Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City


Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City

By Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse. Random House, 2002

585 pages

God is said to possess 99 names, each with 99 letters. Semitic religious mysticism,
with its superstitious mistrust of odd numbers, interprets this sum as pointing
to a hundredth hidden name of one-hundred hidden letters – the ineffable, unknown
name. Know this name and you know your maker.

Wroc?aw, now a Polish town and the traditional capital of Silesia, was once Germany’s
Breslau. At other times, Wroc?aw was also Presslau, Presslaw, Breßlaw, Vraclav,
Vratislavia (the town’s oldest name, introduced by the Latin-speaking clergy)
and Vretslav, in addition to other names in languages that this newspaper doesn’t
have the fonts for – in Russian and in Hebrew. What then, is the hidden hundredth
name of present-day Wroc?aw, the ineffable, unknown secret soul of the town?

As the title reveals, the name we seek is Central Europe – not quite 100 letters,
and thanks in part to this volume, not so unknown. A microcosm is the manifestation
of larger phenomena in miniature; a synecdoche, a representation, a metaphor for
the whole. But a metaphor stretched to volume length is often tedious – though
not here, where not an echo is forced. It is Wroc?aw’s striking embodiment of
almost every major political trend in Central European history that sets it apart
from the thousands of other towns which were compelled to trade languages, nationalities
and personal identities with the winning and losing of wars. Also, it is a wonder
of intimacy and specialization, as well as a mark of the writers’ skill, that
one town, a pinpoint on the map, seems somehow richer than all of Central Europe

Norman Davies, academic and acclaimed author of Europe, and Roger Moorhouse, a
noted Germa-nist, explore the realities of one town’s immobile impermanence, from
the Piast Poland of the last millennium, through the Habsburgs, Prussians and,
in just the past century, fascism and communism. Included in this survey are moving
accounts of Wroc?aw’s long-established ethnic communities: the Poles under the
Germans, the Germans under the Poles and the Jews under everyone. (Wroc?aw’s Jewish
community was almost entirely erased during the Holocaust, after nearly 1,000
years of continuous existence.) Also invoked is a strange litany of notable locals,
who seem to have inherited the town’s preoccupation with nomenclature. These personalities
range from Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, to Count Balthazar Klossowski
de Rola, also known as the artist Balthus.

Reading your way through this thousand-plus years of history is often tedious.
When the authors write about religion under the Habsburgs, for example, the reader
must keep track of an incredible array of Reformed Christian sects: Silesian Lutheran,
Bohemian Utraquists, Moravian Ana-baptists, Hungarian Calvinists, Transyl-vanian
Unitarians and, of course, the Protestants. But what the reader takes away from
this dense onslaught of dates and doings is a wider idea of nationality: Any nation,
any city, does not stop at its border. It expands out in ideas and influences.

While those two statements are imbued with many meanings, some of which are negative,
militant and aggressive, there is another, more positive interpretation of them,
as illustrated by the phenomenon of Wroc?aw: Traditions and values, names and
their languages, burst through closed borders and enforced divides like rivers,
like the indivisible sky.

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