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.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
People walk in front of Renoma shopping center in Wroclaw, Poland, in July 2011. After a long period of trying to obfuscate its history, Wroclaw – once the German city of Breslau before being transferred to Poland after World War II – is now coming to terms with its past.

If there is one sign of Wroclaw's transformation from a peripheral city in southwest Poland into an assertive Central European cosmopolis, it is the popularity of its new literary hero, Eberhard Mock.

A German detective, Mr. Mock plies his trade in the 1930s, when Wroclaw was still the German city of Breslau – well before the Allies made it into a Polish city literally overnight, to compensate for the Soviet Union gobbling some of Poland’s eastern territories after the war.

After its sudden transformation, Breslau, now renamed Wroclaw in Polish, sought to obliterate its German past, and few here would have picked up a book like "Death in Breslau." But today, the city is embracing its German roots, and the thriller is a bestseller.

"Eberhard Mock is the proof that we’ve accepted our German past, that we’ve overcome our German complex," says Wojciech Sokolnicki, head of public affairs for Wroclaw Economic University. "We’ve discovered Germany."

"We feel comfortable in our own skin."

Confronting a painful past

Facing up to German history took decades. It was the 1945 Potsdam agreement that led to one of the world’s most radical transfer of peoples. The population did a topsy-turvy, German to Polish, overnight. Breslau's German inhabitants, those few that had survived war destruction, were expelled from what had been the capital of Germany's Lower Silesian province. New Polish immigrants, mostly pioneers from central Poland and refugees from further east, were catapulted into the city. Unlike those in Warsaw or Kraków, the new Wroclaw inhabitants were rootless. But they shared a pioneering drive to dig in, make a bang-up new beginning.

From Lviv (formerly Poland’s Lwow and part of Ukraine today) and central Poland, the parents of "Death in Breslau" author Marek Krajewski ended up in the ruins of an "empty" city that they now would call home. The boy watched the Communists "de-Germanize" the city to eradicate war traumas – and obfuscate the fact the new Wroclawians were living in homes that fleeing Germans had abandoned. They renamed the streets, flattened German cemeteries, let old Baroque monuments deteriorate, propagating the myth of an ancient Polish city they, the Communists, they said, had saved from the Nazis.

"Anything having to do with the German past was taboo," recalls Mr. Krajewski.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, it paved the way for city leaders to acknowledge Wroclaw’s various heritages. The city developed an identity and matured into a regional force that has been driving Poland’s growth.

"Poland is a remarkably peaceful democracy in the European Union, it's economically and socially as sound as it can be. And it’s addressed its past," says Gregor Thum, a professor of East Central European history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wroclaw During The Century of Expulsions."

"All that makes Poland a widely accepted leader and speaker for Eastern Europe."

A dynamic hub

With its 12 islands and 120 bridges, the city on the river Odra is often dubbed the "Venice of Poland." But minutes from the Gothic town hall dominating its medieval Market Square stands the 695-foot Sky Tower, set to be Poland’s tallest skyscraper when completed later this year – suggesting a city that is a young, dynamic, high-tech hub. This city of 640,000 teems with cyclists, start-ups line the streets, and alternative theaters abound. Wroclaw’s 11 public and 22 private colleges produce 25,000 graduates every year.

Wroclaw’s universities – especially those focused on math and physics – helped Wroclaw manage the transition from communism, and remain major assets as much of Europe struggles with the debt crisis.

"If somebody tells me about the crisis now I’m laughing," says Wieslaw Blysz, one of Poland’s youngest entrepreneurs. His start-up, Research and Engineering Center (REC), has 700 employees worldwide, up from two in 2007. "You should have been here 20 years ago."

Back then, "communism was in people’s blood," and the notion of entrepreneurship did not exist. Three milestones paved the way for Mr. Blysz's success, he says. First, Siemens, the first Western firm to invest in Wroclaw, opened an engineering center here. Second, Blysz attended Wroclaw’s Technical University. "Investors found out that it was peanuts to get really talented people," says Mr. Blysz. And last, Poland joined the European Union.

When Germany opened its labor market to Eastern Europe in 2011, there was fear that Poles would "steal" jobs from Germans. But Wroclaw engineers tend to stay in Wroclaw. Their salaries are getting closer to those of Munich engineers, says Blysz.

Poland’s fastest growing city

The only EU country whose economy did not shrink when the financial crisis hit in 2009, Poland has been growing steadily, benefiting from EU funds perhaps more than any other country, experts say. And Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city, is number two after Warsaw in terms of growth and foreign investment. Global firms like Pittsburgh Glass Works and Credit Suisse have made it a major base of operations recently.

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.

''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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