History of Warsaw
Legend traces the origins of the city to the love that sprang up between a young Mazovian fisherman, Wars, and a beautiful mermaid, Sawa; however, accounts of this tale are extremely varied, and the only elements shared by all versions are the names Wars and Sawa, and the presence of a mermaid in the Vistula River. Whoever she may have been, this mermaid ultimately vowed to defend the ancient riverbank fishing village from which the city of Warsaw later developed. The image of a mermaid brandishing sword and shield can be seen on the Warsaw crest, as well as in sculptures scattered over the city – most notably in the Old Town Market Square.
Warsaw remained a relatively unimportant little town under the jurisdiction of the Dukes of Mazovia until they declared it their capital in 1413. Trade increased, money flowed in, merchants began to construct elegant homes, and the city began to take shape. At this time, the Old Town Market Square would have been approximately the same size and shape as the one we see today, while its surrounding buildings were most likely smaller, humbler and gothic in style. The ducal home was moved from the castle at Jazdow some short distance to the south (now Ujazdowski Castle) to the site of today’s Royal Castle, setting the foundations for the royal capital Warsaw would one day become.
It was in 1525 that Warsaw experienced its first popular uprising. At this time, Warsaw’s population had grown enough to necessitate the building of a New Town outside the city walls. The wealth of a handful of merchants and noblemen grew steadily, while the rest of Warsaw’s citizens lived in less laudable conditions. Eventually the great contrast in social status incited Warsaw’s poor to revolt against the unjust city authorities – a tradition that would continue for hundreds of years to come.
Real change came along in 1526, when the last of the Mazovian Dukes suddenly died (rumour claims they were poisoned, although this mystery has never been solved). The territory of Warsaw fell to the Polish Crown, and administration of the city fell to its inhabitants – hence the construction of a Town Hall (which now no longer exists) on the Main Market Square, an increase in business activity, and the expansion of the city’s suburbs further and further afield.
In the 16th century, Krakow was still the capital of Poland, but the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had expanded considerably to the north and east, leaving the royal capital a bit distant for administrative convenience. The King and Parliament soon recognized the strategic location of Warsaw – a central point between the eastern territories, the southern Krakow region and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The General Sejm (Parliament) was held in Warsaw for the first time in 1529.
View Warsaw in 1 Day in a larger map
A ROYAL CAPITAL
The last king of the Jagiellon Dynasty died in 1572, and with him, Poland’s hereditary monarchy. From 1573, kings were elected by the vote of the noble classes, with elections being held in the village of Wola, now a district just to the west of Warsaw’s city centre. Upon winning an election, the chosen King was obliged to sign reams of agreements essentially limiting his power and putting him at the mercy of Parliament, which was run by the powerful noble classes.
In 1596, King Zygmunt III Waza officially moved the capital of Poland to Warsaw, settling in the Royal Castle at the south end of the Old Town. His decision is commemorated by the Zygmunt Column in the Castle Square, built by his son Wladyslaw IV in 1644.
From this time on, Warsaw and its surrounding area exploded with new roads, houses and palaces. Poland, however, had reached its apex and soon fell into difficulties which, over the next two centuries, would eventually lead to its ruin. Warsaw was besieged and plundered during the Swedish Deluge (1655-1658), losing many valuable works of art, books and other historical artifacts. A 17th-century fire also caused much of the Old Town to be rebuilt, this time in a grander baroque style, replacing the simpler, Gothic or wooden structures of previous centuries.
The great King Jan III Sobieski brought a glimmer of hope to the weakened Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when he defeated the Turks at Vienna in 1683. He refurbished the country palace at Wilanow in ostentatious style, turning it into a sort of Polish Versailles; today the palace stands mainly as a tribute to his great reign, recreating those days of glory in its beautifully preserved state rooms and gardens.
Later kinds, however, did not bring such great victories. Although the Saxon King Augustus II was responsible for promoting culture in Warsaw and adding to the city’s architectural beauty, with his elegant Saxon Gardens and the (no longer existing) Saxon Palace, he also embroiled Poland in some unfortunate wars, at the end of which Poland’s powerful Russian neighbours clearly had the upper hand.
Royal elections were increasingly influenced by foreign powers; the king became almost helpless in the face of the powerful nobility, who spent more and more time brawling over their personal privileges instead of fighting to protect their weakening nation.
THE LAST KING
Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who would become the last king of Poland, was elected in 1764. His reign ended in failure, with his kingdom divided up by its three powerful neighbours – Russia, Prussia, and Austria – in 1795. Nevertheless, this period is also associated with exceptional progress. The first secular schools were established in Warsaw during this time. The city continued to expand. The Lazienki Krolewskie (Royal Baths), a beautiful parkland south of the Old Town, was re-landscaped, its palaces renovated. Cultural life experienced a new golden age. Warsaw’s middle class grew in size and importance, the city’s population increased as families moved from the countryside to take part in trade and business. Parliament began to discuss changes in the political structure of the nation. It was a time of great hope.
On 3 May 1791, Europe’s first (and the world’s second) constitution was signed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in the Old Town. While it heralded a new era for the Polish people, it spelt potential disaster for Poland’s neighbouring powers; Russian and Austrian armies marched in to put a stop to any progress that might be afoot. This spurred the young patriot and hero of the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, to start a revolt, which soon spread from Krakow to Warsaw and beyond, in 1794. The Kosciuszko Uprising was eventually put down, and the final partition of Poland eliminated the country from the map of Europe for the next 125 years.
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Initially, Warsaw was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia. The aspirations of Napoleon, however, came to the rescue; his defeat of the Prussians led to the creation of a liberated Duchy of Warsaw in 1806. Many Poles saw Napoleon as the future liberator of Poland and joined his ranks, with thousands of Polish soldiers dying in battle under the French flag all over the globe. These hopes soon died, however, with Napoleon’s defeat; Warsaw became the centre of Congress Poland, a constitutional monarchy under the control of Imperial Russia. The city remained under Russian domination until Poland regained independence after the First World War.
The Russian occupation of Warsaw in the 19th century was alternately liberal and harsh. Under Tsar Aleksander I, there was a great deal of expansion, with the building of the University, the laying of the grand thoroughfare Aleje Jerozolimskie, and the renovation of much of the city. Under the more conservative Tsar Nicholas I, conditions were not so rosy, leading to the outbreak of the November Uprising in 1830, and again to the January Uprising in 1863. Both times, fighting carried on for months, but was ultimately crushed, and brought about brutal reprisals. Thousands were arrested, executed, or exiled to Siberia, with many dissidents being held in the Warsaw Citadel.
Polish units entered the First World War under the flags of three different nations, forced to fight against each other, but hopeful that the mutual destruction of the partitioning powers would bring about their liberation. Their hopes finally came true – on 11 November 1918, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski became the Head of State of the newly independent Poland.
This, however, was not the end of the struggle. Fighting continued against Soviet Russia over the demarcation of Poland’s territory, as Russia sought to retain much of what had been annexed during the Partitions. The particularly bloody Battle of Warsaw was fought on the eastern outskirts of the city, ultimately defeating the Red Army. Today, the so-called Cud nad Wisla – Wonder of the Vistula – is still celebrated on 15 August.
THE SECOND REPUBLIC
The 1920s saw Warsaw burst into life. The newly independent capital rapidly transformed into a modern metropolis. Economically, things were looking up. Tram lines were constructed, an airport was built, new streets and avenues were laid, housing developments sprang up, and plans for a metro (never realized) were drawn. The future was looking bright.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
This ear of new hope was cut brutally short with the first bombs that fell on Warsaw on 1 September 1939. German tank divisions arrived a week later, and although they were held back by the Home Guard, it was clear that Warsaw was in no state to hold out for long. The following week, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, while the German army continued their bombing. On 27 September, Warsaw was forced to capitulate.
During that first month, about 25,000 civilians and 6,000 soldiers were killed, and some 10 percent of the city destroyed. The Polish president was arrested and deported to Dachau, where he later died. Institutions of higher education were closed, intellectuals and leaders in culture and the sciences were arrested and deported or executed. Scattered over the streets of Warsaw, you can find small monuments commemorating civilians killed during the random street roundups that increased steadily during the occupation. The death toll grew staggeringly over the next five years, while living conditions in Warsaw were the harshest of all the occupied cities in Europe.
A Jewish ghetto was created and sealed off in 1940; Warsaw’s large Jewish population was forced to live in horribly cramped and unsanitary conditions, with thousands dying of disease and starvation even before the German authorities began their systematic deportation to death camps. As liquidation of the ghetto began, the Jews rose up against the Nazis, staging the bloody Jewish Uprising of 1943. They held out for several months before their struggle was put down and the ghetto was destroyed.
A year later, with the German army weakening across Europe and the Red Army advancing on the west, the citizens of Warsaw took their last stand for an independent Poland, launching the Warsaw Uprising on 1 August 1944. Fighting was brutal, and the whole city was plunged into battle, insurgents and civilians alike, with indiscriminate bombings and horrific massacres of whole districts wiping out hundreds of thousands. The uprising was crushed on 2 October; the German army bombed the city, leaving a sea of rubble behind them as they retreated; and the victorious Red Army, which had waited patiently on the right bank of the Vistula while the fighting continued, marched in over the wasteland to take control.
THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC
Under the new communist government, Warsaw’s citizens began rebuilding their city, with the first plans taking shape immediately after the war. While the socialist vision of the new Warsaw included much less history and much more functionalism, sentimentality often won out, and the Old Town and Royal Route were reconstructed with loving precision, with the help of old paintings and photographs.
Stalin’s great gift to the Polish people, the Palace of Culture and Science, was constructed at a rapid pace in the early 1950s. Large new housing estates, meant to be an example of the new standards brought by a new era, were raised over the ruins of the city centre. You can see an example of the socialist ideal in the Marszalkowska Street and Constitution Square area today.
The Stalinist era was one of authoritative change, repression and censorship, with many intellectual and cultural leaders either facing persecution or ultimately fleeing the country. A lot of reprehensibly eye-offending tower blocks were built as the suburbs expanded further and further. Certain shops and restaurants, as well as "milk bars" (bar mleczny) and old market halls, still preserve the spirit of this era.
Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to his home country the year after he was appointed Pope, in 1979; his message to the Poles served as inspiration for them to stand up against the authorities and reclaim their nation. Mass was said on Pilsudski Square, attended by hundreds.
The Soildarity movement brought about a crisis in the goverment ranks, with the declaration of martial law in December 1981. By 1989, however, communism has breathed its last, and Round Table talks were held in Warsaw’s Presidential Palace, ultimately leading to Poland’s first free elections in over fifty years.
The free elections of 1989 ushered in the Third Republic, with popular Solidarity leader Lech Walesa at its head as president. Since then, change has continued at a rapid pace. Poland entered the EU in 2004, seeing an increase both in the emigration of Polish professionals and the immigration of foreign entrepreneurs, with a constant rise in foreign investment as Poland is viewed more and more as a land of opportunity. With the Football European Championship being held in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, Warsaw continues to build and expand, modernise and transform, a city full of hope for the future.