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Vasco Kretschmann

Wrocław: European Local History Beyond the Nation

The history of the Western Polish city of Wrocław has been shaped by many nations.

With its multilayered heritage of Polish, Czech, Austrian, Prussian, and Jewish traces, defining Wrocław’s distinct national identity has posed a challenge throughout the 20th century. Since the fall of communism, cultural elite have actively searched for new interpretations of the city’s past, embracing a primarily local, transcultural definition of history rather than adhering to nationalist notions of the past.

Today’s new approach to local history reveals the Lower Silesian capital’s deeper traditions and unique identity.

From Breslau to Wrocław – Reinventing the City

In the 20th century, the city known as Breslau in German and Wrocław in Polish reinvented itself more than once. Without a doubt, the city’s historical traditions were affected most radically between 1945 and 1948, when nearly the entire – predominantly German – population of the regional capital was replaced and Wrocław became a part of Poland. Before the War, Breslau’s cultural elite attempted to frame their city as a German stronghold in the eastern borderlands. They made existing narratives more radical, especially during the Nazi period, to frame Breslau as war-driven success story against Germany’s Slavic neighbors, and as the lynchpin of resistance in the German Campaign of 1813.

Wroclaw Old Town waterfront at Odra River. Author: Maciek Lulko, source: Flickr.

Wroclaw Old Town waterfront at Odra River. Author: Maciek Lulko, source: Flickr.

After World War Two, Polish intellectuals contradicted these notions with their own carefully curated image of a traditional Polish city that had only temporally been occupied by the Germans. Traces of local German history were trivialized or presented as negative factors in the city’s development. The period of de-Stalinization after 1956 and the end of Socialism in 1989 also had particularly strong consequences for the city’s historical narratives. Poland’s transformation into a democratic state marked the beginning of a decade, in which new definitions of local traditions embraced its multicultural heritage for the first time. This new approach to local history allowed the population to create a sense of their own unique local identity, which served as a foundation for a powerful civic society.

Museums as Mirrors of Society?

Museums—generators and repositories of local history—help us better understand this Central European city’s own self-image, which over the last century has been heavily shaped by violence and destruction, as well as by renewal and reconciliation.

Excavations in Wrocław, 2016 . Author: Vasco Kretschmann ©

Excavations in Wrocław, 2016 . Author: Vasco Kretschmann ©

The summer of 1989 marked the beginning of Poland’s transformation into a democratic state. Local entities in the Western and Northern territories stood before a revolution – a cultural emancipation from the central government. Increasingly, citizens began to take local heritage into account, regardless of whether it was “Polish.” The new crop of cultural elites and institutions began embracing both the positive and less positive aspects of the city’s past. This approach didn’t just appear out of nowhere – it had already taken root in the underground culture of the opposition movement during the final decades of the communist People’s Republic of Poland. Citizens resisted official narratives of the past, and alternative versions of local history began to develop in private circles and the growing opposition movement. People wanted to know more about their home cities. But the museums, universities, and newspapers were extensions of the state, still subject to strict censorship. German-Jewish and even Polish-Jewish history, in particular, were neglected by the city’s museums throughout the People’s Republic.

Jewish cementary in Wrocław. Author: Ula Zarosa, source: Flickr

Jewish cementary in Wrocław. Author: Ula Zarosa, source: Flickr

In the 1980s, a bit of space to freely interpret history finally appeared. The most striking example was the temporary exhibition, “Wrocławian Jews from 1850–1945,” which opened during the final year of the People’s Republic in March 1989 at the Museum of Architecture. The exhibition was dedicated to the German Jews of Breslau and was based on a conservational research project on Wrocław’s dilapidated Old Jewish Cemetery. In fact, Jewish history became the first pre-war chapter of Wrocław’s German past to be shown openly at a municipal exhibition.

In the 1990s, the Historical Museum of Wrocław highlighted aspects of the city’s history that were previously ignored, such as the anti-communist opposition, notable German and Polish residents, and turn of the century cityscapes. The mission of the new Director was to uncover some of the city’s lesser-known periods. One particularly popular and successful example was the 1992 exhibition, “Unknown City Portrait,” which included photographs from the turn of the century. Before this exhibit, German Breslau was known only as a city destroyed in 1945 and the subject of a few old paintings. Suddenly, the forgotten city found new appreciation, especially from the younger generation – not for its “Germanness,” but for its historical significance and meaning.

An even more remarkable resolution of local history appeared in April 2009. The exhibition, “1000 Years of Wrocław,” was novel in all of its dimensions: its size, artifacts, and thematic details. A permanent exhibition housed in the museum’s “Royal Palace” branch, the display assembles 3,000 objects in 25 rooms to present a chronological history of Wrocław. Not only is this the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the city’s entangled German-Polish past, but it also denotes an important attempt to bring together these two historical legacies.

During Wrocław’s transformation as part of a newly democratic state, museums have served an important role as mediums of historical authority, positioning, and understanding. Following periods of selective nationalism and the official usurpation of historical presentations, the cultural heritage of Poland’s Western and Northern territories is finally gaining traction and acceptance. What’s more, local institutions have reclaimed these cultural features as part of the unique heritage of their urban environment. Once rejected and neglected, old objects are acquiring new significance as regions unearth and reinstate local traditions. However, we must keep in mind that the social impact of historical museums is uncertain. The only way that we can accurately gauge the perceptions of local inhabitants would be to conduct sociological surveys.

Meanwhile, the cultural and political elite serve as the most visible supporters of this new historical approach. Rather than mirroring society’s views, museums retain an active role in creating new interpretations.

Wrocław – A New European Capital of Culture

As a whole, Wrocław’s post-1989 transformation was an intellectual and social process that manifested itself in new historical approaches. The City Council reconceived the area’s German-Polish heritage as a regional strength, allowing Wrocław to become an outstanding European city – or a European Capital of Culture, as it’s called in 2016. In their application for this title, Wrocław’s City Council pointed to the city’s “extremely complex history” and the “dramatic event [of] completely replacing [its] population.” According to Adam Chmielewski, “We want to share our experience with Europe of dealing with the difficult task history gave us: building a new identity of the city and of our own.” (Adam Chmielewski: Spaces for Beauty (revisited) ‒ Wrocław’s Application for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016. Wrocław 2011).

The initial emphasis on Wrocław’s purely Polish traces helped ease settlers’ arrival into an unfamiliar environment. In the long run, however, establishing a new, modern foundation required people to rediscover and reappropriate the region’s multinational heritage. Wrocław’s search for new historical interpretations no longer excludes the painful or “foreign” chapters of the city’s past. Instead, museums, scholars, and even the local government are exploring the city’s diverse cultural heritage to reveal multifaceted narratives of a single place.

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Featured photo: City Hall, Wrocław. Author: Vasco Kretschmann ©

Vasco studied History and Political Science in Berlin and Warsaw and completed a Master of Arts in Public History at Freie Universität Berlin. In his PhD project he investigates how the museums of German and Polish Wrocław (Breslau) exhibited local history between 1900 and 2010. His fields of interest are German-Polish and European historical cultures and exhibition projects.

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