Of all the troubled national relationships that defined the bloody course of twentieth century European history, few come close to the that between Germans and Poles. While the present state of relations between the two cultural nations is substantially better than at any point since the 18th century, with Poles making up the largest national minority in German society as of 2018, the legacies of partition, Nazi rule and the gigantic border shifts that defined the post 1945 geopolitical landscape in Central Europe are likely to continue to define collective memories for generations to come.
Originally published in German, Gregor Thum’s comprehensive exploration of one of the most difficult recent histories of any city in Europe spares no details in its portrayal of the suffering of inhabitants-whether Germans or Poles, during the decade that uprooted or destroyed the cultural and ethnic patchwork of Central Europe into the apparent homogeneity of the post-War world. In the autumn of 1944, Hitler designated the capital city of Silesia on the border of historically German speaking Europe, Breslau, as a ‘Fortress City’ in expectation of a coming Soviet victory over the Wehrmacht forces still left in Poland. This order ensured that the unfortified university town with a hitherto only lightly damaged historic centre would be almost completely destroyed in one of the bloodiest sieges of the second world war. After the capitulation of German forces in May 1945, the shift of the German border to the Oder-Neisse line made the historically German dominated Silesia into the westernmost region of a newly recreated Polish state, completely transformed Breslau into a new culturally and linguistically polish city named Wrocław. This necessitated a large transplanting of population, cultural capital and even statues from areas of eastern Poland now lost to the Poles themselves, such as the former polish city of Lwów.
Uprooted: How Breslau came Wrocław during a century of expulsions is divided into three parts. The first examines the initial takeover of Polish (and Soviet) forces, the monumental processes of resettlement of German inhabitants (or those deemed German) and the settlement of new polish inhabitants and beginnings of urban rebuilding until the mid-1950s. The second part focuses on the process of incorporating the city (now officially known as Wrocław) into the reconstituted Poland, the various successes and failures of ‘Polonization’ and the aggressive removal of German cultural memory and the utilisation of historiographic narrative to reconcile the sudden entry of the Silesian area into polish cultural heritage. The third and final part analyses the continuing processes of identity formation in the city after the fall of Communist Poland in 1989 and the continuing legacies of border change to the present day. This narrative, which by necessity incorporates the history of the post-1945 period across Poland, presents a broad picture of the processes of expulsion and cultural renewal, but one that complements other work on the topic and usefully serve as a good introduction to the period.
Although brief, Thums account of the siege of Breslau and the war years stands up in comparison to military histories such as those of Anthony Beevor in its attention to detail, and his methodological approach does not separate the two principle ethnic groups in the narrative-even if it is the Germans and not the Poles, who were never present in the city in great numbers until the post-war years, that get the majority of the attention in part one. While the later parts deal almost exclusively with the new Polish population, Thum reveals that for number of years a surprisingly large number of ethnic Germans continued to covertly inhabit the ruined city in uneasy but mostly peaceful coexistence with new Polish families, complicating the idea of a clean ‘Zero Hour’ in 1945 and highlighting the dichotomies between private citizens and state power in the border changes of the 1940s.
A particularly interesting chapter in Part Two, ’Cleansing memory’, showcases the thoroughness of Thum’s analysis and his talent for incorporating detail at a microhistory level, in this case the etymological debates over the renaming of place names in Silesia to integrate them into a homogenous Polish state and reclaim them from German dominance. This seemingly trivial task was carried out in great urgency during 1945 and 1946 as the administration and transport network in the ‘new Poland’ came ‘close to losing its bearings’.Towns acquired multiple names and with most road signs removed, it was often necessary for locals to follow the temporary Cyrillic signs of the Red Army to orientate themselves. The new Polish place names introduced by the Commission for the Determination of Place Names from early 1946 therefore assumed both a practical and propagandistic purpose, removing geographic uncertainty but also establishing the legacy of supposed ancient Slavic settlement in the recovered territories. Often this process gave German place names with no historical Slavic equivalent title new invented names, which were then passed off as ‘re-Polonization’ for the purposes of propaganda. intriguingly, Thum shows that sometimes even polish cartographers were in disagreement over naming convention, with the town of Neisse being variously renamed ‘Nisa’ from corresponding historical sources and ‘Nysa’ from the Silesian dialect of local Autochthons (indigenous citizens allowed to stay in Poland with proof of their Slavic heritage). As throughout the book, Thum’s even handedness does not prevent him from making controversial judgements. For him, very little separated the arguments of the Polonization of German names in the recovered territories after 1945 and the Germanisation of Polish names in the Third Reich only a few years before.
While effective as a wider study of the new Polish territories after 1945, Uprooted remains most thought provoking in discussion of its central and well-chosen subject. Thum’s selection of Breslau, a city that unlike much of its rural surroundings was indisputably German speaking long before the twentieth century, is a particularly good case study in how the dilemmas of expulsion and border movement transcended German, Polish, Silesian and even Ukrainian narratives throughout the post-war decades. His analysis easily overcomes one of the main dilemmas that continued to dog German-Polish relations and historiography of the wartime experiences of central Europe into the 1980s and 1990s: the question of moral equivalency between the crimes committed by Germans under Nazism and those by the native populations of central and eastern Europe during the expulsion of millions of Germans from early 1945 to 1948. Thum unusually characterises the ending of Breslau’s identity as a German city as one that began not in 1945 but in 1933 with the first steps in the persecution of German Jews by the Nazi regime. Conversely, he pulls no punches in portraying the intensely difficult human cost of mass expulsion for cross-national minorities in Silesia, returning Jews even the Autochthones themselves against an often zenophobic, intensely nationalistic Polish state.
Uprooted is both a thrilling piece of historical scholarship and an antidote to the assumption that the problems in Poland’s recent border shifts have been comprehensively overcome. While placing doubt on the success of the current Polish government’s continuing attempts to rebrand Wrocław into a showcase of the Polish middle ages and what he calls ‘the Lwów Myth’ expellee narratives of the current population, Thum ends his book optimistically, arguing that through ‘freethinking’ and prosperity, modern Wrocław has ‘already begun to give new life to its genuine medieval legacy….as a colourful and vital marketplace at the crossroads of Europe’.
 G.Thum, Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wrocław during a Century of Expulsions (Woodstock, 2011) p.244.
 G.Thum, Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wrocław during a Century of Expulsions (Woodstock, 2011) p.245.
 Ibid., p.248.
 Ibid., p.250.
 Ibid., p.250.
 Ibid., p.xix.
 Ibid., p.408.