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Obce miasto: Wrocław 1945 i potem

Agnieszka Marczyk

By Gregor Thum. Translated from German by Małgorzata Słabicka. Wrocław: Via Nova, 2006. 507 pages. ISBN 83-60544-04-2. Hardcover. In Polish. German original: Die Fremde Stadt: Breslau 1945. Berlin: Siedler, 2003.

Today’s Polish city of Wrocław has a rich history punctuated by many names. It was the German Breslau, the Habsburg Presslaw, the Bohemian Vretslav, and the Polish Piast Wrotizla. [1] Each name change points to profound historical changes, perhaps none more drastic than the transformation of Breslau into Wrocław that began in August 1945, when the Potsdam Conference finalized the westward shift of Poland’s borders.

With the important exception of the synagogues, Breslau remained almost undamaged by the war until January 1945. By May, however, the Red Army’s offensive and the Wehrmacht’s desperate defense of “Fortress Breslau” left most of the city in ruins. In the five years that followed, the newly Polish Wrocław witnessed expulsions of Germans, and the arrival of Poles and a small number of Jews and Ukrainians. Most were war survivors from central Poland, but roughly 20 percent were expellees from Poland’s former eastern regions annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945 (136). Thum mentions the ethnic heterogeneity of the eastern regions of the Polish Second Republic, but does not discuss the history of the competing claims to these lands made by Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Belarusans. The complex story of this forced population transfer and the subsequent government campaign to give Wrocław a Polish identity is the subject of Gregor Thum’s insightful study. In both Poland and Germany Thum has received much praise for his impartiality, his painstaking research, and his insights into the structure of Polish collective memory under communism. [2]

The book situates the population transfer in Wrocław in the wider context of the mass expulsions that accompanied the postwar political reorganization of Central and Eastern Europe. Thum examines both the international politics that necessitated mass migrations and the plight of the expellees for whom, whether German, Polish, or Ukrainian, the end of the war brought no relief from violence, loss, and uncertainty. To contextualize the initially violent and sometimes vengeful deportations of Germans from Breslau, he emphasizes the similar fates of the deported Breslauers and of the expellees from eastern Poland. He also reminds his readers that all postwar expulsions ultimately resulted from Hitler’s war, and from the unspeakably brutal Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Within Breslau itself, the forced population transfer started with the expulsion of the city’s Jewish community in the 1930s.

When he turns to the fate of those who arrived to settle in Wrocław, Thum emphasizes the pervasive sense of alienation that lingered in the city long after the war was over. Because the post-1945 Polish-German border was not officially recognized by a treaty between the two countries until 1990, the political status of Wrocław and other “Western Lands” remained uncertain throughout the communist decades. Wartime damages, lack of adequate law enforcement, transportation, food, and housing made daily life difficult, and the difficulties were compounded by the many layers of mistrust that divided the city’s population. Deportees from the east distrusted the voluntary migrants from central Poland, Poles often vilified Jews, and those who came from cities were appalled by the provincialism of the vast majority who arrived from villages and small towns. In the early postwar months the homes and stores left behind by the Germans were looted and the items sold on the black market. Although the “post-German” objects were highly valued, they were also constant reminders that those who now used them were living in a foreign place.

Thum proposes that to counteract this sense of impermanence, Poland’s communist government sought to create a public image of a historically Polish Wrocław that could become an object of patriotic pride. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of his study is the analysis of how government officials, city administrators, historians, priests, architects, and educators worked to implement this goal between 1945 and 1989. The ideologically sanitized image of Wrocław portrayed it as a medieval Polish city, controlled for centuries by Bohemian, Habsburg, and Prussian rulers, and finally reunited with the Polish motherland in 1945. Popular histories, museum exhibits, public memorial ceremonies, educational materials, and sermons therefore emphasized Wrocław’s connections with the medieval Polish Piast dynasty, while the city’s German history was systematically suppressed and removed from public attention. City planners removed German monuments and inscriptions from the streets, German cemeteries were first neglected and later destroyed, Gothic buildings were restored because they came to symbolize the Piasts, while the remains of Prussian buildings were demolished despite the protests of historical restoration experts. Not surprisingly, Thum proposes that while the suppression of Wrocław’s German history addressed the psychological needs of the postwar moment, it eventually came to interfere with the creation of a meaningful local identity. The carefully constructed public image of a Polish city kept clashing with private encounters with German objects and with traces of German culture and architecture that could not be eradicated from Wrocław’s landscape. It was only with the collapse of communism in 1989 that historians could begin to freely investigate the city’s multicultural heritage.

Thum argues that the investigation of Wrocław’s German period needs to be complemented by analysis of the ways in which Jews, Ukrainians, Roma and Sinti, and Russians figured in the city’s history. He cautions, however, that the appreciation of historical diversity must not obscure the traumas of the years between 1933 and 1949, or the four decades of efforts to purge diversity from images of Wrocław’s past. For example, he claims that the widely publicized history of Wrocław recently published by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse does not sufficiently emphasize the problem of expulsions and alienation in the postwar period (439). While Davies and Moorhouse do not focus on alienation or deconstruct the official image of a historically Polish Wrocław, their analysis is an indispensable complement to Thum’s. He shows that government propaganda produced rigid historical schemas that could not support a meaningful bond between Wrocław and its inhabitants. Davies and Moorhouse show, however, that cultural life and dynamism returned to the city after the war, even as it struggled with economic crises, halting reconstruction efforts, and consequences of the forced population transfer. Through music, experimental theater, political satire, and religious observance Wrocław’s inhabitants created a vital sense of community that sustained many of them through the Stalinist years, and through the decades of communism.

Thum’s study is valuable not only because it provides fresh insights into Wrocław’s history, but also because it adds a measured and sensitive voice to the ongoing Polish-German cultural and political dialogue. Although this dialogue has entered a decisively new and constructive phase after the watershed of 1989 and 1990, the trauma of the Second World War still overshadows the relationship between the two countries. The issue of expulsions continues to generate misunderstandings and tensions. [3] Thum does not deny the chaos and violence that characterized the deportations of Germans from Poland in the early postwar months, but he provides the historical framework necessary to understand the roots of this chaos and violence. Moreover, his examination of the ideologically motivated images of a purely Polish Wrocław makes it clear that national collective memory is not constructed from all available evidence. His study is a powerful reminder that conveniently simplified images of national history-whether they are Polish or German, communist or postcommunist-need to be challenged by confrontation with the surviving historical record.


1. Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), 11-12.

2. Thomas Fichtner in Humanities. Social- und Kulturgeschichte, <>, 1 July 2005, or Beata Maciejewska in Gazeta Wyborcza (Wrocław edition), 18 May 2007. Thum’s work has also received prizes in both countries, including the Georg Dehio Buchpreis in 2004, and the book prize from the Polish monthly journal Odra in 2006.

3. In summer 2006, for example, the Berlin exhibit “Forced Paths: Flight and Expulsion in Twentieth-Century Europe” provoked bitter criticism from Polish officials and museum curators. They felt that the exhibit, organized by the Federation of German Expellees, purposefully minimized German responsibility for the war by failing to provide sufficient historical contextualization. See for example,


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