Poland′s German minority faces tough times in Silesia | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.07.2016
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Poland's German minority faces tough times in Silesia

Members of the German minority in Silesia are set to lose representation on local councils, and German as an auxiliary language will vanish from many administrative offices. Officials in Germany have expressed concern.

A recent decision by Poland's government has caused uproar and outrage around the town of Opole. The regime wants to incorporate 12 villages from four of the municipalities into the town itself, and is ignoring protest from the affected residents. Up to 99 percent of people in the municipalities, Poles and Germans alike, are opposed to the enlargement of the town.

"The decision was taken in an expedited procedure," Rafal Bartek, the head of SKGD, the regional German social and cultural society, told DW. "The day before consultations with local representatives were due to take place, Warsaw itself took the decision," Bartek said. "This shows how weak and fragile our democracy is." Bartek said the government's move contravened protections for minorities, which forbids the alteration of national circumstances by administrative means.

The enlargement of Opole will reduce the proportion of Germans, who generally make up about 15 percent of the population in the individual communities. Following integration with the city of Opole, it will fall to just 2 percent. Consequently, people of German origin living there will no longer be granted representation on the municipal council, bilingual town signs will disappear, and German will lose its status as an auxiliary language in many administrative offices.

"Of course, everyone of German origin living Poland also speaks Polish," Bartek said. "But the presence of the German language in public life is an important indication of acceptance for the more than 100,000 Germans who have been living in Silesia's Opole region for generations."

Rafal Bartek in Opole

Bartek said the comments made about ethnic Germans had become alarming

System not 'totalitarian'

The mayor of Opole, Arkadiusz Wisniewski, sees it differently. He's pleased that his town will grow by about 50 percent, from almost 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) to 15,000. He doesn't consider it a problem that, as a result, the relationships between population groups will shift where nationality is concerned. Wisniewski told DW that the minority would be treated exactly the same in Opole as it has been in the villages. He said the minority already had a representative on the Opole town council and, to date, there had been no attacks against Germans, either.

The mayor is keen to assure people that no one has anything to fear. Germans will continue living in their houses, he said, with the same neighbors and gardens; no one is going to "throw them out." They aren't living "in a totalitarian system.".

Concerns have been expressed in Berlin. "As citizens with full rights in the Republic of Poland, it is the legitimate right of the members of a German minority to use the means of a constitutional state to strive to have this decision corrected," Hartmut Koschyk, Germany's federal commissioner for national minorities, said in a statement to the press. He added that some of the political declarations currently being made in the public discussion in Poland are "unfortunately also directed against the German minority."

One example of this came from Wisniewski's Facebook page. A since-deleted post accused Opole's Germans of being "the biggest political force protesting against the enlargement of the town." It also included photographs of local politicians of German origin with the question: "Are these people working in the interests of the Poles in the Opole region?"

Harsh comments are also being made elsewhere online. "Great, that's the way to do it, now a few bilingual town signs will disappear from Poland." And: "It's Poland, the official language is Polish. If the Germans don't like it, they should move to Germany!"

Economic interests play a part in the anti-German propaganda. In one parish, where people of German origin make up 18 percent of the inhabitants, there is a big power plant - an important source of tax income for the local authority. The state is the principal owner, yet Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki recently asked: "Why should the power plant be in German hands?" The SKGD's Bartek said such comments played on nationalism.

Emotions and lawsuits

Poland's civil rights ombudsman has intervened. Adam Bodnar said there were strong emotions on both sides and warned that "if the government does not reverse the decision, the conflict will escalate." Political representatives of the German minority in Poland, such as Ryszard Galla, a member of the lower house of parliament, have already announced that they intend to bring a lawsuit before the Constitutional Tribunal.

Their chances of success are small. Poland's top court has been paralyzed for months and is the subject of a political dispute. The national-conservative government is ignoring the judgments of the tribunal, and towns are deciding for themselves whether to recognize the judgments or follow the government's example. Opole is loyally sticking to the government line. So, if the court were to declare the enlargement of the town at the expense of villages with large native German populations unlawful, Mayor Wisniewski would be able to ignore this, too.

This week, advocates and opponents of the enlargement plans, inhabitants of the affected municipalities, and representatives of the town, the voivodeship and the church are all planning to meet in Opole. Citizens' initiative groups have announced that there will be protests.

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