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Teresa Kulak

Wroclaw in the history and memory of Poles

21 August 2011
  • Solidarity
  • Breslau
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Europe
  • Germany
  • History

Wroclaw was the biggest city in Poland’s Western Territories that came within Poland’s borders after World War II and where the entire exchange of the population took place as a result of post-war migrations from 1945. Polish administration in Wroclaw started to be created with the approval of Soviet authorities in this city when it was still burning on May 9, 1945 after only three days from the surrender of the German command of Festung Breslau. The new authorities found about 165,000 Germans there. This included about 150 German Jews saved from death and about 3,000 Poles coming both from among the pre-war Wroclaw Poles and from among the crowd of forced laborers of many nationalities numbering several dozen thousand persons who experienced dramatic days of siege by the Soviet Army troops in the town turned into a fortress. They gradually left Wroclaw where people from other parts of Poland arrived. They came also from labour and prison of war camps and from the forced labour sites from the heart of Germany.

The influx of the Polish population increased from August when residents of Eastern voivodships of pre-war Poland started arriving. They were forced to resettle behind the Curzon Line, that is, behind the new state border with the USSR, demarcated on the Bug River. The population that arrived, uprooted from its native surroundings, was officially, but not in keeping with the legal state, called „repatriates.”.

The resettled population longed for its previous place of residence as Wroclaw looked like a repelling place because of great destructions amounting even to 80 percent of pre-war buildings in some districts. A great threat was posed by ruins where thieves and bandits and the remains of German armed underground soldiers found refuge. Besides, Soviet soldiers also committed excesses. At night, assaults often took place and shots could be heard in the town plunged into darkness.

During the day, swarms of flies, the stench of burning and the decay of human and animal bodies in rubble heaps were a torment. While at dusk, thousands of rats crept out of the heaps and it was also necessary to fight against rats in flats and office rooms. The situation in the town in the first months of peace did not promote the stability of life, as people said, in the wild West. „Throughout the first year, a student of the Wroclaw University who came from the Poznan region recollected, I saw Wroclaw residents wearing untidy clothes, who looked, as if to say, in a temporary way. It seemed that each of the residents came here for a short period of time and that he will go again there from where he had come.” Newcomers were overwhelmed by the sea of ruins and the feeling of „silent lifelessness,” by the sight of the emptiness of squares and streets „full of dirt and dust” from destroyed houses. Under these special circumstances, it was initially out of the question to develop any deeper bond between residents and the city. People noticed the strangeness of Wroclaw and its „German character„ that suggested to many newcomers to leave this city of the dead.” Such an opportunity was not enjoyed by Poles displaced—mostly under dramatic circumstances-- from the eastern borderlands, although not all of them gave up the hope of changing post-war borders and returning to their family regions.

As opposed to forcibly displaced newcomers from behind the Bug river, Poles from central Poland came to western territories voluntarily and on a mass scale. As a result of these internal post-war migrations, a conviction was created in Wroclaw that as a matter of fact „representation of the population from all regions of Poland” came to this city. In view of cultural differentiation, coexistence of this population initially could not be without conflicts, but successively agreement was reached and town community was shaped. This is one of the phenomena of post-war Wroclaw that the bonds linking most Wroclaw residents emerged quickly and the process progressed of turning German Breslau into Polish Wroclaw and into their small homeland. The/// analysis of most causes of this phenomenon exceeds essential scope of my speech, but one should stress here that historical policy of the new communist state authorities of post-war Poland undoubtedly played a great role in the coming into being of this phenomenon. This policy resulted in integrating heterogeneous community, psychologically leading it as far as identification with the new place of residence.

The communists’ historical policy was totally discredited by their dependence on the USSR and propaganda in times of People’s Poland, but in this initial period it enjoyed the support of pre-war scholars, journalists and writers who already during the war prepared the program of territorial changes in the neighborhood with Germans, postulating the border on the Odra and the Nysa Klodzka rivers and sometimes also on the Lusatian Nysa river. The point of reference was Poland of the Piast dynasty, a mediaeval dynasty of Polish princes and kings who set up the Polish state, reaching from the Odra River to the Baltic. In this Poland—as it results from the mention made in the chronicle by the Merseburg Bishop Thietmar-- Wroclaw (once called Wrotizla and next Wrotizlava in the chronicle) was from the year 1000 the capital of the Catholic diocese, subordinated to the Gniezno metropolis together with dioceses established in Cracow and Kolobrzeg. In the state of the kings of the Piast dynasty, Wroclaw was the centre of the state administration for the entire Silesian land, a defensive town and a starting base in wars against Czechs and Germans. According to the chronicle by Gall Anonim, coming from the 12th century, Wroclaw was one of the „sedes regni principales, ”that is, it belonged to the main „royal headquarters.” These bonds got loosened during the district fragmentation and despite Poland’s unification in 1320 Silesia and Wroclaw did not return to Poland’s previous territorial shape, although Casimir the Great, the last king of the Piast dynasty, tried to regain Wroclaw in 1349.

As regards their nationality, till the mid-13th century most residents of Wroclaw were Polish, but also Walloons, Jews and Germans lived in it. The number of which increased only by establishing this town under the Magdeburg law in 1261. After the establishment of Wroclaw under the Magdeburg law, Polish was gradually removed from the town books , while in the courts it was still used till 1337. The state territorial traditions from the epoch of the first kings of the Piast dynasty, that is, traditions of the state based on the Odra River and the Baltic survived in the Polish western thought, verified and consolidated from the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries in political and historical writings. The vision of the Piast Poland mobilized many Poles to make independence efforts before 1918 and it was evoked during World War II, despite the double occupation of Poland and the martyrdom of the Polish people.

The facts mentioned here, referring to the history of Wroclaw and Silesia, were used by the state authorities to accustom new residents with the present, appropriately modeling their collective memory around the Regained Territories to rationalize the post-war situation and to substantiate the western border. The territorial shifting of Poland to the West was treated as a return of the „regained” lands to Mother country after „ten centuries of struggle” against German rapacity, started already during the first Piast kings. The communist state adopted the policy of guiding social memory, using proper propaganda strategies to prove the Polish return after one thousand years as the logics of history, the victory of the reason of state and general national strivings. Censorship made it possible to propagate desired contents and the authorities took care of constantly bringing up to date concepts about the past, erasing or omitting inconvenient facts. Clearly absent from this manipulation of the past were the 15th-19th centuries when there was slight Polish identity in the town among the population deprived of higher classes and limited to plebeian classes. Myths were created depending on current political and ideological needs and anti-German stereotypes were spread. Efforts were made to remove these contents from social memory that could disturb the process of shaping collective identity, including the awareness of Poles taking deep roots in the past of the town and the Silesian land and the ethos of the community of destinies of their past and present inhabitants. This awareness was shaped in an overriding way. In this connection, it was proved that the history of Polish-German relations proves that the displacing of Germans was the only and equitable solution. Besides it was formalized in decisions by the Big Three.

Today, we can unequivocally interpret most of the then actions as highly ideologized efforts to shape historical memory. Certain events, persons and symbols were consciously selected from the past for the needs of the current policy and legitimization of the present. The past was used to gain approving attitudes of residents for various kinds of current actions and strivings. Typical was the anti-German character of all actions, stemming from sad experiences of the six- year war and from fears of the revision of the border established in Potsdam. For one group of new Wrocław residents this was the bogey man of a future war and temporariness till the packing of suitcases and escaping from the new place of residence. For others, this meant the necessity of „closing ranks and defending possessions and the work done to raise the town from ruins. Despite unsteady attitudes, support for and legitimization of power grew. The number of residents also increased. The process of „taming” the town by changing the names of the streets went on and Wroclaw lost its German character mentioned above together with the progressing reconstruction. New residents did not identify themselves with the cultural heritage that was left because this brought back to their mind the people from which they experienced a lot of suffering and many losses.

Political tensions and opposing interests evident among states of the Big Three and the political atmosphere of the cold war growing from 1947 in the longer run made it difficult to stabilize the moods of the population in Poland’s western territories. Many Wroclaw residents had the feeling of temporariness because for many years there was no guarantee of the Odra and Nysa border, as a result of which they were constantly afraid of questioning the border by the FRG. That is why such great importance was attached to a visit by Willy Brandt and the treaty of December 8,1970. But Wroclaw really quieted down only at the beginning of the 1990s when after the years of political tensions and threats international recognition of the Polish-German border took place in the bilateral treaty on good neighborhood and friendly cooperation signed in Bonn on July 17, 1991. This treaty firmly positively influenced attitudes to Germans and the change of the cultural memory of Poles who noticed and discovered the complex history of Wroclaw already in Poland’s new political situation. Since these years they have been fascinated with this history and think that the Wroclaw past and cultural traditions can become the bridge of agreement between the West and East of Europe. As Germans, Czechs, Austrians and also Jews find fragments of their history in it.

Since the 1990s, it has been particularly evident that Poles have tried to preserve and to reconstruct material sphere of this heritage. Now, they identify themselves with it and the existence of a great emotional bond of residents with the town emerged already in 1990 in the case of restoring the town coat of arms from 1530 rejected in 1933 by the nazis and in 1947 by communists. Internal emotional bonds were consolidated by the flood in 1997 and then emerged other questions important for Wroclaw residents such as the problem of regaining the herma of St. Dorothea, a relic of mediaeval townsmen, from the Warsaw National Museum. The herma was taken from the Wroclaw city-hall. Another problem was the dispute with the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw over the return of a wooden shield used by town guards from the 17th century. At the time, people in Wroclaw did not think that in the last case these were guards of the German language town under the rule of the Hapsburgs , but that this is the property of today’s Wroclaw, the capital of Lower Silesia and the town in which we live. Several examples given here show that changes in cultural memory do not appear spontaneously, but are substantiated by events important for a specific community. These examples also prove that cultural memory does not separate from history, but that its realities are not too important for it and they are not treated rigorously. For many years after World War II in the totalitarian system memory depended on what goals were defined by the party exercising power, while in the democratic system it is society that decides what it wants to know from the past and to accept to the present. Polish historical science does not recognize the continuity of history of Breslau and Wroclaw. But as regards cultural memory of today’s Wroclaw residents, the awareness of their common heritage is important, the heritage which they treat with special reverence. 


Prof. Teresa Kulak (born 1941) – historian, Head of Department of Polish and General History of the 19th and 20th Century at the University of Wrocław.