Identity (Re)-Construction: Lessons from Warsaw’s Old Town

Written by: Nicolò Vertecchi & Rebecca Visser/Edited by: Manfredi Pozzoli

When exploring Warsaw’s historic district while on a recent trip in Central Europe with friends, we were impressed to discover that the Old Town was not so old after all. After 90% of it was destroyed by the Nazis in the brutal retribution for the Warsaw Uprising, these stately squares and gilded churches were almost entirely rebuilt between 1946-56 off the basis of a series of paintings by Bernardo Bellotto. Warsaw’s Old Town became the first ‘unauthentic’ monument listed by the UNESCO because of the mastery and Herculean effort in rebuilding it, with its listing stating the “determination of the nation…brought the reconstruction of the heritage on a unique scale in the history of the world” and this is no understatement. In physical terms alone, estimates suggest early reconstruction workers inhaled the equivalent of four bricks a year working amidst the dust of a ruined city.

The national sentiment and clearly enormous commitment this involved left us wondering why and how: why did Varsovians identify with these buildings so strongly? How did this happen, given that the post-war socialist system formally opposed nationalism, Catholicism and monarchism? And more broadly, what is the relationship between ruins, memorialization and national identities?

Old Town Market Place, Warsaw, 1945-2020
Photo source (left): Geographical Imaginations
Photo (right) by Nicolò Vertecchi

To answer why reconstruction was considered so important to preserving Polish identity we have to first turn to the country’s wartime experience. 1/8th of Warsaw was devastated in the initial assault and the 1939 plan for the city’s future entitled ‘Demolition of the Polish city and Building the German city’ makes it clear this was the beginning of an effort to uproot the nation’s identity. Taken together, the German Governor-General stating in 1943 that there was “one point from which all evil drives: namely Warsaw” and Hitler’s post-Warsaw Uprising order that “Warsaw has to be pacified, that is, razed to the ground” suggest the Nazis saw Warsaw as a symbol of the Polish nation and, in its destruction, the triumph of the German one. The subsequent systematic levelling of 96% of structures classified before the war as ‘historical monuments’ made this reality. Arguably in reaction, the same facts of resistance and destruction left Poles with the opposing understanding; though both the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 1944 Warsaw Uprising failed, the struggles were key to the narrative of an undying national spirit. With the meaning ascribed by Nazis and the reactionary significance drawn from the story of Polish resistance, we can understand the survival of Warsaw as a component part and symbolic of the victory over fascism. It is a truism that an Other generates identity so Poles defining themselves in opposition to the oppressing Nazi regime is no surprise. What is unique, though, is that the Nazi focus on the symbolism of destroying meant rebuilding the city was a key part of Polish post-war identity.

The form reconstruction would take provides another lesson about Polish identity. With the Red Army occupation of Polish territory and the Polish People’s Republic’s foundation in 1947, Poland’s future fell into the hands of the communist Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). The near total destruction meant party members had an unprecedented chance to physically re-model the Polish urban space and consequently re-fashion Polish identity along socialist and modernist lines. Given this, we were astonished we could enjoy a vista mirroring the one in Canaletto’s work that we admired in the National Museum, including the Holy Cross Church and the Royal Palace. This seemed to represent an inherent paradox at the heart of post-war Poland: the mobilisation of communism and historic nationalism, two competing forms of identity. A need for legitimacy arising from existing identities is the only explanation. The communist leadership in the late 1940s struggled against the perception it was an alien presence, driven partly by the resentment over Soviets signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and failing to aid the Warsaw Uprising. Because reconstruction always has a political dimension that puts normative value on a particular past, the rebuilding of the Old Town–with its churches and castles–can be understood as means to legitimise communist rule by coming to terms with existing sets of beliefs ingrained in Polish identity, at the expense of socialist ideals. In the context of Warsaw, the 18th century was seen as a golden age, a time of democratic kingship and innovation under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, before the traumatising partitions that swallowed the state. From this, the Old Town buildings had meaning as links between a promising Polish past and future, and crucially for officials, evoked a focus on the future that could overshadow recent history.

On the right, Castle Square and the Column of Catholic King Sigismund III, Warsaw
On the left, one of Bernanrdo Bellotto’s paintings displayed in the Canaletto Room, at the National Museum, Warsaw
Both photos by: Nicolò Vertecchi

Warsaw’s catholic iconography represents this well. Churches, such as St. John’s Cathedral, were re-built using an 18th century Gothic style, disassociating construction from the Russo-phile Byzantine architecture employed during the country’s many partitions. A recurring theme in Polish history, Catholicism had figured as a bastion of national culture and resistance against foreign rule.  The church’s positive wartime role only strengthened this identification; faced with this reality, the party attempted to co-opt this source of popular identification via reconstruction, diverging from the Soviet Union’s policy of suppression. At the same time, the PZPR tried to maintain a balance by withholding building permits or the necessary materials to complete the construction of religious structures. Despite these efforts, communists were unable to break the Church’s monopoly on Polish identity, meaning religion remained a focal point of opposition. During the martial law years (1981-83), the very churches that had been rebuilt after the war provided spaces to contest communist authority.

The reconstruction of symbols associated with Poland’s monarchical past followed a similar trajectory. Polish communists saw the traditions of ‘Szlachta’ aristocratic rule, alongside that of enlightened republicanism– ‘Rzeczpospolita’–verging around ideas of elected kings, parliamentarism and constitutionalism as especially problematic. For this reason, the PZPR continually postponed plans to reconstruct the Royal Castle – one of the most prominent symbols of Polish monarchism. However, in the 1960s, with the party’s gradual de-Stalinization, authorities explicitly referred to the need to show the Polish people that the party cared about ‘national identity’. From 1971, the reconstruction of the Royal Castle, later renamed ‘Warsaw Castle’ to erase monarchical connotations, represented the perfect opportunity to do so. What is most striking about this case is that in its fundraising appeals the official party newspaper, Trybuna Luda, never referred to communist ideology. Instead it called on the ‘undaunted nationhood’ and ‘continuity of national achievements’ of the Poles, thereby reinforcing the nationalist identification of people with historical memory, at the expense of the unity of all workers.

Royal Castle, Warsaw (reconstructed 1971-1984)
Photo by Nicolò Vertecchi

Though Old Town buildings were recreated in concession to their meaning to Polish nationalism, the socialist leadership made no secret of its intention to “build the invincible foundations of a new social order, the foundations of socialism” (President Bolselaw Bierut, 1947). The nationalisation of the capital’s land with the Bierut Decree (1945) and the Six-Year-Plan (1950-55) were specifically intended to remould material spaces. From 1949, the adoption of Socialist Realism as the official architectural policy informed the construction of monumental urban development projects such as the Palace of Culture and Science, the Tresa WZ highway, housing developments and more explicit ideological monuments such as the Monument to Brotherhood in Arms, which all served to actively construct a grandiose image of the party and cement the attachment of Varsovians to socialism However, the new socialist districts sat uneasily alongside the seemingly authentic historical centre, starkly representing the contest over national identity writ large on the urban landscape.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw
Constructed in 1955
Photo by Nicolò Vertecchi

Fascinatingly, the political potency of the reconstruction discourse has survived even after the communist state did not. In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, President Andrezej Duda announced plans to rebuild the 17th century masterpiece that was Saski Palace, after it was obliterated by the Nazis and subsequently commemorated as the site of the Unknown Soldier. The decision was intended to represent the ‘rising from the ashes’ of the state, and ‘Poles’ concern for the material legacy of their sovereign homeland’, highlighting once again the collective trauma of the wartime destruction and memory of post-war reconstruction as national endeavours.

When traveling through urban spaces, one tends to brush aside the meaning that a ruin, a monument or a church’s spire might have. Warsaw’s majestic Old Town proves otherwise. The “battles” fought for the control of Polish identity, both real and metaphorical, gave us a window into the politicised nature that buildings have even when ‘inauthentic’, and the dialectic relationship between nationalism and architecture. In examining the wartime meaning of the urban landscape and the uses and abuses of reconstruction by the communist party, we discovered that even a totalitarian state had to acquiesce to existing sources of legitimacy, and finally that even today conservation and monumentalisation are mobilised for political reasons.


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