German Silesia was once bounded by the old kingdoms and countries of Brandenburg, Posen, Russian Poland, Galicia, Austrian Silesia, Moravia, Bohemia and Saxony. Full of rivers, streams, hills and low mountains, Silesia was also comprised of fertile pastures and meadows and forests abundant with deer and game, tremendous fisheries and mineral wealth. About a third of the land was in the hands of large estates. The original population of Silesia was probably Celtic and other mixed ethnic groups, and the wild region did not come under the rule of a Polish King until the 10th century. Bohemian rulers actively recruited Germans to settle in the very sparsely populated area, and the entire region was soon distinctly German. Poland renounced all claim to the region and the King of Bohemia assumed sovereignty about the year 1138, and Silesia was first transferred to the Germans at that time. The independent dynasty was drawn up under the influence of Barbarossa and two princes, who in 1163 divided the sovereignty among themselves as dukes of Upper and Lower Silesia. All of rural Silesia was covered with German settlements and German castles by the late 12th century.
The rich Silesian duchies partitioned their territories with each new succession and by the end of the 14th century the country had been split up into 18 small, bickering principalities. In 1290, the Silesian princes sought the protection of the German dynasty then ruling in Bohemia. The intervention of these kings resulted in the appropriation of several petty states as crown domains. The earliest of these Bohemian overlords, King Johann and the emperor Karl IV restored order vigorously. Later, however, the Bohemians involved Silesia in the destructive Hussite wars and then in a series of invasions from 1425 to 1435 which devastated the country and put the German element of population in Upper Silesia in a weaker position, and a complete restitution of the Slavonic nationality seemed imminent on the appointment of the Hussite, George Podiebrad, to the Bohemian kingship in 1457. The burghers of Breslau fiercely repudiated the new suzerain, and before he could enforce his claims he was ousted by Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus around 1469.
Corvinus asserted his dominance and instituted a permanent diet of Silesian princes and tried to establish an effective central government. But the Silesians, who experienced financial discomfort at his hands, began to resent the control of the Bohemian crown, and under his successor Vladislav, they secured semi-autonomy which was theirs until the outset of the Reformation which the predominantly Catholic Silesians accepted. German king Ferdinand I reimposed the Bohemian crown upon them, and the Silesians lost power completely. From 1550, Silesia passed almost completely under foreign administration, first under the Habsburgs, which united the kingship of Bohemia with Austria and the imperial crown.
The Thirty Years’ War, however, brought most of Silesia to almost total ruin. It was estimated that 75% of the population perished, and commerce and industry were at a standstill. A greater measure of religious liberty was secured for the Silesians by representatives of King Karl XII of Sweden, and effective measures were taken by the emperor Karl VI to stimulate trafe between Silesia and Austria, but the country remained very poor in the earlier part of the 18th century.
Silesia became part of the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently the Austrian Empire from 1526 until 1742 when it was annexed by Prussia. Despite the Seven Years War, Friedrich the Great brilliantly managed to bring sparsely populated. poor Silesia back to normalcy. He made yearly visits to the country and kept himself in touch with it, enacting numerous political reforms including the strict Prussian enforcement of religious toleration, bringing peace at last. By judicious regulations he brought about a dramatic increase of Silesian industries and he revived the mining and weaving operations. He introduced Merino sheep and the Prussians also gave Silesia its first public schools and a new, viable future. The province, the largest in Prussia, was divided into three governmental areas: Liegnitz, Breslau comprising lower Silesia, and Oppeln taking in the greater part of hilly Silesia. As late as 1905, three-fourths of the inhabitants were German, but to the east of the Oder, Poles formed the bulk of the population, with 15,500 Czechs in the southern part of the province and 25,000 Wends near Liegnitz. The capital was Breslau, the largest and most important town which was refounded about 1250 as a German town. By the end of the 13th century, Silesia had virtually become a German land and Breslau grew to be a leading center of trade.
Silesia was occupied by French troops during the Napoleonic wars, and in 1815, it was enlarged by receiving back a portion of Lusatia which, until then, had become detached from Silesia in the 11th century and annexed to Saxony.
All that was left of Austria’s part of the country after the Seven Years War was “Austrian Silesia,” a duchy and the smallest province of Austria. In 1900, the population included 44.69% Germans, 33.21% Poles and 22.05% Czechs and Slavs. It formed, with Moravia, a single province until 1849, when it was created into a separate duchy.
Silesia was German and only 25% Polish when the victorious Allies hacked it up at the Treaty of Versailles and parcelled it out between hungry nationalists from the newly endowed Poland and the newly hatched country of Czechoslovakia. Austrian Silesia suffered the same fate. Centuries of German presence, culture and history were immediately in jeopardy. Encouraged by the Allies’ desire to weaken any future strength of Germany and Austria, Poles and Czechs were trucked into the German cities and towns to create a new voting majority. Even though they had been there for centuries, ethnic Germans here and in all of their former homeland began to experience violent attacks and discrimination* once German protection was removed. Protests were lodged with international organizations but ignored. Germany took back possession of these traditionally and historically German regions of Silesia in 1939, and this marked the beginning of new hostilities.
*Approximately 58,000 ethnic Germans in Poland were reported as dead or missing by 1940. When the first edition of government documents went to press on November 17, 1939, 5,437 cases of murder against men, women and children of the German minority in Poland had been reported. Between that date and February 1, 1940, the number of identified victims mounted to 12,857 and in addition to these victims, more than 45,000 persons were missing without a trace. The atrocities included murder, beatings, rape, robbery and arson.