Before Adolf Hitler embarked on his crazed campaign to expand Germany’s borders, Breslau – or what you know now as Wrocław – stood out as one of Central Europe’s finest cities: a compelling mix of architectural styles set on a background of gothic spires and tinkling rivers. "Give me ten years and you will not recognise Germany," asserted the dictator of the Third Reich upon assuming power, and how fatefully right he was proven. Holding out to the very last, Breslau was the last major German city to capitulate at the end of WWII, with both the city and her inhabitants paying dearly for such obstinate resistance. By the time the white flag was raised little remained of a city that had been mercilessly besieged by the Red Army for the previous four months. The scene that greeted the victors as they rolled into town was apocalyptic; 70% of the city lay in total ruin, with the once glorious Old Town sustaining 90% total damage. Of 30,000 registered buildings, only 8,400 were left standing after the war. Nearly half the roads were impassable, and public utilities such as water, electricity and gas practically ceased to function. Breslau was little more than a sea of bricks, 18 million cubic metres of rubble covering what had once been a jewel on the River Oder.
The material and economic cost was immense, the human cost incalculable. The Siege of Breslau had cost the lives of 170,000 civilians, and little sympathy was afforded to those that survived. Soviet revenge was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked. Fuelled by alcohol, drunken bands of Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant justice to those who resisted their looting and rape. Trapped in Dante-style anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, the city lost in human catastrophe. It was into this hellish vision that Polish settlers from the East arrived, desperate to find a new home.
The Yalta Conference of February 1945 effectively saw Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt play Monopoly with Europe before carving her up like a stuck pig. Under terms agreed by the allied ‘Big Three,’ Poland’s pre-war borders shifted westwards, meaning that overnight what had been the German city of ‘Breslau’ for the last 75 years would become the Polish city of ‘Wrocław.’ Within days of the Nazi surrender Polish refugees were already making their way to the city, with the pre-elected Mayor Bolesław Drobner arriving on May 9th - a mere 3 days after the capitulation. Over the coming months he would be joined by thousands of people displaced from their homes in the east.
From seemingly the moment the echo of the final shots of the war had died, an intensive policy of ‘de-Germanisation’ was undertaken with absolutely anything that hinted at the city’s previous incarnation as German Breslau destroyed; the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I which stood on ul. Świdnicka was pulled down in October 1945, a fate that was to later be shared by the fearsome post office building, a splendid structure with a history dating back to 1888. Deportations of the local German population commenced in July 1945, and by the beginning of 1948 only 3,000 remained in the city, essentially employed to train Poles in the professional arena. The year was to prove something of a landmark for Wrocław with city leaders launching a series of high-profile events to show the world how far the new city of Wrocław had progressed. The International Congress of Intellectuals, for instance, drew a crowd that included Picasso, Graham Greene, Bertolt Brecht and Irene Joliot-Curie; still, it only served as a sideshow to the year’s main event: The Recovered Territories Exhibition – an anti-German extravaganza aimed at revising the region’s history, emphasising the city’s age-old ties to Poland and highlighting the glories of the Brave New Poland.