Wroclaw: a city with roots in Bohemia


This week the Czech translation of one of the most fascinating and widely discussed books on the history of Central Europe to be published in recent years went onto the bookshelves. The book "Microcosm", by the English historians Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, looks at the history of Wroclaw, the capital of the southern Polish province of Silesia and one of the great cities of Central Europe. Wroclaw, known in German as Breslau and in Czech as Vratislav, is just a few dozen kilometres to the north of the Czech border and has had a long, often troubled and sometimes traumatic history, moving between the influence of different powers, dynasties and languages. That the Czech translation of the book has aroused a great deal of interest comes as no surprise. As the book's title suggests, Wroclaw's history is in some ways a microcosm of the history of the region, and its links with the Czechs are far deeper than mere geographical proximity. At the book's launch Norman Davies told David Vaughan more about this link.

"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 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."

We'll be returning to Microcosm including a longer interview with Norman Davies in a future edition of Czech Books.