At the congress of the Movement for Silesian Autonomy, in Katowice, a triumphal mood reigns. Delegates, some hundred and thirty of them who arrived in early March, some in traditional Silesian garb, exchange friendly greetings and embraces with the crowd. Silesians make up a good tenth of the population of Poland, so it is understandable that the electoral success of the movement calling for autonomy has caused a political upheaval in Warsaw.

The congress is being held in a historic building which today houses the Lower Silesian Regional Assembly, or Sejmik. The monumental building, however, was built for the Government and Parliament of a Silesia that enjoyed autonomy between the two world wars. At that time, it was even eyeing independence. The autonomous Silesian government had its own treasury, levied its own taxes and fees and drew up some of its own laws. That’s just what Silesians are longing for again today.

“It’s odd that the Czechs couldn’t care less about what’s happening at their borders, and yet a good chunk of historical Silesia is within the Czech Republic and they’re also our important neighbour.” I’m told this by one of the delegates, who keenly appreciates that the Silesian eagle is on the Czech national emblem. He asks how our Czech Silesians were able to get it there. Explaining to him that the Czech Silesians, unlike their Polish counterparts, have no desire for emancipation, let alone strong autonomy, proves really difficult. It’s obvious that he has trouble grasping the idea, and the problem is not just the language barrier. Although, in truth, like many other delegates he speaks with a Silesian accent and uses many pure Silesian expressions. Even native Poles often have a problem understanding Silesians.

As if they never existed

In dealing with Polish Silesia, particularly the part that includes the industrialised and mineral-rich Lower Silesian Voivodeship, or province, Polish politicians have been asking for trouble for the last twenty years. “The politicians who drew up the new Poland after the fall of the communist dictatorship were, like the communists before them, convinced that a multiethnic country is less stable than a nationally homogenous state. That’s why they have been acting as if there’s no such thing as a Silesian,” explains Marek Plura, a member of the Polish Parliament from Premier Donald Tusk’s ruling party, Civic Platform.

Ruch Autonomii Slaska (RAS, or the Silesian Autonomy Movement) is creating a lot of work for all Silesians. It has allowed us to say once again with pride that we are Silesians, and it has unleashed a debate about history and our language,” is how he explains the policy of engagement, which is indeed in favour of emancipation in Silesia, but at the same time opposes autonomy. The same attitude is also shared by another influential Polish politician who came to the congress, Tomasz Tomczykiewicz, Civic Platform’s parliamentary leader. It seems that both showed up for the event not just because they are Silesians, but also to take some wind out of the sails of the radical RAS. Proceedings at the Congress, however, quickly reveal that Silesians cannot be so easily tamed.

Young and educated

The leader of the Silesian autonomists is Jerzy Gorzelik (born 1971), who holds a doctorate in art history from the University of Silesia in Katowice. One of his great-grandfathers was among the rebels in the 1919-1921 uprising, when Silesians fought for independence from Germany. He certainly does not come across as a charismatic leader. A small, quiet man, he seems perfectly cut out for a career as a university teacher of art history – not as the leader of a breakaway movement.

“Autonomy is our fundamental platform and we won’t water it down,” he protests when I ask him if, now that his movement has participated in regional government, it’s not time to draw in the horns a little. According to this man, who refers to himself consistently as a Silesian, not a Pole, Silesia should achieve autonomy by 2020, and that autonomy should have the same outline as it did seventy years ago. “With Warsaw we want only shared defense, foreign policy, currency and national infrastructure. The rest, mainly finance, should be the responsibility of the autonomous government,” he says. He admits that Silesians want to manage the revenues from taxes on its territory because, among other things, it is one of the richest regions of Poland. The Silesians are the ones who subsidise the poor regions bordering the Ukrainian and who of course pump a lot of money into Poland’s bureaucratic machinery nation-wide.

“Let us be very clear: we will not renounce solidarity with other Polish regions. However, the transfer of money to them, as well as to the central treasury, must be transparent. As it is, our money is disappearing into a black hole.”

Only Gorzelik belongs to the original core of the RAS, which grew out of Silesian nationalism and the nostalgia of the older generation for the pre-war autonomy.

Thirty-two year old Piotr Dlugosz shares the same opinion. “We want autonomy not because we resent the rest of Poland, but because we believe it will better help us to defend our rights and handle public funds. Autonomy for us is not a journey into the past. On the contrary, it’s the future – a way to resolve the current political crisis in the European nation states,” insists the specialist in German culture from Opole, who believes that the modern movement for autonomy will gradually spread to the other countries of Europe.