Warsaw started life as a relatively small river town in the 14th century, but within a century, it had become the capital city of the Duchy of Mazovia, ruling over small fiefdoms in central Poland. The city's fortunes steadily improved in the 16th century after the duchy was incorporated into the Polish crown and Poland formed a union with Lithuania. The union greatly expanded the amount of territory under Polish influence. In 1596, King Sigismund III moved the capital to Warsaw from Kraków. The city remembers his efforts with the King Sigismund's Column outside the Royal Castle. The Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century relegated Warsaw to the status of a provincial town for the next 125 years. Initially, the Prussians ruled the city, but in 1815, the Congress of Vienna placed tsarist Russia in firm control. Despite the occupation, Warsaw thrived in the 19th century as a western outpost of the Russian empire. Finally, in 1918, after Germany's defeat and Russia's collapse in World War I, Warsaw was reconstituted as the capital of newly independent Poland. The brief period of optimism ended when Nazis occupied the city in 1939 and held it for nearly the entire course of the war. The occupation was brutal. Warsaw lost almost its entire Jewish population. The August 1944 Warsaw Uprising is another significant turning point that still haunts the city. By the end of the war, 85% of Warsaw lay in ruins, and two out of every three residents -- nearly 900,000 people -- had died or were missing. The postwar years were bleak ones. Reconstruction was in the hands of Socialist-inspired planners. One notable exception is the Old Town. Warsaw residents overwhelmingly chose to reconstruct exactly what they had lost. It's a moving story of reclaiming identity from history, and the results are phenomenal, even earning it a place on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The Warsaw Uprising
On August 1, 1944, at precisely 5pm, the commander of the Polish insurgent Home Army, loyal to Poland's government-in-exile based in London, called for a general uprising throughout Nazi-occupied Warsaw. The Nazis were in retreat on all sides, having suffered reversals on the western fronts, in France and Italy, and in the East, at the hands of the Soviet Red Army. By the end of July that year, the Red Army had moved to within the city limits of Warsaw and was camped on the eastern bank of the Vistula in the district of Praga. With the combined forces of the Home Army and the Red Army, it seemed the right moment to drive the Germans out and liberate Warsaw. Alas, it was not to be. The first few happy days of the uprising saw the Polish insurgents capture pockets of the city, including the Old Town and adjacent districts. But the Nazis resisted fiercely, and the Red Army, with its own agenda, never stepped in to help. The resistance lasted weeks before Polish commanders were forced to capitulate in the face of rapidly escalating civilian casualties. The uprising so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the complete annihilation of the city. In the weeks following the uprising, Warsaw's buildings were listed in terms of their cultural significance and dynamited one by one. Some 85% of the city was eventually destroyed. The Monument to the Warsaw Uprising (pl. Krasinskich 1), in the New Town, commemorates the thousands of residents who died in the fighting.
Sign of Resistance -- You'll soon notice the symbol of a "P" fused to a "W" on monuments and buildings in Warsaw and all over Poland. "PW" stands for "Polska Walczy" (Poland Fights) and represented the Polish Resistance Army during World War II. It also stands for "Powstanie Warszawskie" (Warsaw Uprising).