The Wendish folk costumes as an added value in a cross-border context

Dic 30, 2020

Good governance

“Anna and I are the last ones in Döbbrick/Depsk speaking Wendish. As soon as we pass away, the Wendish language will slide into oblivion in our district,” relates Richard Šułśic (94) sunbathing on a bench with his wife outside his courtyard, only a few steps away from the Döbbricker church. Every time when the sun bestows its warming rays upon Döbbrick, you can see this senior couple greeting the people passing through. Anna is also a Wendish speaker, but she lets Richard translate for her from the weekly newspaper “Nowy Casnik”. She doesn’t understand some of the words from the so called “school Wendish”, which is very similar to Upper Sorbian (spoken in Upper Lusatia), which isn’t as endangered as Wendish (Lower Sorbian). Anna can often be seen wearing a colourful costume – a blue basis with flowery or whitish ornaments. It recalls the Wendish folk costumes. Anna isn’t the only one honouring the Wendish folk costumes. The folk costumes are one of the most prominent symbols of Lusatia. This formerly exclusive feature of the Sorbian/Wendish national identity has spread throughout the younger generations which also identify the costumes as a part of their (regional or Wendish) identity. The folk costumes got detached from the Wendish national identity and became a Lusatian regional feature. Specialised tailoring shops foster the Wendish folk costumes. They organise tailoring courses for beginners and show how to properly dress the folk costumes, because mistakes in dressing are a no-go.

In contrast to other regions of Europe, the very frequent wearing of folk costumes isn’t uncommon in Lusatia. Some old women still wear Sorbian outfits on a daily basis in the area between Hoyerswerda/Wojerecy, Bautzen/Budyšin and Kamenz/Kamjenc. Most women wear folk dresses during solemn festivities (award ceremonies), cultural manifestations (book readings, art expositions), folk customs (ex. Hahnrupfen/łapanje kokota) or folk festivals. School fests are also combined with folk costumes and dances and pupils are proud of wearing the Wendish outfits.

As the Wendish language is dying out, a dilemma arises among the Lusatians: Does the

Wendish folk costume suffice to save Wendish identity in (Lower) Lusatia? “Without the Wendish language, some people can start to talk again about a ‘German Spreewald costume’, just as in national socialist times. The Wendish language is the mean through which everything eventually becomes ‘Wendish’. The (Wendish) folk costume is beautiful and I know that it’s for many youngsters an incentive to the ‘Wendishness’. Hence, it has an important function. But it’s not enough, only to foster the folk costumes and traditions. The language should be revitalised, otherwise nothing but folklore would survive,” says the young Wendish writer, Jill-Francis Käthlitz. In contrast to Ms. Käthlitz, many in Lower Lusatia consider the Wendish language as obsolete. But still, Ms. Käthlitz points out that the beautiful costumes can animate someone to learn Sorbian/Wendish, which is true.

Although Wendish/Sorbian costumes are still part of the Wendish culture, they’ve gradually become a part of the regional (German) culture too. They are quite often commercialised in advertisements. They even get instrumentalised just as in some past dark times. The right-wing populist party AFD (Alternative for Germany) presented a poster with a Wendish lady together with a Bavarian dirndl lady and a Schwarzwald lady with a traditional bollenhut in its campaign in 2017 “Colourful diversity? We have much of it – Dare to do it, Germany” in order to present Wendish folk costumes as part of the German traditions, but also to give the impression that migrants aren’t welcome in Germany. As a poor region coping with the gradual withdrawal of the coal industry, young people leave Lusatia, since there aren’t promising job perspectives. The region around Cottbus/Chóśebuz is permanently stirred up by right-wing demonstrations. The southern part of Lusatia isn’t very different. This endangers the tourism and for instance the cooperation between the neighbouring Germany and Poland, which also dispute on small criminality and car theft at the border stripe.

At the end of the Second World War, as the maps were drawn again, there were plans of an autonomous Lusatia, that Czechs, Poles and South Slavs supported. There were also projects to create another republic (Lusatia) within Czechoslovakia. The independence ideas failed, so Wends/Sorbs remained in the German Democratic Republic. The Sorbian/Wendish matter hasn’t been reopened again. Sorbs/Wends are no object of discord today, although the Czech Republic considers Sorbs/Wends as compatriots. Historically Lusatia belongs to three countries: the largest part to Germany and the smaller ones to Poland and the Czech Republic.

In order to promote sustainable development in the new and old EU member states, the European Union has established various bordering regions such as the “Spree-Neiße-Bober” (Germany/Poland) or “Neiße” (Germany/Poland/Czechia). The NGO “Euroregion Spree-Neiße-

Bober” plays a key role within the cooperation project INTERREG V “A Brandenburg/Germany – Poland”, and is mostly specialised in cultural, economic and health care projects. This NGO aids financially projects from other NGOs, museums, culture centres and other institutions in Germany and Poland, and thereby creates new ties in the NGO sector, allowing the population in the border area to better interact. Since 2008 Sorbian/Wendish culture has also been the focus of projects supported and carried out by Euroregion Spree-Neiße-Bober.

“Since 2019 the Sorbian/Wendish culture is part of the intangible heritage of UNESCO”

For example, the regional association Niederlausitz (member of the umbrella organisation Domowina) organised in 2016 a meeting between traditional Wendish (Sorbian) and Polish wedding processions at the Festival of Wendish (Sorbian) culture in Jänschwalde/Janšojce, where Wendish folk costumes were shown too. The Lower Lusatian Sorbian Museum Bloischdorf/Błobošojce, being part of the network “Lusatian museum landscape”, has a partnership with the Polish city of Babimost. In this twinning supported by the NGO Euroregion Spree-Neiße-Bober, the Sorbian Museum’s association in Bloischdorf organised in 2018 a traditional custom care of autumn and winter traditions with their partners from Babimost. On the 22th of August of this year, representatives from the regional association “Niederlausitz”/Domowina took part in the Park festivity in the Lusatian Polish city of Żary. There, they presented the Wendish culture, folk outfits and cookery. The project was sustained by the NGO Euroregion Spree-Neiße-Bober and the Polish NGO Żaranin, also having the Sorbian/Wendish culture as one of its emphasis. The partnership between the Upper Sorbian municipality Nebelschütz/Njebjelčicy and the Polish city of Namyslów exists since 1997. It has been intensified after Poland became an EU member. A delegation of 40 members visited Namyslów during the 13. International Namyslów days and showed Sorbian culture, traditional costumes and dances. A workshop entitled “how to dress up in a Sorbian folk dress” has been offered. The International Folkore festival Łužyca has been taking place every second year in Bautzen/Budyšin and in Drachhausen/Hochoza. This international event organised by the Domowina invites folklore groups from different parts of the world such as Algeria, Peru, Georgia and from the region, Poland or the Czech Republic. Sorbian folklore groups strengthen their contacts with fellows from the EU member states, but also with those from third countries. The folklore group “Smjerdźaca” existing since 1964 participated more than 10 times at festivals in the Czech Republic and Poland. Smjerdźaca was also one of the participants at the folklore festival Łužica in July 2019 together with the folklore group Mirče Acev, which was shortly after in August 2019 the host of the international student folk festival in North Macedonia.

Since 2019 the Sorbian/Wendish culture is part of the intangible heritage of UNESCO. Brandenburg and Saxony can’t be imagined without the Sorbian/Wendish culture. Efforts aren’t only made to preserve the culture but also save the two Sorbian languages. Sorbs/Wends speak a

Slavic language similar to Polish or Czech, and are integrated in the German society. Therefore they often serve as a mediator between Germans, Poles and Czechs which haven’t always maintained the amicable relations they have today. The examples above focused on the folk costumes and their role in cross-border projects, but other aspects (language, songs, arts) also play a role in cross-border projects. Lusatian schools, where the Sorbian/Wendish language is taught as a subject, often foster partnerships with schools in Poland or the Czech Republic.

As a minority in a large and economically powerful country as Germany Sorbs/Wends are too small to make global changes. However, they do make a lot of difference on the Eastern outskirts of Germany and not only for the benefit of tourism. The minority perspective of Sorbs/Wends as mediators or as a focus of cooperation is maybe what other countries, for example North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, with contested history and shared culture can benefit from. To concentrate on small “uniting events” (i.e. folklore festivals, museum day or partnerships) with respect for the thoughts and beliefs of the other is what would certainly make a great deal of sense. The cross-border experiences of Sorbs/Wends with fellows from the neighbourhood show that the infrastructure supported by the EU, the NGO-sector in Brandenburg and Saxony, as well as the free movement of persons as one of the principles of the European Union facilitated the intensification of the cross-border friendships. But everything would have been futile, if there hadn’t been open-minded individuals, municipality workers, cultural workers, artists and museum workers, mostly speaking the language of the others, who undertook the role of bridge builders.

Viktor Zakar


The article is produced within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.