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Polish city of Wroclaw comes to terms with its German past

Communist Poland tried to stamp out Wroclaw's history – as the once-German city of Breslau – upon taking control of the city after World War II. But Wroclaw now is embracing its past.

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Euro 2012, the world's second largest soccer tournament which Poland this spring hosted along Ukraine, acted as a catalyst to speed the rebuilding of roads, trams, and an airport in Wroclaw, one of the tournament's host cities – thereby mending an infrastructure still badly wounded by decades of neglect under the Communists. The competition helped change how Europeans see Poland and strengthened its position in Europe, says Dr. Sokolnicki.

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''What we're setting up in Poland would take three times as long to set up in Western Europe," says Marc Renard, a vice president of French bank Credit Agricole's local branch, Credit Agricole Poland. All but eight of the bank's 1,000 employees here are Polish; half are under 29, Mr. Renard says.

Confronting its past

Today’s economic success is linked to accommodating Wroclaw’s German past. It was a long, painful process. For instance, after an acrimonious debate in 1990 the city restored its historic coat of arms of 1530, a symbolic acceptance by today’s Wroclawians of their city’s history, including its German past. In 2000, Wroclaw put on a celebration of its millennial, highlighting the city's Austrian and Prussian past.

"All of a sudden it was all in the open: People realized ‘Wroclaw is not that Polish,’" says Professor Thum.

The debate triggered fears, "but the Germans didn’t come back and reclaim the place," he says. "People realized that the debates lead to a healthier society with a more stable identity.’’

"Tourists and investors saw it’s a place you can invest in," Thum says.

Bridging the past and the present

"The city has found its identity in the recognition that it has many identities," says Adam Chmielewski, a philosophy professor at Wroclaw University. In a way, this new identity is behind Wroclaw’s nomination as European Capital of Culture for 2016.

"Wroclaw has defused bombs, with the Germans, the Jews, and also the Ukrainians," says Thum. "It is one of those concrete places that can be used as a model for all those cities dealing with unresolved, suppressed conflicts of the past," he says, referring, for instance, to the tensions between Hungarians and Romanians, or the Slovakians and Hungarians.

Today, Mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz has no qualms referring to his city both as Breslau and as Wroclaw, depending on whom he speaks with. Going to Berlin, only three hours away and closer than Prague and Warsaw, has become a normal thing to do.

"There is a synergy with the Germans," says Sokolnicki. "We know that we are the inheritors of a long, painful past."

"And even if our roads aren’t up to standards, we feel European."

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