Microcosm: A Portrait Of A Central European City

Microcosm: A Portrait Of A Central European City

by Norman Davies, Roger Moorhouse
A vivid exploration of what it means to be Central European using the city of Breslau as a microcosm of the region.

Central Europe has always been endowed with a rich variety of migrants and settlers, and has repeatedly been the scene of nomadic invasions, mixed settlements and military conquests. As a result, the area has witnessed a profusion of languages,


A vivid exploration of what it means to be Central European using the city of Breslau as a microcosm of the region.

Central Europe has always been endowed with a rich variety of migrants and settlers, and has repeatedly been the scene of nomadic invasions, mixed settlements and military conquests. As a result, the area has witnessed a profusion of languages, cultures, religions and nationalities.

The history of Silesia’s main city can be seen as a fascinating tale in its own right, but it is more than that. It embodies all the experiences which have made Central Europe what it is – the rich mixture of nationalities and cultures; the German settlement and the reflux of the Slavs; a Jewish presence of exceptional distinction; a turbulent succession of Imperial rulers; and the shattering exposure to both Nazis and Stalinists. In short, it is a Central European microcosm.

The third largest German city of the mid-nineteenth century, Breslau’s population reached one million in 1945, before the bitter German defence of the city against the Soviets wrought almost total destruction. Transferred to Poland after the war, Breslau has risen from ruins and is again a thriving economic and cultural centre of the region.

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Random House of Canada, Limited
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Island City: Archaeology and Prehistory to AD 1000

The City was the offspring of the River and the Plain. It was conceived at a point where people moving up and down the River met others who were following trails across the plain. Historians do not usually recognise events for which there is no definitive evidence, but it is reasonable to deduce that some time long before recorded history a small settlement came into being at the river crossing. In fact, there are many circumstantial indications to suggest that the site was repeatedly, if not permanently, occupied from very remote times. There is also good reason to assume that the first settlers were not connected in any way with the Slavonic and Germanic peoples who would later dominate. The earliest trace of Stone Age habitation, about half an hour's stroll from the left bank of the river, has been dated to more than 300,000 years ago. The first substantial prehistoric settlement, which has been identified on the right bank of the river, dates from the eighth century bc. Two rich prehistoric hoards have played an important role in scholarly ruminations. One of them, from the first century bc, discovered about five kilometres to the south-west, contained no less than 2.75 tonnes of Baltic amber. The other, discovered about three kilometres to the north-east, came from a princely gravesite of the fourth century ad .It containe dan extraordinary collection of utensils and jewellery fashioned in gold, silver, bronze and fine glass.

Archaeologists have drawn very conflicting conclusions from the fragmentary information that is available. Yet most would agree that a marked decline in human activity occurred around the middle of the first millennium of our era. In the region as a whole, the population fell to perhaps one-quarter of the preceding level. According to a recent opinion, life on the middle reaches of the River 'virtually stopped'. If this is correct, one must accept that the new wave of settlers who began to make their presence felt in the sixth to seventh centuries ad had little in common with their many predecessors. Equally, the urban community, which henceforth was to enjoy an unbroken history, could not be seen as a simple continuation of earlier settlements on the same site. It would not be out of place to talk of a new beginning.


Historical geography underlines two crucial factors in the early stages of development. The first relates to the intersection of the two ancient trade routes - one on the east-west axis of the Plain linking Western Europe with the Black Sea, the other following the north-south alignment of the River from the watershed of the Danube Basin to the Baltic. The second factor relates to a much more specific and local feature. Immediately upstream of a long, marshy and impassable stretch of the River, a cluster of perhaps a dozen riverine islands provided a natural crossing point and refuge for the graziers and fishermen who frequented the riverbanks. Of course, it is impossible to say whether the crossing point was manned by an unbroken series of ferrymen from the days of the amber hoard to those of the earliest medieval dwellings. But it is not inconceivable. What is certain is that the riverine islands would have proved more attractive than other locations in the vicinity. It is the islands that lent this place its most outstanding characteristic. (The siting of Paris on the islands of the Seine is but one of many parallels to prove the point.)

The presence of the nearby mountains exercised a powerful influence. Subalpine in character, the highest ridge in the 'Giant Mountains' rises to a height of 1,602 metres at the peak of 'Snowy Head', some 100 kilometres to the south-west. Icebound for half the year, it forms a formidable barrier that can only be crossed with ease through one or two passes. At the same time, it encourages life-giving falls of rain and snow on the Plain below. Importantly, too, the rocks of the mountains contain an unusual variety of valuable minerals. Deposits of iron, which first attracted the Celts, are matched by a rich coal basin, and by numerous mines yielding lead, tin, copper, gold and silver. In addition, there are several famous mineral springs, whose waters have brought in a continuous stream of visitors, from nature worshippers in prehistoric times to modern health tourists. All these attractions are situated within eighty kilometres, or two to three days' walk, of the City, which naturally became the focus for related trade and transport. At a similar distance to the north lies a lower range of limestone heights, the 'Cats Hills', which became an important source of high-quality stone in the age of permanent building. Most interesting of all is a curiously isolated peak, which rises magnificently from the surrounding plain less than forty kilometres from the City, and which lent its name to the province. A holy mountain and a cult centre from the earliest times, it added a sense of the sacred to the district over which it presides.

The Great Northern Plain, Europe's largest geographical feature, stretches from the oceanic seaboard to the heart of Eurasia, a distance of many thousands of kilometres, broken only by rolling hills and broad rivers. One of those rivers, the Odra (or Oder), rises in the mountains of Central Europe at a height of 640 metres, initially flowing north-east through the Moravian Gate, before turning north-west and forming the main artery of the province of Silesia. On approaching the Baltic Sea, it adopts a northerly course, crossing the lowest and flattest expanse of the Plain and finally reaching the coast through the arms and lagoons of its delta.

Given that the River flows through flood plains for most of its length, it is generally slow and shallow, possessing an average velocity of only 3.6 kilometres per hour and an average depth of only one metre. Along its 854 kilometre course it is joined by numerous left- and right-bank tributaries, including the Mala Panew (Malapane), the Nysa (Glatzer Neisse), the Olawa (Ohlau), the Bystrzyca (Weistritz), the Widawa (Weide), the Barycz (Bartsch), the Bóbr (Bober), the Western Nysa (Neisse) and the Warta (Warthe). Positioned close to the confluence of three important tributaries, the Island City stands at a mere 110 metres above sea level, although the sea is more than 400 kilometres distant. At that point, the River has traversed only half its length, though it has already fallen 80 per cent of its total gradient. As a result, a sudden spring thaw in the mountains can bring an onrush of high water, while heavy precipitation in the upper reaches of the basin can cause floods of catastrophic proportions. In historical times, seriously destructive floods were recorded in 1179 , 1454 , 1464 , 1501 , 1515 , 1595 , 1729 , 1736 , 1785 , 1804 , 1813 , 1829 , 1834 , 1854 , 1903 and 1997. During hot summers, in contrast, the water level can fall low enough to obstruct regular navigation.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Norman Davies is Professor Emeritus of the University of London, a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Oxford, and the author of several books on European history, including God's Playground and Europe. Roger Moorhouse was the researcher for Davies’ Europe and The Isles.

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