Today A Hamlet, Tomorrow A Mine...As A Culture Fights To Survive

Erich Muller breaks off tilling his vegetable patch, fires up a cheap cigar, and looks around at the hamlet that has been his home since childhood. "Leave Horno?" the 70-year-old retired railway worker grunts. "They'll never shift me."

Time will tell. After all, history could be on "their" side. This tiny collection of clinker brick cottages and timbered homesteads right on Germany's border with Poland may have changed little in generations, but the countryside Muller roamed as a boy has long since gone up in smoke. Horno lies on the edge of a 900-square-kilometer bed of lignite, or brown coal. Under successive imperial, Nazi, and communist regimes, marshland has been steadily poisoned by runoff, wildflower heathland smothered by slag heaps, forests felled, and some 140 villages razed to make way for the strip mines that scar the area. Now, Horno too is due for destruction in 2003, though so far only 12 families out of 150 have sold and moved out. "They're not going to be led away like sheep," predicts local youth worker Thorsten Mak. "I think there'll be violence."

It may not come to that. The land hereabouts is home to 60,000 Sorbs--descendants, like Muller, of Slavic tribespeople who arrived in the 6th century, several hundred years before the Teutonic hordes hit the scene. Until World War II, ethnic Germans were the minority in these parts. Even today, the constitution of Brandenburg, the state that encompasses most of the coalfield, guarantees "the preservation and upkeep of the Sorb national identity and its ancestral settlement area." So after losing an appeal to the state supreme court in June, Horno leaders have vowed to seek arbitration with the European Union, arguing that by allowing diggers in as scheduled, the government would be breaking its own law. "This is a test case," insists Mayor Bernd Siegert. "If this goes through, all our other communities will eventually go the same way."

SPAT UPON. Whatever the judicial niceties, practitioners of realpolitik are urging the Sorbs to get real. "We've promised to protect them, but not every single village," says Steffen Reiche, Brandenburg's Culture & Science Minister. "I'm not interested in creating a museum. We need the coal. We need the jobs."

He has a point. The air may have gotten cleaner since three private utility companies bought up the old East German power network after reunification, shutting down the two-thirds of Brandenburg collieries and power plants that flouted EU health and safety regulations. But with regional unemployment now pushing 25%, local non-Sorbs have little patience for folksy sentiment. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl last month opened a futuristic electricity generating station built to process the lignite under Horno and three other threatened settlements, protesters were jostled and spat on.

Back in Horno, memories of Kohl's visit evoke the same kind of response. "I'm not going," Muller repeats, spitting over his latticework fence for emphasis. "I don't care what's going on in their heads." And with that, he resumes digging, turning his back on the outside world.

Whether or not the Sorbs are fated for the slag heap of history depends on which Sorbs you talk to. The Catholics of Upper Sorbia, grouped around the town of Bautzen, speak a dialect akin to Czech and until recently had little to do with outsiders. "Their folklore, customs, and language are living culture--they're not just going through the motions," says Nada Valaskova of the Prague Ethnological Institute.


By contrast, the Horno Protestants, whose language is closer to Polish, have had things tougher. Lower Sorbia was designated a powerhouse of East Germany's military-industrial complex, and the resulting influx of outsiders brought a dilution of the bloodlines and a feeling that submersion in the German identity was a prerequisite for social advancement. "Typically, these days, only one parent is Sorb, or only the grandparents speak Sorbian. The children learn it more as a hobby," laments Potsdam University's Madlena Norberg, who trains Sorb-language grade school teachers. "Once the language stops being spoken around the hearth, it's hard to keep alive. But we have to try."