Tag Archives: Potsdam Conference

Wroclaw, A Lucky Escape and A Museum

Following the coffee break we returned to the streets, walked through the Market Square and out the other side and at this point alarm bells started to ring because it soon became obvious to me that Kim was leading us directly towards the shopping arcades.  I knew the signs, I have seen them many times before, the sniff of the perfume, the glitter of the sparkly things catching the corner of the eye  and the smell of shoe leather.

For a while I fell behind after stopping to buy a doughnut from a shop with a long and patient queue but after the purchase I caught her up and queried this but was received an assurance that this was a complete coincidence – but I wasn’t entirely convinced. And as it turned out I had good reason not to be entirely convinced because suddenly we were outside the entrance to a modern shopping mall and the tractor beam that attracts women into shops was working on maximum draw power.

I had fallen for it again but I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to shop so while Kim, Margaret and Sue went inside Mike, Christine and I declined and returned to the streets and relieved to have got away with it to a delightful linear park which was built on the site of the old city walls, demolished in 1814 by Napoleon Bonaparte until we came to the Wroclaw Municipal Museum.

The Museum is housed in a former Palace of the Hohenzollern Prussian Royal Family and has been restored to something of its former grandeur since being mostly destroyed in the fighting of 1945.

The Prussian Kings and the German Emperors rather liked Breslau (Wroclaw), spent some considerable time there and had monuments of themselves erected in prominent places to record the fact like these two of Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II…

This one was at a place called Partisan Hill a once elegant recreational area with a grandiose crescent-shaped structure like something that might be found in Baden-Baden or Bath but is now sadly neglected, forlorn and forgotten with crumbling masonry and cracked pavements, a once gleaming construction littered with smashed bottles and spray can squiggles and the only hope is that it stays standing long enough until someone restores it.

By the time the monarchy was abolished in 1918 the German Kaiser had quite a few royal palaces to choose from.  In Berlin he had the City Palace which was badly damaged by Allied bombing and despite the protests of West Germany demolished by the German Democratic Republic in 1950.  In the city of Posen (now Polish Poznań) he had the Imperial Castle, which during World-War-Two became Hitler’s residence in Poland and in Potsdam he had the New Palace, which was used as a Museum and was looted and badly damaged by Russian troops in the Red Army invasion and nearby Cecilienhof Palace which was used as the venue for the Potsdam Conference where Breslau eventually became Wroclaw.

Germany and Russia were always pinching each other’s treasure and all this thieving was a two-way thing and among the Red Army troops who entered Berlin in 1945 were experts sent to establish “trophy commissions.”

Their official mission was to look for Russian cultural property stolen by the Nazis when they had invaded the Soviet Union a few years earlier but Red Army officers widened their brief and started removing the large art collections and treasures from anywhere in Europe that had been stored in bunkers and railway depots during the war and transported them home in retaliation for the looting places like the Grand Palace at Peterhof in St. Petersburg and other museums by the Nazis a few years earlier.

In 1992, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the German and Russian governments made an agreement of cultural cooperation and both countries are now bogged down in the process of returning stolen treasures to their rightful owners but inevitably a lot of these items have found their way into private collections and are difficult to track down.

In addition to the stately palaces in Berlin, Breslau (Wroclaw), Posen (Poznań) and Potsdam the Kaiser also had a nice summer holiday palace called the Achilleion on the Greek island of Corfu which I visited a few years ago and is now an up-market casino that was used as a location for the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

Four Palaces and a summer home might sound extravagant but compare that to the present King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who has seven palaces in mainland Spain and a summer home on the island of Majorca.

There were no temporary exhibitions today to slow us down so we went straight ahead into the permanent museum display ‘1000 years of Wroclaw’ which starts on the ground floor at around the year 1000 and ascends through three floors and two extensive wings right up to the present day.

We quickly passed through the first two hundred years or so but the pace slowed down through the medieval armoury section because I do admit fascination with those early weapons of mass destruction and through into the seventeenth century.

Then we crawled through one of my favourite periods of European history, the eighteenth century and took our time too through the nineteenth and the period of German unification and Prussian expansion and here in the Yellow Living Room I unearthed my favourite fact about the Palace for it was here in 1813 that King Frederic William III made the Proclamation of the Iron Cross as a war medal.

We spent most time however on the top floor in the twentieth century with exhibits and photographs from the two world wars, the siege of Breslau, the expulsion of the German population, the communist era and then modern-day Wroclaw.

An hour in the Museum was just about right and then we left and returned to the Market Square to meet up with the shoppers at the appointed time and place.

You might like to check out this website all about Wroclaw…

http://wroclawuncut.com/2017/01/31/city-museum-discover-the-history-of-wroclaw/

Poland and Wroclaw, Statistics and Shifting Borders

History Teaches us Lessons but we do not Learn…

I should have been in everyone’s interests (in 1803) to keep Poland as a cheerful. thriving buffer but instead, for careless, short-termed reasons the Prussians and the Russians carved Poland into non-existence.” – Simon Winder, ‘Germania’

Wroclaw it seems to me is a friendly, honest city, proud but not boastful, ambitious but unpretentious and as we walked I thought about the statistics that I generally use to get the measure of a country or a place.

Poland is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty of most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated nineteenth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United.

Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of the nineteen is the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which was built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig and is included as an early example of the use of reinforced concrete.

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2013 achieved the status at twenty-eight beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea.

But some things are not going so well, in football, Poland has finished third twice at the Football World Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages.

If you think that the football statistics are disappointing however, consider this, Poland has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for rehearsing in English!

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic and unfortunate last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its geographical position on one of the dangerously volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.

For a thousand years the borders of central Europe have expanded and contracted like a piano accordion as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they found that they had a particular liking for.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1946 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today and I mention this here because this review of the borders had a significant impact on Wroclaw.

Prior to 1946 Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of greater Germany and one of the important Imperial cities of old Prussia, by all accounts an elegant city of spires and canals.  The Germans were fond of Breslau and it survived most of the war pretty much intact but in 1945 as the Red Army advanced Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man.  There was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked as bands of ill-disciplined Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant and brutal justice to those who resisted.  Abandoned to anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, a city lost in human catastrophe.

With Germany defeated the Allies set about agreeing borders for new Poland and had to accommodate the desire of the USSR to push their western border as far into central Europe as possible to re-establish a series of buffer states that would protect Russia from further western aggression and another invasion – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all served this purpose.  So while Poland retreated in the east it was compensated for this loss with lands in the west – principally the old Prussian/German states of Pomerania and Silesia and a new border was agreed on the Oder-Neisse line with what was to become temporarily East Germany.

Now the trouble really began because the Soviets didn’t want the disaffected and troublesome Poles living in their annexed territories so they were forcibly expelled and sent west and replaced with Russian citizens in a process called Russification.  The Poles not unsurprisingly didn’t want the Germans living in new Poland so in turn forcibly expelled the Germans of old Breslau and sent them west as well  to make room for the Poles who had been displaced in the east.

The Poles arriving from the east didn’t much care for the Germanic appearance and infrastructure of the place (even though it had been largely demolished) and the end of the war signalled a belligerent campaign to de-Germanise the city.  Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wroclaw’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to an iconoclastic whirlwind of destruction including an equine statue of Kaiser Wilhelm that once stood in the Market Square whilst other German structures that had survived the Russian siege were introduced to the Polish wrecking-ball.

By the end of 1946 as many as three hundred thousand Germans were still in the city and this was a problem for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wroclaw was officially declared to be free of German inhabitants.

Today occupies a significant position in central Europe, has borders with seven other States and is the tenth most visited country in Europe.

The Official Travel Guide in Wrocław – visitWroclaw.eu

 

A Return Visit to Wroclaw, Poland

Spring  always seems to be a good time to go away if you ask me and this year I found some cheap Ryanair flights at only £50 return to Wroclaw, the fourth largest city in Poland and as we had thoroughly enjoyed a January weekend there two years previously the decision was quickly made to make a return visit the historic capital of Lower Silesia.

So why go to Wroclaw in the first place you might ask (and some people did) and having been once why go for a second time?  Well, quite simply because it is a fine European city and has a great deal to offer…

… It is classified as a global city with a ranking of high sufficiency and living standards and in 2015 was among two hundred and thirty cities ranked as “Best Cities to Live“. In 2016, the city was a European Capital of Culture and the World Book Capital. Also in a busy year Wrocław hosted the Theatre Olympics, the World Bridge Games and the European Film Awards. In 2017, the city is the host of the The International Federation of Library Associations’ Annual Conference and The World Games which is an international multi-sport event, meant for sports that are not contested in the Olympic Games

And where Iceland has Huldufólk and  Zurich has GnomesWroclaw has Dwarfs…

Before leaving my friend Dai Woosnam provided me with some lessons on pronunciation because although Wroclaw looks easy enough on paper it can prove quite tricky to get absolutely right and is correctly pronounced as ‘Vrotswaf’ with the added complication of a rolling ‘r’.  In attempting to say this difficult word it is necessary to sound like a bronchitis sufferer with a throat full of phlegm. 

I suggest that the easiest way to achieve it would be to fill your mouth with pebbles to suppress any possible movement of the tongue and force the sound into the back of the mouth; either that or go into the garden shed and find a live moth, swallow it and then try to cough it up and you will achieve roughly the same combination of sounds that is required to get the correct pronunciation!  

It is all very well for Dai of course, he is from Wales and the Welsh are used to dealing with unpronounceable place names, like possibly the most absurd of all –  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch* because even the Germans don’t have place names as long as that and the longest that I can find is Villingen-Schwenningen but that cheats and includes a hyphen and is really two places next door to each other.  On that same basis I am also passing over the claim of L’Annonciation-de-la-Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie-de-Nazareth which is somewhere in Quebec in Canada.

No one seems to know for sure but the city is traditionally believed to be named after Wrocisław or Vratislav, Duke Vratislaus I of Bohemia sometime towards the end of the tenth century.

But it hasn’t always been so difficult because it only reverted to the name of Wroclaw in 1946 when the city and the whole region of Silesia was taken from Germany and handed over to Poland as the borders of central Europe were redrawn to satisfy the demands of Stalin at the post-war Potsdam Conference.

Up until that point in history Wroclaw had not been a part of what you might call Poland for over six-hundred years and it went by the German name of Breslau, which is a lot easier to pronounce and was an almost exclusively German in a city that had once been part of Prussia, The German Empire after unification in 1871, The inter-war Weimer Republic and the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.  I’ll tell you some more about that in a future post.

I am always interested to discover how far a place name has travelled but not surprisingly I am unable to find another Wroclaw anywhere.  There is however a Breslau in Ontario, Canada and another in Pierce County Nebraska, USA. There used to be one more, in Suffolk County, New York but just like its Polish counterpart it was renamed – as Lindenhurst in 1891

We left a cloudy and rather dismal East Midlands Airport near Nottingham and a little under two hours later approached Wroclaw-Copernicus airport which was bathed in dappled sunshine.  As we dropped through the light cloud I could see Poland rapidly coming into view.  This part of the country is flat and prairie like with a chequer board pattern of agricultural farms and fields occupying the valley of the River Oder and a long way from the mountains of the south or the forests of the east and still in its state of winter hibernation it looked rather unremarkable and it made me wonder why so many lives had been lost over the years fighting over it. 

After a short thirty-minute taxi ride to the city we checked into the Best Western Hotel on the edge of the Old Town and after approving our accommodation stepped out into the street and made our way to the nearby market square which like so many others in Europe has been expertly and sensitively restored and betrays an eclectic mix of the principles of original medieval town planning and a combination of Germanic and Polish architectural styles that perfectly complement one another.

We set off on a sightseeing walk and possibly to find a bar!

The Official Travel Guide in Wrocław – visitWroclaw.eu