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Early records show that the medieval city name was Wrocislaw in Polish and Vratislav in Czech and it means Wrocislaw/Vratislav's town. Later the city's name was Germanized to Breslau. Among the people of the city, especially those born some years after World War II, the German name Breslau is highly unpopular, and they become quite offended when that name is used.

Wroclaw probably was a Slavic settlement when it was made (c.1000) an episcopal see subordinate to the archbishop of Gniezno. It became (1163) the capital of the duchy of Silesia, ruled by a branch of the Polish Piast dynasty. During the Mongol invasion in 1241 most of the population of the city was evacuated. The settlement was then sacked and burned by the Mongols, but they had no time to besiege the castle where the rest of the burghers found refuge.

The city was rebuilt by German settlers and developed as a trade center. Passing (1335) to Bohemia, it became a member (1368-1474) of the Hanseatic League of northern European trading cities. During much of the Middle Ages Wroclaw was ruled by its dukes from the Piast dynasty and from 1526 was ruled by the Empire's Habsburg dynasty. They resorted to forceful conversion of the city to back to Catholicism. During the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s, Silesia was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia's claims were derived from the agreement, rejected by Habsburgs, between the Piast rulers of the Duchy and the Hohenzollerns who secured the Prussian succession after the extinction of the Piasts.

After the demise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the city remained under Prussian administration and joined Imperial Germany upon its creation in 1871.

The city grew considerably in the 19th cent., both in commercial and industrial importance, and was the site of two large semiannual trade fairs. Its university was founded in 1811, when it absorbed the university formerly at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.

Many of the city's 10,000 Jews were murdered during the Nazi genocide of World War II. When the Red Army approached in February 1945, Wroclaw was declared a fortress and much of the population, which was German, was evacuated, although some 200,000 remained. To build fortifications slave labour was needed to augment civilian workers, and concentration camp prisoners were forced to help.

After a siege of nearly three months, "Festung Breslau" surrendered on May 7 – the last major city in eastern Germany to fall. Some 40,000 Breslauers lay dead in the ruins, and the city was almost 70% destroyed. Most of the German inhabitants either escaped before the Red Army, or were resettled in western Germany.

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