Book Review: Microcosm - Portrait of a Central European City, by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse
Although this is much shorter than the massive Europe tome, Davies doesn't really go in for slim volumes. Like that volume, however, it is quite readable. The book starts with a prelude set in 1945, when Breslau was one of Hitler's "fortress" cities (a policy which is intriguingly not dismissed) and was among the last places to fall, before the main work proceeds in a straightforward chronology from prehistory to around the turn of the millennium. Well, perhaps straightforward is not quite the word, and certainly for British readers maybe this is the point. Our insular position inevitably presents us with a rather absolute view on sovereignty; this book shows perhaps just how fluid a concept it can be and how changes in sovereignty are not always apocalyptic. Each chapter takes a period and a name by which the present day city of Wrocław was known during that period - for example, Wrotizla, Presslaw, or (probably most famously) Breslau. A great deal of the narration seems to focus on religious strife - perhaps because this is something that has been well documented in times of less universal literacy, but also because the city has frequently been a minority outpost of one sort or another. Things that struck me in particular were that Frederick the Great isn't portrayed in a particularly positive light; that the downfall of the German city probably began around 1918; and that the forced expulsions and relocations post-1945 were quite gruesome all round, both for the Germans leaving and for the Poles arriving (generally from Lvov but also from Lithuania and other eastern areas that passed to the USSR). Fortunately, although it took time to sort things out, the book concludes that the city has a more positive future. When I visited in 2009, although the trains were awful, I think we had a decent couple of days there. I suspect I would have had more out of my visit if I'd read the book first; but it's probably doubtful I would have read the book unless I had visited.