In my blog post 1940-45 I covered the tragic story of Warsaw’s wartime occupation, its conversion into an urban battleground and, finally, its complete and systematic annihilation. No city in the world suffered as much damage during the Second World War, and with the Soviets in control of Poland at war’s end, the city was rebuilt along predominantly Soviet Realist lines that paid little heed to aesthetics, instead adhering to the plain, utilitaritan ‘political correctness’ of Communist ideology.
Yet Warsaw was, once upon a time, heralded as ‘the Paris of the east’; a vibrant, visually gorgeous city that, with its crossroads position between the east and west of Europe, reflected in its architecture the entire spectrum of European civilization – from the onion domes of St Mary Magdalene’s Cathedral to the intricate Baroque flourishes of St Anne’s Church, from the medieval red brick of the Barbikan to the chalk-white neoclassical columns of the Saxon Palace. Historical treasures dating back centuries, such as the 700-year-old Royal Castle, stood side-by-side with the latest architectural trends, including the ultra-modern (at the time) Hotel Warszawa, one of the earliest skyscrapers in Europe. Its leafy cobbled boulevards, ringing with the clatter of electric trams, horse-carts, bicycles and shiny black motor-cars, gave Warsaw a cosmopolitan ambience comparable to neighbouring Prague and Vienna, with perhaps just a smattering of Paris, the makeshift capital of Poland’s emigre community during the 120-year-long Partitions period. It buzzed with the confidence of a city that, having endured a prolonged and harrowing period of oppression, was now restored its rightful place among the great capitals of Europe, the future full of political, artistic and cultural opportunities that it had been denied for so long.
Tragically, this Warsaw – charming and elegant, buzzing with confidence and the dreams of a proud and progressive people – did not get to enjoy its newfound freedom for long. Between 1939 and 1944 it was shelled, bombed and dynamited to oblivion, and while the Communist puppets installed in 1945 did agree to rebuild some isolated elements (such as the Royal Castle and Old Town Market Square), they erected an essentially new city on top of the rubble – the elegant, cream-coloured facades of old replaced by bland concrete blocks, the city skyline now dominated by the sombre, harshly rectangular Palace of Culture and Science, the familiar panorama of Gothic spires and ornate clock towers gone forever.
Thankfully, with the advent of photography in the early 20th century, the city’s former splendour has been preserved in images now easily accessible on the net (at least if you know Polish!). Although many proved too small, grainy or faded to merit inclusion here, others – with the help of a little digital remastering – provide an immensely absorbing and rewarding insight into what Warsaw was once like. Some of the below photographs were taken mere months before the outbreak of war, while others (predominantly the paintings) go back as far as the 19th century – though I’ve tended to focus on the city during its tenure as capital of the Second Republic.
In addition to the above, I’ve also uploaded some footage of Warsaw (specifically, the Saxon Gardens) from pre-war 1939, which was used in the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s film ‘The Pianist’. The music’s my addition, incidentally – a Jean Michel-Jarre track appropriately titled ‘Chopin Memories’ :
For those after something a little longer, this heart-tugging pictorial journey is 10 minutes in duration and comprised of a much vaster treasury of images than I could muster:
If you’ve got some old-school 3D glasses lying around this clip caters for a more immersive viewing experience, and finally, I can’t not mention this truly stunning animation condensing Polish history (including the interwar period) into an action-packed 8.5 minutes.
It’s worth footnoting that today, Warsaw is an exciting and attractive metropolis once more, much of the Communist-built ugliness still standing but now part of a unique juxtaposition of Old World, Eastern bloc and modern-Western styles, reminding one of the city’s dynamic history at every corner (as celebrated by this American travel writer in her blog). With Poland’s economy on the rise, Warsaw is now not only full of new and dazzling construction projects, but has seen a revitalized interest in restoring more of the iconic landmarks destroyed by the war. Of course, unlike Poland’s relatively unscathed former capital Krakow, the vast majority of Warsaw’s antiquity has gone and will never return. But it’s been a genuine pleasure to collect, remaster and look back on these vintage images over the past few days, as they sum up, for me, the innately sophisticated and western spirit of the Polish nation at a critical point in its history – and reveal why so many Varsovians were willing to fight to the bitter death for their beloved city.