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The Wends Appeal to the King of Saxony

by Kevin Zwar


This document gives an excellent insight into life for the Wends under German rule in the mid 19th century.

In 1848 there were political uprisings throughout Germany. They emanated from Paris, and had the French Revolution ideals of freedom and equality as their source. The Wends in Saxony took the opportunity to press their case for better treatment. A delegation travelled to Dresden in July 1848 with a special petition to the Royal Saxon National Assembly, which they presented to the Prime Minister, Dr Braun. The delegation also had an audience with the king who treated them most graciously. The petition was printed in booklet form and was widely circulated. Some 130 years later, I found a copy in the loft of Johann Zwar’s old homestead at Ebenezer, South Australia. The petition gives a good insight into the difficulties which the Wends experienced living under German Saxon rule.

Significantly, the original petition was presented in the Wendish language.
We are deeply indebted to three translators for this English version. Pastor Siegfried Albert of Groeditz in East Germany, now living in retirement in Bautzen, translated the Wendish into German. The German version was translated into English by the late Pastor Rupert Burger, and is here presented in a modern form by Pastor Ev Leske.

Historians report that only a few of the petition’s requests were met.

“A Request by the Saxon Wends” [1848]

addressed to the Royal Saxon National Assembly

It is well known that the Wends of Lusatia, and in some mixed villages, have by God’s grace retained their national identity and culture. Without indulging in any self-praise, we can say on behalf of these our people that we humbly honour and sincerely love our king, whom God the King of kings has given us, and also have full confidence in the men to whom he has entrusted government.

In recent times, peoples and nations have complained to their government over what has disturbed them, and have let them know what they needed. We Wends have also long been aware of things we lacked, but in our natural love of peace we did not wish to use to your [government’s] embarrassment and to our own advantage the unrest which arose in our general area and so quickly overtook all countries.

However, this raging storm has now calmed down, and since you have permitted all people to present their petitions confidently to you, we Wends also are coming to you to pour out our hearts to you. And we consider that in this way you would prefer to become aware of our petitions before you present new laws for easing and improving the situation to the assembly of national representatives for decision. As well, in this way we give you the opportunity to be aware of what is helpful and even essential for us Wends. Yes, we are approaching you because you have shown such friendly concern for the petitions of our German brethren, and have met as many of their reasonable demands as possible. So we have the strong confidence that you will not dismiss our heart-felt petitions, but will give them a favourable hearing — and the more so because we are not foreigners in present-day Saxony, but from time immemorial have enjoyed full citizenship rights here.

Accordingly, we now petition not only that our beloved culture and mother tongue may survive, but also that they may be fostered and receive their proper honour. Yes, especially our mother tongue, which from childhood onwards has so deeply infiltrated and so strongly influenced our feelings and our thinking that we not only cannot give it up, but also in accordance with our faith regard it as a cherished gift of our heavenly Father, who in his wisdom has appointed in which nation each person is born.

We are happy that our German brethren value their national culture so highly that no sacrifice is too great for them to keep it, and they certainly cannot sit idly by when the German name and language are treated with contempt – as again became evident recently when the Danish people sought to destroy the German language and German culture.
But we also strongly hope that our German brothers will not demand justice only for themselves, but will also grant us Wends the same right, especially since we share the same civic obligations, and wish to enjoy the same civic privileges. In Frankfurt the assembly which determines future policies affecting the German territories, has already pledged that each national group shall have the same rights with respect to language which the Germans themselves possess. We herewith ask for that which has been pledged.

Accordingly, we petition:

That the honourable Royal Saxon National Assembly favourably consider and grant:

that the Wendish language have the same rights among the Wends as the German language has among Germans, and this to apply particularly in the schools, in the churches, and in the making and administering of the laws.

Permit us now to elaborate on and spell out in greater detail these specified requests

1. With Respect to Schools

In the first place we begin our petition for changes in our schools because it is in the sacred situation among our beloved young people in whom God the Lord has effected spiritual renewal and awakening that we find our greatest need, one which deeply pains us.

Quite some time ago, it was decreed that the German language be taught in the Wendish schools. We were quite agreeable to this, and want it to continue, for in daily life and in business we constantly rub shoulders with Germans.
However, the manner in which the German language has been taught in our schools has done great harm to Wendish children. Nowhere, when people begin to learn a foreign language – be it in university or in the higher city schools – does it happen that all instruction is given in that foreign language. But why then should this most difficult demand be made in the case of our poor unfortunate Wendish children?

Deeply disturbed, we must raise our voice against this present system for we know what unhappiness has arisen for us because of this. Permit us to make public our grievances in this matter.

In our Wendish schools the Christian faith is frequently taught in German. According to the School Regulation (6 June 1835, par 26), it is certainly permitted to teach the Christian faith in Wendish in our Wendish schools; but what can and dare we do when the teachers of our Wendish children decide to use German for this sacred instruction as well? True, the law does not forbid this; in the law’s wording the use of the Wendish language for Christian instruction of Wendish children is merely permitted, not expressly commanded.

What then can we say when here and there it has come to this that the time set aside for the instruction in the Christian faith is largely wasted by this: Wendish children being taught German answers to German questions, without anyone asking how little practical use this brings to the children. As a result, the religious instruction that is meant to be seized with the heart remains German, that is, foreign, to the children.

To our children, who are only beginning to learn God’s Word, this is a far bigger injustice than it would be for us as adults, if someone were to take our Wendish worship service and insist on God’s Word only in German. It is our deep conviction that this is a quite absurd and harmful system, and we must confess that we do not consider instruction in Holy Scripture in an unknown, unintelligible language to be a worthy explanation of God’s Word, but rather an abuse of it.

The holy apostles already, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, spoke to each nationality in the language which the people understood best, namely, their mother tongue. And as a result, great blessing followed. But in our Wendish schools here and there, the Gospel has been proclaimed in the unintelligible German language. Attention has been given, not to the Wendish children taking God’s Word into their hearts, but rather that they take German words into their memories. How can the power of God’s Word be a living force in the hearts of the children when such a course is followed?

To repeat, children must hear the great deeds of God in their mother tongue, otherwise their hearts remained cold and unmoved, with the result that neither Christian homes nor society benefit. This wrong use of German for instruction in the Christian faith leads neither to piety nor to good character development. Under these conditions we look in vain for spiritual blessings, and the extension of God’s kingdom becomes almost impossible.

Furthermore, Wends often lack the most elementary experience which nowadays is so necessary for everybody in these days of material well-being, and as a result, they are often at a real disadvantage in everyday affairs. But this is certainly not their own fault, but is due to the repression of the Wendish language in favour of the German in our schools.
Once more we repeat that it is useful and necessary for us Wends to learn German. We want German to continue to be taught in our schools. But it gives us no joy that our schools were apparently established merely for learning the German language; this then gives an impression that the Wendish language should be rooted out.

As well, we are deeply saddened that here and there our dear old Wendish books have been removed from schools, and have been replaced by German books. We are quite convinced that this is not in any way the wish of our loved government ministers who have earned respect throughout the land for their integrity. It pains us even more that certain lesser civil servants have themselves sought to suppress the Wendish language, have ignored the needs of the Wendish schools, and have appointed Germans who are not competent in the Wendish language as teachers of our Wendish children.

For our material well-being we need not only the German language, but also other useful lessons. What, then, is the situation among a large part of our Wendish people? It is just as bad as it would be for German folk if German children would be taught entirely in a foreign, to them unintelligible, language. The value of any school can never be as great with the use of a foreign language as it would be when the mother tongue is used.

Since the necessary instruction in secular subjects in the past was not given in Wendish, is it any wonder that the majority of Wends have not had an adequate education in those areas most needed in our times? That they know little about such things is not the fault of our language, but that it has been thrust aside and suppressed.

All the reputable teachers in our nation agree that school instruction can only be effective when received in one’s mother tongue, because only in this way can children fully absorb the instruction given. Similarly it is agreed that only through the use of the mother tongue can the mental powers of the children really be awakened and harnessed, and their gifts fully developed. Only through the mother tongue, which comes from the heart and reaches into the heart, can the happy young powers be awakened, captured, lifted to new heights, and enriched.

Whoever weighs up these matters carefully will look with sorrow and sincere sympathy upon our Wendish nation which for so long has been denied the benefits derived from an education received in one’s native language. Accordingly it is clear to all that our Wendish language must no longer be set aside in our schools if they are really to produce the right results.

With real gratification we note that learned and prominent Wends hold their mother tongue in high regard, and praise its beauty and strength. So the days have passed, with God’s help, when the name Wend was regarded as something unpleasant, and the language as something to be despised.

Germans are well provided for in our high schools and in our seminary at Bautzen. Since it has long been recognized that only that person can adequately exercise his calling among Germans who is fully conversant with German, it has been resolved that in those places of learning particular emphasis be placed on the study of the German language. But the same consideration is not being given to our Wendish young people, who later will be called upon to serve the Wends. Isn’t a thorough training in the Wendish language just as necessary for our Wendish young people as German is for German students? Foreign languages, which one often forgets in later life, must therefore be learnt; but Wendish has so far not been found worthy and deserving of a permanent teacher to instruct in the Wendish language and literature. We do not here wish to take up the fact that in Leipzig no instruction whatever is given in the Wendish language.

Many of our educated Wends feel keenly and say openly that they would be better able to carry out their work if the Wendish language, in which they had no training, were not so difficult for them, and if they could express themselves correctly in it.
We are quite convinced that we need only draw the attention of this deeply felt need to our respected government for them promptly to decree that we be rightly given what we have been deprived of for so long.

If we may now summarize all that Wends need in the matter of schools, we herewith petition:

That the honourable Royal Saxon National Assembly favourably consider and grant:

1) that the Wendish language no longer be suppressed in our schools, but rather that our mother tongue be fully recognized and used as a medium of instruction, while at the same time the German language remain the most important means of instruction;

2) that in the high school and seminary in Bautzen a qualified Wend be appointed as a full-time member of the teaching staff who is to teach the Wendish language and to prepare Wendish young people for their calling among Wends, and also that Wendish seminary students be given the opportunity in a Wendish school to practice teaching in Wendish.

2. With Respect to the Churches

We are sincerely thankful and inwardly happy to realize that the great majority of our people have divine services in the Wendish language every Sunday and every festival day, and also that they hear Wendish used at Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, and all other religious observances. However, this does not happen in all Wendish congregations. There are congregations among the Wends in which there is a Wendish preaching service only every second Sunday, and even some where there is never any preaching in Wendish. There are also congregations in which the sermon is preached in Wendish, but for all other sacred acts only German is used. Why must these congregations lack what other Wends enjoy? Our respected government will surely not deny them this privilege, if they themselves seek it.

Because the installation of a new pastor is a very important matter for every congregation, it was decreed by the highest church authorities quite a few years ago that this should take place in the congregation receiving that new pastor. The same authorities also decreed that the installation be conducted in the Wendish language in those congregations in which there are more Wends than Germans, but that the most important part of the ceremony, the solemn vow, be spoken in German in such congregations.

The previous government through the minister of the day, Mr von Wittersheim, had promised that a Wendish service should be provided for the many Lutheran Wends resident in Dresden and its neighbourhood. So far this has not happened. What has been said of the Lutheran Wends applies equally urgently to Roman Catholic Wends.

French and English folk in Dresden already hear their mother tongue in their church services. Only to the Wends has this not yet been granted. But we have full confidence in our respected government that this will very soon be attended to.

We accordingly petition:

That the honourable Royal Saxon National Assembly favourably consider and grant:

1) that in all Wendish congregations the sermon be preached in Wendish on every Sunday and festival day; and also when Wends request it, the Wendish language be used in the administration of Holy Communion as well as at other sacred acts;

2) that in Dresden Wendish services be held at least twelve times a year for both Lutheran and Roman Catholic Wends, and that a Wendish minister administer Holy Communion at least four times a year;

3) that new ministers at their installation into a congregation in which there are more Wends than Germans make their vow in Wendish.

3. With Regard to Law Courts, Civil Servants, and the Laws

If we examine the whole present judicial system, we can find much to complain about: things we so far lack, things that have not pleased us, but also things that have proved burdensome and have caused many dear Wends to suffer heavy losses – all simply because we lack both court hearings and laws in the Wendish language.

Germans have been fully justified in complaining occasionally about the legal system, but we Wends have had double reason to do so. Germans have been well able to converse with their German judges, but we Wends have stood before judges who have tried us in a strange language. They were not able to make quite clear to us in German the points involved, so that we understood. As a result, they were not always able to gather from our answers what they were actually seeking. So it is not only a possibility, but an actual fact, that Wends have been a greatly disadvantaged people because of court hearings in German.

Germans, speaking the language in which the trial judge has written [his notes and judgment], have been able to insist that he record their statements exactly as they have been given. And already before the trial, they have understood what the lawyer had set down and have been able to correct any inaccuracies in the brief he has prepared. But what has been the situation as far as we Wends were concerned, particularly for those among us who have been quite unable to make themselves clear to their German judge, and then have required an interpreter who usually had to be paid for his services, resulting in additional costs to be met?

But that is still not the only evil in this situation. Alas, anyone who has ever translated something from one language to another, must admit that such translating is not only difficult but often imperfect – indeed, at times so unreliable that one cannot say with full confidence if the right thoughts and full meaning have been transmitted adequately from the one language to the other. This applies particularly in cases where not written but only spoken words are conveyed in the other language. The one who is equally conversant with the Wendish and German languages admits that there are such great differences between the two that it is not always possible to express certain things equally well in both languages.

The one who recognizes this will know what we Wends experience in German court hearings where we at times have signed something not fully understood, and legal documents have read quite differently from what we had intended.

The person who is committed to justice which allows no injustice, whether the interests of many or few are involved, will view our Wendish people with deep compassion, and acknowledge this with genuine regret. Yes, indeed, without doubt, the unfortunate Wends have often suffered very much through the German law courts. However, we do not wish to complain further in this submission about what Wends have put up with in the past; rather, we want to plead strongly that our Wends are treated much better in the future.

When you took office with royal consent, you promised the whole country that great changes would take place in the existing legal procedures, namely, the abolition of the hated secret hearings as well as their costly written records of doubtful value, court hearings in future to be open to the public and ‘verbal’, that is, court hearings in which the accused can plead his innocence or defend himself before judges and an open court in his own words, and thereafter judgment is passed according to the conscientious judge’s conviction reached in an open court that wants to see justice done. No third element, such as written submissions or translations, dare come between the accused and the judge.

Such court hearings, demanded in all German territories, would in themselves bring us Wends no benefit; rather, we would have much to fear from them if we were not allowed to use our mother tongue, through which alone we are able to express our thoughts properly; and if there were no men available who not only understand everything in Wendish and can themselves speak Wendish well, but also can prepare our defence in Wendish, and can give the judicial verdict in Wendish.

As well, we have practically no Wendish people from our own ranks in the government or public service. This is greatly to our disadvantage. We wish to bring just one point to your notice: Wends in government positions could often help us in a friendly way and give us advice; they would know us and our Wendish ways, and would know what is oppressive in our eyes and what we consider essential.

Just as necessary for us Wends as court hearings is that the laws be made available in the Wendish language. The government passes laws so that the people are very aware of what may or may not be done. But of what use to us are laws which are written in a language that is not understood? Up to now, understanding the laws has always been very important for us all; anyone who did not understand them lived in constant fear of facing harm or punishment for not complying. But from now on, when everyone is enjoying more freedom, and so is more accountable, those who do not understand the law will be even worse off than before.

Therefore it is not only advisable, but also very necessary, that laws, as well as important regulations and gazetted rules applying to us, be published in the Wendish language. In other territories, where the residents do not all have the same language, this has long been the case.

Accordingly we petition:

that the honourable Royal Saxon General Assembly favourably consider and grant:

1) that we be given a Wendish court, and that in the interests of the future open court system, a Wendish court authority be set up where we have the judicial examination, defence, written proceedings, and verdict in the Wendish language;

2) that we have men who are competent in the Wendish language in our public service;

3) that all laws, and other important regulations and gazetted rules, be translated into the Wendish language by a duly authorized translator, and then published for us.

These then are our most weighty and important petitions. Please grant them to us! We feel deeply what is involved in these matters. May the Lord be with you and with us!
Trusting in him to grant us our petitions, we attach our signatures in his name and forward this to you.