Does Sorb’s election win point to a more multicultural Germany?
Under Adolf Hitler, the Nazis tried to extinguish the culture and language of the Sorbs.
This week, a member of Germany’s indigenous Slavic minority won a state election for the first time. Stanislaw Tillich’s victory puts him firmly in control of Saxony, the most populous eastern state – and looks likely to catapult the 50-year-old to the front ranks of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
“It was a historic day for the Sorbs,” Alfons Wicaz-Lehmann, deputy editor-in-chief of Serbske Nowiny, the country’s only Sorbian language daily, said of Tillich’s win. “It also shows that members of a minority really can rise to such a high office in this democracy.”
Although they now number only 60,000 and have lived in eastern Germany for well over 1,000 years, Sorbs have retained a distinctive culture and language, despite efforts to suppress them under Prussian domination and then Nazi oppression. Partly because of this they have kept a relatively low profile in Germany, a country whose ageing population and low birth rates could leave it heavily dependent on immigration in the years ahead.
A father of two, Tillich knew only Sorbian until he was “about five” but alongside German, the former member of the European parliament today also speaks Czech, Polish, French and English. Though he inherited the post of state premier last year when his predecessor resigned, Tillich had never faced the Saxon electorate for the job before.
Despite being dogged by media reports linking him to communist East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, he was the only CDU premier to emerge from the three state elections on Sunday with his reputation enhanced. While the CDU’s share of the vote slumped in Thuringia and Saarland – prompting the resignation of Thuringia’s premier Dieter Althaus on Thursday – it held above 40 percent in Saxony as Tillich secured a five year mandate to rule.
“His victory was very important and helps to make the Sorbs better known – because very little is know about us in Germany,” said Wicaz-Lehmann.
With Tillich in charge of a state about as populous as New Zealand, more and more people should start to realise that Germany must see itself as a multicultural society, he added.
“Unfortunately though, a lot of people here still have a problem with that. So there’s a plenty to do yet,” said Wicaz-Lehmann.
More than 18 percent of Germany’s population, or some 15.1 million people, are classified as of migrant origin, i.e. people who moved to Germany since 1950 and their offspring. The number is rising, but is not yet reflected in political representation. Among the 612 members of Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, only a handful are of foreign extraction.
Outside the Bundestag, however, change has been more apparent.
One of the rising stars of the CDU is David McAllister, a 38-year-old born in Berlin to a Scottish father who heads the party in the 8-million strong state of Lower Saxony. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Green party is now led by Cem Özdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, who make up one of the biggest ethnic minorities in Germany.
Though their way of life has had to contend with the threat of destruction by mining companies as well as political apathy in recent years, Sorbs are not seeking independence. But they are now looking forward to better days, said Wicaz-Lehmann.
“In the past our people had to duck and steer clear of trouble for historical reasons,” he said. “But I think we’ve now reached the time when the Sorb feels he can bang his fist on the table and demand his rights as well.”
PHOTO: Stanislaw Tillich, state premier of the German state of Saxony, casts his vote at the village of Panschwitz-Kuckau in a regional election on August 30. REUTERS/Petr Josek.