Warsaw, Poland – City of the Phoenix, An Introduction

My colleague looked at me quizzically, “Poland again?”

“Of course!” I laughed in reply, “the flight deal was awesome and I haven’t been to Warsaw before!”

If Gdansk is a city wih potential, Warsaw is fulfilling its potential, making moves back to its former glory

Warsaw, the modern capital of Poland has been at the centre of conflict within Europe – between the East and West, between Catholic and Protestant, between Capitalism and Communism…

Warsaw’s Old Town, a restored town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Located along the Vistula river, Warsaw has had a tumultuous history even by European standards. It has rarely known peace and stability with aggressors and invaders lining up sequentially – the Swedish Empire, Russian Tsardom, Prussian Kingdom, French Empire, Austrian Empire, Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. It’s location was the reason, it centrality the prize. Being at the centre of Europe Warsaw was an important chokepoint for the ambitions of all its neighbours. To the Swedes, Warsaw was the entry into the continent on their quest to built an Empire. For Germany it was a buffer between the East and the German fatherland. For the powers in Moscow it was a path into continental Europe.

Perhaps this troubled past is why the Warsovians have what is called the Warsaw face (neutral and rather expressionless). Why emote so much when the whole range of political problems has hit them before, and nothing is permanent. Warsaw saved post World War I Europe from a Russian Bolshevik invasion in 1920, only to be betrayed by the Allies repeatedly during World War II and left to the hands of the Third Reich during the Warsaw Uprising.

Time and again, the people of Warsaw have stood up in uprisings (1794, 1830, 1863, 1943, 1944) to their oppressors, their courageous stand usually ending in failure causing the decimation of the population and the destruction of the city.

And yet through all this, Warsaw would prove to be a phoenix, who would rise for the ashes and return even more stunningly.

Despite all this, Warsaw was not a ravaged city that had nothing to be proud off. In fact Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century was a rich and developed city. The beauty of its streets gave it the monikor “Paris of the East” and its media scene was seen as the second Hollywood.

This city was the home to global talents through the ages from Copernicus in astronomy, to Chopin in music, to Marie Curie in physics.

A bust of Nicolaus Copernicus outside the Warsaw Society of Science

Warsaw today is a city that is building everywhere, with skyscrapers and modern buildings sitting next to Soviet era Stalin architecture.

The Warsaw Cityscape today

Warsaw is the future of Europe, it has an annual GDP growth rate of 6.5 % and a less than 3 % unemployment rate (this includes structural unemployment). Poland’s economy is doing so well that Germans from neighbouring provinces are moving to Poland to find work.

Elegant, modern shopping malls the modern cathedrals to capitalism are rising everywhere in the city.

Huge shopping malls sprouting all over Warsaw

The development of the city has been so stunning that a report from McKinsey and Co suggested that Warsaw (and Poland) would be Europe’s engine for growth in the coming decade.

The development of the city is epitomised, in my view, with this advertisement of how a Smart City has risen from the ashes.

But all this wasn’t a given. No one in their right mind would have imagined such a future for Warsaw even just 29 years ago. Poland has only been independent for 29 years, and Warsaw only reemerged from communist control as a capitalist city then. The city was flattened in 1944 by Hitler’s Wehrmacht after the failed Warsaw Uprising (which failed because Stalin went back on his promise and let the Nazi’s destroy the soldiers in Warsaw, more on this in a future post). Warsaw went from this,

to this, at the end of 1945.

Warsaw had a population of more than 1 million at the beginning of World War II, an obvious and proud metropolis, by the end of the war there were only 1000 people left in the city.

More than a third of the pre-war population were Jewish and they were forced into a Jewish Ghetto, more than 400,000 people (over 30 % of the population) squeezed into 2.4 % of the city.

Few survived the Ghetto.

Warsaw’s troubles were not over because after the occupation of the Nazi’s came the de facto occupation of the Soviet Union. Because it was under the ambit of the Soviet umbrella, Poland was not given any funds to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan. The Soviets also did not provide any funds, so the city was reconstructed by the communist, using manpower and financial resources of a War-ravage Polish population.

This period was to create unique architectural designs in Warsaw and also leave Warsaw and Poland with new additions to its cultural heritage.

Zapienkanka, the “Polish Pizza” street food created during the Soviet era

A queue outside the Milk Bar Bambino. Milk Bar’s were a creation during the communist era to help provide cheap food for the masses and to cope with the poor food production levels (due to lack of economic incentives) in the market

This is truly the city of the phoenix, rising from the ashes. One that has made lemonade out of the lemons it was given and is now going a step further. It may not be much when compared to Berlin and London. As a country, Poland still has a lot of catching up to do to reach that stage, but it has risen so many times from the ashes. The pundits are looking to its future, join me over the next couple of weeks as I try to learn about Warsaw’s past and present.

“How was Warsaw,” asked the same colleague?

“I would go back again in a heartbeat.”

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