History of Warsaw

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Warsaw lies at the crossroads of Europe. The city sits, peering over the Wisla, halfway between Paris and Moscow.

At the moment this central location is helping to build the capital up again - Warsaw is developing at breakneck speed. Skyscrapers seem to appear virtually overnight and the signs of renovation, modernization and renewal are evident everywhere.

However, being at Europe's crossroads has not always been an advantage. Warsaw has often paid a heavy price for its location. Its reasons for being a great city are also what caused it to be completely destroyed in the recent past.

The current population is around 2.6 million people (taking the neighboring suburban areas into account. However, at the end of the Second World War - the largest single contributing factor to the city's current appearance - the capital was practically a ghost town.

Archeologists have uncovered evidence of human settlement along the east side of the Wisla from as far back as 10 000 years ago. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1289 that the town is first mentioned in records: at that time there was settlement on both sides of the river.

The name of the city is said to be derived from the names of two lovers - Wars and Sawa - who met and fell in love here. Another more likely story is that it comes from the name of a traditional landlord named Warsz.

In the 14th century, Warsaw is suddenly referred to as a fully-fledged city. No written document has ever been uncovered to explain this sudden transformation. The only logical supposition is that, once again, its position between north, south, east and west made it a popular choice. By 1408, it had grown enough to spill beyond the protective city walls and construction of the New Town began. In 1413, the now famous Old Town Square was created. That same year the city also became a regional capital of Mazowia.

In 1526, Warsaw was incorporated into Poland proper and in 1569 it was chosen (once again because of its central location) to be the seat of the Parliament (or Sejm) of the new Polish-Lithuanian Republic. Not much later, in 1596, King Sigismund III (whose column stands at the entrance to the Old Town) moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow and the city became the parliamentary, financial and mercantile center of the Republic (which, besides Poland and Lithuania also included Belarus and Ukraine).

In 1648, Warsaw officially expanded over the river, taking in what is now the Praga district into its boundaries. Over the next hundred years it would continue to grow. By the 18th century the capital had become an important cultural and artistic center: Marszalkowska street was opened (1757), the National Theatre held its first performances (1765) and the city was becoming internationally renowned.

Now however, location began to be a negative factor. Other nations more powerful than Poland began to look on it as a possible and highly desirable territorial acquisition. Thus began the period of Poland's partitioning and repartitioning. It started in 1772, and happened again in 1793 and 1795. In the meantime, the Poles themselves (in Warsaw) voted in the second democratic constitution of modern times (after that of the United States). This proved too much for the still very imperial Russians who saw this as a legitimate excuse to invade. By 1795 Poland was gone from the map; the nation no longer existed and Warsaw was no longer a capital.

It wasn't until 1815 that Poland gained back some autonomy, thanks to the Congress of Vienna. Nonetheless Warsaw was still under the domination of the Tsar and the official language of education, diplomacy and so on was Russian. The Poles tried several times to rise up and defeat their stronger foes (the beginnings of a long and bloody uprising tradition in Warsaw) but all attempts failed.

The end of the First World War saw Poland reinstated as an autonomous nation once again and within ten years, Warsaw was a city of one million people. The inter war years were a time of success and growth, but it wasn't to last. In 1939 the German army invaded. Thus began what was to be a long and protracted war.

The Jewish population of some 400 000 people was systematically reduced to practically zero. By 1944 Warsaw lay in ruins, perhaps the most destroyed of any city in the war, with hardly a single building left standing. Entire sections of the once proud capital were left deserted and barren. It would take until 1956 before the population once again reached one million people. The Jewish community has never returned in any great number.

Two things happened at the end of the war which are responsible for how the city looks today: the first, and most important historically, is that the country fell under the control of the USSR. This had a major impact on Warsaw's development and especially on its architecture. Socialist Realism - the new Soviet building style - was given a ruined city to experiment with.

The second factor was the Poles' desire to rebuild the Old Town and other historic areas in an attempt to salvage at least something from their past. This resulted in one of the most amazing reconstruction projects of modern times: the Old Town, reassembled brick by brick, along with the New Town and other historic sites was to be recognized by UNESCO and added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1980.

By 1989 it was clear that Communism was coming to an end. Warsaw was host to the now famous 'round table' talks in which the government, Solidarity and groups participated. In the elections held that year, Solidarity emerged victorious and Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist prime minister in Eastern Europe.

Investment from the West started to trickle in, but this flow of investment soon became a flood. Warsaw began to boom - and is still booming. With its bizarre mix of historic buildings, massive Socialist Realist structures and shiny new skyscrapers, the city looks sure to become one of Europe's most eclectic and interesting.