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Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City [Paperback]

Norman Davies , Roger Moorhouse
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Feb 2003

The story of Central Europe is anything but simple. As the region located between East and West, it has always been endowed with a rich variety of migrants, and has repeatedly been the scene of nomadic invasions, mixed settlements and military conquests. In order to present a portrait of Central Europe, Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse have made a case study of one of its most colourful cities, the former German Breslau, which became the Polish Wroclaw after the Second World War.

The traditional capital of the province of Silesia rose to prominence a thousand years ago as a trading centre and bishopric in Piast Poland. It became the second city of the kingdom of Bohemia, a major municipality of the Habsburg lands, and then a Residenzstadt of the kingdom of Prussia. The third largest city of nineteenth-century Germany, its population reached one million before the bitter siege by the Soviet Army in 1945 wrought almost total destruction. Since then Wroclaw has risen from the ruins of war and is once again a thriving regional centre.

The history of Silesia's main city is more than a fascinating tale in its own right. It embodies all the experiences which have made Central Europe what it is - a rich mixture of nationalities and cultures; the scene of German settlement and of 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.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Pimlico; New Ed edition (6 Feb 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0712693343
  • ISBN-13: 978-0712693349
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 4.3 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 249,340 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Before the popular success of his two general histories, Europe: A History, and The Isles, Norman Davies was best known as a specialist on the history of Poland. His 1981 two-volume God's Playground remains the best and most searching study in English of the fluctuating fortunes of that country. Microcosm, written in collaboration with his researcher Roger Moorhouse, is an in-depth account of a city now in Poland and presently called Wroclaw. The city has only been Polish since the Second World War. Before that it was the very German city of Breslau. And before that it was, at various times, part of the kingdom of Bohemia, the Hapsburg Empire and the Prussia of Frederick the Great. In different centuries it has been known as Wrotizla, as Wretslaw, as Presslaw and as Bresslau. Its Polish, German and Jewish communities intermingled to produce both a unique city and one that reflected and embodied all the different currents that have flowed together over a millennium to create the story of Central Europe.

Davies and Moorhouse intend their account of what is today Wroclaw to illustrate the history of one particular city but also to illuminate the general history of Central Europe through this one microcosm. They don't always succeed in their aim. At times the task of yoking together the minutiae of the city's life with its place in a broader history seems an impossible one. It is likely that the general reader will not be as interested in, say, lists of great alumni of Breslau's 19th-century university, as he or she will be in the narrative of Breslau in World War II. The book works best for the general reader when it most justifies its title; it works much less well when it seems most like some kind of official city history.--Nick Rennison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"This big, lucidly written and fact-filled book admirably achieves its purpose... Anyone who enjoyed Norman Davies's...The Isles will recognise the same qualities in this book: a gift for broad exposition, a marvellous eye for quirky but revelatory details, and, above all, a willingness to question the categories of traditional history, wherever they may come from." (Noel Malcolm Sunday Telegraph)

"Absorbing...clear...and persuasive...as even-handed, erudite and enlightening as history can be." (Herald)

"Microcosm tells the story of the city across the centuries. While not neglecting ethnic hatred and folly, the book is a hymn to diversity and cultural achievement." (Economist)

"The city is fortunate to have found such chroniclers as Davies and Roger Moorhouse." (Sunday Times)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wroclaw - a haunting and haunted city 30 April 2002
Format:Hardcover
Reviewers should declare their interests first. Mine is my predilection for this wonderful and haunting city, Wroclaw, in which I lived, worked and explored for four years. Its fascination for me lies in the myriad layers of its rich historical past reflected in its architectural monuments and, less visibly, the numerous bookshops where with luck and patience you can buy ancient maps of the city, obscure 19th century German monographs, pre-first world war railway timetables and other products of Habsburg and Prussian origin. The great merit of Davies' and Moorhouse's history of Wroclaw, "Microcosm", is that it clearly delineates the "archaeology" of the city, those layers of dynastic occupation which over a thousand years have left their trace on the modern face of this now thoroughly polonised city. Other reviewers of this book have complained about the overload of detail which the authors have provided about the city, its residents and institutions but such reviewers of course do not know Wroclaw. For those who have succumbed to its fascination, no detail is without interest and this reader, at least, was left asking for more. For instance, one of the constant themes of discussion with some of my Polish colleagues was the mysterious nature of the catacombs which are said to lie under central Wroclaw and which were used extensively during World War 2 by both Nazi and Soviet authorities for nefarious purposes. Fact or fiction? This book has no opinion.
Davies tells us that he was asked to undertake this history by the current mayor because he, Davies, was neither a "Pole nor a German", thus implying a more balanced perspective. In comparison with other histories of Wroclaw, I think he has succeeded.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent account of forgotten city in the West 22 May 2011
Format:Paperback
Wroclaw/Breslau remains, despite its turblent recent history, a beautiful and impressive central European city. If you get the chance go! It is ideal for a city break, and stands scrutiny against Prague, Cracow and Vienna.

This book more than does justice to its incredible history, torn between the ethnic fault lines of Slav and German. In particular how the second largest city in Prussia (today with a population similar in size to Frankfurt) as a result of the most terrible war in human history changed in a matter of three years into the Polish city of Wroclaw. Altogether up to 14 million Germans were "evacuated" from the East and Breslau was along with Stettin, Danzig and Konigsburg were the most spectacular casualties.

Poland's borders also moved 200 miles to the West, involving the loss of Wilno (todays Vilnius in Lithuania) and more significantly to this story Lvov (now Lviv in the Ukraine)- better known to many by the German name of Lemburg when part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Amazingly many of Lvov's institutions including the university simply upped and moved directly to Wroclaw.

A totally fascinating and largely unknown story in the West. Norman Davies is one of my favourite authors, and this is probably his best book. One day I hope he may write an account of the whole movement of peoples in the East at the end of WW2.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars At last the story of Breslau/Wroclaw in English! 22 April 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I am the son of a refugee/expellee from Breslau, Silesia. There must be several tens of thousands of us living now in England who are the issue of British serviceman in post-war occupied Germany returning home with German brides, uprooted from their homes and family in the lost eastern provinces and looking to start a new life. For people like us, this book is a MUST, as it unravels much of the mystery and trauma surrounding our origins. Hitherto, I have had to master German and make extensive use of Amazon.de to obtain any kind of illuminating information. The appearance of this book a few years earlier could have saved me a lot of this effort! The premise of the title that a very significant part of European history in the last 1000 years has taken place in and around Breslau seems entirely justified to me. The story demands to be read! I'm sure the Polish version of this book will be very popular in Wroclaw as the people there must be equally keen to clear up some of the mystery surrounding the former German city of Breslau in which they now live.
Occasionally there are logical lapses in the book, such as when the description of a siege of Breslau during Fredericks Silesion campaign apparently culminates in the relief of Schweidnitz! I also wish there had been a detailed map of Silesia provided to accompany the text.
Overall, I think this book fills a huge gap in European history. I find it has helped me to understand the work of Gunter Grass and his Danzig experience better. I hope it leads to an increased interest in things Silesian. Perhaps, then, English translations of Horst Bienek's Gleiwitz Tetralogy, concerning life in Upper Silesia 1939 - 1945 may yet appear!.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 13 Feb 2009
By Paul
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Highly interesting history of one Central European town and how it has been forced to adapt to the fluid European borders. Makes one glad to live in such a politically stable area as the UK!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Really a German City 16 Dec 2012
Format:Paperback
This is really more of a 3.5. I found this book fitfully engaging. It certainly is a thoroughly researched work and as a result the findings of that research to some extent get in the way of the narrative. It is difficult attaching a personality to a location or setting, because those feelings and perceptions can only ever be those of the individuals who experience it and who live and die there. Buildings and streets acquire meaning through our interaction with them rather than having a personality of their own.

The pre-history and medieval periods therefore, indeed up to the period of the Thirty Years war, while no doubt historically accurate have a tendency because of the lists of names and buildings, most of which you have forgotten by the time you finish the paragraph, to read something like a cross between a reference work and a municipal guide book. The authors have not conveyed the deep knowledge of the period specialist that often successfully brings to life periods, that have less of the primary knowledge and personal record (letters, diaries) and gives such a work greater depth and meaning.

Once you enter the late 18th and 19th centuries the narrative the improves and becomes more of a story. The later periods from the inception of the German Imperial period in 1871 and through both wars has considerable punch and this was the most engrossing read.

Breslau/Wroclaw was to all intents and purposes a German city. The Polish elements although constant, sometimes nearly disappeared and It would seem but for Churchill's illness (he opposed its transfer to Poland) and various politial machinations between the US and Stalin might have remained inside Germany.
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