Magazine article The Spectator

Caught between East and West

Magazine article The Spectator

Caught between East and West

Article excerpt

MICROCOSM: PORTRAIT OF A CENTRAL EUROPEAN CITY by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse Cape, L20, pp. 525, ISBN 0224062433

Breslau, the former capital of Silesia, has been through more changes of name and identity than most cities. In the course of a thousand years the `Island City' on the river Oder has been known as Wrotizla, Wrestlaw, Presslaw, Breslau and finally, since 1945, Wroclaw.

Close to the borders of Germany, Bohemia and Poland, this important duchy attracted the interest of kingdoms and empires. During the early Middle Ages it proved a veritable apple of discord to be fought over by local and family rivals, from Boleslaw the Wry-Mouth to Kazimierz Sprawiedliwy the Just and Mieszko the Flat-Footed. The only time the warring factions joined together was to face the invasion of the Mongol horde from Central Asia in 1241. This rare example of unity, however, did them little good. At the battle of Legnica, the flower of Silesian chivalry fell in their hundreds under flights of Tatar arrows. Only one knight, out of the 14 from the Strachowice clan who rode forth, survived the massacre. Seven centuries later, his direct descendant, Count Hyazinth von Strachwitz, commanded the first panzer regiment to reach the Volga at Stalingrad. Along with his fellow officers he gazed across the huge river to the endless steppe beyond. Central Europe and Central Asia held a terrible fascination for each other.

In the 14th century, Casimir the Great of Poland expanded his realm eastwards and took the city of Lvov. This decision to turn his back upon the west allowed Silesia a new identity, and it soon became increasingly German under the suzerainty of Bohemia. The city of Wrotizla had started on its transformation to Breslau, just as Lvov was becoming Lwow. These two cities proved to be connected at a distance. Almost 600 years later Stalin, the conquering red emperor, gave Breslau to Poland and seized back Lvov for the Soviet Union. The uprooted Polish intelligentsia from Lwow moved westwards with the remains of the Ossolineum library to colonise their twin city, depopulated and degermanised after one of the most pitiless siege battles of the war.

The onslaught of the Red Army in 1945 must have stirred ancient folk memories. During the horrors of the Thirty Years War, Silesia lost a third of its population. Its strategic position between Prussia, the Austrian empire and Russia attracted further incursions a century later. Frederick the Great's seizure of Silesia provoked the War of the Austrian Succession and soon afterwards the Seven Years War, a conflict which some have called the first world war. Breslau was its epicentre. And in 1813, during the war against Napoleon, Breslau became the birthplace both of the German national colours of black, red and gold, and also of the Iron Cross.

In the 19th century, Silesia became the second industrial region of Germany after the Ruhr. It also had one of the most integrated Jewish communities in Europe. The kingdom of Prussia, despite the wild assertions of some Holocaust historians, was probably still the least anti-Semitic of all regimes on the Continent. A mood of xenophobic nationalism, however, began to grow under Kaiser Wilhelm II. The first anti-Semitic violence in Breslau followed the end of the first world war when Freikorps factions supported the 1920 Kapp putsch in Berlin. A hatred of Poles was also virulent after the Versailles peace settlement, to such a degree that many extreme nationalists hoped that the Red Army would defeat the Poles in the Russo-- Polish war. …

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