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Silesia (Polish Śląsk, German Schlesien, Czech Slezsko) is a historical region in central Europe. Most of it is now within the borders of Poland, but with a small part in the Czech Republic, and another small region, which only became part of Silesia in 1815, in Germany. Silesia is located along the upper and middle Oder (Odra) River and along the Sudetes mountains. In a local Silesian language or dialect it is called Ślonsk or Ślunsk.
The Polish portion of Silesia, which forms the bulk of the region, is now divided into the voivodships (provinces) of Lower Silesian Voivodship, Opole Voivodship, and Silesian Voivodship. The latter two are sometimes called Upper Silesia. The small portion in the Czech Republic is mostly joined with northern part of Moravia to form the Moravian-Silesian Region of that country, the remainder forming a small part of the Olomouc Region, while the Görlitz area now is a part of the German state of Saxony. Silesia lies directly adjacent to Saxony, Little Poland, Greater Poland, and Brandenburg. The largest city of Silesia is Wrocław.
In the Middle Ages, Silesia was a Piast province that became a possession of the Bohemian crown under the Holy Roman Empire and passed with that crown to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1526. In 1742 most of Silesia was seized by Frederick the Great of Prussia in the War of the Austrian Succession. This part of Silesia composed the Prussian provinces Upper and Lower Silesia until 1945, when most of Silesia became part of Poland.
Silesia is a resource-rich and populous region. Coal and iron are both abundant, and a substantial manufacturing industry has sprung up, but in post-communist times the outdated nature of many of the facilites have led to environmental problems. The region also has a thriving agricultural sector, producing grains, potatoes, and sugar beets.
Silesia was inhabited by various peoples belonging to changing archeological cultures in the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
According to Tacitus, in the 1st century Silesia was inhabited by a multi-ethnic league dominated by the Lugii/Lygii. Also part of this federation were the Silingi, most likely a Vandalic people, that lived south of the Baltic Sea in the Elbe, Oder, and Vistula river area.
Early documents mention a couple of tribes most probably living in Silesia. The Bavarian Geographer (ca. 845) specifies the following peoples: Slenzanie, Dzhadoshanie, Opolanie, Lupiglaa and Golenshitse. And a document of Prague bishopric (1086) mentions Zlasane, Trebovyane, Poborane and Dedositze.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the territory later called Silesia was subject to the Moravian and then Bohemian rulers of the neighbouring area covered by today's Czech Republic to the south.
About 990 Silesia was incorporated into Poland by Mieszko I (although some historians are moving the date to 999 and the rule of Boleslaus I, duke of the Polanie and later king of Poland). During Poland's fragmentation (1138–1320) into duchies ruled by different branches of the Piast dynasty, Silesia was ruled by descendants of the former royal family.
In 1146, senior duke Wladislaus II acknowledged the overlordship of the Holy Roman Empire over Poland, but was driven into exile. Seventeen years later, in 1163, his two sons took possession of Silesia with imperial backing, dividing the land between them as dukes of Lower and Upper Silesia. The policy of subdivision continued under their successors, with Silesia being divided into 16 principalities by the 1390s.
In 1241 the region experienced the Mongol invasion. Mongols, after looting the Lesser Poland entered Silesia causing widespread panic and mass migrations. They looted much of region and after brief, unsuccessful siege of Wroclaw castle (they were reportedly fended off by blessed Cheslav's miraculous fireball) they defeated combined forces of Polish and guest knights at Legnica. Achieving that, they returned to their homeland with captives. Ruling Silesian lords decided to rebuild their cities according to latest administrative developments, founding or relocating some 160 cities and 1500 towns with codified German law in place of settlements governed by older, customary Polish laws. They also compensated recent population loss by inviting foreigners - mostly from the Holy Roman Empire. This, and ruling classes adopting German culture, caused considerable ethnic tensions in Silesia. Also, in second half of 13th century various knightly orders settled in Silesia - Knights of the Red Star was first but soon followed by Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights.
In 1335, Duke Henry VI of Wroclaw and the Upper Silesian dukes recognized the overlordship of the king of Bohemia (John of Luxemburg). The last independent Piast duchies in Silesia ceased to exist in 1368, although the Silesian branch of the Piast dynasty went extinct only in 1675. From that time Silesia indirectly became a part of the Holy Roman Empire, as Bohemia was itself an autonomous part of the empire. Silesia remained part of the lands of the Bohemian crown until 1740, under kings of Czech, Polish and German dynasties.
Under the emperor and king of Bohemia Charles IV, Silesia and especially Wroclaw gained greatly in importance, and many great buildings and large Gothic churches were built.
Between 1425 and 1435, devastation was caused by the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia proper — Silesia remained largely Catholic, however. The Hussites turned against German population and especially Upper Silesia returned to the Slavic language.
Early Modern Period
The Protestant reformation took an early hold, and most of Silesia became Lutheran. In 1526 Ferdinand made the elected crown of Bohemia an inherited possession of the Habsburg family. In 1537 the rulers of Brandenburg and Silesia concluded an inheritance treaty, but it was vetoed by the emperor Ferdinand I.
The second "Defenestrations of Prague", in 1618, sparked the Thirty Years' War, caused by attempts of the Catholic Habsburg ruler to restore Catholicism and stamp out Protestantism. After the end of the Thirty Years' War, the Habsburgs greatly encouraged Catholicism, and succeeded in reconverting around sixty percent of the population of Silesia. By 1675 the last Silesian Piast rulers had died out.
In 1740 the seizure of Silesia by Friedrich II of Prussia began the War of the Austrian Succession, which ended in 1748. At the end of this war, Prussia had conquered almost all of Silesia. (Some parts of Silesia in the extreme southeast remained possessions of Austria.) The Seven Years' War (1756–1763) confirmed this result. Silesia became a province of Prussia. In 1815 the area around Görlitz was made a part of that province in an administrative reform.
Silesia in Germany
Silesia became part of the German Empire when Germany was unified (1871). There was considerable industrialization in Upper Silesia, and many people moved there. A majority of the population of Lower Silesia, including its capital, Breslau (today: Wroclaw), was German-speaking. However, there were areas, such as Opole county or Upper Silesia where a larger proportion or even a majority was Polish-speaking and Roman Catholic. In Silesia as a whole Poles were about 30% of the population. The Kulturkampf set Catholics in opposition to the government and sparked Polish revival in the province.
After Germany's and Austria's defeat in World War I the Austrian parts of Silesia were divided between Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the Treaty of Versailles it was decided that the population of Upper Silesia should hold a plebiscite in order to determine the future of the province. This plebiscite was held in 1921 and organised by the League of Nations. The outcome of the referendum was 706,000 votes for Germany, and 479,000 for Poland. However, in the southeastern areas which were the backbone of economy and industry, there was a strong majority for Poland.
After the referendum, there were three Silesian Insurrections, and as a result of them the League of Nations decided that the province should be split and areas that voted for Poland should become an autonomous area within Poland, organised as the Silesian Voivodship (Wojewodztwo Śląskie). Silesia was then reorganised within the two Prussian provinces of Upper and Lower Silesia.
In October 1938 Cieszyn Silesia (the disputed area West of Olza river, so called Zaolzie - 906km² 258,000 inhabitants) was retaken by Poland from Czechoslovakia, in accord with the Munich Agreement.
Germany took possession of these parts of Silesia again in 1939, when the attack on Poland marked the beginning of the Second World War. The Silesian Poles were killed or deported, and German settlers were brought to their homes subsequent to these atrocities.
In 1945 all of Silesia was occupied by Soviet troops; by then a large proportion of the German population had fled Silesia, but many returned after the German capitulation. Under terms of the agreements at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, most of Silesia east of the rivers Oder (Odra) and Neisse (Nysa) were transferred to Poland. Most of the surviving Silesian Germans, who before World War II numbered about 4 million, were forcibly expelled. A small part of Silesia surrounding the city of Görlitz remained part of the German Democratic Republic and is now part of the Federal State of Saxony in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Silesia after WWII
The industry of Silesia was after rebuilt after the war, and the region was populated by Poles from other areas (mostly by Poles who were themselves expelled from lands annexed by the Soviet Union). Today more than 20 % of the entire population of Poland lives in Silesia.
Modern Silesia is inhabited mostly by the Poles and Silesians, but also by minorities of Germans, Czechs and Moravians.
The last Polish census of 2002 showed that the Silesians are the largest ethnic minority in Poland, Germans being the second — both groups are located mostly in the Silesian region.
Czech Silesia is inhabited by the Czechs, Moravians and Poles.
Prior to the Second World War, Silesia was inhabited by Germans, Poles, and Czechs. The 1905 census showed that 75% of the population were Germans, and 25% were Poles. During and after World War II, most German-Silesians fled Silesia, were evacuated, were expelled, or emigrated (see German exodus from Eastern Europe). A large group of Silesians today live in Germany. To smooth integration into German society, they were organized into officially recognized organisations, like the Landsmannschaft Schlesien, financed from the federal budget. One of its most notable but controversial spokesmen is the CDU politician Herbert Hupka. The prevailing public opinion in Germany is that those organisations will achieve reconciliation with Polish-Silesians. This is gradually happening.
Name of the region
There are many theories as to how Silesia derived its name. These theories tend to fall along the lines of national interest. One theory claims that the name is derived from the Silingi, most likely a Vandalic people, who supposedly lived south of the Baltic Sea along the Elbe, Oder, and Vistula rivers in the 2nd century. The other theory is based on etymology and the fact that the place names in the area have for long been Polish, or germanized Polish names. Also archeological finds from the 7th and 8th centuries uncovered largely populated areas protected by a dense system of fortifications from West and South. Lack of such systems from North or East adds to the assumption that Silesia was a part of a larger state populated by early Slavic tribes.
A third theory claims that the area was indeed "originally" (as far as they are the first people purported to have lived in the area) inhabited by the Silingi. When the Silingi moved from the area during the Migration Period, or Völkerwanderung, they left remnants of their society behind. The most evident remnants were in the place-names, which were adopted (in Slavic form) by the new inhabitants, who were in fact Slavic (Polish Śląsk, OldPol. Śląžsk [-o], OldSlav. *Sьlьąžьskъ [<*Sьlьągьskъ] from OldVandalic *Siling-isk [land]). These people became associated with the place, and were known as Silesians (using a Latinized form of the name, Pol. Ślężanie), even though they had nothing in common with the Silingi.