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Wrocław – Identities and cultural memory

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City Hall in Wroclaw at the beginning of 20th Century

As a site of memory Wrocław is younger than its thousand-year municipal history would lead one to suspect. The interest in recollecting its medieval past was not particularly pronounced. This may be related to the fact that the city developed in conflict with its overlords, the duke or king on the one hand and the bishop on the other. Both rival powers were systematically marginalised by the city. The city dominated, with its burghers, its wealth and its municipal patriotism. The formulation of a particular consciousness and the constitution of a cultural memory only started with the rise of Renaissance humanism. As Wrocław participated in general European developments, Italy, the Austrian Empire and the new universities provided a model, and the travelling scholars of Wrocław brought the new ideas home.

To describe Wrocław as a site of memory, five areas will be outlined in brief below: Wrocław Myths – Landmarks – Historical Perceptions – Monuments – The End of German Breslau.

1. Myths

The more recent history of Wroclaw has its fair share of myths. There was the coup de main in 1741 when Frederick II of Prussia duped the city of Wrocław, which had not been conquered for centuries; even more important was the story of the legendary defence of the city and the surrounding region during the Seven Years’ War. The battle of Leuthen in 1757 resolved the question of sovereignty over Wrocław and Silesia, but the “Leuthen Chorale” and other Borussian manifestations gave the political decisions a religious and Protestant connotation, which later was often cited in Wrocław, although it contrasted oddly with the free-thinking stance of the Prussian king.

The above cited incident achieved mythical status because it was conjoined with overcoming appalling dangers. Only once in its history did Wrocław savour the joy of a great political moment. This was in 1813 when the political and moral leaders of a new Europe gathered together in the city to shake off the Napoleonic yoke. Breslau was not merely a stage for this drama: the enthusiasm of the Breslau students who flocked to arms spread to the troops of liberation and found its echo in the political hopes of the Vormärz. The year 1813 with the royal “Proclamation to my People” and the creation of the military decoration of the Iron Cross holds a particular significance as a lieux de mémoire for Wrocław. This is reflected by the fact that the city faithfully tends the memorials commemorating 1813 and prefers the memory of 1813 to all its other historical events.      

2. Landmarks

The five-part coat of arms granted to the city in 1530 by the Emperor Charles V was mounted on the west wall of the Town Hall in 1536, and was subsequently also affixed to many municipal buildings up until the 20th century. It became the city’s emblem, popularised in innumerable prints and even embossed on manhole covers. The traditional coat of arms of old Breslau was only removed in 1938 by an arbitrary act of Gauleiter Josef Wagner. The Christian and Slavic connotations of this traditional coat of arms were seen as no longer in keeping with the spirit of the times. Wagner decreed that the city should have a new divided coat of arms, with the lower half displaying the Iron Cross of 1813. It was like an omen for the coming years and did not gain general acceptance. The coat of arms subsequently used in Polish Wrocław remained without Christian symbols. It is a highly significant indication of a return to the city’s historical roots, that in 1990, under Bogdan Zdrojewski, the head of the town council at that time and a patron of the conference “Sites of Memory in Central Europe”, Wrocław once again adopted its former coat of arms from 1530.  

Up until the Reformation Wrocław Cathedral was considered the city’s foremost architectural building followed by the two main parish churches, although these were considered lesser buildings, and only then by the secular Town Hall. The Protestant perspective changed this order of precedence. The cathedral lost its pre-eminent position. As part of the struggle for visual dominance over Wrocław, in the 1480s the city raised the height of the single tower of the Church of St. Elisabeth to a formidable 130 meters, until in 1529 it collapsed under its own weight. Even thereafter with its reduced height of 91 meters it remained the city’s visual pinnacle.

From the middle of the 19th century Breslau developed into a major German city with imposing new administrative buildings, department stores, factory buildings, water towers and bridges. None of these buildings could be compared with the bold design of the Centennial Hall, erected in 1913 to commemorate the year 1813. It was an avant-garde building which like no other building in the city stood for a modern and democratic Breslau. During the Weimar Republic it was referred to as a “cathedral of democracy”. The Third Reich recognised its potential as a stage for propaganda and a nationally consecrated site. In the consciousness of Breslau citizens the Centennial Hall was from its inception one of the proud landmarks of the city, at the same level as the Town Hall, the Cathedral and the university. Everything else took second place.

3. Historical Perceptions

As a self-assured major city with an educated elite Wrocław commanded a host of admirers and poets, all eager to serve the city. The praises of Wrocław could fill a small anthology, but they seldom went beyond commonplace accolades. What does it signify if Martin Opitz eulogised the city as the “flower of Europe” or the Emperor Leopold referred to it as “the most precious stone in his crown”? The founding document of 1505 for a university which ultimately was never built extolled “the wonderful and happy constitution of the place […], the excellence of its outstanding arrangements” and that it “easily surpasses all the cities of Germany due to the culture and education of its citizens”. Soon scholarly descriptions of the city were also citing this in evidence of Wrocław’s pre-eminence, followed in the 18th century by historical tomes and literature on the city’s history and geography.

The rise of historicism of the 19th century revived the appreciation for municipal traditions and led to the founding of historical societies and museums of municipal history. Attempts were now made to recreate what had previously not been passed down in any pictorial form. The artist Adolph Menzel, born in Breslau, perfectly captured the life and world of Frederician Prussia. Some of his most important works, now in Berlin, once hung in Breslau. The Silesian Museum of the Fine Arts had a “hall of honour for patriotic history” filled with history paintings and statues.  

4. Monuments

In the collective consciousness of the citizens of Breslau the memories of important misfortunes suffered by the city were nursed for a long time: bitterly cold winters, flooding by the Oder River, plagues of locusts, famines, conflagrations, the plague and cholera epidemics. There are very few pictures of these cataclysms but commemorative medals were struck, poems were written, and the memories became part of the city’s oral tradition and were passed on. To take one example, according to a story handed down, the road to St. Elisabeth’s Church was paved with gravestones under which the executed rebels of 1420 lay, whose ignominious memory was ground in the dust under the feet of the citizens of Breslau. A catastrophe in 1749 literally shook the city to its foundations: the explosion of a powder house in the middle of Wroclaw with numerous casualties and widespread damage.

The urge to commemorate important personages and events by erecting monuments only began in the 19th century. Previously, all the streets and squares only bore names which either indicated their topography or their vicinity to a church or alluded to the crafts or trades carried out in them. This changed when in 1823 a commission for the revision of all street names and house numbers was appointed. This led to a wave of renamings throughout the city, flooding it primarily with new Prussian names.

5. Epilogue

With the end of the war Breslau became a place of leave-taking. The loss of one’s homeland signifies more than only material expropriation. It constitutes being ripped from familiar surroundings, from social certitudes, away from the net of family and relations, from houses and graves. This trauma was first suffered by the Jewish citizens of Breslau, who were forced into emigration after 1933 by the National-Socialists; moreover there were those 8,000 Jewish citizens of Breslau, deported after 1941, who were mercilessly exterminated. The railway stations of Wrocław became lieux de mémoire, first for the Jewish citizens of Breslau, then for all other citizens of Breslau. The urban exodus began in January 1945; the Polish leaders had not previously permitted it. When the population was finally pushed to leave Breslau despite all else, the exodus occurred precipitously, haphazardly and in deadly cold weather. Tens of thousands stormed the central railway station or the Odertor Station to reach the salvation of the waiting trains. For many, the hours they spent in desperate need in the overcrowded railway stations form part of their last memories of Breslau. Only very few of them suspected that this constituted a final leave-taking and that Breslau would only remain to them as a place of painful memories. Those who had held out in the city and survived the time when the city was encircled by Russian troops soon found themselves in an alien city. They awaited their expulsion, at the end of which Breslau/Wrocław became a city without Germans.

 translated from German by Helen Schoop


prof. Norbert Conrads (born 1938) - German historian. Until 2003 professor of modern history in University of Stuttgart and head of the project "History of Silesia". Author of numerous research studies on education and social history of Silesia.

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