Wrocław (Breslau), Poland

Reference work entry


Wrocław is capital of the eponymous province and Poland’s fourth largest city. On the Oder River where it meets with several other rivers, and overlooked by the Sudety mountains, it was historically important for its position on European trade routes. Control of the city passed between numerous empires over the centuries and it had a strong Germanic flavour until the end of World War II. It is now a major industrial centre.


There is evidence of stone age settlers in the area surrounding Wrocław. By the tenth century the settlement was called Vratislava and incorporated Ostrów Tumski (the Cathedral Island). As part of Silesia, Wrocław falls under the jurisdiction of the Polish ruler Mieszko I at the end of the tenth century, beginning a period of control by the Piast dynasty. In 1000 Boresław the Brave established the Wrocław bishopric.

Invading German forces were comprehensively defeated at the battle of Psie Pole in 1109. 29 years later Wrocław was designated capital of Silesia and in 1139 a Benedictine monastery was established by devouts from throughout Europe. The city was razed in 1241 during Tatar incursions and was rebuilt around a large market square, in a similar style to modern Wrocław. In 1262 Wrocław achieved full city rights in accordance with the Magdeburg statutes and was, after Prague, the largest city in central Europe.

Rule by the Piast dynasty ended with the death of Henry VI in 1336 and rule was assumed by Bohemia. Increasingly important as a destination on trans-continental trade routes, Wrocław joined the Hanseatic League (a coalition of Germanic trading towns) in 1387. Civil unrest broke out in 1418 between the merchant class and an alliance of workers and the church and, in conjunction with the Hussite Wars that spilled into the area, the city’s development stalled.

On the death of King Ludwig in 1526 Wrocław came under the control of Ferdinand and the Habsburg dynasty. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) had a detrimental effect on urban expansion but was recovering by the end of the seventeenth century. The mid-eighteenth century saw the city fall under Prussian rule and it was re-named Bresslau by Frederic II. Developed as a military rather than commercial centre, its status diminished and its German character developed.

Between 1806 and 1811 it was under Napoleonic rule and its walls were razed to allow further expansion. After the defeat of Napoléon it reverted to Prussian rule and in 1871 became part of the new German Reich, as its third largest city. By the 1930s of a population of 650,000 around 600,000 were ethnic Germans. Under Nazi rule the small Polish and Jewish populations were persecuted.

Absorbing displaced Germans during World War II, the population exceeded 1 m. and in Aug. 1944 Breslau was declared a closed fortress. Around 700,000 civilians were evacuated and forced to cope with the conditions of a harsh winter, leading to large-scale loss of life. Soviet forces besieged the city from Jan. to May 1945, by which time around 70% of the city (including hundreds of its historically most important buildings) had perished. By the terms of the agreement of the post-war Potsdam crisis Wrocław fell under Polish jurisdiction for the first time since 1336.

The remaining ethnic German population fled the city or were subsequently evacuated, to be replaced by ethnic Poles from the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and the rest of Poland. Under communist rule, re-building started quickly and continued in the following decades. As with other major Polish cities, Wrocław had an active anti-communist underground movement by the 1980s which played a role in the downfall of the authorities in 1989.

Modern City

Among the most important industries are engineering, food processing, metal working and electronics. There is an international airport, two major river ports, motorway links and two large railway stations. There is also a university, dating back to the sixteenth century.

Places of Interest

The town hall is an impressive example of Gothic architecture, while the Hala Targowa (Market Hall) dating from 1908 remains a thriving commercial centre. The Market Square, one of central Europe’s biggest, dates to the thirteenth century though many of its buildings have been reconstructed. The university comprises the splendid seventeenth century Baroque Leopoldine Hall. The Szczytnicki park lies in the middle of the city. Among the most important churches are the cathedral of St John the Baptist and the church of St Elizabeth.

There is the national museum, with a large collection of Silesian and Polish art, and museums of archaeology, ethnography, city history and natural history. Also popular is the large painting, The Panorama of Raclawice Battle, and the well preserved Jewish cemetery. The Polish Laboratory Theatre, resident in the city, has a reputation for innovation.

Wrocław was chosen by the EU to be one of the European Capitals for Culture for 2016, alongside San Sebastián in Spain.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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