History of the City
A long time ago, the fisherman Wars and his wife Sawa lived in a small hut on the River Vistula. One day, they offered shelter to prince Ziemomysł who had lost his way and stumbled upon their home. In gratitude to the couple for saving his life, the prince decided that the land would remain Wars and Sawa’s for all eternity. This is how Warsaw was born and named, according to legend. Nobody knows how true that is. The city’s further history is much less of a mystery.
Legend to Capital
Albeit the first traces of human settlement date back to the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, true development began in the 13th century, when a stronghold of Mazovian dukes was erected within the boundaries of today’s Old Town. As the population grew in numbers, the New Town was established one hundred years later.
In 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa decided to move his court and main royal offices to the Warsaw castle, then under expansion, after a fire at the Wawel royal residence in Cracow. This is how Warsaw became the informal capital of the Polish Kingdom.
Subsequent centuries are a story of intermittent intense development and painful conflict. During the so-called Swedish Deluge and the period of 1655-1658 alone, the city was thrice under siege, conquest, and occupation by Swedish and Transylvanian armies. King John III Sobieski, conqueror of the Turks, restored the capital to its former glory. Under his reign during the last quarter of the 17th century, Warsaw’s economy, politics, and culture were in full bloom. This was when the new royal residence – the Wilanów Palace – was built. Prosperity prevailed through to the end of the Stanislaus era (second half of the 18th century); many of Warsaw’s most beautiful palaces, churches, and gardens were erected and developed at the time, not least the enchanting Łazienki Royal Park.
The Struggle for Independence
The country weakened politically during the second half of the 18th century, with tragic results – Poland was partitioned; in 1772, 1793, and 1795, respectively, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Polish lands up between themselves, taking the Polish Republic off the map of Europe for 123 years. This could not be prevented even by the Constitution of 3 May 1791 adopted at the Royal Castle as the first such document on the Old Continent and second worldwide.
A semblance of independence was offered once the Warsaw Duchy was formed in 1807 by virtue of peace treaties signed by Poland’s ally Napoleon Bonaparte, the Russian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia. The Kingdom of Poland was established in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 – yet the Kingdom remained under complete Muscovite influence. Over subsequent decades, the city was the stage for two suppressed uprisings: the November insurrection (1830-1831) and the January insurrection (1863). Poland reclaimed her independence only after World War One, in 1918. As a sovereign state it engaged in war against the Bolsheviks in the years 1919-1921, the Warsaw Battle of 1920 (also referred to as the Miracle at the River Vistula) recognised as a turning point of the conflict. The Poles’ spectacular victory prevented the communists from marching westward.
The city developed rapidly in the years 1918-1939, and was dubbed the “Paris of the North” for a reason. Yet after a brief peaceful interlude, Warsaw was to face its blackest hour.
The Hell of War
On 1 September 1939, German troops invaded Poland, attacking Warsaw on 9 September. Just under three weeks later, the city was forced to surrender. The years of occupation brought Nazi terror and thousands of victims. Despite its unfavourable circumstances, Warsaw became a centre of opposition against the invader – yet again.
In April 1943, an uprising broke out in the Jewish ghetto, then under liquidation by the Germans. The effort was doomed from day one – the Nazis had the ghetto razed to the ground by May. Nonetheless, the tragedy did nothing to quench the Varsovians’ combative spirit: one year later, on 1 August 1944, the largest armed insurrection against the Nazi aggressors in Europe – the Warsaw Rising – began.
For 63 days, soldiers of the Home Army supported by the civilian residents of Warsaw fought an unequal battle against the German occupants. Despite the enormous sacrifice, the Rising ended in failure and unimaginable loss: nearly 200,000 people perished; 84% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed, historical buildings and works of art included. While Warsaw was only liberated on 17 January 1945, this was not the end of the struggle for freedom. In ruins in the wake of six years of war, the capital was freed from the Nazis only to fall into communist clutches.
Phoenix from Ashes
The early post-war decades were a time of intense reconstruction. Socialist realism prevailed in architecture, the Palace of Culture and Science erected in the years 1952-1955 a flagship example. Thanks to Varsovians, their work and their effort, the completely destroyed Old Town and Royal Castle were rebuilt down to every minute detail. This unprecedented accomplishment was appreciated by UNESCO: in 1980, when the Warsaw Old Town was listed as a World Heritage Site.
During times of the Polish People’s Republic, Warsaw became a major centre of the opposition movement. This was where student protests began in 1968, bringing major political crisis. The pilgrimage of John Paul II to Poland was an event of huge importance; in 1979, the Pope celebrated mass on Plac Zwycięstwa (Victory Square, later renamed Plac Piłsudskiego – Piłsudski Square). His famous utterance “Let your spirit descend and renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!” was interpreted as a sign of support for the democratic underground. Yet Warsaw and Poland had to wait another ten years before the totalitarian system was overcome, witnessing i.a. the birth of the Solidarity movement (1980) and the introduction of martial law (1981) in the meantime.
The 1989 Roundtable Talks held at what today is the Presidential Palace and the first partially free elections brought the long-awaited freedom. The 1990s were a time of intense economic, political, and social reform. Development was further stimulated by Poland joining the European Union in 2004 and opening up to giant investment and swift change. Over a mere twenty-five years, Warsaw morphed from a gray socialist city into a thriving European metropolis and a centre of international developments. Crucial events organised and hosted by the capital include the 2010 celebrations of Fryderyk Chopin’s 200th birthday anniversary, the 2012 European Football Championship, and the 2013 Climate Summit. The NATO Summit planned for July 2016 will be a yet another event of global importance.