There are buildings in our lives that are more than just a destination or a place. They stand as a symbol of our being and our ideals. Their stone and bricks have been imbued with so much character and history that it is almost as if they are alive too.
Unfortunately when warring nations conquer territory, they often destroy these symbols as a first attempt to terrorize the home population. And Poland, like every country, has had a very interesting history and some very tough chapters. Tough years have solidified a national pride that is evident on so many levels, but at least for the purposes of this blog, it is evident architecturally too. Because after all the destruction; they rebuilt. And like a phoenix rising from some truly terrible ashes, these buildings stand as a testament to strength, independence and sheer will.
Although a lot of places suffered bomb damage in the almost constant war that seems to define the last millennium, Warsaw is a bit of an oddity. We aren’t talking about 50% destroyed; we are talking about the Nazis systemically blowing up every building in the old town in retaliation for the 1944 uprising.
But before we get to the 1940s, let’s start at the beginning. This castle was home to many leaders over the years. Starting in the 13th century, back before Warsaw was really even a part of Poland, it was the dukes of Masovia’s home. In 1526, when Warsaw was incorporated into Poland, it became a royal residence.
But it was really Sigismund the III that made what it is today possible. He moved the capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw, and in doing so inspired some good-humored rivalry between the two cities. He enlarged the already big castle and set about making it fitting for a king.
And the architecture that he ended up with was Mannerist-early Baroque. In the process of combining the sought after Italian style, ideas of Polish grandeur, and some Swedish influence (he was from the Swedish dynasty of Vasa after all), there is a noticeable feeling of restraint in the facades. It seems surprisingly modern.
For many generations, the castle stored priceless beauties, including tapestries and paintings by all the Greats (and some Polish Greats too!) However, after Sigismund’s reign Poland and the castle suffered heavily under successive Swedish and Brandenburg invasions.
Multiple reconstruction projects were conducted over the years as the castle changed hands from king to king. But it wasn’t until Stanislaw II Augustus (the last king of Poland) that the castle really shined. He hired first-rate architects Jakub Fontana, Merlini, Kamsetzer, and Kubicki, and some amazing painters (including Canelletto) and sculptors to enhance it. The interiors became more neoclassical (although in Poland the style of these rooms is known as Stanislaw Augustus style – and can we think about how I can get an Alexa Asakiewicz style, because that would be great)
Although he was elected with Russian involvement, Augustus was a great patron of the arts and sciences, as well as of progressive reform. The people at this point were just happy to get a king that was a Pole, as many before him were of foreign origin (Poland was ruled by a series of elected kings at this point). Augustus, knowing that he could not defend Poland against its warring neighbors, set about inspiring and defending its culture in hopes that it would survive whatever was to come.
Some of that was good, like the Constitution of May 3rd 1791. Extremely liberal, the constitution created a democratic constitutional monarchy, introducing concepts of equality and trying to rid society of the worst abuses of serfdom. It is the world’s second oldest codified National Constitution after the United States. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 19 months, because Russia was having none of that.
But most of the things to come were awful. Thanks to Napoleon and the partition of Poland, 1806 brought the Tsars of Russia to the castle as new owners. For a brief time, Poland regained her independence in between WWI and WWII, and throughout that period, another president would reside in the castle. Under him, it was lovingly restored.
In 1939, the castle was shelled by German artillery and quickly caught fire. Despite townspeople’s efforts to quell the flames (and the Germans limited those as well) the roof and turrets were destroyed, ceilings collapsed and other rooms damaged. Once the Germans seized Warsaw they set about fully demolishing the castle, and throughout this time, many people worked under threat of life to secretly remove and hide valuable parts and pieces. What we have today is predicated on their tireless efforts. You can still see original pieces as you walk around the rooms, which helped with the entire reconstruction efforts. Not long after, on October 4, 1939, Hitler ordered for the castle to be completely blown up after special German units seized everything of value. His ultimate goal was to build a monumental city hall on the spot, and so tens of thousands of holes for dynamite sticks were drilled into the walls; for awhile, the castle was granted reprieve, but they were eventually set off in 1944. (You can check out some photos of the castle’s destruction here.)
In 1944, the people of Warsaw, despite very gloomy prospects, started an uprising. They believed that they were going to be helped quickly by the Soviet’s red army that was then approaching the city. But, after almost two months, the Soviets never came (because they were just hanging out on the other side of the river, seeing what the Varsavians would do) and instead the Germans were able to regroup and demolish the city. The uprising is pretty powerful stuff that I’ve never heard mentioned before in any of my history classes (and I was a history major). I encourage all of you to read about it, even if it’s just this Wikipedia page. But I suppose the most important thing to know is that the Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by a resistance movement during World War II. And despite a few airdrops, it was largely unaided by any outside party. Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed during mass executions throughout the uprising, not to mention the 16,000 members of the resistance who also died. The uprising itself destroyed 25% of Warsaw’s buildings, and after Polish surrender, the germans went through and destroyed the city block by block in retribution. At the end, all that was left of the castle, 600 years later, were two small wall fragments.
When the war ended in 1945, work to rescue the surviving pieces commenced. In 1949, even though fully part of the USSR at this point, a bill was passed in Polish parliament to rebuild the castle as a monument to Polish history and culture. Work was postponed until 1971. The castle was rebuilt solely from voluntary contributions. Its accurate to say that this building meant a lot to a lot of Poles. After holding a competition to redesign the castle, it was decided that it was to be rebuilt as it was.
In its grandeur today, amidst buildings that have been painstakingly restored to their former glory, it’s easy to imagine a Poland that once was (and now is). It’s harder to believe the atrocities and awfulness presented to us in the pictures that show Warsaw’s complete destruction. It’s hard to imagine purposely destroying a valued building, but it’s much, much harder to imagine the purposeful destruction of a whole people (and by that I mean both Jewish people, but also Poles).
This building may stand as bricks and stone (and now maybe a little reinforced concrete too), but in my mind (and I believe also in others), it stands as a symbol of a Poland that would not be defeated. Stanislaw II Augustus would be proud to know that sometime in the future, his actions and inspirations, cemented a people and an idea of a country that for a long time simply didn’t exist as such.
Now, the castle exists again. As does Poland. As does it’s sovereignty. And these are all beautiful things.
What’s one building that means a lot to you? If it was ever destroyed, would you rebuild it? Chime in and let me know, I would love to hear!