Wroclaw and the charm of the Gothic

I have just finished reading Countess Izabela Czartoryska’ s account of her journey to Bad Warmbrunn in 1816 to take the waters. On the return journey she stayed for a few days in Breslau where she expressed a marked preference for Gothic architecture as the only style fit for religious buildings. She also remarked wistfully that Lower Silesia had once belonged to Poland and even after being detached from Poland in the 14th century had been ruled for several centuries by a branch of the former Polish royal house of the Piasts.

All of which struck a familiar note having read Gregor Thum’s fascinating account of how the Polish authorities created a new city of Wroclaw after the Yalta decisions to shift Poland west, including Lower Silesia in its borders for the first time in six centuries.  The architects of the reconstruction and polonisation of what remained of the city’s fabric also had a marked preference for the Gothic  as the mark of buildings which existed, or may have existed, under Polish rule. This meant that resources were available to rebuild many fine historic buildings that had been reduced to rubble in the last weeks of the war as the Red Army encircled “Festung Breslau”. Unfortunately it also meant that an equal number of fine buildings in later architectural styles were condemned to destruction and decay as unPolish.

Political circumstances dictated that a city that now belonged to Poland must in essence always have been Polish and could only be inhabited by Polish speakers. This, as Thum says, was a myth but a necessary myth, as the city could only be rebuilt and have a future if the new, often reluctant, inhabitants felt they had a right to be there.

This narrow nationalistic view (there was a German mirror image view of Silesia before 1945 which led the Nazis to embark on a campaign of renaming places whose German names too obviously suggested Slavic origins), sits uneasily with Poland’s long history as a multi-denominational, multi-ethnic state. It explains too the often bizarre ideological links between Polish Communism and apparently anti-Communist nationalists. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church too banged the nationalist drum on behalf of the People’s Republic.

Building a future requires, however, an accommodation with the past. The German presence was never too far from the surface and is now acknowledged, which would have been unthinkable before 1989. That Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl met to begin the process of reconciliation in Krzyzowa/Kreisau  once the seat of the Moltke family and centre of the aristocratic resistance to Hitler was symbolic. That Wroclaw writer Marek Krajewski made his name with a series of books about the fictional German detective Eberhard Mock  of the Breslau Vice Squad perturbs no-one. Poles read the books as avidly as Germans.

Oh and the Japanese Garden has been restored.




Ogrod japonski

translates the exotic but

keeps half a secret.

In nineteen thirteen

Prussian ladies drank tea with

due ceremony.

A bridge spans the lake

linking lands over still water

balm for scars of war.

Koi break the surface.

In their gaze Silesian skies

that are everyone’s.

Copyright  Peter Bateman 2007


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