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Germania Magna (Greater Germany) from Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, 2nd Century AD. River Vistula is shown on the right.

Silesia is a former duchy and province of Germany, then divided into Upper and Lower Silesia. Since 1945 it has been mainly occupied by Poland, with other fractions occupied by the Czech Republic and Germany. It was originally bounded in the east by Poland, on the west by Lower Lusatia and Bohemia, and in the south by a chain of mountains and forests which separated it from Hungary.[1] In 1815 the population stood at 1,821,065 and the language generally spoken was German.[2] Today it has approx. 8 million inhabitants.


Anciently, before the movements of the Western Slav tribes northwards and westwards from the Carpathian Mountains to the European Great Plain, Silesia was the homeland of several Teutonic tribes, according to Roman historians such as Tacitus. By the 9th and 10th centuries Slav tribes had arrived and the Kings of Saxony saw as their most pressing enemies the Slavs beyond the Elbe (and the Danes & Magyars who were also raiders). Henry I was at war with numerous Slav tribes (whom the famous chronicler Widukind called barbarians), such as the Daleminzi tribe between the Mulde and the Elbe round Meissen (defeated in 928), the Redarii in northern Brandenburg (defeated in the battle of Lenzen in 929), and the Hevelli of Brandenburg tribe (defeated before 933). Otto I (d.973), crowned in 936, followed Henry in these wars and the 'united' Slavs (such as the Abodrites and Wahrii) between the Lower Elbe and the Oder were crushed in a pitched battle on October 16, 955, in the battle of the river Recknitz when the chief of their Abotrites tribe was killed and beheaded. It is clear that in 965 over seven of the Elbe region Slav tribes were paying tribute to Otto I. In silver and other things such as honey. Otto III (d.1002) is shown in a late 10th century Gospel Book receiving homage and gifts from the Roma (Italian), Gallia (Gaul), Germania, and Sclavinia peoples.[3]

The New Millenium

The Slavs we know today as the Poles arrived in vicinity of the Elbe-Oder-Vistula rivers in the 10th century, and in the century following their settlements included large parts of Silesia. The first 'king' of Poland, Mieszko (d.992), adopted Christianity and recognized the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Empire under Otto I.[4] The term Polonia first appears, for Sclavinia[5], during the reign of the second 'king' of Poland, the expansionist Boleslaw I 'the Brave' (r.992-1025). By 1000 AD Breslau, the principal town, was founded, with a Bishopric directly responsible to the Pope. Under the first two Polish 'kings', Silesia became a de facto part of Poland west of what the Poles like to call "Great Poland" (including Posen), and "Little Poland" (including Cracow). But the Polish kings' conquests (which included two invasions of Pomerania) were short-lived in the west. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick 'Barbarossa' launched a campaign against Poland in 1157 which had over 175 major clashes recorded. Barbarossa compelled the Polish Duke Boleslav IV (d.1173) to reconfirm Imperial (HRE) suzerainty.

Independent Duchy

Unable to control the feuding and warring factions, Boleslav III of Poland divided Silesia into duchies, settling the two principal parts on two of his sons, Wladislaw II Duke of Silesia, 'The Exile' (1105-1159) and Mieszko, Duke of Posen (d.1202). The latter had married into the Hungarian House of Arpad, and Wladislav married Agnes, daughter of Leopold III von Babenberg, Margrave of Austria. Following Wladislav's death Silesia became a independent Duchy, in 1163. Greater German immigration than before was now encouraged by successive Dukes into Silesia[6], and in 1263 Duke Heinrich introduced the municipal law of Magdeburg to Breslau. Over subsequent periods Silesia had several dukes and petty princes who by degrees became subject to the kings of Bohemia.[7] In 1335 the last Duke of Silesia died, following which King Charles IV of the House of Luxemburg, incorporated the whole duchy into Bohemia; and thus it continued after the crown of Bohemia passed to the Habsburgs in 1526, during which decade the Reformation was also embraced in Silesia.


The Prussian King Frederick The Great, taking advantage of the troubles that ensued upon the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, now conquered a great part of Silesia together with Glatz, in 1742. In support of his invasion of Silesia, Frederick used his interpretation of a 1537 treaty between the Hohenzollerns and the Piasts of Brieg as a pretext. A small southern part was left with the heirs of the Empress Maria Theresa. Silesia thus become part of Prussia, and later the German Empire.[8] This was in a way a natural progression as since the 1100s Silesia had been largely colonised and developed by the Teutonic peoples.

The Great War treaties

The eastern-most part of Upper Silesia was occupied by the new Versailles Treaty state of Poland after The Great War (in which they played no part). Meanwhile most of the remaining Austrian parts of Silesia became part of another new and artificial state, Czecho-Slovakia and are now occupied by the Czech Republic.

World War II


Silesia is rich in mineral and natural resources, and includes several important industrial areas. Silesia's largest cities are Breslau, its ancient capital, and Katowitz, both now in Poland, and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Its main river is the Oder.

Silesians spoke an ancient dialect. Most inhabitants of Silesia today speak the national languages of their respective occupiers. (Polish or Czech, and also some German), although there is a recognized Silesian language, considered by some to be a dialect of Polish, with about 60,000 declared speakers in Upper Silesia. There also exists a Silesian German or Lower Silesian language (or group of German dialects), though this is almost extinct.

Notable people from Silesia

External links


  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5th edition, Edinburgh, 1815, vol.xix, p.354-5.
  2. Britannica, 1815.
  3. Gospel Book of Reichenau, 10th century, in Bavarian State Library, Munich (Clm 4453)
  4. Gurney, G., Kingdoms of Europe, New York, 1982, p.507.
  5. Fuhrmann, Horst, Germany in the High Middle Ages c1050-1200, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.22, ISBN 0-521-26638-6
  6. Fuhrmann, 1986, p.150-1.
  7. Britannica, 1915.
  8. Britannica, 1815.
  • Ripley, Professor Dr. William Z., PhD., The Races of Europe, London, 1899.
  • Baedeker, Karl, Northern Germany, Leipzig and London, 1904.
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey, Mediaeval Germany 911 - 1250, Oxford UK, 1938.
  • Leyser, K.J., Mediaeval Germany and its Neighbours 900-1250, London, 1982, ISBN 0-907628-08-7