How Warsaw Came Close to Never Being Rebuilt
small, How Warsaw Came Close to Never Being Rebuilt, Napoleon Square with the Prudential skyscraper in downtown Warsaw, 1947, photo: Edward Falkowski / CFK / Forum, ruiny_warszawy_6.jpg
The reconstruction of Warsaw in 1945 was an attempt to rebuild not only the individual monuments, but also to restore the entire historical makeup of the city. Many years later, the revitalisation of its Old Town made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List – but back then, in the wake of the wartime destruction, this was far from obvious.
In January 1945, Warsaw was a sea of ruins – an appalling sight, as documented in numerous photographs. The devastation of the city, which had been home to over a million people before the war, was almost total, and the new Communist authorities even considered naming another city Poland's capital instead. 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.
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The city was gradually destroyed throughout World War II. By September 1939, ten percent of its buildings had already been destroyed. The devastation continued in 1941, when the city suffered Soviet bombings. In 1943, the destruction was brought to an unprecedented level with the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the aftermath of the Warsaw 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, the city centre and the Powiśle and Wola districts were destroyed. What was left was methodically looted and then razed to the ground by the German Vernichtungs- and Verbrenungskommando – even as late as mid-January 1945.
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As a result, the losses to Warsaw's urban architecture 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 was home to over 1 million people before the war was almost deserted, with only a few thousand people living in its ruins.
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All this made the rebuilding of Warsaw seem highly unlikely. In fact, at the beginning of 1945, the new Communist authorities were even considering moving the capital to Łodź, which had survived the war mostly intact. 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. These included former residents, as well as all kinds of displaced persons, who flocked to the ruins – and virtually began the reconstruction process on their own.
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Politics were also a factor. Stalin, who was preparing for the Yalta conference, needed international recognition – and this meant a Poland with its capital in Warsaw. On 3rd February 1945, the National Council passed a resolution that called for Warsaw's reconstruction. On 14th February, the Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy (Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital) 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 strategy 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.
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 reconstruction 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, as he would have it. This stance, however, was not shared by all members of the rebuilding 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 Zachwatowicz group was connected with the AK (Polish Home Army) underground, while 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 essentially be... a replica. The initial range of the reconstruction proposed by Zachwatowicz was eventually drastically reduced.
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Still, thanks to the determination of Zachwatowicz and his team, huge parts of Warsaw's Old Town and Royal Route were meticulously reconstructed. The pioneering and unique effort of the city's revitalisation was recognized by public opinion as early as 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 documentary heritage and enlisted on the Memory of the World Register.
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 opened in 1949 – a huge engineering achievement, with its tunnel running under Castle Square. In Mariensztat, the first post-war housing estate in Warsaw, some of the houses went up in record time. Interestingly, these were styled after typical 17th-century merchant houses.
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. Warsaw's obligatory style for many years to come, it would be epitomised in such architectural projects as the Muranów housing estate (1948-1953) or the Palace of Culture and Science (1953-56). Some other buildings completed before this mandate, like the Warsaw Housing Cooperative (WSM) Estate in Koło – designed by Helena and Szymon Syrkus and rooted in the Functionalist style of the '30s – or the 1950 Moskwa Cinema, seem shockingly modernist.
The first period of Warsaw's reconstruction ended with the dissolution of BOS in 1952 – but many rebuilding projects continued well into the '60s and even later. For example, the reconstruction of the Royal Castle was completed in 1974.
'The Whole Nation Builds its Capital'
In this context, it may be important to ask how such a great logistical enterprise was eve possible in a country so economically devastated by the war – especially considering that Poland was in no way part of the Marshall Plan.
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, the SFOS was the only legitimate state institution involved in financing the reconstruction effort. It was dissolved as late as 1965.
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Warsaw was truly, as the popular Socialist slogan goes, (re-)built by the whole nation – with donations and labourers coming from all around Poland, with plenty of volunteer work. The widespread enthusiasm, which was caught on newsreels from the period, cannot be dismissed as a Communist propaganda. In fact, it may have been required for the project to happen in the first place.
This goes together with another positive aspect of the rebuilding of Warsaw – its indisputable social achievement. It provided many people with not only a place to live, but chance at a new start. This concerned whole social classes, who had formerly been all but excluded from participation in urban life.
Destroying the old
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The construction of the Palace of Culture required that dozens of surviving 19th-century buildings be destroyed, ca. 1955, photo: Władysław Sławny / Dom Spotkań z Historią
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Building the new Socialist capital also involved the destruction of the old face of Warsaw – or 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 demolished. This pertains to many late 19th-century and early 20th-century tenant houses, which made up the most important part of Warsaw’s character before World War II.
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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.
From 'Odbudowa Warszawy w latach 1945–1952' by Jerzy S. Majewski & Tomasz Markiewicz, trans. MG
For the Communists, the turn-of-the-century architecture was quintessentially Bourgeois, while 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 the former division of title rights, Majewski and Markiewicz explain.
The long shadow of Nationalisation
The process of rebuilding Warsaw, 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 Dekret Bieruta (Bierut’s law).
Declared on November 1945, it stated that all land within the pre-war borders of Warsaw was to be nationalised, or made public property. (Although this did not pertain to buildings, in practice, they were also subject to nationalisation). Today, many historians believe that without it, the capital never could have been rebuilt so thoroughly.
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This Communist legal standard, apart from violating the constitutional right of personal property, also gave ground to future claims made by the pre-war owners and their inheritors. Reprivatisation has been gaining momentum in recent years. Since 1990 around nearly 4,000 addresses have returned to their pre-war owners, their inheritors, or simply those who have acquired the legal rights. Another 2,000 remain on the list for reprivatisation.
This process is considered problematic for several reasons – most importantly, as these claims often concern land and buildings of public utility, they pose a threat to Warsaw's social fabric. A solution to these issues, rooted deep in the Warsaw's post-war history, has yet to be determined.
reconstruction of Warsaw
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 3 Feb 2015