Have you ever noticed how maps fascinate people? They captivate us. Pass by the window of any curiosity shop or stall and you will see people peering at old maps of Dublin, Ireland or Europe.

Are we simply intrigued by where we came from? Or do we marvel at the permanence of a place? Whatever the region, there is a historic fascination alive in every one of us.

In western Europe, boundaries have not changed that much over the past 200 years. Yet in Ireland we know the problems that relatively arbitrary lines on maps can imply. Partition is still the single biggest political question on this island, and the future of Irish people who found themselves on the wrong side of the border, or those British who find themselves detached on a relatively hostile island, is still the issue.

Further afield, following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France drew a few lines in the sand and Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf statelets emerged without any real cognisance of the peoples who ended up lumped together in these entirely fabricated entities.

These divisions come back to haunt modern policymakers when trying to calculate, for example, the likely domino effect of an attack on Iraq. Will the Kurds in Syria and Turkey rise up with their Iraqi brothers? Will the Marsh Arabs in the South of Iraq split from Baghdad? And how stable are the Palestinians in Jordan?

The Nice Treaty and enlargement of the EU will not only shift the EU eastwards by some 500km, but will embrace a part of the European continent which is only now coming out of one of the most horrific episodes in human history.

As a result, the maps in central Europe have a temporary feel. For example, the map of Poland is just over 50 years old. The Hungary we will admit to the EU is less than half the size it was in 1918. The modern Czech Republic was founded on one of the largest examples of ethnic cleansing Europe has ever seen.

The “applicant countries” as they are sterilely referred to in Eurospeak, are an extraordinary tapestry of moving populations, redrawn maps, changed street names and forgotten heritages. One of the unfortunate facts surrounding Nice and the enlargement debate is almost total dominance of narrow economic parameters and the complete absence of context, history and information on who exactly our new neighbours are.

A few years back, just before the Velvet Revolution, I was fortunate enough to visit Czechoslovakia as it was then. I stayed at the Hotel Moscow in Karlovy Vary in Bohemia.

Karlovy Vary is a spa town famous for its mineral waters and their medicinal qualities. It was where a sick Karl Marx convalesced and glugged water to cure his liver, which was battered after years of carousing on Tottenham Court Road. It also played host to Franz Josef, as well as Kaiser Wilhelm. The Hotel Moscow — now a Four Seasons or Hyatt, I believe — has had at least five different names since the turn of the century. In 1900 it was the Hotel Vienna, then the Karlsbad, briefly it was the Hotel Berlin and from the 1950s to the 1980s it was the Hotel Moscow. All the names reflect the shifting borders and local top dogs, from the Imperial Austrians to the Sudeten Germans, the Nazis and finally the Russians.

In a similar vein, the Polish city of Wroclaw — capital of the western Polish province of Silesia — is a fantastic example of the how the borders, peoples, customs and cultures of this part of the world has changed over the past few hundred years. The names also indicate how central this part of the world has been to European history and philosophy — a centrality forgotten in the shifting of borders that followed the Second World War.

Over the years Wroclaw has been Wrotizla, Vretslav, Presslaw and Breslau; it is a microcosm of Central Europe. It has been the cockpit of virtually every major European struggle and endured just about every vicissitude that history could throw at it. Starting in the 14th century, the city has experienced plagues, pogroms, attacks by the Mongols, the Hussite wars, the struggles of the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, Prussian expansionism, the Napoleonic Wars, Nazism and Stalinism.

The changed street names tell their own story. In the 17th century Presslaw was the second city of the Austrian Empire. Breslau, as it became known following the Prussian victories in the 18th and 19th centuries, was the third largest city in Hitler’s Reich.

Anyone who has travelled to Germany will have noticed the German fascination with pre-war photos of historic German cities such as Wroclaw, Lemburg or Konigsburg.

The blurred images capture a piece of European history that has largely been forgotten by the western reorientation of Europe since 1945: the baroque churches and cobbled streets, so reminiscent of Prague or Kracow; the stolid burghers and Prince-Archbishops; the Jewish patrons of the arts, painted in their fussy drawing rooms or photographed in earnest conversation with Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss; the sleek Jugendstil department stores and Bauhaus-style apartment blocks.

This was Mitteleuropa — a world that has disappeared forever. The rise of Nazism crushed the civic autonomy and cultural elan so characteristic of the city, while those members of the Jewish community fortunate enough to escape were scattered across the globe. In the closing weeks of the war, the city itself was all but obliterated as the Wehrmacht made its last stand there against the Red Army. Most of the civilian population was evacuated on 21 January 1945, travelling west on foot in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. It is estimated that some 90,000 died on the journey.

It then underwent a complete exchange of population. The remaining Germans were driven out and replaced by Poles, themselves expelled from the eastern areas annexed by the Soviet Union, and Breslau was henceforth known by its Polish name, Wroclaw. In fact, there was an almost straight swap of the Polish population of Lvov in today’s Ukraine — a centre of Polish learning for centuries.

Wroclaw’s story is not unique by any means. Further south, two million Sudeten Germans were expelled from northern Czechoslovakia, where their people had lived for centuries. The expulsion of the Germans from much of Central Europe remains a highly sensitive issue.

The half-century of silence on the displacement of some 16 million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania between 1945 and 1947 is understandable. In Communist countries, criticism of Soviet policy was impermissible, while in western Europe it was widely thought that anything that might portray the Germans as victims would be tantamount to an apologia for the crimes of the Third Reich.

Even today, relations between Germany and the Czech Republic are frosty, as shown by the injudicious words of the Czech prime minister who stated recently that these innocent Germans deserved to be cleansed.

Our new EU is a much more complete, much more European place — philosophically, historically and culturally. This will become apparent over time as the ghosts of Mitteleuropa begin to re-emerge. Brussels will become a much more Germanic, less Latin place in the years ahead. In our assessment of enlargement, if we dispense with the cold logic of economics in favour of deeper cultural, philosophical and national idiosyncrasies, then cites like Wroclaw will again be at the fulcrum.

But be warned, with that history comes some unfinished ethnic business. 

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