Wrocław situated on the River Oder in Lower Silesia, is the largest city in western Poland.
Wrocław is the historical capital of Silesia, and today is the capital of the Lower Silesian Voivodeship. At various times it has been part of the Kingdom of Poland, Bohemia, the Austrian Empire, Prussia, and Germany; it has been part of Poland since 1945, as a result of border changes after World War II. Its population in 2011 is 631,235, making it the fourth largest city in Poland.
The city of Wrocław originated as a Bohemian stronghold at the intersection of two trade routes, the Via Regia and the Amber Road. The name of the city was first recorded in the 10th century as Vratislavia, possibly derived from the name of a Bohemian duke Vratislav I. Its initial extent was limited to Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island, German: Dominsel).
During Wrocław's early history, its control changed hands between Bohemia (until 992, then 1038–1054), the Kingdom of Poland (992–1038 and 1054–1202), and, after the fragmentation of the Kingdom of Poland, the Piast-ruled duchy of Silesia. One of the most important events in those times was the foundation of the Diocese of Wrocław by the Polish Duke (from 1025 king) Bolesław the Brave in 1000. Along with the Bishoprics of Kraków and Kołobrzeg, Wrocław was placed under the Archbishopric of Gniezno in Greater Poland, founded by Otto III in 1000. In the years 1034-1038 was a pagan reaction.
The city became a commercial centre and expanded to Wyspa Piaskowa (Sand Island, German: Sandinsel), and then to the left bank of the River Oder. Around 1000, the town had about 1,000 inhabitants. By 1139, a settlement belonging to Governor Piotr Włostowic(a.k.a. Piotr Włast Dunin) was built, and another was founded on the left bank of the River Oder, near the present seat of the University. While the city was Polish, there were also communities of Bohemians, Jews, Walloons and Germans.
In the first half of the 13th century Wrocław became the political centre of the divided Polish kingdom. The city was devastated in 1241 during the Mongol invasion of Europe. While the city was burned to force the Mongols to withdraw quickly, most of the population probably survived.
With the influx of settlers the town expanded and adopted German town law. The city council used Latin and German, and "Breslau", the Germanized name of the city, appeared for the first time in written records. The enlarged town covered around 60 hectares, and the new main market square, which was surrounded by timber frame houses, became the new centre of the town. The original foundation, Ostrów Tumski, became the religious center. Wrocław adopted Magdeburg rights in 1262 and, at the end of the 13th century joined the Hanseatic League. The Polish Piast dynasty remained in control of the region, but the right of the city council to govern independently increased.
In 1335, Breslau, together with almost all of Silesia, was incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Between 1342 and 1344, two fires destroyed large parts of the city.
The Kingdom of Prussia annexed Breslau and most of Silesia during the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s. After the Seven Years' War, Habsburg empress Maria Theresa ceded the territory in 1763.
Napoleonic redevelopments increased prosperity in Silesia and Breslau. The levelled fortifications opened space for the city to grow beyond its old limits. Breslau became an important railway hub and industrial centre, notably of linen and cotton manufacture and metal industry. The reconstructed university served as a major centre of sciences, while the secularisation of life laid the base for a rich museum landscape. Johannes Brahms wrote his Academic Festival Overture to thank the university for an honorary doctorate awarded in 1881.
In 1821 (Arch)Diocese of Breslau was disentangled from the Polish ecclesiastical province (archbishopric) in Gniezno and made Breslau an exempt bishopric.
The Unification of Germany in 1871 turned Breslau into the sixth-largest city in the German Empire.
Following World War I, Breslau became the capital of the newly created Prussian Province of Lower Silesia in 1919. The Polish community began holding masses in Polish in the Church of Saint Ann, and, as of 1921, at St. Martin's; a Polish consulate was opened on the Main Square, and a Polish School was founded by Helena Adamczewska.
After Hitler's takeover of the German government in 1933, political enemies of the Nazis were persecuted, and their institutions closed or destroyed; the Gestapo began actions against Polish and Jewish students, Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. Arrests were made for speaking Polish in public, and in 1938 the Nazi-controlled police destroyed the Polish cultural centre. Many of the city's 10,000 Jews, as well as many others seen as 'undesirable' by the Third Reich, were sent to concentration camps; those Jews who remained were killed during the Holocaust. A network of concentration camps and forced labour camps was established around Breslau, to serve industrial concerns, including FAMO, Junkers and Krupp. Tens of thousands were imprisoned there.
For most of World War II, the fighting did not affect Breslau. In 1941 the remnants of the pre-war Polish minority in the city, as well as Polish slave labourers, organised a resistance group called Olimp. As the war continued, refugees from bombed-out German cities, and later refugees from farther east, swelled the population to nearly one million. including 51,000 forced labourers in 1944, and 9,876 Allied PoWs. At the end of 1944 an additional 30,000-60,000 Poles were moved into the city after Nazis crushed the Warsaw Uprising In February 1945 the Soviet Red Army approached the city. Gauleiter Karl Hanke declared the city a Festung (fortress) to be held at all costs. Hanke finally lifted a ban on the evacuation of women and children when it was almost too late. During his poorly organised evacuation in January 1945, 18,000 people froze to death in icy snowstorms and −20 °C (−4 °F) weather. By the end of the Siege of Breslau, half the city had been destroyed. An estimated 40,000 civilians lay dead in the ruins of homes and factories. After a siege of nearly three months, Hanke surrendered on 6 May 1945, days before the end of the war. In August the Soviets placed the city under the control of German anti-fascists.
Along with almost all of Lower Silesia, however, the city became part of Poland under the terms of the Potsdam Conference. The Polish name of Wrocław was declared official. There had been discussion among the Western Allies to place the southern Polish-German boundary on the Glatzer Neisse, which meant post-war Germany would have been allowed to retain approximately half of Silesia, including Breslau. However, the Soviets insisted the border be drawn at the Lusatian Neisse farther west.
In August 1945 the city had a German population of 189,500, and a Polish population of 17,000; that was soon to change. Almost all of the German inhabitants fled or were forcibly expelled between 1945 and 1949 and were settled in Allied Occupation Zones in Germany. A small German minority remains in the city, although the city's last German school was closed in 1963. The Polish population was dramatically increased by the resettlement of Poles during postwar population transfers (75%) as well as during the forced deportations from Polish lands annexed by the Soviet Union in the east region, many of whom came from Lviv.
Wrocław is now a unique European city of mixed heritage, with architecture influenced by Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian traditions, such as Silesian Gothic and its Baroque style of court builders of Habsburg Austria (Fischer von Erlach). Wrocław has a number of notable buildings by German modernist architects including the famous Centennial Hall (Hala Stulecia or Jahrhunderthalle) (1911–1913) designed by Max Berg.
- The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Wrocław and a landmark of the city. The cathedral, located in the Ostrów Tumski district, is a Gothic church with Neo-Gothic additions. The current standing cathedral is the fourth church to have been built on the site. The cathedral was almost entirely destroyed (about 70% of the construction) during the Siege of Breslau and heavy bombing by the Red Army in the last days of World War II. Parts of the interior fittings were saved and are now on display at the National Museum in Warsaw. The initial reconstruction of the church lasted until 1951, when it was reconsecrated by Archbishop Stefan Wyszyński. In the following years, additional aspects were rebuilt and renovated. The original, conical shape of the towers was restored only in 1991. The cathedral holds the largest pipe organ in Poland built in 1913 by Walcker Orgelbau for the Centennial Hall, formerly the largest organ in the world.
- The Centennial Hall is a historic building in Wrocław,. It was constructed according to the plans of architect Max Berg in 1911–1913, when the city was part of the German Empire. As an early landmark of reinforced concrete architecture, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. The building is frequently visited by tourists and the local populace. It lies close to other popular tourist attractions, such as the Wrocław Zoo, the Japanese Garden, and the Pergola with its Multimedia Fountain.
- The National Museum established in 1947, is one of Poland's main branches of the National Museum system. It holds one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the country. The holdings of Wrocław Museum are closely connected with the history of border shifts in Central Europe following World War II. After the annexation of Eastern half of the Second Polish Republic by the Soviet Union, main parts of Poland's art collections were transferred from the cities incorporated into the USSR including Lviv and Kijów. Collections not returned included the Ossolineum holdings which became part of the Lviv National Museum. The cultural heritage shipped in 1946 included Polish and European paintings from 17th to 19th centuries. The 1948 unveiling of the Wrocław Gallery of Polish Painting at a brand new location, composed of national treasures from already disappropriated museums, had a symbolic meaning in the lives of people subjected to mass expulsions from the Eastern Kresy. The Gallery was arranged to remind them, that they were again residing in Poland.
- The Wrocław Palace Originally a palace of Prussian monarchy, it now houses the Wrocław City Museum. Initially a baroque palace of Heinrich Gottfried Spaetgen, it was built in 1717 in the Vienna style. In 1750, after Prussia took control over the Silesia in the First Silesian War, it was bought by the Prussian king Frederick the Great and converted to his residence. The palace was extended in 1751-53 in the baroque style with rococo interior designs by the royal architect Johann Boumann. Boumann’s additions included a transverse wing with a festive hall, throne hall and Frederick the Great's private quarters. The successor of Frederick the Great, who died in 1786, was his nephew Frederick Wilhelm II (1744–1797). He performed remodeling of the royal palace according to design of Karl Gotthard Langhans (1732–1808). The remodeling took place in 1795-1796 in the classical style. As a result, the wings surrounding the northern courtyard, a new staircase and utility rooms were added.
- Town Hall (the Ratusz/Rathaus) stands at the centre of the City’s Rynek (Market Square). It has a long history reflecting the developments that have taken place in the city over the period since its initial construction. Today, it continues to be in the service of the city. The Ratusz is used for civic and cultural events (for example, concerts are sometimes held in the Great Hall), it houses a museum, and the basement is now a restaurant. The Ratusz developed over a period of about 250 years from the end of the 13th century though to the middle of the 16th century. The structure and plan changed of course over this extended period in response to the changing needs of the city. History does not record exactly when the initial construction began. However, in the period 1299-1301 the consistorium a single floor structure with cellars and a tower was built. The oldest parts of the current building – the Burghers’ Hall and the lower floors of the tower may date from this time. In these early days, the primary purpose of the building was trade, rather than civic administration.