Warsaw’s history has more ups and downs than a jejunum. But like the very essence of the Polish character, it has managed to return from the brink of destruction time and time again.
The first semblance of a town only sprang up around the beginning of the 14th century when the dukes of Mazovia built a stronghold on the site of the present Royal Castle. In 1413 the dukes chose Warsaw as their seat of power, and things went swimmingly for over 100 years until, in 1526, the last duke died without an heir. The burgeoning town – and the whole of Mazovia – fell under direct rule of the king in Kraków and was incorporated into royal territory.
Warsaw’s fortunes took a turn for the better after the unification of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, when the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) voted to make Warsaw the seat of its debates, because of its central position. The ultimate ennoblement came in 1596 when King Zygmunt III Waza decided to move his capital from Kraków to Warsaw.
The Swedish invasion from 1655 to 1660 was not kind to Warsaw, but it swiftly recovered and continued to develop. Paradoxically, the 18th century – a period of catastrophic decline for the Polish state – witnessed Warsaw’s greatest prosperity. A wealth of palaces and churches was erected, and cultural and artistic life flourished, particularly during the reign of the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski.
In 1795 the city’s prosperity was again shattered – following the partition of Poland, its status was reduced to that of a provincial town. When Napoleon rolled into town in 1806 on his way to defeat in Russia, things started looking up – the warring Frenchman created the Duchy of Warsaw and the city became a capital once more. The celebrations were brief however, as in 1815 Warsaw, and the rest of Poland, fell under Russian rule. The Varsovians rebelled against their rulers in 1830 and 1864, but the city remained in Russian hands until WWI.
After WWI Warsaw was reinstated as the capital of independent Poland and the urban development and industrialisation begun in the late 19th-century continued. By 1939, the city had grown to 1.3 million, of whom 380, 000 were Jews who had traditionally made up a significant part of Warsaw’s community.
German bombs began to fall on 1 September 1939 and a week later the city was besieged; despite brave resistance, Warsaw fell within a month. The conquerors instantly set about terrorising the local population with arrests, executions and deportations, and a Jewish Ghetto was swiftly built. The city rebelled against the Germans twice, first in April 1943 and second in August 1944. Both rebellions were ruthlessly crushed.
At the end of the war the city of Warsaw lay in ruins and 800, 000 people – more than half of the prewar population – had perished. (By comparison, the total military casualties for US forces in WWII was 400, 000, for UK forces 326, 000.) A massive rebuilding project was undertaken soon after and despite over 40 years of communist rule the city once again regathered its strength and is now enjoying an unprecedented period of economic growth.