On November 19, 1816, the University of Warsaw was founded by a decree issued by Tsar Alexander I, after the Partitions of Poland separated Warsaw from the country’s oldest and most influential academic center, the University of Kraków.
The Third Partition of Poland in 1795 cut Warsaw off from the country’s oldest and most influential academic center, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, which was annexed by the Habsburg Monarchy, leaving the Polish capital with access only to the Academy of Vilnius.
But following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Vilnius was incorporated by the Russian Empire and the newly established ‘Congress’ Kingdom of Poland, the semi-autonomous Russian successor to Napoleon’s short-lived Duchy of Warsaw, was left without a university at all.
A university for Poland under Russian occupation
As a result, Russian Emperor, and de facto King of Poland, Tsar Alexander I granted permission to the Polish authorities for the establishment of a Royal University in Warsaw with five faculties – Law and political science, Medicine, Philosophy, Theology and the Humanities.
The Royal University expanded rapidly and soon grew to 800 students and 50 professors. But after most of the students and professors took part in the failed November 1830 Uprising against Russian occupation, the university was closed down by Russian Emperor Nicholas I, who decreed that Russian-occupied Poland would lose its autonomy and become an integral part of the Russian Empire.
But after the Crimean War, Russia entered a brief period of liberalization, and in 1857, permission was given to reopen the university as the Warsaw Academy of Medicine, based in the Staszic Palace and with only medical and pharmaceutical faculties. With new departments of Law, History, Mathematics and Physics opening in the following years, the newly established academy gained importance and was soon renamed the “Main School” (Szkoła Główna).
But once again, after the failed January 1863 Uprising, the liberal period ended and all Polish-language schools were closed down again. During its short existence, the Main School educated over 3,000 students, many of whom became part of the backbone of the Polish intelligentsia.
The Main School was replaced with a theImperial University of Warsaw which provided education for the Russian military garrison of Warsaw. Believing that the Imperial University would become a perfect way to Russify Polish society, the Russian authorities spent a significant sum on building a new university campus.
The Polish university was resurrected during the First World War, when Germany and Austria-Hungary seized Warsaw and their respective governments allowed for a certain liberalization of life in Poland in order to win the Poles for their case and secure the Polish area behind the front lines. As such, they permitted several Polish social and educational societies to be recreated, such as the University of Warsaw.
After Poland regained its independence in 1918, the University of Warsaw began to grow very quickly. The new government focused on improving the university with many professors returning from exile to participate in the effort. New faculties were established, the curriculum was extended and by the early 1930s, the University of Warsaw had become the largest university in Poland, with over 250 lecturers and 10,000 students, and the level of education had reached that of Western Europe.
The University of Warsaw under Nazi and Communist rule
But after the German occupation of Poland in 1939, the Nazi authorities closed all the institutions of higher education in Poland, the equipment and most of the laboratories were taken to Germany and divided amongst the German universities, while the main campus of the University of Warsaw was turned into military barracks.
With education in Polish banned and punished by death, many professors organized the so-called “Secret University of Warsaw” with lectures held in small groups in private apartments. This network of underground faculties spread rapidly and by 1944, it included of more than 300 lecturers and 3,500 students.
Many of these students took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 during which the German-held campus of the University was turned into a fortified area with bunkers and machine gun nests, as partisans desperately fought to break through the gates. During the fighting, the university lost 60% of its buildings and a large part of the collection of priceless works of art and books donated to the institution was either destroyed or transported to Germany, never to return.
After the Second World War, many professors who had survived returned, and began organizing the university from scratch, giving lectures to almost 4,000 students in the ruins of the campus. The buildings were gradually rebuilt and until the late 1940s the university remained relatively independent.
But the communist authorities soon started to impose its control on the university. Many professors were arrested by the Secret Police and books were censored. On the other hand, education in Poland became free of charge and an increasing number of young people were able to receive state scholarships.
By the mid-1960s, after a brief period of liberalization, the government started a severe crack down on universities and on freedom of thought, and in January 1968, the communist authorities banned the performance of a Romantic play by Adam Mickiewicz called Dziady at the National Theatre in Warsaw. Unrest grew among the students and culminated in a series of major protests against the communist regime, known as the March 1968 events.
The student demonstrations in Warsaw were brutally crushed by the ORMO militia of plain-clothed workers and a large number of students and professors were expelled from the university. But many of them were not silenced and became leaders and prominent members of the Solidarity movement and other societies of the democratic opposition which led to the collapse of communism in 1989.
The University of Warsaw today
Today, the University of Warsaw consists of 126 buildings and educational complexes with over 18 faculties. With more than 43,000 students and doctoral candidates, it is the largest university in Poland and one of the country’s most prestigious universities, considered to be among the top 3% of universities in the world.
Its alumni include Frédéric Chopin, who studied at the Conservatory affiliated with the University, The Doll and Pharaoh author Bolesław Prus, Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, Ashes and Diamonds and Holy Week author Jerzy Andrzejewski, writer Tadeusz Borowski, whose wartime poetry are recognized as classics of Polish literature, former Prime minister of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin, Polish-American economist and Nobel Prize in Economics Leonid Hurwicz, Warsaw Uprising heros Jan Karski and Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, the first non-communist Prime minister since 1946 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the creator of the international language Esperanto Ludwik Zamenhof, Manhattan Project scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party Jarosław Kaczyński and his twin brother and former Polish president Lech Kaczyński, who died in the Smolensk air disaster, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski and his predecessor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, and the winner of 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature Olga Tokarczuk.
Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, Czesław Miłosz was a janitor at Warsaw University Library during the Second World War.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.