Identity Politics in the Village of Ostrów: Manipulating Monolinguals to Augment Autochthonicity

  • Abstract:

    A savvy campaign of cultural brokerage organized 300,000 autochthonous Opole Silesians in southwestern Poland into “the German Minority in Poland” within months of the 1989 transition. Leadership tapped deep feelings of belonging and alienation while also using community tri-lingualism to selectively present Silesian identity to monolingual speakers of German – journalists, politicians, donors. Over the course of one celebratory day in one village, identity was politicized onstage, in the audience, and in the woods where the day began with prayer and remembrance that turned into a revelatory argument. I was, at the time, a fieldworker in linguistic anthropology, armed with a tape recorder, notebook, and fluency in German, Polish, and an ability to understand what was said in the local dialect, also. The day was a spectacular example of how identity – local and national – can not only be formed in practice, but contested, manipulated, represented, all to the aim of “augmenting autochthonity” into full membership in German nationality. For those who wanted that, that is. But, as I was told in an aside, “Not all Silesians identify as German.” This paper is taken from the third chapter, “Silent Memory and Identity Talk,” of my book, Languages and Silence in the German-Polish Borderland (PIASA books, 2017) –