About Breslau

The origins of Breslau can be tracked back to a Slavic settlement located at a ford of the River Oder and concurrently at a crossroads of the most important trading routes between East and West, North and South. In the first half of the 10th century, Silesia fell under Bohemian rule and the settlement, already with the characteristics of a border fortress, was given the name of Bohemian Prince Vratislav. In the last decade before the turn of the millennium, Silesia finally became part of the Duchy of Poland. The oldest preserved written mention of Breslau dates to the year of 1000, when it was recorded in a Papal Bull as the seat of the Diocese of the same name. Under the Sileisan Piast dynasty, the settlements around the castle on an island in the River Oder was expanded considerably. In the course of the 13th century, they increasingly merged into the body of a consistent city– a process that increased particularly after the Mongol invasion of Europe in 1241, which also destroyed parts of Breslau. Starting at the time of reconstruction, German colonists the Piasts had invited to settle in Silesia played a dominating role among the city residents. In 1261, Breslau received the Magdeburger freedom. Thanks to its infrastructural location, it developed into a highly frequented trading site at increasing speed. Life inside the city was characterised by a strong patrician class and a powerful city council. Merchants and craftspeople characterised the economic appearance of the city. Breslau therefore not only had a seat and vote in the Silesian League of Towns, but was also a member of the Hansa. From 1335 onwards, Breslau was a Bohemian fief. It celebrated an economic and cultural heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, temporarily interrupted by the Hussite Wars and the Bohemian War of Succession after the Luxemburg dynasty died out. After the death of Louis II., King of Bohemia, in 1526, Silesia and Breslau fell under Habsburg rule. Just a few years before, in 1523, the sermon of Johann Hess in der St. Magdalene’s Church set off the reformation in Breslau, where its ideas fell on fertile soil. Most citizens, headed by the city administration converted to Protestantism just one year later. Only the clerical institutions on the cathedral island and a few surrounding settlements remained Catholic. Protestant domination continued even during the general counterreformist efforts of the Habsburg rulers. Still under their rule, however, a Jesuit academy was founded as a university with two faculties in Breslau.
Following the Silesian Wars, Silesia and Breslau became Prussian. The city’s residents gave the armies of Frederick II. an enthusiastic welcome. The king made Breslau the capital of the new Prussian province of Silesia, a royal seat and thus one of three capital cities of the Kingdom. At the same time, the old city administration lost the power it held across centuries due to Frederick’s centralisation policy. Breslau itself, however, developed strongly – spatially, as well as culturally and spiritually. The former was involuntarily supported when the Napoleonic occupants razed the fortifications, which permitted integration of the suburbs into the city territory. The looks of Breslau changed considerably by this. Secularisation and the founding of the university in 1810, in contrast, influenced church and cultural life in the city. Economically and infrastructurally, Breslau also saw great changes in the 19th century. Connection to the railway grid starting in the 1840s and the later construction of a harbour in Pöpelwitz (Popowice) made it an important traffic node. The technical university of Breslau was founded in 1910, and the academy of arts one year later. Important poets and writers were living in Breslau in earlier centuries already, but now a scene of theatre, music and fine arts could unfold there that made it one of the most important cultural centres of Germany. Innovative architecture projects contributed decisively to this reputation. The overall development was also mirrored in the population growth: at that time, the residents already numbered half a million.
World War I abruptly put an end to this heyday, drastically cutting back on the city’s economy and causing large parts of the population to fall into poverty. After the war, Breslau also lost large parts of its eastern hinterland due to the territory allocations to recreated Poland. After stabilisation of the economic and political situations in 1920s Germany, Breslau returned to its path of development and modernisation. An administrative reform once again clearly expanded its area and number of residents, enabling it to begin to reclaim its former position as an economic and cultural centre. This development in turn was halted by the global economic crisis of 1929.
After 1933, the industrial and infrastructure investments of the National Socialists first brought economic revival to the city of Breslau, just as anywhere in Germany, clearly reducing unemployment. At the same time, however, the city’s autonomy was strongly curtailed; economy and industry were to be at the service of the new rulers and their armament plans. Scientific and cultural life also grew increasingly restricted. Existential threats were emerging for political opponents and the Jewish population: they were increasingly subject to persecution and terror, culminating just a few years later in the near-complete extinction of the former Jewish community of Breslau.
The city itself had been mostly spared the actual war until 1944. It was even deemed so safe from enemy attacks that it became the refuge of hundreds of thousands who had been evacuated from their homes. The number of residents grew to one million by the end of 1944 this way. The civilian population in the city, which was finally declared a fortress by the National-Socialist leaders, was evacuated in January 1945. The Red Army starts its siege in February. After three months of fighting, Breslau capitulated on 6 May 1945. The hopeless fight had brought about an entirely destroyed city and tens of thousands of dead among the civilians who had remained in the city as well as the fighting armies.
Aligned with the provisions of the Potsdam Conference, Silesia, and thus Breslau, was placed under Polish administration. Until 1948, the population was completely replaced: German residents were displaced, disowned and forced to emigrate. New residents came in from different regions of Poland, especially from Central Poland and the former Polish eastern territories from which they had been displaced in turn. The cultural life of Polish Breslau was decisively influenced by new citizens from Lemberg/L’viv/Lwów, among them many intellectuals who continued the Lemberg traditions particularly in the area of sciences.
Since the end of the communist regime, Breslau went through a rapid series of changes in all areas, and saw comprehensive restoration. The Oder flood disaster of 1997 was a setback for Breslau, but the cultural heritage of the city could be mostly saved thanks to a united support campaign among the people. Breslau gained a new feeling of identity and belonging together, which included openly dealing with the multi-ethnical and multi-confessional history of the city. The EU-entry of Poland on 1 May 2004 reinforced its European orientation.


The brief history overview was drawn up based on two articles (Krzysztof Popinski: Geschichte von Breslau. URL: http://www.wroclaw.pl/de/geschichte-von-breslau / Maria Luft: Breslau/Wrocław. In: Online-Lexikon zur Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa, 2012. URL: ome-lexikon.uni-oldenburg.de/54182.html) with partially verbatim citations.