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Historical Silesia (outlined) and modern national boundaries

Silesia ( or ; ; ; ; Silesian: Ślůnsk ; ) is a historical region of Central Europe located mostly in present-day Poland, with parts in the Czech Republicmarker and Germanymarker.

Silesia is rich in mineral and natural resources, and includes several important industrial areas. Silesia's largest cities are Wrocławmarker, its historical capital, and Katowicemarker in Poland, and Ostravamarker in the Czech Republic. Its main river is the Oder (Polish, Czech: Odra).

Silesia's borders and national affiliation have changed radically over time, both when it was a hereditary possession of noble houses and after the rise of modern nation-states. The first known states to hold power there were those of Greater Moravia and Bohemia. In the 10th century Silesia was incorporated into the early Polish state, but it later broke into independent duchies, coming under increasing German influence. It came under the rule of the Crown of Bohemia, which passed to Austria in 1526. Most of Silesia was conquered by Prussiamarker in 1742, later becoming part of the German Empiremarker. The easternmost part of this region became part of Poland after World War I, and the bulk of it was transferred back to Poland after World War II. Meanwhile the remaining Austrian parts of Silesia mostly became part of Czechoslovakiamarker after World War I, and are now in the Czech Republic.

Most inhabitants of Silesia today speak the national languages of their respective countries (Polish, Czech, 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.


The names of Silesia in the different languages most likely share their etymology - Latin and English: Silesia; Polish: Śląsk; Old Polish: Ślążsk[o]; Silesian: Ślůnsk; German: Schlesien; Silesian German: Schläsing; Czech: Slezsko; Slovak: Sliezsko; Croatian, Sеrbian and Upper Sorbian: Šleska; Lower Sorbian: Šlazyńska. The names are all related to the name of a river (now Ślęza) and mountain (Mount Ślężamarker) in mid-southern Silesia. The mountain is a prehistoric holy place.

Ślęża is listed as one of the numerous preindoeuropean topographic names in the region (see old European hydronymy).The name Ślęża may come from the Silingi, a probably Vandalic (East Germanic) people that migrated south from the Baltic Seamarker along the Elbe, Oder and Vistula rivers in the 2nd century.Alternatively, the name of the Silingi tribe may come from the name of the river or mountain. Another alternative proposed source are West Slavic words ślęga meaning "humid weather" or "wet ground" and perhaps even slizsko meaning "slime, peat, swamp area".


Silesia has been inhabited from time immemorial by people of multiple ethnic groups. Germanic tribes were first recorded within Silesia in the 1st century. Slavic White Croats arrived in this territory around the 6th century establishing White Croatia. The first known states in Silesia were the Czech proto-states of Greater Moravia and Bohemia. In the 10th century, Polish ruler Mieszko I incorporated Silesia into the Polish state.

In the Middle Ages, Silesia was divided among many independent duchies ruled by various Silesian dukes of the Piast dynasty. During this time, cultural and ethnic German influence increased due to immigrants from the German-speaking components of the Holy Roman Empire. Between the years 1289–1292 Bohemian king Wenceslaus II became suzerain of some Upper Silesian duchies. Silesia subsequently became a possession of the Bohemian crown under the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, and passed with that crown to the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria in 1526. The Duchy of Crossenmarker was inherited by Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1476 and, with the renunciation by King Ferdinand I and estates of Bohemia in 1538, it became an integral part of Brandenburg.

In 1742, most of Silesia was seized by King Frederick the Great of Prussiamarker in the War of the Austrian Succession and subsequently made the Prussian Province of Silesiamarker. Consequently Silesia became part of the German Empiremarker when it was proclaimed in 1871.

After World War I, Upper Silesia was contested by Germany and the newly-independent Second Polish Republicmarker. The League of Nations organized a plebiscite to decide the issue in 1921, whose results (disputed by Poland) showed that the majority of the population wished to remain part of Germany. Following the third Silesian Uprising (1921), however, the easternmost portion of Upper Silesia (including Katowicemarker), with a majority ethnic Polish population, was finally awarded to Poland, where it formed the Autonomous Silesian Voivodeshipmarker. The Prussian Province of Silesia within Germany was divided into the Provinces of Lower Silesia and Upper Silesia. Meanwhile Austrian Silesiamarker, the small portion of Silesia retained by Austria after the Silesian Wars, was mostly awarded to the new Czechoslovakiamarker (becoming known as Czech Silesia), although most of Cieszynmarker and territory to the east of it went to Poland (see Zaolzie).

In 1945, at the end of World War II, all of the former German Silesia was occupied by the Soviet Unionmarker, and under the post-war border changes most of it became part of Poland. As a result the vast majority of the native ethnic German population was expelled by force and replaced by Polish settlers, most of whom had themselves been expropriated and expelled from the eastern parts of Poland (Kresy) that had been annexed by the Soviet Union.

The administrative division of Silesia within Poland has changed several times since 1945. Since 1999 it has been divided between Lower Silesian Voivodeshipmarker, Opole Voivodeshipmarker, Silesian Voivodeshipmarker and Lubusz Voivodeshipmarker. Czech Silesia is now part of the Czech Republic, forming the Moravian-Silesian Region and the northern part of Olomouc Region. Germany retains the Silesian-Lusatian region (Niederschlesien-Oberlausitz or Schlesische Oberlausitz) west of the Neissemarker, which is part of the federal-state of Saxony.


First map of Silesia by Martin Helwig, 1561
Most of Silesia is relatively flat, although its southern border is generally mountainous. It is primarily located in a swath running along both banks of the upper and middle Oder river, but it extends eastwards to the upper Vistula river. The region also includes many tributaries of the Oder, including the Bóbrmarker (and its tributary the Kwisa), the Barycz and the Nysa Kłodzka. The Sudeten mountains run along most of the southern edge of the region, though at its south-eastern extreme it reaches the Silesian Beskids and Moravian-Silesian Beskids, which belong to the Carpathianmarker range.

Historically, Silesia was bounded to the west by the Kwisa and Bóbrmarker rivers, while the territory west of the Kwisa was in Upper Lusatia (earlier Milsko). However, because part of Upper Lusatia was included in the Province of Silesiamarker in 1815, in Germany Görlitzmarker, Niederschlesischer Oberlausitzkreis and neighbouring areas are considered parts of Silesia. Those districts, along with Poland's Lower Silesian Voivodeshipmarker and parts of Lubusz Voivodeshipmarker, make up the geographic region of Lower Silesia.

Silesia has undergone a similar notional extension at its eastern extreme. Historically it extended only as far as the Brynicamarker river, which separates it from Zagłębie Dąbrowskie in the Lesser Poland region. However to many Poles today, Silesia (Śląsk) is understood to cover all of the area around Katowice, including Zagłębie. This interpretation is given official sanction in the use of the name Silesian Voivodeshipmarker (województwo śląskie) for the province covering this area. In fact the word Śląsk in Polish (when used without qualification) now commonly refers exclusively to this area (also called Górny Śląsk or Upper Silesia).

As well as the Katowice area, historical Upper Silesia also includes the Opolemarker region (Poland's Opole Voivodeshipmarker) and Czech Silesia. Czech Silesia consists of a part of the Moravian-Silesian Region and the Jeseník District in the Olomouc Region.

Natural resources

Silesia is a resource-rich and populous region. Bituminous and lignite coal is abundant, and a substantial manufacturing industry is present, particularly in Upper Silesia. Lower Silesia features large copper mining and processing between the cities of Legnicamarker, Głogówmarker, Lubin and Polkowice. Recently, the estimate of lignite reserves near Legnica has been upgraded to about 35 billion tonnes, making them some of the largest in the world.

The following minerals have also been mined in Silesia: zinc, silver, cadmium, lead, gold, methane, iron ore, limestone, marl, marble, and basalt. Historically, also uranium used to be mined.

In post-communist times, however, the outdated nature of many facilities has led to environmental problems and substantial transition away from the resource-based to service-based economy.

Annual production of minerals in Silesia
Mineral Name Production (tonnes) Reference
Bituminous coal 95,000,000
Copper 571,000
Zinc 160,000
Silver 1,200
Cadmium 500
Lead 70,000

The region also has a thriving agricultural sector, which produces cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn), potatoes, rapeseed, sugar beets and others. Milk production is well developed. The Opole Silesia has for decades occupied the top spot in Poland for their indices of effectiveness of agricultural land use.

Mountainous parts of southern Silesia feature many significant and attractive tourism destinations (e.g., Karpaczmarker, Szczyrkmarker, Wisłamarker).

Silesia is generally well forested. This is because greenness is generally highly desirable by the local population, particularly in the highly industrialized parts of Silesia.


Modern Silesia is inhabited by Poles, Germans, Czechs and Silesians. The last Polish census of 2002 showed that the Silesians are the largest national minority in Poland, Germans being the second; both groups are located mostly in Upper Silesia. The Czech part of Silesia is inhabited by Czechs, Moravians, Silesians and Poles.

Before the Second World War, Silesia was inhabited mostly by Germans and Poles, in addition to German and Polish Jews and Czechs. In 1905, a census showed that 75% of the population was German and 25% Polish. Most Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in the German concentration camps. The vast majority of German Silesians fled or were expelled from Silesia during and after World War II. Most ethnic German Silesians today live in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, many of them working as miners in the Ruhr area, like their ancestors did in the Silesian mines. In order to smooth their integration into West German society after 1945, they were organized into officially recognized organisations, like the Landsmannschaft Schlesien, financed from the federal German budget . One of its most notable but controversial spokesmen was the CDU politician Herbert Hupka. The prevailing public opinion in Germany is that these organisations will achieve reconciliation with the Polish Silesians, which is gradually occurring . Many of the pre-war Germanised Slavic Silesians living in Upper Silesia have remained culturally bound to and have sought work in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1990, along with their ethnic German Silesian countrymen. Examples of mixed Polish-German Silesians include Miroslav Klose; fellow teammate Lukas Podolski who is also Silesian. Both are stars of the German national football team.

Silesia is perceived by many inhabitants as a distinct region with its own culture. Also stereotyping of Silesians and by Silesians themselves is common. The Silesian people are perceived to traditionally exhibit exceptional working ethics, high technical aptitude, dedication to family, team-work orientation, and skepticism to politics and media. The stereotypical way for Silesian men to spend their free time would include pigeon keeping, bee keeping, soccer, gardening, home upgrades, beer drinking, or magazine reading, while stereotypical housewife would prefer to play with kids, chat with a neighbour, or bake elaborate pastry (possibly a poppy-seed cake).


By far, the largest urban center in Silesia (and in Poland) is the Upper Silesian Metropolitan Unionmarker, which is a voluntary union of a 14 neighbouring cities created by the cities themselves and only later recognized at the central-government level.

The following table lists the cities in Silesia with a population greater than 100,000 (2006) (in italics their German names):

Name Population Area Administrative Country
1 Wrocławmarker (Breslau) 632 162 293 km² Lower Silesian V.marker
2 Katowicemarker (Kattowitz) 317 220 165 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
3 Ostravamarker *(Ostrau) 309 531 214 km² Moravian-Silesian R.
4 Gliwicemarker (Gleiwitz) 199 451 134 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
5 Bytommarker (Beuthen) 187 943 69 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
6 Zabrzemarker (Hindenburg O.S.) 191 247 80 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
7 Bielsko-Białamarker * (Bielitz-Biala) 176 864 125 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
8 Ruda Śląskamarker 146 658 78 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
9 Rybnikmarker 141 580 148 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
10 Tychymarker (Tichau) 131 153 82 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
11 Opolemarker (Oppeln) 128 268 97 km² Opole Voivodeshipmarker
12 Wałbrzychmarker (Waldenburg) 126 465 85 km² Lower Silesian V.marker
13 Zielona Góramarker (Grünberg) 118 221 58 km² Lubusz Voivodeshipmarker
14 Chorzówmarker (Königshütte) 114 686 33 km² Silesian Voivodeshipmarker
15 Legnicamarker (Liegnitz) 105 750 56 km² Lower Silesian V.marker

See also


  1. Zbigniew Babik, "Najstarsza warstwa nazewnicza na ziemiach polskich w granicach średniowiecznej Słowiańszczyzny", Uniwersitas, Kraków, 2001.
  2. - Article "We have the largest reserves of lignite in the world", Gazeta Wyborcza, 2008-01-08 (in Polish)
  3. WISE - Nuclear issues information service
  4. Copper: World Smelter Production, By Country
  5. Zinc: World Smelter Production, By Country
  6. Silver: World Mine Production, By Country
  7. Cadmium: World Refinery Production, By Country
  8. Lead: World Refinery Production, By Country
  9. Web site of the Opole regional government containing the current statistics (in Polish)
  10. T. Kamusella, Tomasz"Silesia: Doing It Our Way", Transitions Online, 11/14/2005
  11. Tomasz Kamusella, "The Upper Silesians' Stereotypical Perception of the Poles and the Germans", East European Quarterly, Vol. 33, 1999


Further reading

  • Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, 1st Series, volume XI, Upper Silesia, Poland, and the Baltic States, January 1920-March 1921, edited by Rohan Butler, MA, J.P.T.Bury, MA, & M.E.Lambert, MA, Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), London, 1961 (amended edition 1974), ISBN 0-11-591511-7*

  • Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, 1st Series, volume XVI, Upper Silesia, March 1921 - November 1922, edited by W.N.Medlicott, MA, D.Lit., Douglas Dakin, MA, PhD, & M.E.Lambert, MA, HMSO, London, 1968.

  • Dehio - Handbuch der Kunstdenkmäler in Polen: Schlesien, Herder-Institut Marburg and Krajowy Osrodek Badan i Dokumentacji Zabytkow Warszawa, Deutscher Kunstverlag 2005, ISBN 342203109X*

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