Numbering just 60,000 people, Sorbs are Germany’s only indigenous ethnic minority and can trace themselves back to the Slavic Wends who settled the swampy lands between the Oder and Elbe rivers in the fifth century. Conquered by Germanic tribes in the tenth century they found themselves forcibly, often brutally, Germanized throughout the Middle Ages, until their homeland – known as Lusatia (Łužica or Łužyca in Sorbian) – became divided between Prussia and Saxony in 1815. Their language takes two distinct dialects: lower Sorbian, with similarities to Polish, was spoken in Prussian areas and generally suppressed; while upper Sorbian, a little like Czech, was mostly spoken in Saxony and enjoyed a certain prestige. But emigration from both areas was widespread throughout the nineteenth century with many ending up in Australia and the USA, specifically a Texas town called Serbin.
Persecution heightened under the Nazis – who butchered around 20,000 Sorbs – then rapidly lessened in the GDR, even though Lusatia was overrun by resettling Germans expelled from Poland at the end of the war. The area subsequently became heavily industrialized, which hastened the erosion of old ways. But at least the Sorbs were allowed some cultural autonomy, with their language granted equal status with German and their folk traditions encouraged, albeit for tourist purposes. Since the Wende cultural interest has been stepped up and colourful Sorbian festivals like the Vogelhochzeit on January 25, the Karnival, and their variant of Walpurgisnacht on April 30, have become popular. Yet despite all this, and bilingual street signs throughout the region, Sorbian is rarely heard and the minority still feels under-represented and under-financed by the German state. They are petitioning the EU for greater recognition and the election of a Sorbian as Minister President in Saxony in 2008 is helping their cause.