Written by Morris M.
As 1945 dawned, it was on a continent that had lived through the apocalypse.
Across Europe, city after city had been reduced to ash. Medieval old towns, Renaissance palaces, and Victorian gardens had all gone up in puffs of smoke and rage, obliterated in WWII’s endgame. From Coventry, to Rotterdam, to Dresden, nothing remained but ruins.
Yet nowhere had been ruined quite so extensively as Warsaw.
The capital of Poland, this grand old city hadn’t just been bombed. It had been systematically torn down, burned, disintegrated. Annihilated by the collapsing Nazi state in a final act of revenge.
90 percent of buildings were gone. In the historic core, barely anything remained standing.
But – remarkably – this wouldn’t be the end of Warsaw.
In the aftermath of the War, a great reconstruction project was undertaken. One that didn’t just try to restore the Old Town, but to reconstruct it down to the most-precise detail. To resurrect in stone a perfect copy of what had once stood there.
It was a project that would take decades. A project that would require unbelievable skill and luck.
A mega project that we’re exploring today.
There’s a lesser-known instrumental track by David Bowie called “Warszawa” – the Polish name for Warsaw – that paints a bleak, sonic picture of emptiness.
It’s one of Bowie’s many songs inspired by his time living in Central Europe in the 1970s. But, in its desolation, it evokes not the Warsaw of the Cold War, but the city as it had existed three decades earlier.
Or rather, ceased to exist. Because the Warsaw of 1945 couldn’t be called a city in any sense of the word.
Perhaps the only word that would suffice is “ruin”. A ruin as ghostly and as mournful as a place abandoned centuries ago.
The events that led to Warsaw becoming a desolate wasteland aren’t the focus of this post. This is MegaProjects after all, not Warographics.
But they are key to understanding the heart of our story. Of getting your head around the sheer complexity awaiting those who rebuilt her.
So, before we get to the actual engineering, we’re gonna do a very quick, very basic overview of how things got so bad.
Warsaw wasn’t like most other cities destroyed in the war: collateral damage of bombing runs, battles and sieges that had a central goal. Destroying industry or morale, capturing enemies, or just taking land.
Rather, the Polish capital itself was the target. Its utter destruction as methodical and intentional as the destruction of Dresden.
Only, this time, the perpetrators wouldn’t be British and American bombers… but SS troops conducting a fierce ground assault.
The carnage began on August 1, 1944, with a coordinated uprising against the Nazis occupying the city, led by the Polish resistance.
By this point, Poland’s capital had been firmly under the authoritarian boot since October, 1939. But with the Red Army approaching from the east, local partisans seemed to have a chance to drive out their oppressors. To liberate their city.
Sadly, that’s not what happened.
Rather than be all like “Well, we clearly lost this awful war we launched, let’s surrender now and stop everyone’s suffering”, Nazi high command did what the Nazis did best: acted like total dicks.
In this case, that meant issuing the Order for Warsaw.
The Order was as simple as it was brutal. SS units were to march into the disobedient city in two columns. There, they would complete one of two tasks.
One: kill resistance fighters and civilians alike, including women and children.
Two: destroy all buildings, museums, monuments and homes, until not a trace remained. Himmler and Hitler agreed this would set an example to all of occupied Europe.
In this – if nothing else – the unfunny Charlie Chaplin lookalike would be proved devastatingly right.
On the morning of August 5th, 1944, the SS attacked. By that evening, the Nazi Governor-General was able to message his superiors:
“For the most part, Warsaw is in flames.”
By the evening of the 6th, an estimated 35,000 had been killed. By mid-August, the walled Old Town where many had barricaded themselves was under siege and being bombed by the Luftwaffe. In all, the city’s medieval core would be hit by nearly 1,600 tons of explosives.
The destruction continued till October. Despite indicating they’d help, the nearby Red Army failed to intervene.
When the Soviets at last “liberated” the city in January, 1945 – and “liberated” here in sarcastic air quotes – there was barely any city left at all.
The Order for Warsaw had done its job.
In the centuries-old historic center, 85% of buildings had been destroyed. Across the city as a whole – once home to 1.3 million people – barely 1,000 structures remained standing.
When he saw the wreckage that spring, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower would comment:
“I have seen many cities destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction.”
It was, in short, a war crime on a shocking scale. An attempt to do to Warsaw what the Roman Republic had once done to Carthage.
But it was also something else: a challenge.
Warsaw’s traumatized residents weren’t going to let the Nazis have the last word. Oh, no. They would rebuild their city, one shattered brick at a time.
And rather than do so in a modern style, they were going to make this new city look exactly like the one that had come before.
Rebuilding the Past
The decision to reconstruct Warsaw wasn’t an easy one.
I mean, just look at all the drama surrounding the rebuilding of Notre Dame after the 2019 fire. All the arguments over exactly how it should look.
And that was just one historic building! In 1945, Warsaw was faced with having to rebuild thousands, from royal palaces to the homes of long-dead merchants.
So impossible did this task seem, that some suggested just abandoning the capital. Leaving its ruins behind as a monument to the dead, and instead building a brand-new Socialist paradise, full of concrete.
Yep: Socialist. In the postwar peace, Poland had fallen under Stalin’s boot.
While it would remain technically independent, it was now under the control of Moscow fanboys. The sort of people you’d expect to look at Warsaw’s ruined old town – full, as it had been, of grand buildings built by monarchs – and say “good riddance! Now let’s go drink vodka.”
But while Poland’s Socialist government would indeed build grim concrete wonderlands elsewhere, the fate of Warsaw was different.
Reconstruction became a point of national pride. A way of showing that the Polish nation could endure anything the world threw at it.
Hence the decision not to rebuild historic Warsaw as it had looked in 1939…
…but as it had looked way back in 1770.
The year is key, because 1772 is when Prussia, Russia, and Austria conspired to begin slicing up Poland; eventually dividing the whole country between themselves.
Known as the Partition of Poland, it would see Warsaw briefly become part of Prussia, before falling under Russian rule – where it stayed until the outbreak of WWI.
1770, then, had the sort of golden nostalgia that the pre-WWI era can sometimes have. The last calm period before everything went to hell.
Of course, rebuilding 1770s Warsaw meant ignoring all the ways the city had changed since then. Ignoring all the 19th Century buildings that had gone up, particularly along the Royal Way.
But no-one was interested in recreating the 19th Century version of Warsaw. It lacked the same nostalgia. The same connection to a golden past.
So, the 1770s version was chosen. And, to make sure it didn’t wind up looking like a sentimental, postcard picture of the past, it was decided that everything would have to be original.
That meant using original architectural plans. It meant using old photographs and drawings to make sure the frontage looked identical.
It even meant using original materials. Recycling the piles of bricks now scattered throughout the broken city, so the very soul of the buildings would remain.
It was an epic, inspiring vision. A mega project, if you will.
It was also beset by major problems.
The original building plans they wanted to use? Most of them had been lost in the centuries since.
But that was no problem! They could just use the copies in the Polish National Library! The Polish National Library that, err, had just been destroyed, taking all the documents with it.
Then there was the “use only original materials” plan.
The destruction of Warsaw had been so total, there simply weren’t enough old bricks and beams left to do the job. Many had been pummeled into dust. Many more had gone up in smoke.
So, I guess that’s it then, right? End of the post. We’ll just roll the credits and reflect on how sad it is that Warsaw no longer exists.
I’m kidding, of course. Because, if there’s a secret ingredient to Warsaw’s resurrection, it’s spectacular luck.
There might not have been enough original material left, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to get started with. Over 10,000 parts of the oldest buildings had been stripped away and hidden from the Germans: ornate doors, expensive furnishings… even entire fireplaces had been saved.
The lack of original plans, too, wouldn’t be fatal.
Architecture students at the local technical school had surveyed hundreds of old buildings for their studies. Now, their homework could be called upon in the reconstruction process.
But nothing compared to the good luck regarding the paintings. The 22 extremely-detailed, extremely-large, spectacularly lifelike canvases, painted in 1768 and showing views of Warsaw’s historic streets.
It was these paintings, more than anything, that would become key to the city’s revival.
Painting With Light
It’s doubtful he was aware of it, but Bernardo Bellotto was a walking bad luck charm. One with an impressive time delay.
A nephew of the great painter Canaletto, Bellotto was born in Venice on May 20, 1722. Not that he stayed put for long.
Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he trained in the arts before leaving, aged 21, to start a career traveling Europe and painting great cityscapes.
At some point along the way, he stopped merely walking in his uncle’s footsteps, and effectively stole his shoes: changing his own name to “Canaletto” and thereby confusing the hell out of future art historians.
But perhaps most-interesting is exactly which cities he painted.
In 1768, Bellotto became court painter of Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski, and painted Warsaw. Before that, he painted for another Polish king (and Elector of Saxony) Augustus III, at his court in Dresden.
That’s right: the two cities Bellotto spent most time working in were also two that would be absolutely obliterated in the war.
And, in both cases, his paintings would be key to rebuilding them.
Not only had Bellotto lived in the two cities and seen these cityscapes with his own eyes, he’d also been obsessed with architecture, and renowned for his attention to detail.
Even better, he was famous for using a camera obscura to get his street scenes – meaning they’d been painted with almost photographic realism.
It wasn’t quite like having a highly-detailed 3D scan of the missing town to hand. But, for dudes in the late 1940s, it was close enough.
Frankly, they were lucky to have even that.
Back in 1939, the invading Nazis had seized all of Bellotto’s Warsaw paintings, then housed at the Royal Castle. Since Berlin had decreed the destruction of all art and monuments glorifying Polish history, it was thought they’d been lost forever.
But rather than burn them, the Nazis had simply looted them, taking them away to a succession of castles in Germany, eventually storing them at Schloss Callenberg.
It was here the Monuments Men found them at the war’s end – intact, and ready for use in Warsaw’s rebuilding.
Today, it’s hard to overstate just how key Bellotto’s 22 canvases were in reconstructing the Old Town.
With sometimes nothing else to go on, the postwar architects and builders followed them slavishly. Turning mere blotches of paint into solid, real structures.
We know this because, great an artist as Bellotto was, he wasn’t perfect. Occasionally, mistakes crept into his cityscapes.
Mistakes those tasked with rebuilding then copied into real life.
Famously, this includes one house on Castle Square that Bellotto drew with three rows of windows. It was only later that someone found a prewar photo and realized Bellotto had missed an entire floor – one the city had now failed to rebuild.
Other times, the mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all, but flights of fancy. An image of Branicki Palace gave it a series of sculptures that had never really existed, but now do, thanks to the builders copying him exactly.
Yet, even when Bellotto was painting precisely what he saw before him, it wasn’t the Warsaw that had existed before the war.
The cathedral, for example, had been given a grand, neo-gothic makeover in the 19th Century, decades after Bellotto died.
But rather than recreate this, the city decided to follow the paintings, erasing 170-odd years of architectural history.
To be clear, this was a choice, not just a bunch of builders going “Duhhh, that painting say no spires, so we no make spires.” It was a specific era of Warsaw they were trying to recreate.
Deliberate or not, though, it would still be disorientating for those who’d lived there prior to 1939. Like entering the uncanny valley version of their own pasts.
But those worries were for a later date.
For now, with the paintings located and architecture notes in hand, it was time for the real work to begin.
From the Ashes
In the end, the complete reconstruction of Warsaw was just too much work to be worthwhile.
After all, pre-war Warsaw had boasted about as many residents as modern-day Dallas. Perfectly reconstructing an entire city that size would’ve taken a bazillion years.
So it was decided to just focus on a few core places. The most-spectacular sections that had gone up in flames: the medieval Old Town, the 18th Century New Town, and the Royal Route.
The rest would suffer the same fate as ruined urban areas all over Eastern Europe. Swept away, to be replaced by gleaming Stalinist blocks.
But even at this reduced scale, digging up the past wouldn’t be easy. It would require the commitment of the entire city.
We mean that literally. Because the ruins were still standing, huge work teams had to be drafted in from the remaining population to clear the shattered walls and blackened bricks. So many ordinary citizens worked on this gigantic construction site that the Communist press were able to declare: “the entire nation rebuilds its capital”.
Luckily, that was an exaggeration. Lucky, because being in Warsaw in this era was far from conducive to good health.
There was so much dust in the air that someone ghoulishly calculated people were inhaling four entire bricks into their lungs each year. As the writer Leopold Tyrmand noted:
“One must love one’s city in order to rebuild it at the cost of one’s own breathing.”
But rebuild it, they did. Piling up the fragments of rubble to forge into new bricks. Trying to recreate the scale and style of sgraffito glimpsed in the corner of Bellotto’s paintings.
When the old material eventually ran out, they turned to other cities. There are people in Wroclaw (pronounced: vrot-swaaf) who still bitterly talk about how the rubble of their destroyed homes wound up being used in the reconstruction of the capital.
Yet while hard work was a definite part of the process, it wasn’t the only aspect.
There was room for some fun, too.
Despite Bellotto’s paintings, despite the salvaged photographs and student diagrams, there were simply some lost buildings for which no images existed.
In those cases, the architects were given free rein to build something appropriate; dreaming up fantasy homes that matched their surroundings, but which had no basis in history.
That meant their decorations could be a little more whimsical, too. There exists a stucco frieze on one house that depicts the guys who rebuilt it, working happily away, assured of their place in local history.
Other alterations were more practical, and also less-visible.
Given the guys doing the rebuilding were proud Socialists, the intention wasn’t to perfectly recreate a bunch of old, aristocratic houses and leave them in their bourgeois state.
Many of the rebuilds would be used to house the city’s workers. That meant completely altering some interiors, to make them viable for mass housing.
It also meant carving out communal courtyards where there had once been other buildings. And making little tweaks to improve access and increase space. Stuff the original, 18th Century builders would’ve never even considered.
But if those long dead dudes may not have recognized the interiors of their rebuilt homes… they would’ve certainly found the overall resurrected town almost miraculously familiar.
To give an exact end date on Warsaw’s reconstruction is hard, since it progressed in multiple phases.
The bulk of the work was carried out in a mere five years, transforming what had once been a barren moonscape into a liveable district by 1955.
Other parts took longer. There was still general work going on until the mid-sixties; while the final phase – reconstructing the Royal Castle – didn’t end until 1984. By that point, the process had taken forty years.
Ultimately, though, the work did finish. In 1980, the reconstructed city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
And, just like that, Hitler’s dream of erasing Warsaw evaporated for good.
Today, Warsaw’s rebuilt Old Town stands as it had for centuries before: a monument on the Vistula River. An enchanting warren of medieval alleyways, soaring spires, and architectural riches.
Certainly, it has its detractors. Some locals dismiss what they see as a sanitized reconstruction of the past. A kind of Disneyland for history fans.
Yet, no matter what your view on the politics of rebuilding, no-one can deny that this was a massive achievement.
From a city almost totally wiped off the map, Warsaw managed to recreate a part of its soul. A core of the capital’s history, around which the modern city now revolves – a tribute to all that was lost.
In recreating this destroyed place, the planners and architects behind the resurrection managed to prove the Nazis wrong. To prove that Polish culture could survive whatever Hitler did to it.
The Nazi regime may be long gone. The Third Reich may have crumbled into dust. But here, on the banks of the Vistula, old Warsaw still stands. As defiant, and as proud, as ever.
And we can only hope it’ll stand there for centuries more.
National WW2 Museum, the destruction: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/german-response-warsaw-uprising
Guardian, how Warsaw was reconstructed: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/22/story-cities-warsaw-rebuilt-18th-century-paintings
The painter behind reconstruction: https://www.artinsociety.com/bernardo-bellotto-and-the-reconstruction-of-warsaw.html
UNESCO listing: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/30/