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The Pole truth…Microcosm – Portrait of a Central European CityNorman Davies and Roger MoorhouseJonathan Cape ?20, pp585The irrepressible Norman Davies returns with yet another weighty tome. This time he is aided by his former student Roger Moorhouse, who also assisted with Davies’s The Isles: A History. Such is the ambition of Microcosm that Davies enlisted the research skills of a further 60 specialists, which may leave you wondering whether this compendious book is itself best read in teams.The city in question is Wroclaw in Silesia, west Poland, now a thriving university city 190km south-west of Warsaw and 160km from the German border. Wroclaw’s location in the corridor of central Europe, ‘the lands in-between’, granted it a position on the busiest east-west trade routes, and since its origination in the eighth century the city has attracted a relentless flow of migrants, and no end of trouble.In his introduction, undoubtedly the most cogent section of the book, Davies outlines his ‘long-standing efforts to overcome the artificial division of European history into East and West’. Already something of a cultural hero in Poland due to the success of God’s Playground: A History of Poland (in two volumes), Davies has in mind a reconciliation between the competing versions of the city’s history, as German Breslau and Polish Wroclaw.The opening chapter, ‘Götterdämmerung 1945′, sets the scene. It is a searing account of the fall of German Breslau at the end of the Second World War. Amid the rubble of a city in utter confusion, and in temperatures of minus 20, the remaining Germans attempt to flee as the Red Army thunders in, mass murder, rape and looting all savage manifestations of the vengeance they seek.Here, the authors have marshalled their formidable research into readable prose while maintaining that distinctive Davies touch of an even-handed history. For a city whose national identity, language and borders have been endlessly contested, this is an achievement in itself.The authors’ approach is to travel through the city’s 1,200 years in a cyclical structure that, by turns, takes in religion, politics, economics, education, ethnicity and culture. The information supplied is dense and at times draining, as every conflict or new edict is recorded. Yet the tracing of the city’s ever-changing identity holds the book together.Wroclaw was Wrotizla (early medieval) was Vretslav (early Bohemian) was Presslaw (Austrian) was Bresslau (Prussia) was Breslau (German). From the Vandals and Goths and Huns to the Czechs, Silesians and Lusatians, you can rest assured that every tribe and tribulation is registered. Special attention is given to the region’s sizeable Jewish population.Unfortunately, the central part of the book – from the Middle Ages on – constitutes a steadily oppressive downloading of names and dates and details, and this can make for a somnolent read. Though occasionally enlivened by chronicles of feuding knights and kings, and the anti-semitism that prefigured the twentieth-century atrocities to come, the section leaves little for the reader to do.This is a problem because the city is presented as a microcosm of central Europe, which assumes we can extrapolate its exemplary status for ourselves. Faced by the insistent and abundant detail, the reader shrinks from the task.The book’s better moments are usually inspired by Davies’s flair for anecdote and nuance, and this is supplemented by oral histories, eyewitness accounts, letters, diary extracts, poems, popular songs, and maps of changing territories (though, curiously, no bibliography). But there are many examples of an exhausting inclusiveness.Do we really need a conjugation of the train timetable from Breslau to Berlin? And how about the name of every player in the German football team who once beat Denmark 8-0? Such unscrupulous data often all but buries a sense of the city itself, while linking phrases can also tire or trivialise: ‘it is necessary to understand that human beings possess multiple identities, not simple ones’.Just as you sense Davies’s close involvement with the successful opening chapter, so it is for the closing two. Breslau during the Weimar Republic was a city steeped in the arts and sciences, while the Polish people struggled, as they had for centuries, to maintain their own language and culture in the face of an overwhelmingly German society.After the ravages of the Nazis, the city was delivered to the equally harsh and oppressive jurisdiction of Stalinism, and the continuing appropriation, and defiance, of its people and culture seemed, until 1989, to be Wroclaw’s fate. For these sections, when Davies appears more than just a supervisor of the project, the prose is lucid and swift, and the hybrid city emerges as an extraordinary testament, both to Polish fortitude and guile, and to the spirit of rapprochement now prevailing in the lands in between.

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