The Royal Castle and its Reconstruction Following World War II
The Royal Castle, located in Castle Square at the entrance to the Old Town, is one of Warsaw’s biggest tourist attractions. It is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and is a national and historic monument that is visited by over half a million people every year. While numerous tourists come to visit the Castle, many do not know that the Castle is actually a reconstruction of the original castle that was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.
The History of the Royal Castle Pre-World War II
The Royal Castle was the official residency of the King of Poland and the Polish Parliament throughout most of Poland’s history as an independent and sovereign nation. The last royal to reside in the Royal Castle was Frederick Augustus I, who ruled from June 9th, 1807 to May 22nd, 1815 as the Duke of the Duchy of Warsaw.
Construction on various parts of the Royal Castle began in the mid 14th century when the Castle Tower was erected. The Castle was expanded based on its expanding role within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The castle became the residency of the Polish King and the two houses of Parliament (Chamber of Deputies and Senate) in the 16th century. At this time, the royal bedrooms and other chambers were built to expand the size of the Castle. As the official symbol of Polish independence and the Polish nation, the Swedish, Brandenburgian, Prussian, and Russian armies ransacked and plundered it over the years as Poland fought various wars with its neighbors.
In the 18th century, the Royal Castle served as the home and center of the Polish Enlightenment, which resulted in the passage of the Constitution of 3rd May 1791. The King was known to hold audiences with scientists, scholars, writers, and artisans within the Royal Castle. The “Great Sejm” (Great Parliament) constructed, debated, and passed the new Constitution within the Castle’s walls. The Constitution aimed to use the ideals of the Enlightenment to fix many of the political issues that had been plaguing the Commonwealth since its inception. The Constitution was short lived; the Third Partition of Poland in 1795 destroyed the Polish State, but the Constitution gave many Poles hope as it continued to serve as a symbol of the ability of the Polish state to make the hard choices necessary to its survival. After partition, the Royal Castle served as a residency and military operations center.
During the Napoleonic Era, Napoléon Bonaparte spent time in the Castle during his conquests. It was during Bonaparte’s time in the Castle in late 1806 and early 1807 that he decided to form the Duchy of Warsaw. After the Duchy was partitioned in 1815, the Royal Castle served as the scene of various uprisings against Russia. Many of the Castle’s famous pieces of art were taken to Russia during this period.
During World War I, the Royal Castle served as the residence of the German military governor. After the war ended, it became the official residence of the Polish President and many important works of arts were restored. The Peace of Riga, signed in 1920 between the Soviet Union and Poland, returned the precious works of arts, furnishings, and other important artifacts from Polish history back to the Polish government. The reacquired artifacts and furnishings were used to restore the Royal Castle to the way it would have appeared during the reign of Stainslaw II August, who was the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania who ruled from 1764-1795. The Royal Castle continued to serve in its official state function until the start of World War II.
World War II and the Reconstruction of the Castle
The Castle suffered extensive damage and was destroyed during World War II. On September 17th, 1939, the Castle was hit with German artillery fire, which destroyed most of the roof and towers. Just as previous invaders had done, once the Germans occupied Warsaw they took the valuable artifacts and pieces of art back to Germany and set out to dismantle the Castle. A few weeks later, Hitler ordered the entire Castle to be destroyed; German units along with Polish museum staff began to take apart one of the most important symbols of the Polish nation. Some of the museum staff were able to save certain parts of the Castle, which would be essential reference pieces in the Royal Castle’s reconstruction following World War II. While most of the Castle had been destroyed, the remaining demolished walls were blown away after the failure of the Warsaw Uprising. A small pile of debris and two pieces of the wall were all that remained of the 600-year-old structure at the end of the war.
Royal Bedroom destroyed
After the restoration of the Polish state following the end of World War II, the Polish Parliament passed a bill in 1949 to rebuild the Castle. The re-built Castle was meant to symbolize the history of the country and its rich culture. Architects Jan Dąbrowski, Piotr Biegański and Jan Zachwatowicz all worked on the blueprints for the reconstruction. They assessed how to use the original pieces of the Castle and what was left of the original furnishing to decorate the historical rooms.
The restoration of the castle was significantly delayed, but by 1971, work had finally begun. A Civic Committee was set up and it was decided to rebuild the Castle from fund-raising efforts in Poland and abroad. The fund-raising efforts were successful and the Castle was officially reopened in 1984.
Today, the Royal Castle stands as a symbol of Polish pride and the Polish peoples’ struggle for statehood. It has an imposing façade and many Polish architects continue to use the Royal Castle as a signpost when designing their own buildings in Warsaw. In 2017, the Royal Castle serves as a museum and also continues to be used for state meetings and is often used to host foreign dignitaries.