How were Polish names handled by Prussian and German authorities during the times of the German empire? It is well known there was intense Germanisation throughout the area, for example all location names down to the street name were Germanized.

It is hard to find information about mandates or laws on individual family names and given names.

Did the authorities force a German-style spelling on existing family names and/or given names of the Polish population, and did they force new children names and their surnames also to be Germanized? Or rather, did people voluntary alter their name as the society back then made them feel shame for being of Polish roots?

Were there only respelling (example Stanisław -> Stanislaus) or was there also translations based on meaning (example Nowak -> Neumann)?

Contextually I am especially interested in the Upper Silesia region.

How did the Polish authorities find the original Polish form of Germanized names when Poland was restored in 1918 on German territory, and later when Poland annexed a huge part of Germany in 1945 (for the people with Polish roots which were allowed to say and become naturalized)?

  • 1
    I can see direct relevance of this question to G&FH even if it could also fit on the History site.
    – user2533
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:35
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    Privacy certainly needs to be respected. I was just thinking that a question more along the lines of "my Polish ancestor X Y has a German sounding name, if it was germanized during the 19th century, can its (likely/possible) original form be uncovered?" might be easier to work through but I'll defer to @ColeValleyGirl and others who may be able to help with the more general case.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:57
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    @JanMurphy Is my family German, Polish, or both? is not a good question. We don’t know anything about the family (and don't need to know) and it is not about nationality but naming practices at a certain place and in a certain time. There is definitely literature to answer the current question.
    – lejonet
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 16:16
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    iz.poznan.pl/pz/news/9_06.%20Kowalski.pdf may be of interest.
    – user2533
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:51
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    Upvoted because I appreciate your efforts in editing the question. We now have much more historical context instead of a vague reference to the 19th century. Well done.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 20:42

4 Answers 4


I have performed some research and in fact it seems it was not very common, and if it was – being an unintentional result of mistakes or to make life simpler for officers.

In comments I've shown an example. One of main characters of All Quiet on the Western Front by E. Remarque (Im Westen nichts Neues), being a Polish from Poznań (Posen), named Stanisław Kaczyński, was spelled in the book Stanislaus Katczinsky (compare German Wikipedia), however now I've changed my mind and think it is a spelling error of the author.

There is also another Pole in the book, Lewandowski, however there is nothing to change so it was more German-like.

The authors of Polish webpages concerning subjects like Kulturkampf, Hakata or germanisation do not say there was intentional changing Polish names to German ones (it was performed for Jewish names, but it's another story). Of course, a fact that something is not told about, does not mean it does not exist.

What is said above is rather concerning Posen.

This blog is titled "A word from a Silesia-woman about her tiny Homeland". The linked entry the author excerpts a book by priest Jan Nowak A chronicle of the city of Tarnowskie Góry and the land. The oldest Silesia events in Bytom-Tarnowskie Góry. A story about first Polish mining, written in 1927.

Then there goes a quote, however this dates 1743 (so earlier you expect):

I recall for example the surname Stefański; I've seen myself a signature with no errors, but on the very same page an annotation of a Prussian officer without any shame Stephainsky, so in one move five errors in a beautiful Polish name. This is not the end: later on in the document he'd changed the whole surname writing shortly Stephan.

So this made a German from a Pole. Some of surnames were changed unrecognizingly, eg. Szedoń was written by an officer Schädler, instead of Rajczyk - Reitzig and he without any consults baptised Poles as "native Germans".

Then the blog author mentions her own reminders:

I was once told by an old guy, that during "Hitler" times it was similar. People of Silesia were forced to change names, if only there was a shadow, a spark of Polish. It was also in his case. As a Silesian, he had a Silesian surname: Furgoł (…) They forced him to change to Flieger.

What might be also interesting for you: this is a Polish Wikipedia page Germanizacja na ziemiach polskich. There is a section Polscy działacze społeczni przeciwstawiający się germanizacji ("Polish social activists opposing the germanisation"). I have tried to open each of the person in Polish Wikipedia and then find out how it is spelled in German. This is an example of probably most notable person of the time: Dezydery Chłapowski, who is spelled correctly. For others you might need to follow cited sources. For Wojciech Korfanty it says he "was born Adalbert Korfanty" ("Adalbert" is German equivalent for "Wojciech", like German "Johannes" is equivalent for English "John").

Please also note that the examples I've found are dated outside the German Empire (before and after).

  • If you perform any research keep also in mind there were mixed marriages (especially within nobility, but common people too) which may lead to confusing results if not taken into account.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 10:48
  • That blog sounds like the most interesting source. I belive Silesia is different because it was already Prussian before the time of partitions. But most people didn't know how to read/write back then (in neither German or Polish). Also the WP article on germanisation of german's partition is bad, they say at least 4 times that "polish language was banned from scool", but after banning it once, I really don't see the point of banning it 3 more times (same goes for other anti-polish measures that are repeated over and over several times)
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 13:19
  • Most of the people from that list do not have German article for, and the few that does have unaltered names. However, I think it's a german article made from modern polish sources, as I doubt germans wouldn't at least remove the dash on the 'l's of their polish names. They still do that today, and it's not part of a discrimination process (and yes, this results in incredibly wrong pronunciations). WP is about the only thing that keeps the diacritics of foreign languages.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 13:21
  • For polish family names: Kaczyński = (male) husband ; Kaczyńska = (married female) wife ; Kaczyńsky = (plural: male and female) family ; Since you don't have this construction in german, Katczinsky was probably chosen since in german tczi pronounced in the same way as in polish czy and the last 'y' for the family form. Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 18:42
  • @MarkJohnson I am Polish and plural for Mr. Kaczyński and Mrs. Kaczyńska is Kaczyńscy, not Kaczynsky.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 4:50

I can't really provide example of Polish names in Upper Silesia, but I can provide you with one example and reason for it in Sudetenland before WW2 and one funny story from one village in Northern Moravia

People in Sudetenland with the wake of nationalism often changed their names to pick sides. Be it to show more pro-German or pro-Czech sentiment. There is also a thing that marginalized people often chose to change their name into variant of major language spelling to escape certain (be it passive) persecution (job opportunities and so).

There was a guy in village near Ostrava (region that used to have big German and still has big Polish minority), who was called Schultz. He renamed himself Šulc in the wake of German nationalism (to escape possible reaction from Czechs). Under following Protectorate, he renamed himself as Schultz again. Then communist regime came so he renamed himself as Šulc and after fall of communism in Czech Republic, he is Schultz again.

  • Interesting! Although I don't know why he would change his name after the fall of communism since the region remains in the Czech Rep. he'd want to "sound" Czech, although he might have personal reasons to want to "sound" German.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 8:08
  • This is so widespread that it should be considered the rule. My paternal grandmother - and this branch of the family - was called... Führer during the Second World War. It was a nice name but after the war, they changed it to Fišer. The name may sound extreme to some - but there are actually still lots of families in Czechia that are called Führer. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:05

The names were distorted while they were written down by the clerks, especially during issuing certificates of various kinds. It was a problem for lower class citizens - the nobility kept their own names intact. I can give you examples of such distortion from the Pomeranian region rather than Silesia region - a Polish name Kętrzyński was changed to Kantrzonki, name Rózga to Ruzga, sometimes names were simply translated Biały into Weiss for example.

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    Welcome! As "sources would improve this answer" is a common adage here: please do give us these examples! (Preferably as links to references showing that) And you are right, those clerks and clergy were often so obviously drunk when filling out these details, it shows in their handwriting for the most blatant mistakes, even in 'genuine German' names, changing out of nowhere for no reason… ;) Although that became somewhat rarer "in the time of the Empire". Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 15:12
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    Different languages have different spelling for names. This is partially caused by letters that exist in one language doesn't exsist in the other. Individual letters are also pronounced differently (Rózga spoken in polish is pronounced as Ruzga is in German). Would you like to guess who Jerzego Waszyngtonie is? Depending on the grammer context, that last name can be spelled in many different ways. Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 15:54
  • @MarkJohnson You are probably referring to the avenue over on the Praha side of Warsaw? That has a genitive -a ending. An -ie ending is likely locative.
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 18:18

That is hard to put into actual numbers. What is clear is that this has happened. But it seems that Rhineland Poles, in the most Western part of Prussia – were subject to such practices on a much bigger scale – which might still be relatively small for the more radical changes – than those in genuinely former Polish territory now under Prussian control during the Empire, or in the case of Silesia, or some other parts of Prussia, German lands with an influx of Polish migrants.

We see some clerical errors in transcribing or transliterating Polish names, together with intentional changes, often substituting just a few characters, not existing in German Latin alphabet (like 'Ł'); exchanging y for i; using a sound approximation, a translation, or something 'new', often just vaguely related to any pre-existing alleged 'meaning'.

What we do have are applications from below: Polish speaking residents to have their names changed, and even applications or later even changes made on German names of German people that just sounded 'too Slavic' for their own tastes. And policy from above: official instructions to encourage such practices.

The intention was not to integrate the immigrants, but to "Germanize" them. In 1901, for example, the Minister of the Interior of the German Reich instructed the district president in Münster to proceed generously with the Germanization of Polish names, because name changes "are likely to promote the merging of the Polish element with the German one.

That's why today you often have to look closely to recognize Polish names in telephone directories: Piechas were probably once called Piechaczyk, Giesbergs may have been Gizelski, and Janfelds may have been Janowskis. Schimanski, too, was once a Szymański. Where Rybarczyk became Reiber, Pawlowski Paulsen or even Majrczak Mayer, the traces are blurred.

— Helmut Vensky: "Schimanskis Väter", Zeit, 2. March 2010.

Note that while 'Germanization' was in effect a programme flanked with laws and force, the family name changes when intentional were apparently 'encouraged', not forced.

June 27, 1901 "The Minister of the Interior of the German Reich instructs the District President in Münster to proceed generously with the Germanization of Polish names. He hopes that "name changes of the kind envisaged, which are likely to promote the fusion of the Polish element with the German, will receive every support and facilitation from the authorities…" Although no exact figures can be determined, at least 30,000 applications for the Germanization of Slavic names in the Ruhr area can be traced for the period from 1880 to 1935. The German government is interested in "Germanization" and integration of immigrants from Poland and Masuria.

The prejudice of the German population against anything supposedly "Polish" also causes German immigrants from the Prussian eastern provinces to discard "Slavic" sounding names. The name change was supposed to help prevent difficulties with authorities and discrimination against children at school. It is not uncommon for bearers of Polish names to choose common German surnames such as Müller, Meier or Schulze. Since these names are not very suitable for identification, the authorities are instructed to work towards name changes of a different kind. Thus, around the turn of the century, phonetically simplified family names emerge whose Slavic origin is still recognizable:

Majcrzak becomes Mayer; Gresch instead of Grzesch; Maischach instead of Majchrzak; Pizolka instead of Piszolka; Friedetzki instead of Frydecki; Piecha instead of Piechaczyk. New formations with the endings -feld or -berg are widespread: for example, Gizelski becomes Giesberg and Janowski becomes Janfeld.

Some new surnames are supposed to be translations of a Slavic name, according to the applicants: Florczak to Floren (from the given name Florian); Pawlowski to Paulsen; Prusinowski to Preußmann; Rybarczyk to Reiber." (Source: Chronik des Ruhrgebiets, WAZ book, Chronik-Verlag in der Hardenberg Kommunikation Verlags- und Mediengesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, Dortmund 1987)

Wichrowsky becomes Wichmann

My paternal ancestors also come from Poland, from the area around Posen (today: Poznań). Even today, relatives of our family still live there. In the time of industrialization in the 19th century, my ancestors came here to the Ruhr area. My grandfather Thomas, born in Bochum in 1883, was initially called Wichrowsky. Under Kaiser Wilhelm, he too took the opportunity to have his family name "Germanized". The "Polish Wichrowsky" became the "German Wichmann.

— Klaus Wichmann: "Neue Namen für polnische Arbeitsmigranten: Aus Majcrzak wird Mayer", Mühlheim-an-der-Ruhr.de, 2009

Remarkably, this letter from the Minister of the Interior is used as a source to be examined in school textbooks about European history in the context of work migration of Poles into the Rhineland. ("Europa. Unsere Geschichte", Vol 3, cap 3.5, src "Q3" PDF of sample, sadly without that actual letter)

And yet, a study published in 2000 emphasises:

The research into name changes is still in its infancy. At this point, therefore, we can only draw attention to the phenomenon of name changing, which is hardly known outside the Ruhr area, and provide an impetus for working on the topic.

— Heinz H. Menge: "Namensänderungen slawischer Familiennamen im Ruhrgebiet", in: Jürgen Macha & Gunther Müller: "Niederdeutsches Wort. Beiträge zur niederdeutschen Philologie", Vol 40, Aschendorf: Münster, 2000. (p124)

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