How Warsaw Came Close to Never Being Rebuilt
The reconstruction of Warsaw in 1945 was the first attempt in history to reconstruct not only the individual monuments, but also to recreate the entire historical tissue of a city. Many years later, the idea made it onto the UNESCO list of national heritage sites, but it was far from obvious that the enterprise would be successful back in the first days of 1945.
In January 1945, Warsaw was a virtual sea of ruins – an appalling sight documented in numerous photographs. The devastation of the city, which had been home to over 1 million people before the war, was almost complete, and the new Communist authorities even considered moving the capital to another Polish city. According to one idea, Warsaw was to be left the way it was – a lunar landscape of ruins – as a war memorial for future generations.
The city was gradually destroyed throughout WW2. 10% of its buildings had already been destroyed by September 1939. The devastation continued in 1941, when the city suffered under Soviet bombings. In 1943, the destruction was brought to an unprecedented level with the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. In the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising, the entire district of northern Warsaw was literally wiped from the surface of the earth. The final stage of destruction came with the Warsaw Uprising, when large parts of the Old Town, Powiśle, the city centre and Wola were destroyed. Whatever was left was methodically looted and then razed to the ground by the German Vernichtungs- and Verbrenungskommando, even as late as mid-January 1945.
See also The Urn in the Library – How the Nazis burned Warsaw's libraries
As a result, the losses in urban architecture of Warsaw at the beginning of 1945 were estimated at around 84%: with industrial infrastructure and historic monuments destroyed at 90%, and residential buildings at 72%. After the Warsaw Uprising, a city which before the war was home to over 1 million people was almost deserted, with only a few thousand people living in its ruins.
Stalin needs Warsaw in Yalta
All this made the rebuilding of Warsaw highly unlikely. In fact, at the beginning of 1945, the new Communist authorities were even considering moving the capital to Łodź, which had most of its buildings still standing. There were also serious plans to turn Warsaw into a kind of reserve – a quasi-memorial of war.
Why was Warsaw rebuilt, then? Two reasons proved crucial. First, there was the human factor – starting in January 1945, there was a steady influx of people to the city, former residents as well as all kinds of displaced persons flocked into the frozen ruins, virtually starting the reconstruction process on their own. Then there was politics. Stalin, who was preparing for the Yalta conference, needed international recognition, this meant a Poland with its capital in Warsaw. On February 3, 1945, the National Council passed a resolution that called for the rebuilding of the capital. A couple of days later, on February 14, the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital (Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy) was formed.
Warsaw 1945: Reconstruction
With the establishing of the BOS, one of the most ambitious projects in human history was initiated. No one had ever attempted to reconstruct the monuments of a war-torn city on such a scale. The decision to do so was also in blatant contrast with the prevailing conservation doctrine of the times. After the war, when faced with rebuilding a town which had been virtually erased from the face of the earth, Germany, the UK, Holland, France and Italy reconstructed only selected individual historical buildings. The reconstruction of Warsaw followed exactly the opposite tactic. And, as Jerzy S. Majewski and Tomasz Markiewicz, the authors of the book Building a New Home, explain, the credit for much of the exceptional character of Warsaw’s re-construction actually goes to one person:
Seeking to persuade the political authorities, as well as conservators and architects, Professor Jan Zachwatowicz, who was the head of the BOS’s Department of Monumental Architecture at that time, argued that in the case of Polish monuments destroyed by the Germans during the war, and particularly those in the capital city, full reconstruction was uniquely justified.
Zachwatowicz’s motivation was indeed patriotic: a nation and its cultural monuments are one entity, he would say. His stance, however, was not shared by all members of the re-construction team. Over the whole period of reconstruction (which lasted until 1952), the activities of BOS were marked by a sharp conflict between the ‘monumentalists’ centred around Zachwatowicz and the ‘modernisers’, led by the Head of the BOS, Roman Piotrowski and his deputy Józef Sigalin. This division mirrored the individual political leanings of the architects: the group of Zachwatowicz was connected with the AK underground, Piotrowski and Sigalin belonged to the new order.
In fact, Zachwatowicz’s idea often meant reconstructing whole buildings and monuments from scratch – based on documentation, memory and whatever other sources there were, like the drawings of Caneletto. It also meant that a large part of the rebuilt city would be basically... a replica.
The initial range of the reconstruction proposed by Zachwatowicz was eventually drastically reduced. Still, thanks to the determination of Zachwatowicz and his team, huge parts of the Old Town and the Royal Route were meticulously reconstructed.
The pioneering and unique effort of reconstruction in Warsaw was already recognized by public opinion in 1980, when Warsaw’s Old Town was selected as part of UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage list. And in 2011, the Archives of BOS were recognized as one of the most valuable examples of human documental heritage, and enlisted on the Memory of the World list.
Building the New Socialist Capital
Historical reconstruction was naturally only a part of the rebuilding effort. The city needed new urban planning, new streets and new buildings to accommodate the growing numbers of new Varsovians.
The immediate post-war years saw the launch and completion of several huge projects, like the building of Trasa W-Z (the East-West Route), which was a huge engineering achievement on its opening in 1949, with its tunnel running under Castle Square. In Mariensztat, which was the first post-war housing estate in Warsaw, some of the houses (interestingly, they were stylized merchant houses typical of the 17th century) went up in record time.
One of the peculiarities of the first years of the rebuilding effort was that the architects still enjoyed artistic freedom, at least until the new official style of Social Realism was imposed in 1949. Some projects, like the Warsaw Housing Cooperative (WSM) Estate in Koło, designed by Helena and Szymon Syrkus and rooted in the Functionalist style of the 30s, strike one as shockingly modernist. Just like the Moskwa Cinema, opened in 1950, they were designed before the official introduction of Social Realism in Poland, which became Warsaw's obligatory style for many years to come, epitomized in such architectural projects as Muranów housing estate (1948-1953) or the Palace of Culture and Science (1953-56).
The first period of reconstruction ended with the dissolution of BOS in 1952, but many reconstruction projects continued well into the 60s and even later (eg. the reconstruction of the Royal Castle being completed only in 1974).
The Entire Nation is Building its Capital
In this context, it may be important to ask how such a great logistical enterprise was at all possible in a country so economically devastated by the war, and considering that Poland was not part of a Marshall Plan of any sort. In fact, the sole source of financing was the donations made by the people to the Social Fund for the Rebuilding of the Capital (SFOS). Established in 1945, SFOS was the only legitimate state institution to deal with financing the reconstruction effort. It was dissolved as late as 1965.
Warsaw was truly, as the popular Socialist slogan goes, (re-)built by the whole nation, with donations and workers coming from all around Poland, and with a whole lot of volunteer work. The widespread enthusiasm, which was caught on newsreels from the period, cannot be dismissed as a Communist propaganda. In fact, it just might have been a prerequisite for the whole rebuilding project happening.
This goes together with another positive aspect of the rebuilding of Warsaw – its indisputable social achievement, consisting in providing many people with a place to live, and a chance at a new start. This concerned whole social classes, formerly excluded from any participation in urban life.
Destroying the Old
Building the new Socialist capital also involved the destruction of the old face of Warsaw, or rather what was left of it. As Jerzy S. Majewski and Tomasz Markiewicz note, the future capital of Poland was conceived of as a model Socialist city in accordance with the ideology imposed by a foreign power. This meant that the land was nationalized, and many buildings that had survived the war were pulled down. This pertains to many late 19th-century/early 20th-century tenant houses, which made up the most important part of Warsaw’s character before WW2.
The BOS Emergency Services undertook controversial decisions with regard to the demolition of dozens of 19th-century buildings, even those which had already been rebuilt. Such decisions were frequently taken in order to prevent the buildings being returned to their rightful private owners.
For the Communists, the turn-of-the-century architecture was quintessentially Bourgeois, and for Modernist architects, it was seen as an obstacle to building a better urban environment
Urban planners and architects, who before the war had designed nothing more than groups of buildings, could now let their imaginations run free and create entire districts, with no regard for former division of title rights, explain Majewski and Markiewicz.
The Long Shadow of Nationalization
This rebuilding process and the way it was carried out, while a great success in its own right, also had its inherent drawbacks which are becoming apparent only today. To facilitate the reconstruction effort the Communist regime introduced the so-called Dekret Bierut (Bierut’s law). Declared on November 1945, Dekret Bieruta stated that all land within the pre-war borders of Warsaw was to be nationalized. (Although this did not pertain to buildings, in practice the buildings were also subject to nationalization). Today many historians believe that without it, the rebuilding of the capital on this scale wouldn’t have been possible.
But this Communist legal standard, apart from violating the constitutional right of personal property, also gave ground to the future claims made by the pre-war owners and their inheritors. This re-privatization has been gaining momentum in recent years - since 1990 around 3,7 thousand addresses have returned to their pre-war owners (their inheritors or simply those who have acquired the legal rights) and another 2000 is still on the list to be reprivatized. This process is considered problematic for a couple of reasons; most importantly as these claims often concern land and buildings of public utility, and pose a threat to social tissue of the city.
The solution to this problem, rooted deep in the Warsaw's post-war history, lies still ahead.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, February 3, 2015