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3.8 out of 5 stars
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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. Teresa Kulak's beautifully illustrated "Wroclaw" (1998) in the splendid series "A to Polska wlasnie" (and incidentally not mentioned by the authors) is told very much from a Polish point of view. There is also some intemperate writing in chapter 8 which perhaps indicates Davies' sympathy for Polish feelings towards their mighty eastern neighbour but there is also a generous assessment of the German contribution to Breslau's cultural life. I thoroughly approve of their practice of quoting literary extracts both in German and Polish. However, the lack of a proper bibliography is a drawback.
The city is full of magical corners. My favourite is the turning at the top of Szewska towards the university. Behind you is the Ossolineum, (previously the monastery of the Knights of the Red Star), to your right the Church of Jesus (1700), to your left Dom Steffensa (early 18th century) and ahead of you the university building (1740). The sight is a pure vision of the city's past uncluttered by any modern accretions. It is the image I shall always carry around with me. "Microcosm" should win new friends for Wroclaw but such friends need patience; Wroclaw is a place which grows on you - slowly.
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on 22 April 2002
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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on 22 May 2011
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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on 16 December 2012
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.

As a central European city, the Jewish experience throughout is one of the more successful in
descriptive, historical and personal experience terms. It is interesting that it was the major centre of reform judaism.

Because of the concentration on the historical, there is less concentration on the cultural, particularly working class culture and experience. A shame as this would have brought more of the flavour of daily life in the city.

There are numerous mini portraits of people such as Fritz Haber who developed chlorine gas as a weapon and directed it's use at Ypres. His wife Clara Immerwahr committed suicide in protest at his work, but undeterred he continued and went on to develop Zyklon B. I would have liked some more in depth portraits of some individuals, perhaps tieing their various nationalisms to their work in the context of their lives in the city.

There is also a wonderful story of Poles who having been forced out of the Ukraine, deposited themselves on a German farm. Grudgingly the two groups worked together on the land until the Germans themselves left for the west. Many years later some of the German family returned to the farm and found that the Polish family still placed flowers on the grave of the German grandmother after the family had left.

A friend of mine visits Worclaw regularly as his family come from the city. He in fact bought me this book. There has been a wonderful job of reconstruction and the more recent links between Poles and Germans have become much stronger in recovering the city's identity from the ravages of the war and it's communist aftermath.

A place I am looking forward to visiting.

Thoroughly researched, but to some extent tedious in its detail. Recommended with some reservations.
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on 25 March 2009
As others have said - at last a thorough exploration and account of this Silesian capital's history in English. And by an eminent writer too. My mother's family lived here until 1945 and their affection for this, their lost land, is always there in the background. I gave them the book as a present, unsure I would get a positive response but they pronounced it was a truely fitting work to their former home. The author takes us forward as well into modern Poland and that makes the book almost sing. It becomes a story of the rise from the ashes (literally) of WWII. It is written in an easily digestible style - you do not have to have been there physically to enjoy the book. A massive crunch in European history occured here and the author does it justice.
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on 13 February 2009
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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on 15 November 2009
After a visit to Poland we felt that we had to read a bit of the history of the area and Microcosm was recommended. This book is everything we would want on the subject.
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on 1 June 2002
Marginally overlong at 500 pages, this book captures the atmosphere and turmoil of this Central European city, in an area that is still largely unknown to most Westerners. This is useful and interesting reading, particularly relevant as the borders of "united" Europe are now moving eastwards.
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on 9 September 2013
Not an easy read, but Microcosm serves to introduce not only the history of the city but also the nature of scholarly controversies.
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on 4 September 2014
Great authors and an interesting topic.
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