Fates of the Warsaw University established exactly 200 years ago, have been inseparably connected with the history of the Polish Republic and its capital from the beginning

The idea of establishing the university in Warsaw had been appearing for a long time before Stanisław Kostka Potocki, the minister of religions and public enlightenment submitted a memorandum about it to Alexander I, the tsar of Russia and the nominal king of Poland, which had been written with Fr. Wojciech AA. Szweykowski SP.

The beginning of the university were two schools from the epoch of Napoleon – School of Law and Administration and Medical School, established in Warsaw in the years 1808-09, which were later changed into departments of the university. The schools derived from – as the whole university a decade later – from a particular necessity. They were to educate specialists needed in the functioning of the Duchy of Warsaw, a substitute of the Polish country.

The first part of existence

On the painting by Antoni Brodowski, painted on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of inauguration of the university. Alexander I hands a document about establishing the university to its first rector – Fr. Wojciech Szweykowski. The painting whose original has not survived (is known only from the oil sketch), has got a symbolic character as the shown event has never taken place. When on 19 November 1816 Alexander I signed – in Petersburg – a document of establishing the university, Fr. Szweykowski had not been its rector yet (he became rector a year and a half later). The tsar was not in Warsaw on 14 May 1818 either, when the solemn inauguration of the Warsaw University took place.

Between those two events there were other three, very important ones. On 29 March 1817, the name: university had been introduced for the first time, on 15 November the seal of the university was acknowledged (it presented an eagle in the crown with stretched out wings, holding a branch of a palm tree and laurel; soon the eagle became the emblem of the university), and half a year later, about 15 April a temporary code of rules of the university began to oblige.

No dreams

Beside the department of Law and Administration Sciences and the Department of Medical Sciences, also other three were established: Department of Philosophy, Department of Fine Arts and Department of Theology. The last one was opened as the first one. The total number of students at the university was nearly 800. There were 40-50 professors.

Soon after the inauguration the statute of the university was changed – which gave the beginning to the policy of interference into its autonomy – and the emblem. The size of the eagle in the crown was reduced and placed on the breast of tsar’s two-headed eagle. It was the introduction to what was to happen soon: the first part of existence of the university lasted only a dozen years.

The university was closed down because of the defeat of the November Uprising, in which a lot of students and employees of the university had taken part. They created even a para-military Honour Guard. The university stopped existing, and most of its literature collections were transported away to Petersburg.

Gaining – after years – an agreement to opening the Polish university in Warsaw was made possibly thanks to a momentous liberalization in Russia. The tsarist authorities saw that it was necessary. In 1857 there was a consent to establish Medical-Surgical Academy, to which Department of Law and Administration, Department of Philosophy and History and Department of Maths and Physics were added five years later. At the same time the university was reactivated but under a different name.

Tsarist law and order

The solemn opening ceremony of the Main School in Warsaw took place on 15 November 1862. It lasted for a short time, as only 7 years. Its short existence, however, had a great influence on the Polish group of the highly-educated people being created at that time. A lot of graduates and students of that time created Polish elites.

The university was closed down because of students’ participation in the January Uprising. It was replaced by the Tsarist Warsaw University with the lectures’ Russian language. Most professors were brought from Russia, but about two third Poles were among 2 thousand students; it was very significant for maintaining the national awareness, development of science and the national culture.

When in 1905, the boycott of the Tsarist University was announced under the slogan of a fight for the Polish university, most of the previous students had gone to other universities. They were only 10 percent in Warsaw.

When in August 1915 the Russians were replaced by the Germans, the Polish Warsaw University was allowed to exist. After the inauguration on 15 November, the previous emblem was returned, the university gained more independence, and women were allowed to study. A few dozen lecturers educated the growing number of students very quickly. After 4 years their number grew from a thousand to 4.5 thousand.

Between wars

Normally the university could, however, develop only after gaining independence by Poland. The authorities had been elected since then, departments had a decisive influence on the teaching schedule. Polish lecturers arrived at Warsaw from a lot of countries. The number of departments grew to eight, new departments and institutes were appearing. Soon it turned out that it was possible to establish the university on the European level.

In the beginning of the 30s of the XX century the Warsaw University had already been the biggest Polish university, with 250 professors and 10 thousand students. As it was estimated, three quarters of them came from outside Warsaw and three quarters earned their living. However, desires did not go together with financial possibilities. Only every 30th student could rely on scholarship and every 7th - on a vacancy in a dormitory.

However all this did not last long. When Warsaw got possessed by the Germans, all universities were closed down – only education on the primary level was allowed. Academic group responded to it with creating a unique underground university, in which – let’s add – one was punished with death penalty for teaching and learning. At the end of the Second World War the underground Warsaw University had, according to various data, from 2.5 to 3 thousand students.

Without the crown

A lot of them took part in the Warsaw Uprising, some of them were forcing their way to the building in Krakowskie Przedmieście, together with a group of the National Army ‘Krybar’, where the Germans were surrounding it. None of the three attacks was effective.

During fights a lot of the university buildings were destroyed, so after the end of the war, the Warsaw University was transferred to Łódź. It did not happen so. Students and employees of the university were removing ruins from the university buildings themselves and were helping in rebuilding them. In December 1945, in field conditions, a new academic year was begun.

In the end of the 40s the sovietization of the country enforced changes also in academic institutions. Now the university had a new state emblem – the eagle without the crown. Traditional gowns and cap were not used any more. The autonomy of the university was reduced, Marxism ideology was imposed on humanities, and also censorship of academic works was introduced. On the wave of the thaw after the year 1956, at the Warsaw University academic life revived.

Now we

Those events were a burden on the situation at the university for years. Protests connected with prohibition of performing ‘Dziady’ by Mickiewicz led to the so-called March events of 1968. Participants of protests and strikes at the Warsaw University demanded freedom of teaching and freedom of speech. Protests stifled by militia and secret police began a campaign which resulted in a lot of students and employees were relegated from the university. At the university the so-called March associate professors appeared – promoted for the post of an associate professor despite the lack of habilitation. They were replacing professors who had been removed from the university within purges.

After August 19890 the Warsaw University became an asylum for independent academic, social and even political activity. It helped – beside prominent scientists, lecturers – advisors for Solidarity of the years 1980-81 get recruited, here there were independent underground students organizations, and illegal literature was distributed semi-officially here. The university became a forge for staff of many spheres of life after the year 1989, when the relative normality appeared.

Today, after 200 years of the rich but difficult history, the Warsaw University is the biggest university in the country. Here 5 Noble prize winners studied – the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, the former prime minister of Israeli Menachem Begin, a poet Czesław Miłosz, a physician and a radio-biologist Joseph Rotblat and an economist Leonid Hurwicz – as well as great Poles, among the others: Tadeusz Kościuszko, fryderyk Chopin, Zygmunt Krasiński, Jan Kiepura and Witold Gombrowicz. The society of the university, according to official data, amounts to about 58 thousand people, that is, nearly as many as there are, for example, inhabitants of Łomża.


„Niedziela” 47/2016

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • Translation: Aneta Amrozik • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl