Warsaw: Life Imitates Art

Throughout urban history, we have seen war seemingly eradicate some of the world’s most influential cities, tearing apart not only their physical foundations, but in turn, their intrinsic spirit. One today may look at the results of conflicts in places such as Baghdad, Kabul, or Damascus, and assume that these once vibrant, cosmopolitan hubs will never see the light of prosperity that they once had. Their past has been literally shattered into ruins, with their futures buried under a mass of collateral damage and debris. But history has also proven otherwise. The aftermath of World War II alone has displayed unimaginable rebirths for cities that were sieged, razed, and everything in between. London survived a blitz, Nanjing withstood a genocide, and Rotterdam went on to revive itself into Europe’s busiest port. Even with all of these stories of inspiration and hope, the story of one city’s rebirth from the damages of “the War” continues to stand out, not only from the heights to which it rose, but the depths from which it came. That is the story of Poland’s capital, the “Phoenix City” itself, Warsaw. With hometown icons including trailblazers such as Frederic Chopin and Marie Curie, the story of Warsaw has always been one of pushing the realms of possibility. Nowhere was this character more showcased than in WWII.

Then nicknamed “the Paris of the North” for its grandiose architecture and cosmopolitan character, 1930s Warsaw saw a staggering surge in economic and demographic growth, being even more densely populated than contemporary London. This increase in prominence for a Slavic city with a heavily influential Jewish presence (around 30% of the population) made Warsaw the most inevitable target for the Nazis. From 1939 to 1943, the city bore the brunt of the Nazis’ occupation, withstanding a bloody siege and a Ghetto uprising that lead to nearly half of the city destroyed, and some 200,000 casualties. But Varsovians still didn’t give in. In the summer of 1944, when, though hopelessly outnumbered and ill-equipped, the Polish resistance still inflicted serious damage onto the Nazi forces, eliminating up to 20,000 Nazi troops in the famed Warsaw Uprising. However, this high level of resistance only fuelled the German blowback, with Hitler declaring that every building in Warsaw be burned to the ground. That dream was almost realised. Eventually, in the aftermath of the War, over 85% of Warsaw, including its centuries-old Old Town and Royal Castle, was reduced to rubble. Up to half a million people, both soldiers and civilians, were killed. In addition, over 700,000 people, including its entire once-prominent Jewish community, had been left expelled. The city’s buildings, people, and, in turn, spirit, had all been wiped away. Warsaw was dead. But, apparently, nobody told the Varsovians.

Warsaw’s Old Town, 1945 (Source)

Those who had not escaped Warsaw lived among the devastation, often finding corpses buried under the debris. It was initially suggested that the remains of the city should be kept in order to memorialise the war, whilst relocating the capital elsewhere. But the locals were willing to do anything to bring their city back, even at the risk of their own health. The clouds of smoke and dust asphyxiated the city’s atmosphere. Warsaw writer Leopold Tyrmand spoke of the experience:

“It was calculated that Varsovians inhaled four bricks each year back then. One must love one’s city in order to rebuild it at the cost of one’s own breathing. It is perhaps for this reason that, from the battlefield of rubble and ruins, Warsaw became once more the old Warsaw, an eternal Warsaw … Varsovians brought it to life, filling its brick body with their own, hot breath.”

Despite their now devastated economy, Varsovians still had one key base of resources to make the plan follow through. Though the Nazis had attempted to blacklist any works depicting Polish history (in order to implement a “Germanisation” of Poland), there were some particular pieces of art that withstood the carnage. The most crucial were by Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto (nephew of Canaletto), who, as court painter to the King of Poland in the 18th century, painted up to 22 vibrant and accurate depictions of Warsaw’s cityscapes and squares. It was these very paintings that would go on to act as the primary “blueprints” for Warsaw’s reconstruction, as the people wished for it to look as close to its original state as possible.

With the help of Bellotto’s paintings, construction workers and building specialists would attempt to reconstruct the city’s fabled squares and palaces, often reusing the destroyed materials to forge new bricks and foundations. Any kind of rubble that was to hand was used, and even materials from neighbouring Polish cities were brought in to componentially suffice the rebuild. Regular civilians were also keen to get involved, often by helping to clear the vast amounts of debris across the city. Such community involvement, both in and out of Warsaw, eventually surged the rallying cry “the entire nation builds its capital”.

Under the tutelage of Polish architects, historians, and 22 sacred art pieces, Warsaw’s famed Old Town was reconstructed in an unthinkably short length of time, with most of the major components being fixed as early as 1955 (though certain constructions continued into the 1980s). The Old Town, capped by the dynamic Royal Castle, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 for its presence of nearly every European art style and Architectural period. This symbolic part of town lies at the heart of what has today become a vibrant center of culture, business, and information. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2017, Warsaw is among the world’s 30 most liveable cities, ranking regionally at the top for business-friendliness and quality of life. The Warsaw Stock Exchange is the biggest and most important in Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s myriad museums, parks, and palaces have been attracting increasing tourism year after year.

Castle Square in present-day Warsaw (Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To think of where Warsaw is now, to where it was just seven short decades ago, is nothing short of miraculous. In fact, the revival of Warsaw has not only acted as a psychological basis for city restoration, but a strategic inspiration as well. Today, after the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and the ancient city of Palmyra were recaptured from ISIS insurgents, government forces are utilising images and 3D rendering to help preserve and recapture the scope of these lands. This move is unmistakably reminiscent of the use of Bellotto’s paintings as a basis for the “Phoenix City’s” rebirth.

Be it the context or the manner, there is no denying that Warsaw acts as an absolute beacon of hope to any and all urban hubs that have been ravaged. The Polish capital has shown that regardless of what resources you have, what odds are stacked against you, when a community is united under a common passion and goal, the results can be miraculous. And as such, no matter what attacks you may suffer, or defeats you may undergo, to follow with persistence and determination will mean that you will remain, as Warsaw’s motto simply puts it, “Semper invicta” (“Forever invincible”).

Read the other articles in the ‘Cities of Hope’ series here (upcoming).