A Brief History of Poznań


Little do most visitors to Poznań realise, but the large and historical capital of Wielkopolska is the likely birthplace of the Polish state - in a way. As it happens, Poznań’s Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island) is a top candidate for the location of the 966 baptism of Prince Mieszko I, Poland’s first ruler (and also the guy on the 10zł note). Known as the Baptism of Poland, this bold move ushered Christianity into the previously-polytheistic Slavic populace and brought new importance to Mieszko’s state in the European scene. Other contenders for the birthplace title include nearby Gniezno, the first Polish capital (located 50km from Poznań), and the island of Ostrów Lednicki (located 35km from Poznań) - both absolutely worth a visit if you’re interested in Polish history or archeological sites in general. All three were strongholds built by Mieszko I, who had a penchant for warfare, but it was Poznań that became the seat of Poland’s first missionary bishop, and it was here that the first Polish cathedral was erected in 968. Known as the St. Peter Basilica, it served as the final resting place for the early Polish kings, and its n-th iteration (now called the Archcathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, but commonly known as Poznań Cathedral) is still standing proudly on Ostrów Tumski.

As a result, Poznań was quickly elevated to the status of an important religious and political centre, and all seemed to be going well until the Czech nation attacked, forcing inhabitants to flee and burning the entire place to the ground in 1038. Thankfully, it was soon rebuilt by the appropriately-named King Casimir I the Restorer, but its days of political greatness were on hold - the capital had been moved from heavily-damaged Gniezno to far-away Kraków, leaving Poznań to develop as a trade and commerce hub instead.

The tide turned in 1253, when Przemysł I, Duke of Greater Poland, granted Magdeburg rights to the settlement during Poland’s feudal fragmentation, which lasted from 1138 until 1320. As fortifications and the Poznań Castle sprung up, the focus shifted from now-passe Ostrów Tumski to the new district centred around the Main Square. Poznań remained the capital of Wielkopolska rulers until the 1296 regicide of Przemysł II, when it came into Władysław I the Elbow-high’s sphere of influence (yes, he was a wee king). With the fragmentation resolved and King Elbow-high on the Polish throne in Kraków, the city was once again pushed into political insignificance and stagnation. Development and progress had to wait for the reign of Władysław II Jagiełło in the second half of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th, whose pro-trade policies brought the city up to the ranks of Toruń and Lwów.

And yet, the true golden age was still to come. A time of comparative peace, a change of trade routes, and favourable law-making caused the city to thrive and flourish during the Polish Renaissance (1500-1630), drawing merchants and craftsmen from near and far, who expanded the city well beyond its original walls. Fires, floods, and plagues that erupted with a certain regularity kept things from being completely rosy, but these things were to be expected in even the most prosperous cities of the time. All of this idyll came to a crashing halt in 1655, with what’s known in Poland as the “Swedish Flood” - a rather savage invasion of the now-benign northern neighbours. The danger was compounded by their newly-found allies, the Brandenburgians. First the Swedes, then the Brandenburgians acted as the city’s occupying force between August 1655 and August 1657, but they were ousted by a common uprising, which blockaded the city.

The trouble was far from over, however - undisciplined szlachta (Polish nobility) and Polish military plundered Poznań, a support army sent for John II Casimir Vasa marched through shortly after, adding to the devastation, and - just for good measure - a bubonic plague breakout reduced the remaining population to a pitiful level. At this point in history, more houses in Poznań were standing empty than occupied, a drastic and macabre change from the recent golden age. Sadly, the 18th century proved no better - a succession of armed conflicts including the Northern War, the War of the Polish Succession, the Seven Years’ War, and the Bar Confederation all took a heavy toll, and it wasn’t until 1775 that foreign forces left the city. Things seemed to be looking up as Boni Ordinis (Good Order) Committees, organised by King Poniatowski, started the difficult process of restoring functionality to devastated Polish cities, but major trouble was ahead for the sovereign Polish state, as three forces - Russians, Prussians, and Austro-Hungarians - partitioned the country for good in 1795. It wouldn’t be until the end of WWI that Poland would regain independence; meanwhile Poznań had to cope with its new reality under Prussian occupation.

Doing so didn’t come easy, but Prussia’s war with Napoleon’s France provided a glimmer of hope. The successful 1806 Wielkopolska Uprising, aided by Napoleon himself, led to the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw, a short-lived state which fell to the Prussians again in 1815. A second uprising by inhabitants of the Poznań Province, in 1918-1919, secured the region’s safe return to the newly independent Polish state. During WWII, the region was to be annexed by Germany again, and much of the Polish and Jewish populace to be shipped to concentration and forced labour camps. Towards the end of the war the city was the site of a key battle between advancing Soviet forces and retreating Nazis: the 1945 Battle of Poznań. It took a full month to oust the Germans, and the havoc wreaked on the city was immense; up to 90% of the historic Old Town was now in shambles and had to be reconstructed in the post-war years.

From 1952, the start-year of the socialist Polish People’s Republic, Poznań saw many workers’ protests stemming from dissatisfaction with the commie regime; they reached their peak in 1956, during the tragic Poznań June, a month of general strikes and street demonstrations brutally crushed by security forces, during which 57 people lost their lives. In the 1960s, intensive commie-style housing development started taking place, and the Warta River was re-routed to lessen the danger of flooding. Currently, Poznań is an industry, trade, and tourism hub, regularly hosting trade fairs and international events at its Poznań International Fair site.

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