Demographics of Silesia

For other uses, see Silesia (disambiguation).

Silesia (Upper Silesia.


Silesia is rich in mineral and natural resources and includes several important industrial areas. Silesia's largest city and historical capital is Wrocław. Other large cities are Opole, Gliwice, and Katowice in Poland; Ostrava and Opava in the Czech Republic; and Zgorzelec in Poland; on west bank of Oder Görlitz in Germany. Silesia's main river is the Oder.

Silesia's borders and national affiliation have changed over time, both when it was a hereditary possession of noble houses and after the rise of modern nation-states. The first known states to hold power there were those of Greater Moravia at end of the 9th century and Bohemia early in the 10th century. In the 10th century Silesia was incorporated into the early Polish state, but it later broke into independent duchies, coming under increasing Czech and German influence. In the 14th century it became a constituent part of the Bohemian Crown Lands under the Holy Roman Empire, which passed to the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy in 1526.

Most of Silesia was conquered by Prussia in 1742, later becoming part of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany up to 1945. After World War I the easternmost part of this region was awarded to Poland by the victorious Allies after rebellions by Silesian Polish people and a plebiscite. After the war the bulk of Silesia was transferred to Polish jurisdiction and became part of Poland. The remaining parts of Silesia went to Czechoslovakia after World War I, and are part of the Czech Republic. The part of Silesia west of the Oder-Neisse line remained in Germany.

Most inhabitants of Silesia today speak the national languages of their respective countries (Polish, Czech, German). There is an ongoing debate whether a local Silesian speech should be considered a Polish dialect or a separate language. There also exists a Silesian German or Lower Silesian language, although this form of German is almost extinct.


The names of Silesia in the different languages most likely share their etymology—Latin and English: Silesia; Polish: Śląsk; Old Polish: Ślążsk[o]; Silesian: Ślůnsk; German: Schlesien; Silesian German: Schläsing; Czech: Slezsko; Slovak: Sliezsko; Kashubian: Sląsk; Upper Sorbian: Šleska; Lower Sorbian: Šlazyńska. The names all relate to the name of a river (now Ślęza) and mountain (Mount Ślęża) in mid-southern Silesia. The mountain is believed to have served as a holy place in prehistoric times.

Ślęża is listed as one of the numerous Pre-Indo-European topographic names in the region (see old European hydronymy).[1]

According to some Polish Slavists the name ‘Ślęża’ [ˈɕlɛ̃ʐa] or ‘Ślęż’ [ˈɕlɛ̃ʐ] is directly related to the Old Slavic words "ślęg" [ˈɕlɛ̃ɡ] or "śląg" [ˈɕlɔ̃ɡ], which means dampness, moisture or humidity.[2] They disagree with the hypothesis of an origin for the name Śląsk [ˈɕlɔ̃sk] from the name of the Silings tribe, an etymology preferred by some German authors.[3]


Main article: History of Silesia

In the fourth century BC Celts entered Silesia, settling around Mount Ślęża near modern Wrocław, Oława, and Strzelin.[4] Germanic tribes were first recorded within Silesia in the first century . Slavic peoples arrived in the region around the seventh century,[5] and by the early ninth century their settlements had stabilized. Local Slavs started to erect boundary structures like the Silesian Przesieka and the Silesia Walls. The eastern border of Silesian settlement was situated to the west of the Bytom, and east from Racibórz and Cieszyn. East of this line dwelt a closely related Slav tribe, the Vistulans. Their northern border was in the valley of the Barycz river, north of which lived the Polans.[6]

The first known states in Silesia were Greater Moravia and Bohemia. In the tenth century, the Polish ruler Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty incorporated Silesia into the Polish state. During the Fragmentation of Poland, Silesia, as well as the rest of the country, was divided among many independent duchies ruled by various Silesian dukes. During this time, German cultural and ethnic influence increased as a result of immigration from German-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1178, parts of the Duchy of Kraków around Bytom, Oświęcim, Chrzanów and Siewierz were transferred to the Silesian Piasts, although their population was primarily Vistulan and not of Silesian descent.[6]

Between 1289 and 1292 Bohemian king Wenceslaus II became suzerain of some of the Upper Silesian duchies. It wasn't until 1335, however, that Polish kings renounced their hereditary rights to Silesia.[7] The province became part of the Bohemian Crown under the Holy Roman Empire, and passed with that crown to the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria in 1526.

In the 15th century several changes were made to Silesia's borders. Parts of the territories which had been transferred to the Silesian Piasts in 1178 were bought by the Polish kings in the second half of the 15th century (the Duchy of Oświęcim in 1457; the Duchy of Zator in 1494). The Bytom area remained in the possession of the Silesian Piasts, even though it was a part of the Diocese of Kraków.[6] The Duchy of Crossen was inherited by the Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1476, and with the renunciation of King Ferdinand I and the estates of Bohemia in 1538, became an integral part of Brandenburg.

In 1742, most of Silesia was seized by King Frederick the Great of Prussia in the War of the Austrian Succession, becoming the Prussian Province of Silesia; consequently, Silesia became part of the German Empire when it was proclaimed in 1871.

After World War I, Upper Silesia was contested by Germany and the newly independent Second Polish Republic. The League of Nations organized a plebiscite to decide the issue in 1921. It resulted in 60% of votes being cast for Germany and 40% for Poland. Following the third Silesian Uprising (1921), however, the easternmost portion of Upper Silesia (including Katowice), with a majority ethnic Polish population, was awarded to Poland, becoming the Silesian Voivodeship. The Prussian Province of Silesia within Germany was then divided into the provinces of Lower Silesia and Upper Silesia. Meanwhile Austrian Silesia, the small portion of Silesia retained by Austria after the Silesian Wars, was mostly awarded to the new Czechoslovakia (becoming known as Czech Silesia), although most of Cieszyn and territory to the east of it went to Poland (see Zaolzie).

Polish Silesia was among the first regions invaded during Germany's 1939 attack on Poland. One of the goals of Nazi occupation, particularly in Upper Silesia, was to exterminate those who Nazis viewed as subhuman Jews and ethnic Poles. The Polish and Jewish population of Silesia was subjected to genocide involving ethnic cleansing and mass murder, while German colonists were settled in pursuit of Lebensraum.[8] Two thousand Polish intellectuals, politicians and businessmen were murdered in the "Intelligenzaktion Schlesien"[9] in 1940 as part of a Poland wide Germanization program. Silesia also housed one of the two main wartime centers where medical experiments were conducted on kidnapped Polish children by Nazis.[10]

The Potsdam Conference of 1945 concluded that the Oder-Neisse would be the official border between Germany and Poland. Millions of Germans in Silesia, either fled or were expelled, and were replaced later by Polish population settled from other region. Furthermore, the newly formed Polish United Workers' Party created a Ministry of the Recovered Territories that claimed half of the available arable land for state-run collectivized farms. Many Silesian residents not only resented the Germans for their invasion in 1939, but now also the newly formed Polish communist government for their population shifting and interference in agricultural, as well as industrial, affairs.[11]

The administrative division of Silesia within Poland has changed several times since 1945. Since 1999 it has been divided between Lubusz Voivodeship, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Opole Voivodeship, and Silesian Voivodeship. Czech Silesia is now part of the Czech Republic, forming the Moravian-Silesian Region and the northern part of the Olomouc Region. Germany retains the Silesia-Lusatia region (Niederschlesien-Oberlausitz or Schlesische Oberlausitz) west of the Neisse, which is part of the federal state of Saxony.


Most of Silesia is relatively flat, although its southern border is generally mountainous. It is primarily located in a swath running along both banks of the upper and middle Oder (Odra) river, but it extends eastwards to the upper Vistula river. The region also includes many tributaries of the Oder, including the Bóbr (and its tributary the Kwisa), the Barycz and the Nysa Kłodzka. The Sudeten mountains run along most of the southern edge of the region, though at its south-eastern extreme it reaches the Silesian Beskids and Moravian-Silesian Beskids, which belong to the Carpathian range.

Historically, Silesia was bounded to the west by the Kwisa and Bóbr rivers, while the territory west of the Kwisa was in Upper Lusatia (earlier Milsko). However, because part of Upper Lusatia was included in the Province of Silesia in 1815, in Germany Görlitz, Niederschlesischer Oberlausitzkreis and neighbouring areas are considered parts of historical Silesia. Those districts, along with Poland's Lower Silesian Voivodeship and parts of Lubusz Voivodeship, make up the geographic region of Lower Silesia.

Silesia has undergone a similar notional extension at its eastern extreme. Historically it extended only as far as the Brynica river, which separates it from Zagłębie Dąbrowskie in the Lesser Poland region. However to many Poles today, Silesia (Śląsk) is understood to cover all of the area around Katowice, including Zagłębie. This interpretation is given official sanction in the use of the name Silesian Voivodeship (województwo śląskie) for the province covering this area. In fact the word Śląsk in Polish (when used without qualification) now commonly refers exclusively to this area (also called Górny Śląsk or Upper Silesia).

As well as the Katowice area, historical Upper Silesia also includes the Opole region (Poland's Opole Voivodeship) and Czech Silesia. Czech Silesia consists of a part of the Moravian-Silesian Region and the Jeseník District in the Olomouc Region.

Natural resources

Silesia is a resource-rich and populous region.

Since the middle of the 18th century, coal has been mined. The industry grew during German rule and peaked in the 1970s under the People's Republic of Poland. During this period Silesia became one of the world's largest producers of coal, with a record tonnage in 1979.[12] Coal mining declined during the next two decades but has increased again following the end of Communist rule.

There are 41 coal mines in Silesia, most forming part of the Gornoslaskie Zaglebie Weglowe coalfield which lies in the Silesian Upland. The field has an area of about 4,500 km2.[12] Deposits in Lower Silesia have proven to be difficult to exploit and the area's unprofitable mines were closed in 2000.[12] In 2008 an estimated 35 billion tonnes of lignite reserves was found near Legnica, making them some of the largest in the world.[13]

From the fourth century BC iron ore has been mined in the upland areas of Silesia.[12] The same period saw lead, copper, silver and gold mining. Zinc, cadmium, arsenic,[14] and uranium[15] have also been mined in the region. Lower Silesia features large copper mining and processing between the cities of Legnica, Głogów, Lubin and Polkowice.

The region is known for stone quarrying [12] to produce limestone, marl, marble, and basalt.

Annual production of minerals in Silesia
Mineral Name Production (tonnes) Reference
Bituminous coal 95,000,000
Copper 571,000 [16]
Zinc 160,000 [17]
Silver 1,200 [18]
Cadmium 500 [19]
Lead 70,000 [20]

The region also has a thriving agricultural sector, which produces cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn), potatoes, rapeseed, sugar beets and others. Milk production is well developed. The Opole Silesia has for decades occupied the top spot in Poland for their indices of effectiveness of agricultural land use.[21]

Mountainous parts of southern Silesia feature many significant and attractive tourism destinations (e.g., Karpacz, Szczyrk, Wisła). Silesia is generally well forested. This is because greenness is generally highly desirable by the local population, particularly in the highly industrialized parts of Silesia.


Modern Silesia is inhabited by Poles, Germans, Czechs and Silesians. The last Polish census of 2002 showed that the Silesians are the largest national minority in Poland, Germans being the second; both groups are located mostly in Upper Silesia. The Czech part of Silesia is inhabited by Czechs, Moravians, Silesians and Poles.

Before the Second World War, Silesia was inhabited mostly by Germans and Poles, with a Czech and Jewish minority. In 1905, a census showed that 75% of the population were Germans and 25% Poles. The German population tended to be based in the urban centres and in the rural areas to the north and west, whilst the Polish population was generally rural and in the east.[23]

Existing from the Twelfth Century[24] Silesia's Jewish community was concentrated around Wrocław and Upper Silesia, numbered 48,003 (1.1% of the population) in 1890, decreasing to 44,985 persons (0.9%) by 1910.[25] In Polish East Upper Silesia the number of Jews was around 90,000-100,000.[26] Historically the community had suffered a number of localised expulsions such as their 1453 expulsion from Wrocław.[27]

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, following Nazi racial policy, the Jewish population of Silesia was subjected to Nazi genocide with executions performed by Einsatzgruppe z. B.V led by Udo von Woyrsch and Einsatzgruppe I led by Bruno Streckenbach,[28][29] imprisonment in ghettos and ethnic cleansing to the General Government. In their efforts to exterminate Poles and Jews through murder and ethnic cleansing Nazi established in Silesia province the Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen camps. Expulsions were carried out openly and reported in the local press.[30] Those sent to ghettos would from 1942 be expelled to concentration and work camps.[31] Between 5 May and 17 June, 20,000 Silesian Jews were sent to Birkenau to gas chambers[32] and during August 1942 10,000 to 13,000 Silesian Jews were murdered by gassing at Auschwitz.[33] Most Jews in Silesia were exterminated by the Nazis. After the war Silesia became a major centre for repatriation of Jewish population in Poland which survived Nazi German extermination[34] and in Autumn 1945 there were 15,000 Jews in Lower Silesia mostly Polish Jews returned from territories now belonging to Soviet Union,[35] rising in 1946 to seventy thousand[36] as Jewish survivors from other regions in Poland were relocated.[37]

The majority of Germans fled or were expelled from the present-day Polish and Czech parts of Silesia during and after World War II. From June 1945 to January 1947, 1.77 million Germans were expelled from Lower Silesia, and 310,000 from Upper Silesia.[38] Today, most German Silesians and their descendants live in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, many of them in the Ruhr area working as miners, like their ancestors in Silesia. In order to smooth their integration into West German society after 1945, they were placed into officially recognized organizations, like the Landsmannschaft Schlesien, with financing from the federal Western German budget. One of its most notable but controversial spokesmen was the CDU politician Herbert Hupka.

The expulsion of Germans led to widespread underpopulation. The population of the town of Glogau fell from 33,500 to 5,000, and from 1939 to 1966 the population of Wrocław fell by 25%.[39] Attempts to repopulate Silesia proved unsuccessful in the 1940s and 1950s,[40] and it was not until the late 1970s that Silesia's population reached pre-war levels.


The following table lists the cities in Silesia with a population greater than 100,000 (2006)

Name Population Area Administrative Country
Wrocław 632,162 293 km2 (113 sq mi) Lower Silesian V.
Ostrava* 336,556 214 km2 (83 sq mi) Moravian-Silesian R.
Katowice 317,220 165 km2 (64 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Gliwice 199,451 134 km2 (52 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Bytom 187,943 69 km2 (27 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Zabrze 191,247 80 km2 (31 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Bielsko-Biała* 176,864 125 km2 (48 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Ruda Śląska 146,658 78 km2 (30 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Rybnik 141,580 148 km2 (57 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Tychy 131,153 82 km2 (32 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Opole 128,268 97 km2 (37 sq mi) Opole Voivodeship
Wałbrzych 126,465 85 km2 (33 sq mi) Lower Silesian V.
Zielona Góra 118,221 58 km2 (22 sq mi) Lubusz Voivodeship
Chorzów 114,686 33 km2 (13 sq mi) Silesian Voivodeship
Legnica 105,750 56 km2 (22 sq mi) Lower Silesian V.
* Only part in Silesia

See also



Further reading

  • Powstanie, rozwój i zanik skupiska Żydów na Dolnym Śląsku (1945-1968) Współcześni Żydzi - Polska i diaspora - red. Ewa Waszkiewicz. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2007
  • de Zayas, Alfred M.: A terrible Revenge. Palgrave/Macmillan, New York, 1994. ISBN 1-4039-7308-3.
  • de Zayas, Alfred M.: Nemesis at Potsdam. London, 1977. ISBN 0-8032-4910-1.
  • Douglas, R.M.: Orderly and Humane. The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0300166606.
  • Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919–1939, 1st Series, volume XI, Upper Silesia, Poland, and the Baltic States, January 1920-March 1921, edited by Rohan Butler, MA, J.P.T.Bury, MA, & M.E.Lambert, MA, Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), London, 1961 (amended edition 1974), ISBN 0-11-591511-7
  • Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919–1939, 1st Series, volume XVI, Upper Silesia, March 1921 – November 1922, edited by W.N. Medlicott, MA, D.Lit., Douglas Dakin, MA, PhD, & M.E.Lambert, MA, HMSO, London, 1968
  • Kleineberg A., Marx Ch., Knobloch E., Lelgemann D.: Germania und die Insel Thule. Die Entschlüsselung von Ptolemaios: "Atlas der Oikumene". Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2010.
  • Microcosm, Portrait of a Central European City, by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse (Jonathan Cape, 2002) ISBN 0-224-06243-3
  • Dehio - Handbuch der Kunstdenkmäler in Polen: Schlesien, Herder-Institut Marburg and Krajowy Osrodek Badan i Dokumentacji Zabytkow Warszawa, Deutscher Kunstverlag 2005, ISBN 3-422-03109-X

External links

  • Silesia in Europe page
  • Map of Silesia in 1763
  • Old postcards from Silesian towns
  • Photos from Silesian towns, villages and communities before 1946
  • Map of Silesia as of 2000
  • Silesia in maps of Europe
  • Combined European History Exhibit by Germans, Poles, Czech, Slovaks and Hungarians

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