Norman Davies: revealing the many layers of a great Central European city

Norman Davies, photo:

Norman Davies is one of the most influential contemporary historians of Central Europe. His writings on Poland have had a significant impact on our perceptions of the country, and he is unusual as a historian in his tireless attempts to reach a broader public - beyond the dusty shelves of academia. Last month I managed to catch up with Norman Davies in Prague. When we began our conversation I was more than a little surprised to find out that he has very personal memories of Radio Prague.

"In 1968 and 1967 to begin with, when I was a student in Krakow in Poland, the international service of Czech Radio was, I think, the only foreign English service that I could receive and I used to listen to it. They had an essay competition, which I happened to win [laughs]. So I came during the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek, which was quite exciting in itself, and I received my prize, which was an embroidered tablecloth, which we still have at home! That brings back a very exciting time of my life."

Of course Norman Davies wasn't in Prague just to reminisce about Radio Prague in the 1960s. He was launching the new Czech translation of one of his most widely discussed recent publications. In "Microcosm" - along with fellow English historian, Roger Moorhouse - he takes us on a gripping journey through the history of one of Central Europe's great cities, Wroclaw. It is a city that has been known by many names over the centuries: Breslau, Vratislav, Wratislavia, Wrotizla: the names in themselves reminding us that this is a place with a many-layered history.

Wroclaw is in the southern Polish region of Silesia, until 1945 it had long belonged to Germany, but its links to what is today the Czech Republic are also very deep. As the book's title suggests, in many ways the history of Wroclaw is a microcosm of much that has happened in Central Europe over the last millennium, moving between different spheres of political influence and different languages - and suffering the traumas of war, destruction and the mass movement of peoples. And it has roots, as Norman Davies reminded me, that are distinctly Czech.

A mosaic made up of many pieces

"More than a thousand years ago, in the tenth century, when the earliest records of the city of Vratislavia - in Latin - originated, the city was in the kingdom of the Czechs."

At that time, was there really a clear distinction between the Czechs and the Poles? You mention in the book that the languages were very close. To what extent were they distinguishable?

"I'm not a philologist, but the earliest records of the Polish language date from the 13th century, that is from 300 years later, and it's quite clear that Polish and Czech were growing apart, they were becoming more different. So in the 10th century one can fairly deduce that they were much closer, and in the province of Silesia, which was between the heart of the Polania in Wielkopolska and Bohemia, one doesn't know whether the language spoken there was closer to Czech or closer to Polish. I don't think there are any records to answer that question."

And the link with Bohemia went on for centuries, didn't it?

"For obvious geographical reasons, that is the case. Wroclaw is close to the mountains of Bohemia, so there is a very close human trade and contact throughout the centuries, but the Czech influence waxed and waned. It was obviously very strong in the earliest period. Then the Piast Poland appeared and was a power in the land, and rebuffed Czech influence to some extent. Then in the 14th century Silesia was passed to the Crown of Bohemia, and for 200 years Silesia was part of the Czech crown lands. It was only in the 16th century that the Habsburgs appeared and took over both Bohemia and Silesia. So yes, there are very close links between both the peoples and the states of the region. One of the blemishes of modern historiography is to look at the past through modern eyes, to look at the Poles and Polish territory as something entirely separate from the Czechs and Czech territory. It just wasn't like that."

You mention the Poles and the Czechs; what about the Germans? Even in the Middle Ages there was this growing German element in the history of Wroclaw/Breslau. Were the links with the Germans equally close, or were they more distinct?

"The German migration, the great movement of German settlers to the east, affected Bohemia and Silesia and Pomerania in the north in exactly the same way. The Sudeten Germans and the German Silesians were essentially part of the same movement. And they affected the life of the big cities, like Prague or Wroclaw, in a very similar way. The German element was secondary to begin with, but then, when these provinces were taken over by the Habsburgs, they became part of the Habsburg state and Germanisation developed much more rapidly. The difference between Prague and Wroclaw/Breslau later on is that Breslau became Prussian whereas Prague remained Austrian. You get a new layer in Silesia which didn't affect Bohemia."

One of things that fascinate me in the book is when you talk about the later history. By the 20th century Wroclaw was an almost completely German city. After the Second World War it became entirely Polish, and yet - and I think this is also relevant to Czechoslovakia with the expulsion of Sudeten Germans after the war - in a strange way the place seems to have a stronger identity than the people who live in it. It seems to survive, even when the people have been "exchanged" - to use the euphemism.

"I think the fabric of the city has its own history, the Gothic Medieval churches of Wroclaw have been there for seven or eight hundred years, the modern population has only been there for sixty years. So in a way the city has a history, a record and a material story, which is separate from that of the people that lived there. One of the many false slogans that the communist regime introduced into Silesia was that the stones themselves have always been Polish. It's simply not true. The stones, if anything, were built and put together by people of different cultures, one of which was the Poles. The German influence increased under Austrian rule and then under Prussian rule, until at the beginning of the 20th century Breslau was the second city of Prussia, one of the very greatest German cities."

Two very different stories

Microcosm is not just a study of the distant past. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book covers the extraordinary period after the Second World War. Norman Davies argues that unlike in Czechoslovakia, where there was initially considerable support for communism, the communists never enjoyed popular support in Silesia, or in Poland as a whole:

"The history of communism in Poland is very different from that in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak communist movement was a genuine political movement with genuine believers and supporters, and it had its moment of independent influence at the end of the war. You have to remember that the Czechoslovak government in exile returned from London freely. A treaty was signed with the Soviet Union and Stalin allowed the Czechoslovak government to come back and for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to operate in a free environment for three years. Then, of course, they hit it on the head.

"In Poland, if you can imagine, Stalin killed the entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party before the war - during the purges in 1937-38 - thousands of them, not a few individuals. As a result, during the war and at the end of the war there were no genuine communists still alive to play the role that they had played in Czechoslovakia. Apart from that, Stalin and the Soviets in general were very hostile to Poland. Poland is much bigger than Czechoslovakia, Poland had fought against the Germans, it had fought against the Russians, so the entire treatment of Poland after the war was very different from that of Czechoslovakia. There were a few people in Poland who were optimistic about the future, but if you read about the horrors of the Warsaw Rising, where the capital of Poland was totally destroyed because the Red Army sat and watched it happen, you understand that there was nobody of importance in Poland who was going to freely support the communists."

Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse's history of Wroclaw, "Microcosom", was published in Czech translation last month. The original English version was published by Jonathan Cape in London.