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Really a German City
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.