Even the stones spoke German

Brendan Simms

  • Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse
    Cape, 585 pp, £20.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 224 06243 3

Travellers to the western Polish city of Wroclaw in the 1980s could still encounter Germans who had lived there before the Second World War. One of those who escaped the mass exodus of the German population in 1945 was a man named Schiller, who had married a Polish woman and blended into local society without much comment. He seemed happy enough when I met him; and his Polish neighbours appeared remarkably incurious about and benevolent towards one of the last living links with their earlier history. Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse probably never met Schiller, but he could be a character in their stimulating book, which recounts the history of his home town.

The name of the town itself does not appear in the title, and rightly so: language and appellation are never value-free. This is not mere historical correctness, but an attempt to understand each epoch of the city in its own right. For this reason, we are treated to more than a half a dozen different renderings in the chapter titles: ‘Island City’, for archaeology and prehistory, before AD 1000; ‘Wrotizla’ for the Polish-dominated High Middle Ages, from 1000 to 1335; ‘Vretslav’ for the period under the Bohemian Crown, from 1335 to 1526; ‘Presslaw’ for the Habsburg era, from 1526 to 1741; ‘Bresslau’ for the period of Prussian rule, from 1741 to 1871; ‘Breslau’ for the two chapters dealing with united Germany from 1871 to 1945; and finally ‘Wroclaw’, the name under which the city is now known – for the time being.

The connecting thread in this project is the concept of Central Europe and its multiple identities. To write the history of Breslau, Norman Davies says, is to reconstruct a ‘microcosm of Central Europe’, in which German colonisation, Slav reassertion, the Jewish experience, the various empires and the lethal ‘double dose’ of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism all find their place. One of the first people to use the term ‘Central Europe’ was Joseph Partsch, a professor of geography at Breslau and the author of Central Europe (1903), a volume in Sir Halford Mackinder’s famous series ‘The Regions of Europe’. Microcosm forms part of what Davies calls his own ‘longstanding efforts to overcome the artificial division of European history into East and West’. The authors dismiss the notion of ‘historic right’ as a ‘dubious fiction’. Instead, they demand that ‘old fixed nationalist archetypes must be rejected in favour of a shifting, multicultural kaleidoscope’.

As a result, this ambitious and demanding book takes in not only the entire sweep of German and Polish history, but at times also that of Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. The struggle for Breslau, it emerges, has been a contest between German and Pole; Habsburg and Hohenzollern; Hussite heretic and Catholic; Catholic and Lutheran; Jew and anti-semite; patrician and magnate; socialist and capitalist; Nazi and Soviet; apparatchik and dissident. And yet, as Davies and Moorhouse stress, this story was often as much one of co-operation and coexistence as of conflict and annihilation. Microcosm is not a short book, but the sheer extent of the years and changes it traverses justifies every line; it could even have been a little fuller towards the end.

The story begins with a dramatic dissonance: the siege of German Breslau by the Red Army. In a very short period of time, much of the city, which had escaped the Allied terror-bombing more or less unscathed, was flattened by Soviet artillery. Many of the surviving buildings were emptied by frantic German Entrümplungskommandos or ‘clearance details’, trying to create clear fields of fire for the defenders; huge swathes of the historic city centre were also levelled on the orders of the fanatic Gauleiter, Karl Hanke, so that he could build an air strip there to facilitate resupply and – as it transpired – his own escape. Hard on the heels of the victorious Red Army came advance Polish detachments, staking their claim to the city.

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