The New European - - Expertise -

RAY KER­SHAW trav­els to a place which has been through many rein­car­na­tions over the cen­turies, but none so dra­matic or vi­o­lent as its most re­cent

Early morn­ing sun­shine is un­veil­ing one of Europe’s most beau­ti­ful squares. The cob­bles bare of traf­fic, the scene would fit in any of the city’s many cen­turies; the hand­ful of pedes­tri­ans per­haps di­rect de­scen­dants of the Euro­pean peo­ples who lived, worked and died here, some­times to­gether, some­times singly, dur­ing its first thou­sand years.

Yet all is not quite what it seems. And few, if any, of its present day in­hab­i­tants can trace their lo­cal lin­eage any farther back than 1945.

The square’s glo­ri­ously hotch­potch 15th-cen­tury town hall seems the ideal spot to solve a civic rid­dle: what do Vratislava, Wro­ti­zla, Vr­a­claw, Wret­slaw, Pre­zlav, Press­law, Breslau and Wroclaw have in com­mon? Pol­ish his­to­ri­ans may not agree but any school­child here can tell you: they’re all the same place.

Since its mys­te­ri­ous be­gin­nings, the city has been al­ways the cap­i­tal of Sile­sia but its moth­er­lands and fa­ther­lands have come and gone like fickle par­ents, of­ten chang­ing its lan­guages, al­ways chang­ing its name.

With its cen­tral Euro­pean com­pos­ite char­ac­ter, a cock­tail pedi­gree of fluid na­tion­al­i­ties, it’s been called a liv­ing mi­cro­cosm of Euro­pean his­tory and can­di­date for the con­ti­nent’s most Euro­pean city.

To­day it’s hard to imag­ine that the me­dieval mar­ket place of Europe’s Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture 2016 was once the dev­as­tated epi­cen­tre of one of Europe’s last but most seis­mic bat­tles of the Sec­ond World War. Lit­tle re­mained of the 600,000 in­hab­i­tant city but a de­pop­u­lated rub­ble field. Ger­man Breslau’s smok­ing ru­ins also had a new lan­guage, a new na­tion­al­ity and a new gov­ern­ment. Its name was now Wroclaw.

To un­der­stand its tan­gled his­tory, you must start at Óstrow Tum­ski, Cathe­dral Is­land, a goal for pil­grims and tourists and a shrine for Pol­ish na­tion­al­ists.

The is­land may have been set­tled in the early eighth cen­tury by a mys­te­ri­ous tribe whose lan­guage may or may not have been some­thing like Pol­ish. At some later misty junc­ture it be­came, with all Sile­sia, a Bo­hemian (Czech) duke­dom.

The ear­li­est rulers of any­where to­day recog­nis­able as Poland were of the Pi­ast ducal dy­nasty which emerged from Slavic tribes dur­ing the ninth cen­tury. In 990 Duke Mieszko pro­claimed him­self king, adopted Chris­tian­ity and du­ti­fully snatched Sile­sia from Bo­hemia. The booty in­cluded the is­land city in the Oder, called Vratislava af­ter its evicted name­sake ducal owner. His suc­ces­sor, King Boleus, built its first cathe­dral in 1163. Af­ter a cen­tury’s os­cil­la­tion be­tween Bo­hemia and Poland, Sile­sia’s is­land cap­i­tal flour­ished again as an in­de­pen­dent duchy. Sacked by Mon­gols in 1241, it was re­con­structed Mon­gol-proof op­po­site the is­land on the Oder’s south­ern bank. Em­braced by two wide moats and for­ti­fied walls, it would re­main un­con­quered for 700 years.

At the junc­tion of the Am­ber Road be­tween the Baltic and Italy and the Via Re­gia link­ing North Sea Hanseatic states with Rus­sia and be­yond, the city’s good times rolled. Im­mi­grants flooded from ev­ery di­rec­tion. Ger­man mer­chants pre­dom­i­nant, its lan­guage was Ger­man. Breslau’s golden age would last un­til the Sec­ond World War – though in var­i­ous in­car­na­tions.

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