great War in 1918, World War II, and the 1989 fall of communism deliver three periods in the history of this national polity that are radically different in ideology and forms of governance. Internar Poland moved gradually from nascent democracy to authoritarianism. Communist Poland stuck to the economic and political orthodoxies associated with the Soviet-style totalitarianism. Post-communist, democratic and liberal Poland, which subscribed to free market economy, was deemed trustworthy enough to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004.

Nonetheless, all three Polands, which are seemingly so different from one another, share the same approach to the minorities residing in the state. …

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