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A Brief History of Upper Lusatia

Upper Lusatia is an interesting region. Wedged between the heights of the Lusatian Mountains in the South and the swampy meadows of the Schraden region, the heath landscapes and pine forests in the North and in the shadow of powerful neighbours, it has succeeded in preserving its cultural uniqueness throughout the centuries. For example, there are bilingual road signs in many parts of the region. They include the Sorbian place names. Today, there are about 40,000 Sorbs, who are closely related to the Czech people. Most of them live in the triangle between the cities of Kamenz, Hoyerswerda and Bautzen. They are Germany’s only real minority.

Karte Scultetus - Archiv Dannenberg

Their ancestors settled on the fruitful loess soils of the Bautzen region. While historians assume them to be the result of Slavic migration around the year 600 to the settlements which had been largely abandoned by the Germanic peoples during the migration period, archaeological finds indicate a far later settlement. According to archaeologists, the ancestors of the Sorbs did not arrive in the region until 200-300 years later, which means that the Slavic and Germanic peoples could hardly have encountered one another. In addition to their villages, they also created fortresses, so called entrenchments, to which they could retreat in the event of danger. Today, you can still see some of these impressive structures at Ostro, Loga or Schöps.

This development of an autonomous form of government ceased when the Germans migrated east at the beginning of the 10 th century. After King Henry I had conquered the Slavic areas of the Elbe Slavs and built a castle high above the Elbe in Meissen, he demanded tributes from the Milceni around Bautzen.

The duties of a Christian ruler included proselytisation of heathen peoples. In 968, after lengthy negotiations, the three so-called Sorbian bishoprics of Merseburg, Zeitz and Meissen were established under the archbishopric of Magdeburg. The Bishop of Meissen was given the responsibility for the spiritual needs of the land of the Milceni. In return, he received tithes from the taxes paid to the king. However, the Polish and Bohemian neighbours were also interested in the land. In 1002, Henry the Second was forced to satisfy the urge of the Polish Duke Boleslav I. Chobry to expand his duchy, and enfeoffed him with the Milceni lands. After an unsuccessful campaign in 1004, King Henry II changed his strategy and transferred title of the castles of Ostrusna, Trebista and Göda to the Bishop of Meissen in 1007. He hoped that this donation would strengthen the bond of the region to the empire. After this, Duke Miesko I. attacked the Castle of Meissen, destroyed it and killed all of its inhabitants. It was not until the Peace of Bautzen in 1018 that the conflicts, which were accompanied by extremely devastating raids, eased somewhat. However, the Polish duke retained title to Milceni and (Lower) Lusatia. It was not until the reign of King Conrad II in 1031 that the territory was won back after his victory over Duke Miesko II. Conrad then gave it to the Margrave of Meissen as a fiefdom. In 1076 he enfeoffed the lands to the Bohemian Duke Vratislav II, having taken it back from the Margrave of Meissen when the latter rebelled against him. In 1084 Vratislav gave the lands as dowry to his son in law, the Saxon Count Wiprecht von Groitzsch, who ruled the territory from Ortenburg Castle in Bautzen until 1108, and promoted the development of the land as best he could. The Wettin family followed as Wiprecht’s successors to the west of the river Elbe, while Upper Lusatia became part of Bohemia again in 1135. In 1143, it was returned to the Margraves of Meissen, before Emperor Frederick Barbarossa ceded it once again to the King of Bohemia as an imperial fief in 1153, as part of his rapprochement policy to Bohemia. With the exception of the relatively brief period between 1254 and 1319, the region was to remain under the dominion of the Bohemian crown until the downfall of the old empire in 1806.

With the castles and churches which were built systematically throughout the region came the merchants. They built their bases along the Via Regia, at river crossings, mountain slopes and similar barriers. These bases often became the seeds for subsequent cities, such as the Seidau district of Bautzen at the crossing of the River Spree, or in the Lunitz lowlands in Görlitz, near the Slavic village of Gorelic, which was mentioned as early as 1071. The High Road was the lifeline of Upper Lusatia. Merchants and traders travelled from west to east along it, transporting their goods from Spain and France via Breslau as far as the Kievan Rus and Russia.

The contours of the regions gradually became clearer. A charter from 1144 mentions “Provincia Zagost” south-east of Görlitz around Seidenberg, which is part of the Bautzen region. This allows us to assume that the subsequent Upper Lusatia already extended as far as the River Queis. The so-called Upper Lusatian Border Charter from 1241 gives a deeper insight into the territorial situation. It demarcates the respective areas of interest of the King of Bohemia and the Bishop of Meissen respectively. A dispute between the two had broken out, as each ruler sought to expand their territories with their own means. For example, Bishop Bruno II established a general chapter in Bautzen in 1213, with the aid of which he advanced to the south-west to Stolpen. Place names such as Bischheim, or even the city of Bischofswerda obviously point to his colonisation. "Ruling by clearing" was the motto for the era. Under the leadership of a nobleman, farmers from Thuringia, Bavaria, (Lower) Saxony had come to the area and cleared the ground. The Sorbian farmers were also involved in reshaping the land. At the end of this era, the land had been divided and villages with the typical hoof-shaped clearings created everywhere. Most cities, as well as the two abbeys of Marienthal and Marienstern, owe their establishment to these major changes. The forest belt was only left in place on the sparse sandy soils in the north belonging to the later dominions of Hoyerswerda and Muskau, which also acted as a natural border to Lower Lusatia. The transposition of the linear border to the River Pulsnitz in the west and the River Queis in the east, with the Lusatian Mountains as a natural barrier in the south completed the territorial development.

When the region returned to the Ascanians of Brandenburg in 1253 as the dowry of the daughter of a Bohemian king, the Zittau region remained part of Bohemia, as the king was not willing to part with the hard-fought access route to the north under any circumstances. The Ascanians introduced an important innovation for the remaining territories: They put in place a bailiff for the region, who represented their interests locally. He was the highest legal instance, also controlled matters in the fiefdom, and was also the military commander. Later, he was aided by two governors, who governed the districts of Bautzen and Görlitz after the division of Upper Lusatia in 1268. While the Bautzen region became part of Bohemia again in 1319 after the Ascanians died out, the Silesian Duke Henry of Jauer laid claim to the Görlitz district, and actually succeeded in holding on to the territory until his death in 1329. After this, Görlitz became a Bohemian fiefdom once again. The Görlitz district was ruled autonomously from 1377 to 1396, when Emperor Charles IV established the secondo-genitur duchy of Görlitz for his son John.

However, the ruler generally did not reside in the region, which meant that he was not in a position to guarantee effective protection against highwaymen, robber knights and racketeers. Therefore, in 1346, the leading economic forces, the cities, came together to form a defence alliance, promising one another mutual protection and assistance, with the knowledge and permission of the Bohemian king. In addition to Görlitz, Bautzen, Löbau, Lauban and Kamenz, Zittau, which had remained part of Bohemia, also joined the alliance in 1253. That was the beginning of the famous Upper Lusatian Six City Alliance. The cities brought an inner order to the region, pacified it, chased out the robber-knights and demolished their castles. For joint councils, the so-called city conferences, they also consulted the bailiff as a representative of the Margrave of Upper Lusatia, and occasionally other lords and manor owners. Thus, this institution formed a kind of Upper Lusatian parliament.

Far more tragic for the population of Upper Lusatia were the devastating raids of the Hussites in the early 15 th century, to which Kamenz, Löbau, Zittau and Lauban fell, one after the other. Only the well-fortified cities of Bautzen and Görlitz resisted the sieges of the heretics. Hus’ teachings failed to make a significant impact in Upper Lusatia, although the Church feared that in particular the Sorbian population would be easily influenced as a result of their ethnic and linguistic affinity to the Czech people. However, Upper Lusatia was religiously consolidated. Even the Utraquist Bohemian King George of Podiebrad was not welcome around 20 years later. In his place the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus was elected governor in 1469 while George was still alive.

However, it proved less easy to ignore Luther’s theses. The new preaching methods took hold in Görlitz as early as 1520. The unique constitutional situation in Upper Lusatia, comprised of cities, landed nobility and religious sponsors had the result that the later principle "cuius regio, eius religio" took effect here at the lowest level, at the level of church patrons. They determined the form of religious services. Görlitz introduced the new confession officially in 1523. Bautzen joined them one year later, followed by all of Upper Lusatia – only the abbey dominions of Marienthal and Marienstern and the General Chapter of Bautzen remained Catholic. In the War of Schmalkalden, Upper Lusatia finally had to show its colours, and go to war against their fellow Christians at the side of the Catholic emperor and Bohemian King Ferdinand. The Six Cities thought the best way to extricate themselves from the affair was to withdraw their troops after the end of the approved provision period in 1547. However, the decisive battle of Mühlberg had not yet been fought. The nobility struck while the iron was hot and denounced the cities to the emperor, who then summoned their representatives, withdrew all of their privileges and requisitioned their lands. This event, which became known as the poena case ("Pönfall"), was a bitter loss for the cities as they had accumulated significant landholdings over time. For example, Görlitz had a huge municipal area, and was landlord of 48 villages, in which the city council was also in charge of the courts. With 47 villages, Bautzen was not far behind, and the other members of the Six City Alliance also had considerable landholdings. In the following years, the cities focused all their efforts on regaining their holdings and privileges, which they succeeded in doing to a great extent. However, they had lost their political influence once and for all.

Religious tensions, in particular the constant new tax demands of the Bohemian King remained a source of unrest. Unlike their fellow Christians in Silesia and Bohemia, the Protestants in Upper Lusatia did not succeed in obtaining a royal document certifying their rights, which finally drove them to the side of the rebels in Bohemia. The revolts provoked by the defenestration of Prague in 1618 quickly became the most widespread war Europe had ever known. Even Upper Lusatia, which was otherwise seldom involved in world political affairs, was drawn deep into the turmoil. The Bohemian estates had deposed the Catholic Hapsburg Ferdinand II, instead electing the Calvinist Elector Palatine, Frederick as their king. The Upper Lusatians supported this election after initial hesitation. Emperor Ferdinand asked the imperial princes for support. The Saxon Prince Elector, George, although a Protestant, was a loyal imperial prince and had no understanding for the demands of the rebels. In August 1620, he marched into Upper Lusatia – but not without securing the territory as a forfeit beforehand. His first target was Kamenz, which surrendered without putting up much of a fight. One month later, Bautzen succumbed after a daily salvo of 366 grenades was fired into the city, which led to a devastating fire on October 2 nd, razing the entire city to the ground. When the news of this siege spread, Löbau surrendered without much of a fight. As the Emperor could not repay the expenditure of the Prince Elector, Upper Lusatia became property of the Prince Elector of Saxony in the Peace of Prague in 1635, who thus became the Margrave of Upper Lusatia. This meant that the counter-reformation, which ravaged other Hapsburg territories, was averted in Upper Lusatia. Instead, it drew many religious refugees from Bohemia, the so-called exulants, to Upper Lusatia, who then brought about an economic boom. In particular in villages in the Zittau Mountains, linen weaving became the dominant industrial sector.

Otherwise, little changed in Upper Lusatia. It was gradually integrated in the Saxon state. Even free religious communities, such as the Herrenhut Confraternity, domiciled on the lands of Count Zinzendorf, were allowed to exist by the Upper Lusatian constitutional system. The brothers travelled the world, departing from Berthelsdorf and Niesky, to preach the word of God in their own way. No significant changes occurred in the Margravate until the New European Order, made necessary after the Napoleonic wars, brought a major upheaval in the Treaty of Vienna of 1815. In order to satisfy the Prussian hunger for territories, Upper Lusatia was divided, in spite of repeated petitions to the King of Saxony and the Austrian Count Metternich, who led the negotiations. The protests were to no avail – thenceforth, a border ran south of Ruhland in the North West via Wittichenau, Hoyerswerda, Muskau and Görlitz as far as Lauban – towns which all became part of Prussia. For more effective administration, Prussia divided its small strip of land into four districts, which were all integrated in the Prussian province of Silesia. From that point on, Breslau was the administrative centre responsible for them. In Prussian Upper Lusatia, Görlitz in particular benefited from the industrial boom, and consistently developed its relationships to Berlin and Breslau.

In the southern part which remained in Saxony, industrialisation took over, and made Upper Lusatian linen a sought-after export hit for Germany. Rail construction made a significant contribution to the rise of the region. The line from Dresden to Breslau, which ran through Upper Lusatia, was completed in 1847.

However, as far as the residents were concerned, the region remained unified. The construction of the Görlitz House of Estates, where the estates of Prussian Upper Lusatia continued to convene to represent the interests of the region in the Silesian chamber, is impressive proof of this, as is the banner above the entrance of the former Upper Lusatian Pantheon, opened in 1905, which today is the Dom Kultury on the eastern bank of the River Neisse. It reads: "To the Founders of the German Empire – In Gratitude, Upper Lusatia".

After the Hitler regime seized power, these structures were rescinded and aligned with the National Socialist district system. In particular in the National Socialist period, there was an aggressive assimilation policy for the Sorbs. Their associations and media were prohibited, classes were no longer held in Sorbian, and they were no longer to be permitted to speak their language. Anyone who rebelled against this repression, such as Sorbian Catholic priests, were deported or sent to concentration camps. However, no full genocide of the Sorbs was attempted. The aim instead was to assimilate them as Wendish Germans.

After 1945, the parts of Upper Lusatia east of the River Neisse to the Queis were subject to Polish administration, which was finally sanctioned under international law in the Oder-Neisse Peace Treaty of 1950 and the German-Polish Border Agreement of 1990. The dissolution of states in the GDR in 1952 meant that Upper Lusatia’s destiny was once again characterised by division: While most of the region remained under the administrative area of Dresden, the districts of Hoyerswerda and Weisswasser were assigned to the administrative area of Cottbus. After 1990, there was an opportunity to unify most of Upper Lusatia in a single Federal State, which was successful in the end. However, the (historically-speaking) brief period of a 100 year connection of a part of Upper Lusatia to Prussia and two dictatorships had clouded the Upper Lusatian identity, particularly in the area around Görlitz. Therefore, to take the Silesians into account - after all, many refugees from Silesia had settled in Görlitz in order to remain close to their Silesian homeland – the Lower Silesian Upper Lusatia District was created along the River Neisse. Thanks to the intensive lobbying by Silesians, the preamble to the Saxon Constitution contains a passage which links the Saxon people to the history of a Lower Silesian territory. By contrast, Upper Lusatia, which was an autonomous imperial territory for centuries and which has had close relations with Saxony since 1635, is not mentioned at all.

Dr. Lars-Arne Dannenberg