Who are the Sorbs?

Brendan McGuigan

The Sorbs are an ethnic group of about 60,000 people traditionally residing in Germany. Small emigrant populations also exist in nearby Poland and the Czech Republic, and approximately 30,000 Sorbs in the United States. It is thought that they are related to the Serbian people, although this is considered unproven. The Lusatian Sorbs are also known by the name Wends.

Many Sorbs were sent to concentration camps during World War II.
Many Sorbs were sent to concentration camps during World War II.

Sometime in the late 6th century the Sorbs arrived in the region they now inhabit, between the Nysa and Elbe rivers, straddling the Spree. This is the region today known as Lusatia in Germany, although historically it also included portions of the Czech Republic and Poland.

Sorbs were one of the ethnic minorities targeted by Nazis in World War II.
Sorbs were one of the ethnic minorities targeted by Nazis in World War II.

In the early-9th century their homeland was invaded by one of Charlemagne’s sons, and the major city of Bautzen was razed. Over the next few centuries they would continue to be invaded and harassed, until they eventually capitulated near the end of the 11th century. The new German rulers treated them as second-class citizens, and their ways of life were slowly undermined. The easiest path to success under German rule was to adopt the German language and relinquish their Slavic heritage, which many did.

At the same time, the Christianization of the Sorbs accelerated immensely under German rule. Though some hled out, retaining the traditional Pagan Wendish religion, in the late-12th century the Danes led a Crusade against the remaining Pagan Wends, destroying a temple complex at Arkona, and completing the process of Christianization.

Over the next two centuries Germans were brought in to the Wendish land to settle it extensively, shifting the population from predominantly Slavic to predominantly German. Most of the Wends were nearly completely assimilated by this German migration, with only small pockets of Sorbs and Kashubs remaining.

When the Protestant Reformation came about, the Sorbs joined the Germans in flocking to Martin Luther. Caught up in the spirit of his push towards translating the holy texts into vernacular, they created a written language in order to publish his Small Catechism.

The Sorbs suffered particularly during the Black Death, and the Germans used this as yet another opportunity to move more immigrants into the region. After the Congress of Vienna, German migration increased even further, and Sorbs were denied many of their basic rights, although they fought to retain their cultural heritage.

Many migrated to the United States in this period, during the mid-19th century, settling particularly heavily in parts of Texas, where their descendents continue to have thriving communities to this day. Others remained in Lusatia, which was eventually absorbed into the united Germany in the late-19th century.

Along with other ethnic minorities, Sorbs were targeted by the Nazi party during World War II. Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party, instituted a plan to push them out of Germany and into Poland, and many others were killed by the army or sent to concentration camps. Marginalization continued for several decades after the war. When Germany was reunified in 1990, the Sorbs began to push more strongly for equal rights and a reaffirmation of their cultural heritage.

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