One of the biggest events to ever rock the city we now call Wrocław, the epic 80-day siege of 1945 cost tens of thousands of lives and left the town a smouldering heap of ruins. One of the most savage sieges in modern history, the ‘Battle for Breslau’ rates as one of the biggest human tragedies of WWII.
Prior to WWII, Wrocław - or ‘Breslau’ as it was then known - was something of a model Nazi city with a staggering 200,000 of its citizens voting for Hitler’s NSDAP party in the 1933 elections. From that moment on the Nazis cemented their grip on the city launching a campaign of terror, and eventually murder, against Jews and numerous other enemies of the state. Synagogues were burnt to the ground on Kristallnacht - November 9, 1938 - and the guillotine at Kleczkowska prison saw plenty of action, with the decapitated bodies of political prisoners donated to Breslau/Wrocław’s medical schools. Yet in spite of this sinister background and strict rationing the citizens of wartime Breslau fared better than their compatriots elsewhere in the Reich. Out of range from Allied air raids local denizens were spared the aerial nightmare of British carpet bombings, and the city came to be considered something of a safe haven, its population swelling to over a million people towards the end of the conflict.
However, by the second half of 1944 the doomsday reality of war started to dawn on the local population. Truckloads of mangled German wounded flooded the hospitals, and with the Red Army creeping closer the rumble of artillery could be heard in the distance. On August 24 the city was declared a closed stronghold, ‘Festung Breslau’, and the citizens braced themselves for the inevitable bloodbath that was to come. General Johann Krause was appointed commander, and set about the daunting task of turning a picture-book city into a fortress. Two defensive rings were constructed around the city (with some fortifications 20km outside the centre), supplies were stockpiled and troops mobilised. A garrison of some 80,000 men was hurriedly raised in what was projected to become the key defensive element on ‘The Eastern Wall’. In reality, however, the troops were a chaotic rabble consisting of Hitler Youth, WWI veterans, police officers and retreating regiments. This mixed bag of men and boys were ludicrously ill-equipped to face the full force of the looming Soviet fury. As countdown to the impending siege began the governor of the region, Gauleiter Karl Hanke, noted he only had two tanks at his disposal, and weaponry that was either outdated or captured from previous campaigns in Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia. Even so, Hanke stubbornly refused to order an evacuation of civilians until January 19, 1945. By this time the majority of transport links had been smashed by Soviet shelling, forcing many evacuees to leave the city on foot. With temperatures sinking to -15˚C, an estimated 100,000 people froze to death during this ill-fated evacuation, with other reports of children trampled to death in the chaos that ensued at the train station. Breslau was in a state of full-blown panic. Defeatism was punished by death and on January 28 the deputy mayor, Dr. Wolfgang Spielhagen, was executed in the main square for this very reason. Execution squads roamed the city, murdering pessimists, looters and anyone found shirking their duty to the Fatherland. Finally, following a rapid advance, the advancing Soviets encircled the city on February 15, 1945. Breslau’s fate was sealed.
On February 16, 1945 months of waiting finally came to an end. The Red Army launched a ferocious attack on the city, throwing hundreds of tanks into the fray. But hopes for a quick victory proved optimistic, and the battle soon turned into a brutal slaughter, with both sides sustaining heavy casualties. In the first three days alone the Soviets lost well over 70 tanks as the conflict descended into savage street fighting. In his excellent book, Microcosm, author Norman Davies suggests that as a last resort measure chemical weapons produced in Silesia were used to repel Soviet troops in the early stages of combat, though this theory is largely open to debate. Civilians and slave labour were called up to build fortifications, and vast stretches of the city were demolished so bricks could be used to strengthen defences. In a growing sign of desperation even the University Library found itself stripped of thousands of books, all destined for the barricades. In March the residential area between the Szczytnicki and Grunwaldzki bridges was levelled in order to build an improvised airstrip that would, in theory, be Breslau’s connection to the outside world. The enormous project was a disaster. With rations only issued to those working, civilians were forced to work under fierce fire and as a result over 13,000 died when the Soviets shelled the area. But worse was to come. April 1 saw the Soviets launch a new offensive to seize the city. A heavy bombardment saw much of the city engulfed in flames, and hostilities were resumed once more. With the noose tightening, Nazi HQ relocated from the bunker on Partisan Hill to the University Library, while fighting continued to rage in the sewers and houses on the fringes of the city. Even with the end in sight, the Nazis fought bitterly to the last man, crushing an ill-fated uprising by the remaining civilians. A full five days after the Battle for Berlin had ended, Breslau finally capitulated on May 6, the peace deal signed at the villa on ul. Rapackiego 14. The day before Karl Hanke, the very man who had ordered the execution of anyone caught fleeing the city, escaped the city in a plane apparently bound for the Czech Republic. What became of him remains a mystery.
For the survivors the end of the war unleashed a new enemy. It’s estimated that approximately two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, and Breslau proved no exception as marauding packs of drunken troops sought to celebrate the victory. With all hospitals destroyed, and the city waterworks a pile of ruins, epidemics raged unchecked as the city descended further into a hellish chaos. Historical figures suggest that in total the Battle for Breslau cost the lives of 170,000 civilians: 6,000 German troops, and 7,000 Russian. 70% of the city lay in total ruin (about 75% of that directly attributed to Nazi efforts to fortify the city), 10km of sewers had been dynamited and nearly 70% of electricity cut off. Of the 30,000 registered buildings in the city, 21,600 sustained damage, with an estimated 18 million cubic metres of smashed rubble covering the city – the removal of this war debris was to last until the 1960s. Although several bunkers still lie scattered around the city (Park Zachodni, Park Południowy, etc.) there is as yet no official memorial for the thousands of innocent victims of war. Two Soviet cemeteries stand in the suburbs: one for officers on ul. Karkonoska, and one for the rank and file on Skowronia Góra. Both find themselves in state of disrepair, littered with broken glass and graffiti. A German military cemetery and Garden of Peace can be found 15 kilometres from Wrocław, the final resting place of approximately 18,000 soldiers.
Declared a part of Poland under the terms of the Yalta Agreement the new rulers of what would from then on be known as the city of 'Wrocław' arrived three days after the peace deal, and a began writing the next chapter of the city's history. Poles from the east flocked to repopulate Wrocław, swayed by rumours of jobs, wealth and undamaged townhouses. Over ten per cent of these new settlers hailed from the eastern city of Lwów (now Ukrainian L’viv) and this mass migration was to irrevocably change Wrocław’s demographic makeup. Others hailed from impoverished villages, with their peasant mentality frequently blamed for harming surviving city structures: ‘heaps of coal in a bathtub, hens in an expensive piano and a pig kept on the fourth floor of an apartment were not rare exceptions’, so writes Beata Maciejewska in her excellent book ‘Wrocław: History of the City’. But farm animals eating sofas were the least of the city's worries. Wrocław was on the brink of anarchy, with armed gangs of Russians, Germans and Poles roaming the streets at night, boozing, looting and shooting. Fortunes were made from theft, with most goods ending up in the open air bazaar that had sprung up on Pl. Grunwaldzki; Maciejewska’s research reveals this was the source of everything from railway wagons loaded with bricks, to priceless paintings dating from the 17th century. Black market trading thrived, and the money that was flying round led to a slew of bars and ballrooms opening, many with colourful names: 'Kiosk Pod Bombą' (Kiosk Under the Bomb) and 'Wstąp Kolego na Jednego' (Drop In For a Drink, Mate) being a couple of note.
The end of the war also signalled an active campaign to de-Germanize the city. Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wrocław’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to this iconoclastic fury. By the end of 1945 as many as 300,000 Germans were still in the city, many of whom had been temporarily relocated from Poznań, and this was a pressing concern for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wrocław was officially declared to be free of German habitants (there were, in fact, still 3,000 in the city, essentially kept on to do jobs Poles were unqualified for).
Wrocław was chosen to host the Exhibition of Recovered Territories, a propaganda stunt aimed at highlighting the glories of Polish socialism. Attracting over 1.5 million visitors the exhibition finally closed in 1948, and with that investment and national interest in Wrocław died. For the next few years the city was to become a feeder city for Warsaw, with priceless works of art ferried to the capital. In 1949 approximately 200,000 bricks were sent daily up to Warsaw, with several undamaged buildings falling victim to the demolition teams hell-bent on rebuilding the Polish capital. Wrocław’s recovery was still a long way away.
Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City
By Norman Davies & Roger Moorehouse
An excellent, encyclopaedic and engrossing book by Davies, the guru of Polish history writing. With Wrocław as the central character, Davies demonstrates how the city both affects and is effected by the whirlwind events of European history, resulting in it changing ownership, name and size more times than any other city on the continent. In Davies’ view, no city is better suited to represent the Central European experience as its unique geographical position has conspired to make it a ‘microcosm’ and melting pot of the myriad European concerns and conditions throughout the centuries. It’s a convincingly made argument, as over an exhaustive 600-some pages Davies details the history of Central Europe without ever taking the action out of Wrocław. Starting with a horrific description of the annihilation of Fortress Breslau in the prologue, and including plenty of gory details of medieval urban life, if you want to read one book about Wrocław other than the one in your hands, make it this one.
[ISBN 0-224-06243-3, price approx. 100zł.]