Tomasz Kamusella: Opole University – Between Inclusion and Polonization

Opole University:
Between Inclusion and Polonization

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

The University of Opole was founded to serve the educational needs and the development of Opole Region. But it continues to fail in the fulfilment of these crucial goals by not acknowledging the region’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Like in the national communist period prior to 1989, ethnic Poles originating from outside the region predominate among the university’s teaching and research staff. On the other hand, the region’s indigenous Silesians and Germans are over-represented in the ranks of the cleaning and technical staff. For the sake of equality and preventing discrimination, Opole Region’s ethnically different groups of population should be represented in roughly the same ratios among all the different types of the university’s employees.


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Dark Twentieth Century

In 1954 the first-ever tertiary educational institution opened in Opole Region (Województwo Opolskie), namely, a Pedagogical College (WSP, Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna). It was located in the region’s administrative center of Opole, which used to be the historical capital of Upper Silesia. Exactly four decades later, and five years after the fall of communism, this college was transformed into a full-fledged Opole University (UO, Uniwersytet Opolski) in 1994.

For the Polish government, the western and central sections of historical Upper Silesia – in the wake of World War II fashioned into Opole Region – were of special concern. Until 1945 these areas belonged to Germany, like the rest of the German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line (deutsche Ostgebiete). At the Potsdam Conference, most of these territories were passed to Poland, with the exception of East Prussia that under the name of Kaliningrad Region was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Poland’s section of the deutsche Ostgebiete became known as the country’s Western and Northern Territories (Ziemie Zachodnie i Północne), though in Polish propaganda the emotional sobriquet Recovered Territories (Ziemie Odzyskane) was preferred.

In Potsdam, the Allies promised that they would fine-tune and reconfirm their decisions at a future general peace conference, which never took place. Hence, in the light of international law, Poland’s possession of these former German territories was fully recognized only thanks to the 1990 German-Polish border treaty, which was ratified in 1992.


Ethnic Cleansing and Forced Polonization

From Poland’s Western and Northern Territories all the pre-1945 inhabitants, seen as ‘indubitable Germans,’ were expelled. The only exceptions were Opole Region and, in the north, Mazuria (Mazury), or the southern section of the southern half of East Prussia, transformed into Olsztyn Region (Województwo Olsztyńskie). Both areas’ indigenous populations – Silesians and Mazurs, respectively – were designated as Autochtoni (Autochthons). The Polish authorities came up with this curious Greek neologism to ‘prove’ that these exclusively German-speaking or bilingual (German-Slavic) citizens of Germany were ‘ethnic Poles,’ though perhaps not (fully) aware of their Polishness. On this basis, the Autochthons were subsequently ‘nationally verified,’ or triaged, meaning the ‘Polonize-able’ were sifted from ‘convinced (indubitable) Germans.’ The latter, who constituted these two regions’ pre-war intellectual elite, were expelled, while the former – accounting for the majority of the inhabitants – retained.

The German elite was replaced with trusted ethnic Poles – or Polish-speaking Catholics – from what is now central and eastern Poland (or the western half of interwar Poland). They exclusively manned the region’s all administrative system, the management of the state-owned enterprises and the school network. Autochthons (Germans and Silesians), who accounted for two-thirds of the population were allowed to remain in their typically menial professions, as peasants, farmers and workers. Officially, they were Poles but unofficially they were not trusted and treated as ‘crypto-Germans,’ who could not speak ‘proper Polish.’ After all they spoke Silesian. Any official or private use of German was banned and strenuously eradicated.

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Both groups, ethnic Polish immigrants and Autochthons, kept separate. Endogamy remained Opole Region’s main social norm until the 1980s. During the 1970s limited visits from and to West Germany were allowed for Autochthons, so that they could reconnect with their relatives in this country. In return West Germany gave Poland a jumbo loan of DM2.3bn (or €3.6bn in 2022 money) in 1975. This led to the sanctioned emigration of Autochthons, who after crossing the West German border were seen there as ‘resettlers’ (Aussiedlers), that is, pre-1945 German citizens from the East (Ost), alongside their descendants. In a nutshell, Autochthonous Poles automatically became ethnic Germans as soon as they stepped in West Germany.

The initially tightly controlled emigration of Autochthons changed into a steady torrent of ‘defectors’ during the 1980s, marked by the chronic economic crisis of the communist system. In this context, in Opole Region, many ethnic Poles saw marriage with an Autochthon as a possibility to leave communist Poland for sought-for ‘normal life’ in capitalist West Germany. At that time, the previously strict endogamy began fading, while this sudden outflow of population to Germany plummeted the share of Autochthons among the region’s inhabitants to one third.


Democracy’s Unfulfilled Hopes

The end of communism in 1989 and the onset of democracy officially ended the policy of forced Polonization and the denial of the existence of Opole Region’s Germans. The WSP (Pedagogical College) was a mainstay of this policy, alongside the region’s premiere research institution, or the Silesian Institute (Instytut Śląski). A parallel process unfolded with the recognition of the fact that among the region’s postwar ethnic Polish settlers (immigrants) there were numerous ‘repatriates,’ or expellees from interwar Poland’s eastern territories annexed by the Soviet Union.

Yet, to this day, or three decades after the end of communism and counting, Warsaw refuses to recognize the existence of the ethnic group of Silesians. The majority of former Autochthons speak now Silesian as the language of their everyday and communal communication. In Opole Region, most Silesian-speakers identify as Germans, some as Silesians, and the smallest group as Poles. The last group stems from among the ranks of interwar Germany’s Polish minority. They concentrated in the country’s Province of Upper Silesia (Provinz Oberschlesien), which largely corresponds to today’s Opole Region.


Affirmative Action?

Shortly after the collapse of communism, I graduated from English-medium universities in the freshly post-apartheid South Africa and the postcommunist Czech Republic. Subsequently, during the latter half of the 1990s, I began my academic career at the newly founded University of Opole. Stemming from the Silesian-speaking milieu and with a strong belief in democracy and European integration, I decided to devote my research to the ethnic and sociolinguistic history of modern Upper Silesia.

Then, I also encountered the potent concept of socio-political equality as anchored in the demographic structure of a concerned state or region. This principle provided that all ethnolinguisticially and ethnoconfessionally distinguishable groups in a population should be represented in the same ratios at all levels of state or regional administration, among the top management in public and private enterprises or in the university teaching and technical staff. For instance, this concept social justice and equality constituted the foundation for affirmative action (positive discrimination) in the United States or South Africa. And nowadays, across the EU member states, it underpins the drive to reach gender parity in parliament and government, or among company executives and university professors.

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In 1997, I proposed a chrestomathy of Silesian-language literature to Opole University’s publishing house with an eye to opening a discussion on ethnic Silesian history and culture. I did not receive a reply from the publishing house to my letter with this project. The publishing house’s head never found time to meet me. Around this time, at a research seminar, I also tabled a project to probe into the ethnic structure of the university’s staff. I wanted to check whether my anecdotal intuition was correct (or not) that ethnic Poles are overrepresented among the teaching and research staff, while ethnic Silesians and Germans among the technical and cleaning staff. A reaction to my research project was dismissive, bordering on hardly concealed wrath. Yet, everyone at the university heard that standard Polish predominated in conversations among the former group of employees, while Silesian among the latter. This sociolinguistic reality used to stare us straight in the face, as it still does today.


From National Communism to Nationalism

In Poland communism ended in 1989. But was it really some adjective-less universal communism that terminated in this year? Actually, the ideological system instituted in Poland after 1956 was none other than national communism. A specific version of communism attuned to the needs and the ethnic character of a given nation, be it the Poles in Poland or the Bulgarians in Bulgaria. In the wake of the fall of communism across the Soviet bloc, typically this national half of national communism was retained. In the case of Poland, it became the common ideological denominator for the country’s ethnically Polish communists and anti-communists. As a result, to this day the Polish national master narrative demarcates the ideological limits of Polish democracy, especially so in Opole Region, which Polish nationalists still see as ‘nationally uncertain.’

To many Polish nationalists the ‘sudden appearance’ of Opole Region’s Germans in 1989 remains unacceptable to this day. These nationalists see them as ‘pseudo-Germans,’ because after almost half a century of forced Polonization, quite understandably, most do not speak even passable German. The irony is that in communist Poland autochthonous Poles were deemed to be ‘crypto-Germans,’ and their Silesian language was condemned as a ‘German dialect.’ At present, when it suits Polish national purposes, speaking Silesian constitutes a ‘proof’ that a local German ‘in reality’ is a Pole. It does not matter what the person concerned may think.

The same is even more true in the context of ethnic Silesians. Time and again they declared their existence and the fact that they speak their own language of Silesian in Poland’s all postcommunist censuses, thus far, in 2002, 2011 and 2021. However, Warsaw continues to deny their existence and the existence of their language. The government falsifies their declarations of Silesian nationality and language, arbitrarily redefining them, as respectively, membership in a ‘socio-regional group’ of the Polish nation and as a ‘dialect’ of the Polish language. The Polish Sejm (parliament) refuses to deliberate repeated proposals of bills that seek to recognize the Silesians as an ethnic minority and Silesian as a regional language, even if supported by 120,000 signatures.[1]

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Nationally Limited Opole University

The ideological constraints of the Polish national master narrative continue to curb and even close the Polish political mind and imagination, including its scholarly dimension. Between 1996 and 2004, Opole University’s Institute of Polish Philology conducted a ground-breaking project on the post-1945 history of the Slavic languages (Najnowsze Dzieje Języków Słowiańskich). It resulted in 14 volumes, each dedicated to a given Slavic language, including the non-state ethnic language of Rusyn and the regional language of Kashubian. At the turn of the 21st century, I proposed to this Institute that quite usefully a similar volume could be considered on the Silesian language. Like in the case of my earlier proposal of a chrestomathy of Silesian-language literature, this initiative was also rejected as ‘absurd.’ From the Polish national perspective, no Silesian language had ever existed or could be allowed to exist.

Similarly, no project has ever been considered on the impact of the 1968 ethnic cleansing of Poland’s Jews at Opole University’s predecessor, namely the WSP (Pedagogical College). Although this purge was not inconsiderable. After all, Maurycy Horn (1917-2000) was Rektor (President) of the WSP, while Bolesław Gleichgewicht (1919-2019) a renowned algebraist in the WSP’s Institute of Mathematics. Both were fired from the WSP for a mere fact of being of Jewish culture or religion, though they spoke and wrote exclusively in Polish and considered themselves Polish until 1968. Polish national communists would not accept their self-identification, while today’s Polish nationalists prefer not to remember about the antisemitic events of 1968.

In its Latin motto the University of Opole urges that in quest for the truth scholars should act as free people (in veritate conquirenda liberi progrediamur[2]). That the scholar ought to observe the principles of freedom of research and speech, not any national master narrative, even the Polish one. It is high time that for the good of Opole Region and its inhabitants, Opole University and its researchers began to take note of the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of the region’s inhabitants. That this diversity constitutes the developmental potential and socio-cultural capital of Opole Region. That this diversity should be cherished and researched with an eye to a more equal and just university and region in multicultural united Europe. This is a future worth subscribing to and striving for.

Otherwise, these high-sounding principles will remain a mere hifalutin flourish, not worth remembering next decade. Without the remembrance and clear-eyed comprehension of the past no viable future is possible. The least Opole University could do for this goal is to adopt German as an equal medium of instruction. What is more, its scholars should start as intensively researching Silesian language and culture, as they do now state Slavic languages and cultures. This is a simple program of forward-looking action. It is only the Polish national master narrative that stops the University of Opole from becoming a genuine university, which follows the principles propounded in its founding charter.

November 2022




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2 kōmyntŏrze ô „Tomasz Kamusella: Opole University – Between Inclusion and Polonization

  • 10 listopada 2022 ô 18:25

    Sehr zutreffend, so mancher der den nationalistisch Polnischen vorgaben nicht entspricht, kann sich an solchen Unis nur schwierig vorstellen einen akademischen Werdegang einzuschlagen.

  • 10 listopada 2022 ô 13:36

    Sehr wichtiger Beitrag! Sollte dringend weiterempfohlen werden.


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