Letters From Minsk: Echoes of Munich Over Wroclaw, Poland

Moonrise over Wroclaw, Poland, formerly Breslau, a German city until the end of World War II. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the fourth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

My Wroclaw train dropped me at the main station just outside the downtown in the middle of the afternoon, when chilly winds off the central European plains were whipping around the cobblestoned squares of the old city.

I had directions to my guest house but found it difficult to navigate around Wroclaw, as neither the GPS on my phone nor the printed map in my saddle bag seemed up to the task of finding the exact street number, which turned out to be a side door inside a courtyard that itself was locked behind a main gate.

I loved the guest house, in what felt like a renovated apartment building, as it had a large elevator and broad hallways, both of which made it easier to check in with a bicycle.

The clerks at the front desk, all students, warmed to the story that I had come from Switzerland in March, by train, with my bicycle, to ride around Wroclaw. They even let me store the bicycle in my room.

Having traveled almost non-stop for the better part of two days, I made tea in a hotel common space and spent some down time on my computer before heading into what felt an like arctic city.

Even in the fading daylight of the March afternoon, I had plenty of time to ride the contours of the old city, which has a circumference of only several miles.

Wroclaw: aka Wrotizla, Vretslav, Presslaw, Bresslau, and Breslau

Wroclaw’s old town is a delight, perhaps more German than Polish, but with accents from both cultures. Many of the streets are paved with cobblestones or bricks, and banned for traffic, although occasionally a taxi or delivery van would squeeze past me on one of the narrow lanes.

In the March cold, some corners of the old town were dour, where medievalism had lost out to socialist realism. But I warmed to the city, unsure why I had never heard it mentioned as perfect for a European weekend getaway.

After several loops through some of the main squares, I rode to the university, which stretches out in a number of classically elegant buildings along the River Oder.

Because I liked the area, I locked my bicycle to a street post and wandered through some of the university book shops, where I spotted a copy of Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, one of the inspirations that had pushed me toward Wroclaw.

It tells the story of the 700-year-old city in its various incarnations; in earlier days Wroclaw was Wrotizla, Vretslav, Presslaw, Bresslau, and Breslau.

Davies and Moorhouse use Wroclaw to trace the evolving history of Central Europe—which has been variously under Austrian, Prussian, French, German, Polish, and Russian rule.

I had first seen the book when it was published in 2002, but only bought a copy some years later. Daunted by its 500 pages of small type and many references to “Upper Silesia”, I only finished it when I got home from Wroclaw, and could match some of the passages about the city’s many invasions with the places that I had seen on my bicycle.

A Convoluted History at Europe’s Crossroads

From its earliest days, as one of the crossroads of Central Europe, Wroclaw has had citizens who were German, Polish, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. It flourished as a free city, living off its trade and tolerance, more than it ever did as a royal dependency, an era that began when the Prussians chased away the Austrians in the mid-18th century (all those Fredericks with swords).

In 1806, Napoleon showed up at the city gates and briefly interrupted Prussian rule, but what proved fatal, in my view, for Wroclaw’s fortunes were the Bismarckian wars of the 1860s and 70s that saw Germany and Austria come under the sway of Prussian militarism.

Davies and Moorhouse write: “The old Prussian dynasticism was pushed into second place by the new German nationalism. ‘Germanity’ was to be elevated and everything non-German relegated. Less and less respect was to be paid to the fruitful diversity of the past.”

Hereafter, for almost the next hundred years, Silesia—of which Wroclaw is a principal city—became a corridor of empires in conflict, which explains why so often in its recent history Wroclaw has been fought over and bartered as a spoil of war.

In short order, since 1870, Wroclaw has gone from Prussian to German, Weimar, Nazi, Russian and Polish control. After that it became a constituent part of communist Poland, until that heavy hand fell in 1989. In this period it lost its entire Jewish community and turned over, several times, all of its Polish and German citizens—at the business end of bayonets and guns. Between 1945-47 many Poles cleansed from eastern lands were resettled in Wroclaw; these were the so-called “Repatriants.”

Davies and Moorhouse write:

Finally, one must realise that the Polish claim to the so-called ‘Recovered Territories’, of which Breslau was the jewel, was almost entirely the product of Soviet policy. It had very little to do with the Poles’ own aspirations….

The idea of transferring well-established German cities and provinces to Poland would never have taken root except for intensive Soviet propaganda and the realisation that the Soviet annexation of Poland’s own eastern provinces could not be reversed. If Poland had not been forced to abandon Wilno (Vilnius) and Lwow (Lviv), it is unlikely despite the immense anger caused by the Nazi atrocities that many Poles would have cared to claim as they did. Oppeln, Danzig, and Allenstein, yes; but Stettin, Grünberg and Breslau, no.

For these reasons a city that was largely German and Jewish for 700 years (in 1939 some 11,000 Jews lived in the city) became Polish in 1945.

Another Polish Partition

While poking around the university district, I found a lovely restaurant for dinner, but before retreating from the brisk winter winds I rode my bike across the River Oder and explored Piasek Island, which was at the heart of medieval Wroclaw.

The island was on the trade route from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, and in the more modern period was where several imposing churches, the university library, and a monastery were built.

Toward the end of World War II, the Germans had their sector command center there, and, subsequently, it was destroyed by Russian artillery and bombs.

What I saw is a rebuilt version of the medieval island, from which there is a lovely view across the river to the old town. (See the photograph above.)

From the island, I went in search of the Racławice Panorama, a large painting that commemorates the 1794 battle between the Russians and Polish insurgents, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, of American Revolutionary War fame. The battle came after what was called the Second Partition, which wiped Poland from the map of Europe.

Kościuszko and his men lost this battle, which was fought outside the city of Krakow, Poland. For the next 123 years Poland ceased to exist—at least as a country (the Polish nation didn’t go away). Only with the signing of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles did it return. (Of Versailles U.S. Ambassador William Bullit said: “This isn’t a peace treaty. I can see at least eleven wars in it.”)

The panoramic painting is housed in a circular building built during the socialist era, giving it the look of a metro station. Originally the painting was on displayed in Lviv (well, the Polish city of Lwow), where it was unveiled in 1894, on the 100th anniversary of the Kościuszko Uprising against the Russians. After it opened, some 75,000 visitors toured the exhibit each year.

After the Russians (yet again) redrew the borders of Poland during World War II and Lwow was awarded to the Soviet republic of Ukraine, the Racławice Panorama was moved to Wroclaw (as were many Polish citizens of Lwow).

Now the tableaux (detailed paintings of brave Polish formations attacking up a hillside) can be seen every half hour, when groups of ten are admitted to the rotunda and a guide explains how Russia crushed the hopes of Polish independence.

When the Emperor Franz Joseph inspected the panorama after it opened in 1894, he said, “Impressive. It has astonished me,” but in 1914 he fought in a global war so that the Polish/Russian city of Lwow/Lviv could be restored to the Hapsburgs as Lemberg.

Davies and Moorhouse write:

The city of Lvov – in Polish, Lwow – deserves special mention. Though now claimed by Ukrainians as the capital of western Ukraine, it had been a prominent Polish metropolis since the fourteenth century. In other words, it was a close counterpart to German Breslau — a city whose identity was about to be transformed through no fault of its own. Its motto was Semper Fidelis [same as the United States Marine Corps: it means “Always faithful”], reflecting a loyalty to the Polish cause that had remained unshaken in terms of language, and culture throughout the 145 years of Austrian rule (1773-1919). Its pre-war population of 318,000 was more than 50 per cent Polish Catholic, about 30 per cent Jewish and less than 10 per cent Ukrainian.

Lost Jewish Wroclaw

From the panorama, I went in search of Jewish Wroclaw, at least to see what remains—to use Professor Galbraith’s phrase—of its “community of memory.”

The shtetl in Wroclaw is long gone, although I did find the renovated White Stork Synagogue. But its exhibition on Jewish life in Wroclaw was closed. So I set out on my bike for the Wroclaw Jewish Cemetery, which is located outside the old town, in the southern suburbs.

To ride there I had to follow a sidewalk along a busy main road, although in a few places, because of construction, I had to push the bike through mud. Then, unsure how far out the cemetery was, I tried asking directions, but was met with indifferent shrugs (what Galbraith calls “the absence of memory”).

Finally, almost by chance, some miles out of the city, I spotted the walls of the Jewish cemetery and a small gatekeeper’s house near the entrance. The keeper was just locking the front gate. I asked if I could have a quick look around before it closed, but his answer was a shouted “no” and then, for good measure, he lectured me on the visiting hours—nothing I wanted to hear after biking out through commuter traffic and mud in the arctic weather.

So all I saw of the cemetery was what I could glimpse through the closing gate—a haunted scene of headstones at fallen angles and crypts covered with broken columns and creeping ivy.

Dzierzoniow – Model Village

I did not have time to ride farther out to the town of Dzierzoniow, which is thirty-five miles to the southwest of the city. It was there, after World War II, that surviving Jews from Wroclaw and the surrounding region set up what amounted to a utopian village, only in this one, the Jews were the masters and the Germans were the ones forced to pay respect.

Davies and Moorhouse tell the story at length:

For many reasons, the extraordinary story of the Jewish settlement at Dzierzoniow has never been properly told. But the outlines can be gleaned from the memoirs of Jakub Egit, the Zionist leader who ran the experiment from 1945 to 1948 after serving in the Soviet Army. ‘I was haunted by the thought’, he wrote, ‘that here in this land, which the Germans had cultivated for so many years, the Jews could exact retribution and justice… by making this former German territory a Jewish settlement.’ His plan was to set up a Yishuv – an autonomous Jewish district within Poland. On visiting the Minister for the Recovered Territories, Edward Ochab, he claims to have been told, ‘You go to it, whether it pleases anyone or not… We shall support you in all your endeavours and with all the forces at our disposal.’ And so, for three years, all went well. Starting with a small group of Kazettlers – KZ survivors – the community swelled rapidly. It supported schools, hospitals, kibbutzim, orphanages and a publishing house in Wroclaw. According to Egit, by-laws were passed to require all remaining Germans to wear white armbands, to raise their hats to Jews on the streets and to step off the pavement if a Jew approached. Then, in 1948, it all came to an end. The Communist regime changed its policy; Jakub Egit headed for a Communist jail, while most of his supporters headed for Israel.

What doomed this Jewish community was its “apartness” from the rest of socialist Poland, not to mention the opposition of Russian overlords in the country.

At a Wroclaw fair in 1948, Egit set up an exhibition of the Jewish settlement, but it was taken down after one of the new commissars said: “Comrade Egit, you must think you’re in Israel.” Shortly thereafter, showcase Dzierzoniow was no more.

Morning Train to Warsaw

That night I ate dinner back at my restaurant in the university district, beginning with a warming bowl of mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa on the menu) and a bottle of local beer. By then I was cold from the ride to and from the cemetery. A March evening in Wroclaw feels like winter.

The next morning I caught an early train to Warsaw. This train was an express and would give me a full day in Warsaw, after which I would catch a local train to the Belarus border.

There were no other passengers in my train car, which allowed me to spread out on the adjacent seats the various maps of Poland that I was carrying in my saddle bags. (I probably have the soul of a Napoleonic adjutant.) One showed the arrows of the German attack during the 1939 invasion.

I had always assumed that the Germans rolled east in a great long, north-south line of attack, as they would later invade Russia in 1941. But the invasion of Poland came from all sides, as Germany had forces in East Prussia (to the north of Warsaw) and in Silesia (to the southwest).

My train to Warsaw, which took four hours, followed one of the German invasion routes. For the first time I better understood how swiftly armored divisions would have raced through the broad fields on either side of the track.

Occasionally there were clumps of forest and low hills, but for the most part this landscape was dotted with small farms enclosed with wooden fencing, all of which would have been overrun by the German formations. I suspect that the scenery outside my window has changed little since 1939.

Munich and Poland in 1938-39

On this leg of my journey, I was reading two more books about the outbreak of war in 1939. One was Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and The Road to War, which is an excellent, well-written summary (published in 2019) of the people and politics that led Britain to misjudge Hitler’s intentions in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

Bouverie writes in conclusion: “The failure to perceive the true character of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler stands as the single greatest failure of British policy makers during this period, since it was from this that all subsequent failures—the failure to rearm sufficiently, the failure to build alliances (not least with the Soviet Union), the failure to project British power, and the failure to educate public opinion—stemmed.”

The other book I had with me was Christopher Thorne’s The Approach of War 1938-39, which includes this exchange with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain:

When it was suggested to Chamberlain that public sentiment and military circles in Poland were so much more anti-German than [Colonel Jozef] Beck [Polish foreign minister] that the latter could be pushed harder and more openly in this matter, the Prime Minister merely confessed: ‘I don’t know much about conditions in Poland.’ It was an apt comment on a great deal of his foreign policy.

I liked both books, although I only finished reading them after I got home from Minsk. Bouverie, in particular, filled in gaps in my understanding of what led Britain (also France) to make drastic concessions to Hitler in Czechoslovakia, which could have been defended militarily, but then decide to fight a war for the integrity of Poland, which was for the most part indefensible (at least from German armor).

Bouverie writes of the days leading to the outbreak of war in Poland:

Chamberlain’s speech to the Commons the previous afternoon was less inspiring. [Harold] Nicolson likened it to “a coroner summing up a case of murder.” He did, however, reconfirm Britain’s commitment to Poland and, in contrast to his infamous broadcast during the Czech crisis, declared that if war were to break out over Danzig, then it would not be “the political future of a faraway city in a foreign land” for which Britain would be fighting but “the preservation of those principles…the destruction of which would involve the destruction of all possibility of peace and security for the peoples of the world.”

Stripped to its essentials, what led to war in Poland in September 1939 (on the lands through which I was traveling) was the inability of the allies to understand that only madness drove Hitler forward.

Appeasement’s End?

Over and over through the 1930s, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Halifax and other leading British politicians thought that they could appease (or “buy off”) Hitler by offering up sacrificial lambs around central Europe. All this did was whet German appetite for more conquest.

War was also the result of Hitler’s complete misreading of the Western powers, about which he knew little. Bouverie writes:

Crucially, Munich convinced Hitler that the Western Powers would never fight but would continue to accept his demands. “Chamberlain shook with fear when I uttered the word war. Don’t tell me he is dangerous,” the Führer was heard to scoff, shortly after the Agreement. Later, when stiffening his Generals before the Polish campaign, he declared, “Our enemies are small worms. I saw them in Munich.” It was a miscalculation the consequences of which would be felt across the entire world.

The problem with the legacy of Munich for the modern world is determining when is the right time to stand up to expansionist authoritarianism.

In the Vietnam War, Munich was often cited as the precedent that dictated U.S. intervention (as a young man John F. Kennedy had written a book about Munich), while when Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, the precedent was never mentioned.

Munich seemed to be on the mind of President George Herbert Walker Bush when he drew his line in the sand against Iraq in 1991, over the invasion of Kuwait, but the complexities of appeasement seemed lost on presidents Obama and Trump when they tolerated the Russian and Turkish partitions of Syria.

I wonder if it will be on the mind of a future president when and if the Chinese military makes a play for some islands in the South China Sea.

Next: Warsaw. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.