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Poland's Capital: A Short History and Introduction to Warsaw



The role of Warsaw as Poland's capital (stolica) has not always been so. Before the union of Poland and Lithuania in the sixteenth century, the southern city of Kraków had held the title. But in 1569, at the behest of the widowed Queen, Bona Sforza, coronation ceremonies were moved to the centralised city, and soon after King Sigismund III officially transferred the seat of power from the south. Thus, Warsaw's journey as the capital of Poland began.


In fact, for a King ruling a joint commonwealth state (the allied powers of Poland and Lithuania), Warsaw was an obvious choice for capital; it lay mid-way between the two powerhouse cities of the territory, Kraków and Vilnius, and sufficiently far from the Swedish border and Baltic sea; the two major sources of foreign invasion threat in the period.


While in the first half of the seventieth century the capital underwent a period of vast expansion and became of the leading cultural centres in Europe, from 1655 onward a series of Prussian, Transylvanian and Swedish invasions saw Warsaw under siege no less than three times in just as many years. This culminated in the 'Swedish Deluge' (Potop Szwiedzki), a successful occupation of Poland's provinces and capital from the north that lasted until 1660.


Just as the history of Poland is littered with outside invasion, destruction and long periods of annexation, so the story of its capital follows a similar path. In the late eighteenth century, Warsaw became a part of the Prussian empire and Poland was annexed into the territory accordingly. This lasted until the city was liberated by a Napoleon on the Russian warpath in 1806. For the next hundred years, Warsaw, like Poland itself was to be the toy of Europe's great powers. Most notably, the assimilation of the Polish state into the departments of the Russian empire following the repulsion of Napoleon from the Slavic states in 1815, meant that all constitutional power was drained from the capital and transferred east.


This lasted until the establishment of the Second Polish Republic (Rzeczpospolita Polska), a significant moment in Polish history, when territorial and political sovereignty was guaranteed by the post-war 1918 treaty of Versailles. However, the guarantee was tenuous at best, and as early as 1920, the newly formed Polish army defended the city against the communist Soviet revolutionary army at the Battle of Warsaw (Bitwa Warszawska). The Warsavian victory here secured the eastern provinces from Russian expansionism, and underscored Poland's sovereign status with Warsaw at the helm.


However, with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Warsaw saw some of the darkest days in its history. The Warsaw Ghetto (getto warszawskie) was the largest controlled area of Jewish population in Nazi Europe and contained almost 400,000 Jews at its height. It was here that the famous 'Warsaw Ghetto Uprising' took place; the largest organised metropolitan resistance to German occupation of the war.


Towards the end of the war, the position of Warsaw was extremely tenuous. Soviet troops under the command of Stalin advanced from the east, openly hostile to the city's position as the head of a sovereign state they refused to recognise, and Hitler had already given the command to raze the city to the ground before any retreat took place. Despite the efforts of the Polish underground army (Armia Krajowa) to take control of the city during the Warsaw Uprising (Powstanie Warszawskie) of August 1944, the city suffered terribly at the hands of its occupiers, and by January of 1945, it's estimated that as much as 85% of the city had been totally destroyed. What's more, after the retreat of the Germans, the Polish resistance was far too weak to repel any invading force from the East, and Warsaw became part of the communist Eastern Bloc; a city weathered and exhausted by foreign invasion.


However, Warsaw has gained the epithet 'Pheonix city' for good reason. Throughout the later decades of the twentieth century the city became a centre of communist opposition, and the peaceful trade-unionist movement of Solidarność grew dramatically here. Eventually communism toppled and the democratic seat of Polish government was established in Warsaw. The modern capital we have today is the product of speedy economic growth emanating from the city, where business has thrived and traditional Polish culture has been restored. Today, the restored old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the city is host to major international sporting events and tourist points of interest.





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