ECMI Minorities Blog. German Minority as Hostage and Victim of Populist Politics in Poland

Image courtesy: Bund der Jugend der deutschen Minderheit (BJDM)

Author: Marek Mazurkiewicz  |


* Marek Mazurkiewicz is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science and Administration, the Faculty of Political Science and Social Communication of the University of Opole (Poland). His research interests comprise politics at the local level, Polish-German relations, as well as issues concerning national and ethnic minorities.


The German minority in Poland and Polish community in Germany

On 17 June 1991 Poland and Germany concluded a The Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. This was a landmark document in the history of both countries, as it not only opened a new chapter in bilateral relations, but was also a tool for bridging divisions, reconciliation, while also providing recognition and empowerment to Germans in Poland and Poles in Germany. For both groups, the treaty ensured the right ‘to freely express, preserve and develop their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity without any attempt at assimilation against their will’, as well as ‘to fully and effectively exercise human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination of any kind and in conditions of full equality before the law’ (Art. 20 of the Treaty).

The treaty to a large extent became a model for similar arrangements that Poland concluded with other neighbouring countries. Moreover, it subsequently functioned as the basis for the development of Polish legislation in favour of national minorities, including the constitutional guarantee of ‘the freedom to preserve and develop one's own language, to cultivate customs and traditions, as well as to develop one's own culture’ (Art.35) and the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities, and on the Regional Language.

Empowered by the 1991 Treaty,  the German minority in Poland became, due to its size (according to the 2011 General Census data, it is a community of 144,238 people, of which 78,157 live in the Opolskie Voivodeship) and the degree of institutionalisation, a ‘litmus test’ of the effectiveness of the Act’s regulations with respect to all other minorities in Poland. In this regard, the leading role is played by The Social-Cultural Society of Germans in Opole Silesia which, alongside the Association of German Social-Cultural Societies in Poland, fulfils the function of the representative of the German minority in Poland and is one of the main actors of social and political life in Opolskie Voivodeship.

A different position in German society is occupied by the Polish diaspora. Although the Polish government’s reports estimated its number at as many as 2 million people, it should be emphasised that Polish communities in Germany are heterogeneous, dispersed and the degree of ‘their organisation should be considered as low’. Not only governmental reports, but also academic publications indicate that a large group of citizens in Germany characterised by a Polish migration background do not identify themselves with Polishness. This is mainly due to the fact that the majority of people of Polish origin in Germany came there claiming a connection to the German nation (Aussiedler).

In spite of these objective differences between the German minority in Poland and the Polish community in Germany, the legal and formal symmetry in the treatment of both groups as declared in the Treaty of 1991 has unfortunately been a contentious issue in German-Polish political relations for many years. A particularly critical stance on this is taken by the Polish right-wing parties, which point out that Poland, unlike Germany, has more than fulfilled its obligations assumed in 1991.

In recent years a certain regularity could be observed with respect to the emergence of this issue, framed by the Polish right as a case of unequal treatment of the Polish community in Germany, in comparison to the favourable treatment of the German minority in Poland.  It keeps returning to the Polish discourse during election campaigns, thus becoming one of the tools to mobilise the electorate with nationalist and conservative views. Politicians trying to win such support rely on the anti-German resentments present in the Polish collective memory.

In 2021, the issue reappeared in the Polish public debate, but for the first time it went beyond the sphere of electoral slogans, acquiring the dimension of concrete actions of the Polish authorities, directed against the German minority. These actions are intended to compel the German federal authorities to act and support the Polish community however, at the same time, they are a form of blatant discrimination against a national minority.

Changes in the state budget aimed against the German minority

In December 2021, during the parliamentary debate preceding the approval of the state budget for 2022, an amendment was proposed to reduce the educational subsidy for the teaching of minority languages by PLN 39.8 million, i.e. approximately EUR 8,77 million (Document no. 1819-A). The initiative to reduce funding for minority education was also endorsed by the Polish Minister of Science and Education. Despite widespread criticism from the opposition political parties and minority communities, on 17 December 2021 the Polish Sejm passed the budget bill.

According to the proposed amendment, the amount of PLN 39.8 million (approximately EUR 8,77 million), previously earmarked for the teaching of minority languages, was to be allocated for ‘a new budget item called “Funds for teaching the Polish language in Germany”’(Document no. 1819-A). In practice, this means that the resources supposed to finance the teaching of national and ethnic minority languages in Poland are to be channelled to support the Polish community in Germany. 

Interestingly, the planned reduction of funding for minority education could affect several national and ethnic minorities living in Poland. This is because Poland does not have separate systems for supporting such communities, and the pool of public funds allocated for minority languages education is distributed according to demand reported by the authorities running relevant schools i.e., local government units responsible for education. The controversial nature of the adopted regulation is primarily the result of a clear violation of the right of minorities to ‘maintain and develop their own language’ (Art. 35 of the Constitution).

The mechanism of law-making in Poland stipulates that a bill accepted by Sejm (the lower house of parliament) is forwarded to the Senate (the upper house), which can adopt the new law without amendments, propose its own modifications or reject the bill in its entirety. However, the Sejm enjoys a legislative advantage over the Senate and can reject the latter’s amendments by an absolute majority of votes. In this context, some hope for the withdrawal of the changes in the funding of minority education arose in January 2022 when the Senate put forward an amendment to the budget bill. The upper house proposed to allocate exactly PLN 39.8 million more for the teaching of minority languages than the amount approved by the Sejm. The Senate’s initiative was supposed to ‘rectify’ the unprecedented decision of the lower chamber. Nevertheless, on 19 January 2022, the Sejm committee that dealt with the amendment proposed by the Senate recommended its rejection (Document no. 1936). A day later, the Minister of Science and Education Przemysław Czarnek clarified on Twitter that ‘in view of the still appearing mendacious information on the reduction of funds for the teaching of the languages of all minorities and groups, including Kashubian, I present the justification for the amendment, which indicates unambiguously that it applies EXCLUSIVELY (sic - MM) to the German language’. On 27 January 2022 the Sejm finally confirmed its original December decision, and the bill was forwarded to the President. On 1 February 2022 it was signed, which caused its entry into force.

The change caused a lot of controversy and was unequivocally assessed as a case of blatant discrimination by German minority circles (who initiated a social media campaign #niemaMowy #sprachlos), experts and media independent of the Polish authorities. The Polish Ombudsman voiced his opinion on the matter, stating that there could be no consent to such changes, with concern expressed also by the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Similar declarations were issued by the Federal Union of European Nationalities and the head of the SPD faction in the German Bundestag. Polish communities abroad also spoke out against the instrumentalisation of the German minority in Poland and the Polish communities in Germany (Polnisches Bundesnetzwerk Partizipation und Soziales).

Indeed, this was the first time after 1989 when the Polish state authorities decided, in the name of protecting or supporting Polish diaspora, to limit the possibilities of exercising the rights of Poland’s citizens. Not only are the adopted regulations discriminatory; their implementation may contribute to the dysfunctionality of the entire minority education system in Poland. On 4 February 2022, the Polish Journal of Laws published a new ordinance of the Minister of Education and Science, implementing the changes in the funding of German lessons. The discriminatory law reduces the hourly length of German as a minority language from 3 to 1. This regulation applies exclusively to the German minority, and will come into force on 1 September 2022, i.e., the new school year. The legislator will thus establish an additional system, only for the German minority, by definition providing an educational offer poorer than those concerning other minority groups. And this will obviously violate the constitutional principle of equality before the law.

Towards educational and human rights crisis in Poland

The Education Act passed on 7 September 1991, includes a provision stating that, ‘Public schools and institutions shall enable pupils to maintain their sense of national, ethnic, linguistic and religious identity, and in particular to learn their language, history and culture’. The Act, in Art. 13(2), also indicates that minority education is possible at ‘parents’ request’ i.e., on the basis of a statement understood as a declaration of will that does not undergo verification. Adopted more than 30 years ago, the solution corresponded to the standard of treating national identity as a subjective category, independent of citizenship.

Consequently, the voluntary participation in the minority education system makes this system addressed to all Polish citizens. At the same time,  Art. 4(3) of the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities, and on the Regional Language states clearly that ‘No-one shall be obligated to prove his/her belonging to a given minority’. This means that, in theory, any pupil in Poland may attend additional classes in a foreign language treated as a minority language, and the state authorities have no right to verify whether participation in such classes actually corresponds to the identity of the participant. The inclusive approach to the possibility of participation in minority language education adopted in Poland is in line with the provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which obliges state parties to facilitate and promote the availability of this type of teaching. Furthermore, a declaration of participation in the minority education system cannot be regarded as a form of opting for one or another national identity, because apart from triggering the process of organising teaching in a minority language, it does not produce any other legal effects.

A case in point is the percentage of pupils learning German as a minority language in the Opolskie Voivodeship. In the current school year 2021/2022, this is 28,665 children or 19.97% of the total of 144,263 pupils, whereas the German minority constitutes approximately 8% of all inhabitants.

Although unverifiable, this disproportion is another argument used by the Polish authorities and far-right politicians to justify the reduction of funding for the teaching of German as a minority language. 

It should be pointed out that minority education generates greater costs. The Polish authorities noticed this problem already in the early 1990s, introducing the possibility of providing financial support to local government units responsible for education. According to the Ministry of Science and Education, the additional costs are due to the fact that education is ‘carried out during additional hours and requires additional employment of adequately prepared teachers’, and supplementary funds are intended to compensate for such higher costs.

As a result, local government units providing minority education receive additional funding in the educational part of the general subvention. In other words, the amount of the subvention per pupil financing the education system (PLN 6 118 = EUR 1 347 in 2022) is increased by additional money. It is calculated with the use of multipliers, the so-called weights. With regard to minority language teaching, four weights are currently used:

  1. P25 increases the amount of the subvention by 20% of the base amount, i.e. PLN 1223.60 = EUR 269,
  2. P26 – by 100%, i.e. PLN 6,118 = EUR 1347,
  3. P27 – by 130%, i.e. PLN 7,953.40 = EUR 1752 and
  4. P28 – by 60%, i.e. PLN 3,670.80 = EUR 808.

The weights P25, P26, P27 depend on the size of a school, i.e., the number of pupils attending classes for minorities; the weight P28 depends on whether classes are conducted in two languages: Polish and a minority language. According to this principle, the smaller the number of pupils, the greater the weight. Such a solution is intended to support the functioning of small schools, where teaching a minority language is even more costly.

It is no secret that the system of minority languages education can be, among other things, a form of protection against the negative effects of demographic challenges faced by Polish local governments. Funds allocated for minority education go to local governments in the form of a subvention, giving them the possibility to offset financial losses caused by falling numbers of pupils, maintain employment in its schools and thus ensure the continued provision of educational services.

The political circles that are behind the initiative to cut funding for the teaching of German as a minority language do not seem to understand the nature of the system. They interpret the number of pupils attending minority language classes, which is higher than demographic estimates, as a fraud or misuse of public funds. However, as indicated above, the essence of the system is that it is based on a declaration of will that is not subject to evaluation or verification. 

What causes controversy is the legislator’s focus on the German minority. The teaching of other minority languages is also based on a declaration of will that is not subject to verification.  It seems, therefore, that the motive for introducing the discriminatory regulations is not to improve the situation of Polish diaspora in Germany, but rather a form of the populist instrumentalisation of the German minority in Poland. As a result, such measures can further deepen the crisis in Polish-German bilateral relations and strengthen the ideological polarisation of Polish society. Moreover, the pronouncements suggesting the elimination of other ‘privileges’ enjoyed by the German minority should be regarded as a real threat to the functioning of human rights protection mechanisms in Poland.


Image courtesy: Bund der Jugend der deutschen Minderheit (BJDM)
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