Wroclaw Stories and Tips

A Brief History of Wroclaw

Reenactors Preparing for Battle Photo, Wroclaw, Poland

Wroclaw's History Museum suffers from both a paucity of explanations in English and a rather selective interpretation of historical events in favor of the Polish perspective. Interestingly, the city’s coat of arms bears a prominent "W" that serves to efface the memory of its past history as Vratislavia and Breslau. What follows is a brief summary of the history of Wroclaw.

Archaelogical evidence suggests that a Slav market town known as Vratislavia occupied a large island in the River Oder as early as the 9th century. In 1000, this district acquired the name Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island) in honor of the diocese founded by Boleslaw the Brave, which it retains to this day. Its strategic position made it attractive to Germans alike, although Boleslaw the Wrymouth famously defeated the army of Emperor Henry V. The site of the battle has long since been incorporated into the city as the district of Psie Pole (Dogs’ Field), a moniker supposedly derived from the chaotic German retreat that resulted in leaving their wounded and dead literally to the dogs.

Boleslaw’s victory was only temporary, however, as upon his death in 1138, his successors created the Duchy of Lower Silesia and encouraged German settlement on the southern bank of the Oder, resulting in the development of the city in its present location. After its destruction by the Tartars in 1241, Wroclaw was rebuilt on the grid system that still survives. In 1259, rechristened as Breslau (an indication of its increasingly German polity), it became the capital of an independent duchy and soon thereafter joined both the Hanseatic League and the Holy Roman Empire, of which its bishop became an elector.

German control proved as evanescent as Polish rule, for in 1335, Breslau was annexed by Bohemia, which controlled the city until the crown of Bohemia passed to the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1526. In the intervening period, a thriving metropolis inhabited largely harmoniously by Germans, Poles, and Czechs developed, and with it, many of the city’s brick churches. Uniquely in the Austrian realm, there was also a modicum of religious diversity, as the generally staunchly Catholic Hapsburg rulers turned a blind eye to the use of some of the churches by Protestants. Religious tensions became manifest during the Thirty Years War, however, resulting in fierce fighting that halved the city’s population.

Nevertheless, Breslau remained an important, and increasingly Teutonic, city within the Hapsburg Empire, until its loss to Frederick the Great’s expansionist Prussian state in 1763. Breslau became Prussia’s second most important city after Berlin. It twice expelled occupying French troops during the Napoleonic wars, earning its citizens a reputation for loyalty to the state. It prospered further when the Prussian kings became German Emperors serving as a major industrial center within the German Empire.

After the First World War, Breslau’s Polish population sought unsuccessfully to have it annexed to the reincarnated Polish state. In fact, it was not included in the referendum held throughout much of the rest of Silesia to determine the German-Polish border, although with Germans outnumbering Poles by 20 to 1, the result would most likely have been academic. Even when the defeat of Nazi Germany was imminent, Polish leaders did not press territorial claims to the city. However, the Nazis choice to fortify the city to use it to make an ultimately abortive last stand against the Red Army resulted in the destruction of two thirds of the city’s building and the evacuation of the vast majority of its population.

In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet Union kept most of lands it had carved from eastern Poland under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact while Poland was compensated by having its borders shifted westward at Germany’s expense. The people of the formerly Polish city of Lwow (today L’viv in Ukraine) were encouraged to repopulate the newly rechristened Wroclaw and brought with them many of their cultural and social institutions, as well as the contents of most of the city’s museums.

Although Wroclaw was largely ruined, it had not been flattened as Warsaw had, nor did its rebirth have the psychological importance (and potential international prestige) that Poland’s capital, or for that matter, Gdansk, did. Consequently, not much money was put toward its reconstruction, which may only really be said to have been completed when its population surpassed its prewar level of 625,000 in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it has risen to become Poland’s fourth largest city, and with Poland’s entry into the European Union, its proximity and historic ties with Germany are likely to be to its advantage.

Should you wish to read further, European friends have recommended Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, although it is not available in the United States.

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