The city of Wroclaw originated as a Bohemian stronghold at the intersection of two trade routes, the Via Regia and the Amber Road. The city was first recorded in the 10th century as Vratislavia, possibly derived from the name of a Bohemian duke Vratislav I. Its initial extent was limited to district of Ostrów Tumski (the Cathedral Island, German: Dominsel).
Wroclaw is now a unique European city of mixed heritage, with architecture influenced by Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian traditions, such as Silesian Gothic and its Baroque style of court builders of Habsburg Austria (Fischer von Erlach). Wroclaw has a number of notable buildings by German modernist architects including the famous Centennial Hall (Hala Stulecia or Jahrhunderthalle) (1911-1913) designed by Max Berg.
In July 1997, the city was heavily affected by a flood of the River Oder, the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. Around 1/3 of the city's area stood under water. An earlier equally devastating flood of the river took place in 1903.
World War II and afterwards
For most of World War II, the fighting did not affect Breslau. In 1941 the remnants of pre-war Polish minority in the city, as well as Polish slave labourers organised resistance group called Olimp. As the war lengthened, refugees from bombed-out German cities, and later refugees from farther east, swelled the population to nearly one million.
Gauleiter Karl Hanke declared the city a Festung (fortress) to be held at all costs. Hanke finally lifted a ban on the evacuation of women and children when it was almost too late. During his poorly organised evacuation in January 1945, 18,000 people froze to death in icy snowstorms and -20 °C (-4 °F) weather. By the end of the Siege of Breslau, half the city had been destroyed. An estimated 40,000 civilians lay dead in the ruins of homes and factories. After a siege of nearly three months, Hanke surrendered on 6 May 1945, just before the end of the war.
Along with almost all of Lower Silesia, the city became part of Poland under the terms of the Potsdam Conference. The Polish name of Wroclaw became its official name. There had been some discussion among the Western Allies to mark the southern Polish-German boundary on the Glatzer Neisse; this would have meant that post-war Germany would have been allowed to retain approximately half of Silesia, including Breslau. However the Soviets insisted that the border be drawn at the Lusatian Neisse farther west.
Most remaining German inhabitants in Wroclaw fled or were forcibly expelled from Wroclaw between 1945 and 1949 and moved to Allied Occupation Zones in Germany. A small German minority remains in the city till this day, although the city's last German school closed in 1963. The Polish population was dramatically increased by government resettlement of Poles during postwar population transfers (75%) as well as during the forced deportations from Polish lands annexed by the Soviet Union in the east region.
Before and after World War I
Napoleonic redevelopments increased prosperity in Silesia and Breslau. The levelled fortifications opened space for the city to grow beyond its old limits. Breslau became an important railway hub and industrial centre, notably of linen and cotton manufacture and metal industry. The new university served as a major centre of sciences, while the secularisation of life laid the base for a rich museum landscape.
The Unification of Germany in 1871 turned Breslau into the sixth-largest city in the German Empire. Its population more than tripled to over half a million between 1860 and 1910.
In religious respect there were 58% Protestants, 37% Catholics and 5% Jews (counting 20,536 in the 1905 census).The Jewish community of Breslau was among the most important in Germany and several distinguished artists and scientists originated from it.
Following World War I, Breslau became the capital of the newly created Prussian Province of Lower Silesia in 1919. During the month of August 1920, at the time of Polish Silesian Uprising in Upper Silesia, the Polish Consulate and School were demolished, whilst the Polish Library was burned down by a mob.
The city boundaries were expanded between 1925 and 1930 to include an area of 175 km2 (68 sq mi) with a population of 600.000. In 1929, the Werkbund opened WuWa (German: Wohnungs- und Werkraumausstellung) in Breslau-Scheitnig, an international showcase of modern architecture by architects of the Silesian branch of the Werkbund.
The city became one of the strongest support bases of the Nazis, who in the 1932 elections received 44% of Breslau's votes, their third-highest total in the entire country.
After Hitler's takeover of the German government in 1933, political enemies of the Nazis were persecuted, and their institutions closed or destroyed; in the city the Gestapo began actions against Polish and Jewish students, Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists, arrests were even made for using Polish in public, in 1938 the police destroyed the Polish cultural centre. Many of the city's 10,000 Jews as well as many other enemies of the Third Reich were sent to concentration camps; those Jews who remained were killed during the Holocaust. A network of concentration camps and forced labour camps was established around Breslau, to serve industrial concerns, including FAMO, Junkers and Krupp. Tens of thousands were imprisoned there.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Breslau was occupied by an army of the Confederation of the Rhine. The fortifications of the city were leveled and monasteries and cloisters were secularised. The Protestant Viadrina University of Frankfurt (Oder) was relocated to Breslau in 1811, and united with the local Jesuit University to create the new Silesian Frederick-William University (Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität, now University of Wroclaw). The city became the centre of the German Liberation movement against Napoleon, and the gathering place for volunteers from all over Germany, with the Iron Cross military decoration founded by Frederick William III of Prussia in early March 1813. The city was the centre of Prussian mobilisation for the campaign which ended at Leipzig.
Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation
The Protestant Reformation reached Breslau in 1518 and the city became Protestant. However from 1526 Silesia was ruled by the Catholic House of Habsburg. In 1618, Breslau supported the Bohemian Revolt in fear of losing the right to freedom of religious expression. In the following Thirty Years' War the city was occupied by Saxon and Swedish troops and lost 18,000 of 40,000 citizens to plague.
The Austrian emperor brought in the Counter-Reformation by encouraging Catholic orders to settle in Breslau, starting in 1610 with the Minorites, followed by Jesuits, Capucins, Franciscans and finally Ursulines in 1687. These orders erected buildings which shaped the city's appearance until 1945. At the end of the Thirty Years' War, however, Breslau was one of only a few Silesian cities to stay Protestant.
During the Counter-Reformation, the intellectual life of the city - shaped by Protestantism and Humanism - flourished, even as the Protestant bourgeoisie lost its role to the Catholic orders as the patron of the arts. Breslau became the centre of German Baroque literature and was home to the First and Second Silesian school of poets.
The Kingdom of Prussia annexed Breslau and most of Silesia during the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s. Habsburg empress Maria Theresa ceded the territory in 1763.
During Wroclaw's early history, its control changed hands between Bohemia (until 992, then 1038-1054), the Kingdom of Poland (992-1038 and 1054-1202), and, after the fragmentation of the Kingdom of Poland, the Piast-ruled duchy of Silesia. One of the most important events in those times was the foundation of the Diocese of Wroclaw by the Polish Duke (from 1025 king) Boleslaw the Brave in 1000.
The city became a commercial centre and expanded to Wyspa Piaskowa (Sand Island, German: Sandinsel), then to the left bank of the River Oder. Around 1000, the town had 1000 inhabitants. By 1139, a settlement belonging to Governor Piotr Wlostowic (a.k.a Piotr Wlast Dunin) was built, and another was founded on the left bank of the River Oder, near the present seat of the university. While the city was Polish, there were also communities of Bohemians, Jews, Walloons and Germans.
The city was devastated in 1241 during the Mongol invasion of Europe. While the city was burned to force the Mongols to a quick withdrawal, most of the population probably survived.
After the Mongol invasion, Breslau was expanded by adopting German town law. The expanded town was around 60 hectares in size and the new main market square (Rynek, German: Ring), which was covered with timber frame houses, became the new centre of the town. The original foundation, Ostrów Tumski, became the religious center. The Polish Piast dynasty remained in control of the region, but the city council's right to govern independently increased.
In 1335, Breslau was incorporated with almost all of Silesia into the Kingdom of Bohemia, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Between 1342 and 1344, two fires destroyed large parts of the city.
German troops in Breslau, 2 February 1945
SOURCE: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)
Delegation of German officers walking for negotiations before capitulation of Festung Breslau, 6 May 1945.
Flood in July 1997
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