Wroclaw or Breslau? Luke Coppen on a Central European identity crisis Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Jonathan Cape, £20 Two rules guarantee your safe and happy conduct through Poland. The first is: don't mention the Germans. The second is: don't mention the Russians. In the event that you are forced to refer to either country, be as disparaging as possible. Say, for example, "The trouble with Germans is they have no talent for organisation", or "The only good things to come out of Russia are Tchaikovsky and beef stroganoff'. These sentiments, emphasised if possible by a resounding thump on the tabletop, will win you many friends in Poland.
But be warned. While this approach may delight your hosts, it would be scorned by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse. For these historians have no time for narrow chauvinism. In their latest book, they attempt to prise one of Central Europe's most important cities from nationalist hands. For centuries historians have tussled over that city, known today by its Polish name of Wroclaw (pronounced "Rotslav"), but better known in Britain by its German name of Breslau. The ideological struggle became ferocious after the Second World War, when the city was ceded from Germany to Poland. Polish historians used all their ingenuity to prove that the city had always belonged to Poland.
German historians mobilised their minds to prove Breslau belonged to Germany.
Both sides staked their claims on the uncertain, mist-shrouded ground of prehistory. Polish historians of the grandly-titled nationalist Autochthonous School claimed that the prehistoric inhabitants of the Odra valley were "proto-Slays". German historians claimed they were Germanic Goths and Vandals. Both sides overlooked inconvenient evidence suggesting there were up to 20 tribes living in or near the island city, many of whom were neither Slavic nor Germanic.
Davies and Moorhouse summarise the dilemma skilfully: "The Polish Autochthonists might imagine that their belief in the proto-Slavonic character of prehistoric Silesian settlement could somehow justify the return of Polish rule in the mid-20th century. But, if so, they could hardly object if Czech apologists argued that Bohemian rule over Silesia before 990 justified the return of Bohemian rule after 1335, or if German apologists justified the medieval Drang nach Osten by reference to the activities of the Goths and Vandals. Modern Celtophiles could no doubt dream up claims on Silesia by the Welsh and Irish." Such absurdities, the English historians add, can be avoided if old fixed nationalist archetypes are rejected in favour of a "shifting, multicultural kaleidoscope".
Davies and Moorhouse proceed to lay out Wroclaw's kaleidoscopic history in meticulous detail (perhaps too much detail for the general reader). In a logical, if somewhat pedestrian fashion they walk the reader through the successive periods of Silesian history. They explain clearly how Wroclaw passed from Polish to Czech to German hands, colouring their account with carefully chosen literary and historical references.
But the most compelling section of the book is, undoubtedly, the prologue, which recounts the dramatic siege of Nazi Breslau by the Red Army. Davies and Moorhouse, who are not known for exaggeration, claim that "in bitterness and brutality, if not in scale, the struggle for Breslau bore many comparisons with Stalingrad". Though the exact figures will never be known, it is plausible that German military casualties exceeded 60 per cent, including 6,000 dead and 23,000 wounded. Estimates of the civilian dead range from between 10,000 and 80,000, including 3,000 suicides. Esti mates of Soviet casualties are as high as 65,000, with around 8,000 dead.
The authors trace Breslau's misfortune back to Hitler's decision in March 1944 to create a chain of Festungen, or fortress cities, along Germany's vulnerable eastern flank. As the Red Army advanced on Festung Breslau, the city's fanatical Gauleiter, Karl Hanke, delayed the civilian evacuation until the last possible moment. Only in January 1945, when the city was almost encircled, did Hanke allow women and children to leave.
Some 90,000 Breslauers died on the road out of the city. Those who remained were helpless as the Red Army slowly tightened its grip. The Germans fought back as fiercely as they could, firing torpedoes mounted on trolleys into Soviet lines and deploying the deadly nerve gas "Tabun". The Russians responded by strafing German labourers laying an airstrip in the city centre causing more than 3,000 casualties.
In the midst of battle there were strange sights. A giraffe was born in the city zoo during a Soviet artillery attack. German and Soviet troops took a drink together on one section of the frontline before continuing the battle. The Russians used captured German aircraft to bomb the city's bewildered citizenry.
Not even Hitler's suicide, in April 1945, could persuade Karl Hanke to surrender Breslau. The Gauleiter, who was named in Hitler's last testament successor to Himmler as Reichsftihrer-SS, called for yet more sacrifices for the Fatherland. One of the city's few remaining priests, Fr Ernst Hornig, confronted the man in charge of the German defence, General Hermann Niehoff. "Is continuing the defence of Breslau something which you could justify to God?" the priest courageously asked the general. Two days later, the Festung had fallen.
It is almost impossible to imagine the devastation of 1945 when you visit the city today. Prosperous twentysomethings browse beneath gold-plated shop signs in the fashionable market square. Teenagers sip milkshakes and swallow hamburgers in the city's many branches of McDonalds. Businessmen hang from straps on the trams talking into their mobile phones. Weatherbeaten old women sit in subways begging for money. The city that occupied Central Europe for a millennium has picked itself up and moved west.