A Detailed History of the Wends
This page covers a detailed history of the Wends, from 5,000 B.C.E to the 1848 Revolution
The Wends are connected with the branch of Western Slavs, which includes the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. They are distantly related to the Eastern Slavs, including the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians and to the Southern Slavs, including the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Bulgarians.
The European and Asian background up to the emigration in the 1850s can be divided into fourteen distinct historical sections. These include the Wends’ prehistory, their early “classical” history, the Slavic migration, the Germanic expansion, unity with Poland, Christianisation, Czech control, the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, Peace of Prague, the Napoleonic era, the growth of Capitalism, national consciousness and the Revolutions of 1848.
1. Wendish Pre-history
Wendish Pre-history from 5,000 to 500 B.C.E refers to the time when no historical reference or material exists, so we are dependent on archaeological evidence and artefacts.
(a) The period from 5,000 to 2.000 B.C.E involves Indo-European ancestors who lived on the steppes of Eurasia in southern Russia. 1
By 4,000 B.C.E., these Indo-Europeans had moved east past the Black Sea and Caspian Sea where they became known as the Iranians and west right into central and eastern Europe, where they are labelled Starcero and Danubian cultures. 2
(b) From 2,000 to 500 B.C.E, we need to deal with the early or Proto-Slavic groups. By 2,000 B.C.E., the Indo-Europeans or Aryans had spread out from Central Asia and developed into the various Indo-European races still in Europe and Asia today. We now know them as the Slavs who settled between Warsaw and Moscow; the Balts who are now in Latvia and Lithuania; the Teutons who are now in Germany, and the Celts who are now the English and French. Other Indo-European races include the Italians, Illyrians, Thracians, Greeks, the Hittites in Asia Minor, the Iranians in Persia or Iran and the Aryans in India.
These proto or early Slavs have a detailed archaeological history and the archaeological evidence produced so far reveals much about our ancestors’ way of living.
The names given to these periods include Early Bronze Age from 2,000 to 1,500 B.C.E., Middle Bronze Age from 1500 to 1200 B.C.E., late Bronze Age from 1200 to 750 B.C.E and the Early Iron Age from 750 to 500 B.C.E. 3
During this whole period of over a thousand years, our ancestors stayed in the same area and according to archaeological evidence grew wheat, barley and millet and grazed cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses on the open ground between the forests.
Grindstones were used to make flour, hoes of bronze and iron were used to dig up the soil and bronze bits show that horses were used for riding. 4
Settlements were made where the area could be protected near a hill of the fork of a river.
It is assumed that, because no weapons have been found in graves, these long-time proto-Slavic settlers were a very peaceful group and did not place great value on weapons or fighting each other. 5
Ornaments included bracelets and neck rings and their houses were semi-subterranean structures, or at least partly built underground, measuring about 6m by 10m with clay floors and hearths in the centre.
Not a lot of hunting took place because only about 8% of all bones found belong to wild animals and these include elk, deer, bison, boar, bear, wolf, fox, hare, bear, marten and otter. Bronze hooks suggest that they also went fishing. 6
Workshops for moulding bronze artefacts were no doubt busy places and of course pots for cooking and storing food had to be made.
Although we have no written history about these groups from 5,000 to 500 B.C.E, we can gain useful insights from archaeology and the truth dawns on us that life has not really changed much for some of descendants today who are still mixed farmers on the land.
2. The Persian, Greek and Roman Period
The Persian, Greek and Roman Period of world history begins the historic period for our Slavic ancestors because we can go to written sources for information after about 500 B.C.E.
This period ends when the Slavs leave their homeland where they had settled for over two thousand years and began their extensive and important migrations westwards as separate tribes from 400 C.E. onwards.
During this important period, our earth-bound ancestors continued to till the soil and herd animals and few invaders came into their forest-steppes to disturb them. 7
The historian who first mentions them is Herodotus in Book 4 of his History, where he describes an expedition by Darius against the Scythians in 515 B.C.E. and refers to the “husbandmen, who sow corn not for food but for sale”. 8 Perhaps this surplus was for export or to pay tribute to the Scythians to leave them alone.
A plough from this period made from a single piece of wood has been unearthed and grains so far identified have been wheat, barley, rye, pea, chickpea, cow pea and millet. 9
These Slavic tribes were given various names by the ancient historians. Maps of the Roman Empire usually call them to the Venedi, a term used by Tacitus in the first century. This became the common term “Wends”. 10
However, Ptolemy (100-178 C.E.) calls them “Slovenes”, 11 a word giving rise to the Slovaks and possibly connected with the word “flax”. Ptolemy also mentions the “Serboi” meaning “shepherd” and giving rise to our modern day Sorbs of Lusatia and the Serbs. 12
Unfortunately for these early Slavs, world history here begins to make its impact. The barbarian Goths invaded the area south of the Wends and moved up into the wendish homeland. Procopius gives an account of the Gothic wars of 536-537 C.E. and provides a flattering description of the wendish soldiers whom he met. “All of them are tall and very strong, their skin and hair are neither very light nor dark, but all are ruddy of face. They live a hard life of the lowest grade just like the Messagetae and are just as dirty as they”. 13
3. Slavonic Migrations
Slavonic Migrations from 500 to 800 C.E form the next important stage of wendish history. The barbarians such as Huns, Bulgars and Avars devastated Europe and, back home, the Slavs had been suppressed and restricted by their neighbours, the Scythians, Sarmatians and Goths.
It appears that Germanic tribes moved westwards in about 300 C.E. and then in about 500 C.E. the Wends or Slavs moved west into the territory left vacant by the Germans. This was not an invasion but a steady migration of families travelling on foot to colonise the unoccupied land. 14 Thus some moved into Lusatia. 15
On a wider level, other slavic tribes moved out in all directions from their homeland and these tribes have given rise to the nationalities and languages now part of modern Europe, as is clear from a modern atlas.
The western migration included the ancestors of the Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Sorbs and Kashubians, as well as the now extinct tribes like the Obodrites, Veletians, Ploni, Vilzi and others.
The southern migration gave rise to Serbs, Croats, Macedonians and Bulgarians. The eastern migration included ancestors of the Ukrainians, Byelorussians and the Russians.
The Lusatians entered Lusatia, which in german is Lausitz and in wendish Luzici, as two tribes, the Luzici in the north and the Milzane or Milceni in the south. They were part of a colonisation of the whole area between the Elbe River on the west and the Oder River on the east. 16
Their pottery is similar to that found in Poland and this new stage in Slavic history moved from farming in the backwaters of Asia to the spreading of the slavic language and customs all over Europe.
4. German Expansion and Conquest
German Expansion and Conquest has been a feature of wendish life in Lusatia soon after they settled and it has continued up until the present. Lusatia is now part of the new Germany which was reunited on 3 October, 1990 following heavy emigration and the collapse of the notorious Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989.
However, back in the earlier days, the Wends came into direct contact for the first time with the Germans when the Franks and Saxons defeated the neighbours of the Wends, the Thuringians in 531 C.E. 17
In a confrontation in 806 C.E. between Karl, the son of Charles the Great and the Milceni, the Wends were defeated and Karl burned the fortress at Bautzen or Budysin. 18
The Milceni however survived and in 932 C.E., Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony defeated the Lusatians and made the acceptance of Christianity a condition of peace. The Wends rebelled against this imposition and they were partly successful.
However in 963 C.E., Otto the Great sent his forces against Lusatia and the German Margrave Gero became the governor of the Wends. He was an extremely cruel governor who totally subjugated the Luzici in the north.
George Nielsen sadly records that Margrave Gero invited thirty Sorbian princes to a banquet to talk peace and then had them all murdered. This tragic massacre was commemorated in a poem by Mato Kosyk called “The Treachery of Margrave Gero”, which Mato wrote just before leaving for America. 19
The Milceni were finally subjugated by Margrave Ekhard in about 990 C.E. and since that time, the Lusatians have not been free or able to determine their own destiny. Even today, their fate is very much in the hands of those sitting in a German Parliament.
In regard to their religious beliefs, practices and symbols, prior to the adoption of Christianity, the Wends were a deeply religious group of people, displaying deep respect for the god of their ancestors.
Their name for god is “bogu” meaning wealth and because they experienced bad as well as good, they believed that there were two main gods, one of whom was responsible for good and the other called “Zernabog” or black god was responsible for evil, famines, plagues, fires, storms and other calamities.
As a result, many sacrifices were offered to placate Zernabog. However, a lot was done to encourage Bogu to provide all that is good. This is a dualistic approach to gods and reality and the role of priests in the communication with the gods was greatly respected by our ancestors.
According to an early writer called Procopius, originally the most important deity was the Thunder-maker, represented by a figure called Perun made of wood with a head of silver adorned by golden whiskers.
Another favourite deity was Svantovit who possessed four heads, four necks, two chests and two backs, who carried a sword and who had a spotless white horse to accompany him. Oracles were obtained from Svantovit’s horse by the way it stepped over three rows of spears. The harvest festival to Svantovit, together with a ritual involving the mead cup and the eating of sweet, round honey cakes, was a most solemn occasion.
Other aspects of the supernatural emerged such as Lada goddess of love and pleasure, Kupola god of the fruits of the earth, Koleda god of festivals and a name still used for Christmas in Poland, Dazhbog the day god, Stribog the wind god, fairies and other spirit-beings inhabiting the woods, water and air. Alfons Frencl, a well known Sorb writer, has also drawn attention to the famous Lusatian Waterman and to the Black Miller and Magician Krabat.
In fact, there is an interesting legend which narrates how a wendish priest tried to convince his people not to convert to Christianity by dressing up in a white sheet and appearing to people in the forest, in order to convince them that such beings actually existed.
5. Unity with Poland
Unity with Poland from 1002 to 1032 C.E. resulted when in 1002 C.E the Polish King Boleslaw the Brave entered Lusatia and captured Bautzen. By the terms of the Peace of Bautzen in 1018 C.E. both Upper and Lower Lusatia were united by Poland. 20
However, by 1032, the Germans stepped in and forced the Polish king Mieczyslaw II to surrender Lusatia.
6. Christianisation of Lusatia
Christianisation of Lusatia from 1032 to 1157 C.E. as a consequence of germanic colonisation resulted in deep ill-feelings towards the Germans for introducing Christianity by means of fire and the sword and by then imposing intolerable burdens of taxation on the conquered Slavs. 21
However, Albert the First of Brandenburg, also known as Albert the Bear or Albert the Handsome, became Margrave of Brandenburg and allowed Christian Wends to have land on equal terms with their conquerors.
7. The Czech Crown
The Czech Crown ruled Lusatia from 1156 C.E onwards but this was under German control. The Germans made life difficult for the Wends because Wends were excluded from the towns and the trade guilds.
8. The Reformation Period
The Reformation Period from 1517 to 1618 C.E brought about some dramatic changes in Lusatia. The Wends were formerly Roman Catholic but the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 C.E decreed that whoever ruled the land could decide on its religion.
The Wends in Lower Lusatia were in Brandenburg, Prussia and were consequently part of the change to Lutheranism. No doubt the new Lutheran stress on the vernacular language and the additional freedom of thinking appealed to the Wends.
Some Wends were keen to study theology at Wittenberg where Dr Martin Luther had been a lecturer and those ordained there were Glockner, Kuster, Schreiber, Handwerken, Burger and Bauern. 22
9. The Thirty Years’ War
The Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 took place in the context of the emerging conflict between the traditional Catholics and the recently emerging Protestants. The war began with the claims of Frederick, elector of Palatine, to the throne of Bohemia. Catholics and Lutherans fought intensely and great damage was done to the Lusatian countryside. Farmers suffered badly because of this destruction as well as bad harvests, famine and disease and many people died. 23
10. The 1635 Peace of Prague
The 1635 Peace of Prague contained in part the consequence of the Thirty Years’ War for Lusatia. The Hapsburg Emperor, Ferdinand II, was obliged to hand over Upper and Lower Lusatia to John George I, Elector of Saxony. The boundaries stayed like this until 1815.
11. The Napoleonic Era
The Napoleonic Era from 1799 to 1815 saw Napoleon and his huge armies move across Europe. From 1806 to 1813, Saxony had allied itself with Napoleon, who had set up one of his large camps at Hochkirch east of Bautzen. How many Wends were amongst the 400,000 soldiers in Napoleon’s army which was decimated in Russia in 1812, we will probably never know.
However, Lusatia became a battle ground itself in February 1813 at the battle of Wurschen near Bautzen, not far from Hochkirch. Here Napoleon met the Prussians and Russians in battle and won. Although Napoleon won this particular battle, he lost at nearby Leipzig in October 1813. Reports suggest that the Saxon dragoons under Napoleon were almost all Wends.
Some Australian wendish descendants who toured their Lusatian homeland in June 1989 were informed by their Travel Guide booklet that the 91-metre-tall monument erected in 1913 to commemorate this Battle of the Nations at Leipzig helped to recall this battle in which the united armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden defeated Emperor Napoleon I, but lost over 52,000 soldiers in the process.
The diorama of 8,000 tin figures in this memorial helps to document this tragedy and a Russian Church was erected to commemorate its 22,000 men lost in battle.
After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 removed part of Upper Lusatia in the south and all of Lower Lusatia in the north to Prussia, thus giving rise to the name “Prussian Wends”.
12. The Growth of Capitalism
The Growth of Capitalism and upward social mobility were features of Lusatia after 1819, when serfdom was abolished.
Peasants’ sons could leave the land and become town workers. This also led to the movement up into the lower middle class.
With the establishment of the Dresden-Bautzen railway in 1846, people were not so isolated. It was this railway which enabled many wendish emigrants to move to Hamburg for their departure to their new lands.
Education for sorbian children became more important and the possibility opened up of starting off again in a foreign country like Australia.
Unfortunately for the farmers, they still found themselves tied economically to their landlords and with a 50% increase in Europe’s population between 1815 and 1850, more land for the large families became a necessity.
13. Increased National Consciousness
Increased National Consciousness also emerged in this period, as expressed in the establishment of newspapers such as theTydzenske Nowiny (Weekly News) in 1843 and student societies.
Wends enjoyed reading the letters sent back by the overseas pioneers to Lusatia where their letters were published. Some of these letters have been translated into English and can be read in the book “From Hamburg to Hobson’s Bay” by Thomas Darragh and Robert Wuchatsch. George Nielsen has observed that the above newspaper edited by Jan Smoler liked to publish negative letters and lists of fatalities on board the ships but that Mato Nowka was keen to obtain favourable letters, including those of Martin Teschner, for his newspaper, “Bramborski serski Casnik“. 24
14. The 1848 Revolution
The 1848 Revolution arose as people sought new freedoms and issues between the new, democratic thinking and the traditional monarchy were confronted. The famous “Peasant Petition”, which demanded the removal of perceived injustices, was published in Tydzenske Nowiny in June 1848 and a copy of this is in the library at the Wendish Research Centre in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Finally, it was a time when the Wends in Lusatia saw themselves as part of a much wider body of Slavs, as expressed in the Pan-Slavic movement.
Read about the Wends Migration to Australia after the 1848 Revolution.
By John Noack
Brankack, Jan and Metsk, Frido: Geschichte der Sorben von den Anfaengen bis 1789. Band 1 VEB Domowina-Verlag Bautzen, 1975.
Burger Reunion Committee Burger Family History: The Burger Family in Australia, 1851-1983. Hamilton, 1983.
De Kay, Charles. An Inland Venice: The Sorbian Swamp, Vendland. Century Magazine, February, 1897.
Dreckow Stubing Reunion Committee. Dreckow and Stubing: Australian Family History 1858-1982, 1982.
Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. American Acadamy of Art and Sciences, Boston, 1956.
Frenzel; Alfons. Am Horizont die Welt: Unterwegs auf allen Kontinenten. Domowina-Verlag, Bautzen, 2000.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Slavs. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971.
Makkai, Laszlo. Neo-Serfdom: Its Origin and Nature in East Central Europe. Slavic Review, Vol 34, June, 1975, pp.224-238.
Malinkowa, Trudla. Ufer der Hoffnung. Sorbische Auswanderer nach Uebersee. Domowina-Verlag, Bautzen, 1995.
Metsk, Dr Frido. Do Cuzeje Zemje. Volk und Wissen Ludowy Naklad Berlin, 1957.
Nielsen, George R. In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration. Texas A&M University, College Station, 1989.
Nowotny, Joachim and Grosse, Gerald. Wo Der Wassermann Wohnt. VEB, Domowina-Verlag, Bautzen, 1988.
Oschlies, Wolf. Die Sorben: Slawisches Volk in Osten Deutschlands. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn-Bad Godesberg, 19190.
Peters, John P. Wendish Customs and Superstitions. California. Undated.
Quataert, Jean H. Social Insurance and the Family Work of Oberlausitz Home Weavers in the Late Nineteenth Century. German Women in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History. Edited by John C. Fout. Holmes and Meier, London, 1984, pp. 270-294.
The Prussian Wends and Their Home. Harpers New Monthly. Author unknown and undated.
Simpich, Frederick. The Wends of the Spreewald. The National Geographic Magazine. March, 1923, pp. 327-336.
Solta, Jan and Zwahr, Hartmut. Gerschichte Der Sorben, Band 2 von 1789 bis 1917. VEB Domowina-Verlag, Bautzen, 1973.
Stone, Gerald. The Smallest Nation: The Sorbs of Lusatia. The Athlone Press of the University of London, 1972.
Vlasto, A.P. The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom: An Introduction to the Medieval History of the Slavs. Cambridge at the University Press, 1970.
Zwar, Michael. A Request by the Saxon Sorbs addressed to the Royal Saxon National Assembly.
Unpublished collection of letters, Wendish Research Centre, 27 Livingstone Street, Ivanhoe, Victoria, Australia. (PO Box 297, Heidelberg, Vic, 3084)
- Gimbutas, M. The Slavs, p.17. ↩
- The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, p.71. ↩
- Gimbutas, M. op. cit. p.28. ↩
- ibid., p.40. ↩
- ibid., p.37. ↩
- ibid., p.43. ↩
- ibid., p.49. ↩
- ibid., p.46. ↩
- ibid., p.52. ↩
- ibid., p.62. ↩
- ibid., p.58. ↩
- ibid., p.61. ↩
- ibid., p.61. ↩
- ibid., p.98. ↩
- Stone, G. The Smallest Slavonic Nation, p.9. ↩
- Gimbutas, M. op. cit., p.127. ↩
- Stone, G. op. cit., p.10. ↩
- ibid., p.10. ↩
- Nielsen, G. In Search of a Home, p.6. ↩
- Stone, G. op. cit., p.11. ↩
- ibid., p.12. ↩
- Brankack, Jan. Geschichte der Sorben, p. 193. ↩
- Stone, G. op. cit., p.14. ↩
- Nielsen, G. op. cit., p.16. ↩