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750th anniversary of the granting municipal rights to Poznań

In 2003, Poznań celebrates the 750th anniversary of its municipal status. The history of the city, however, predates 1253 by centuries. In 1999, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Hanna Kócka-Krenz discovered the ruins of the palatium of Prince Mieszko I on the isle of Ostrów Tumski, which is the oldest part of the city, surrounded by the waters of the Warta and the Cybina rivers. When it was discovered that the structure had been erected as early as ca. 950 and is the oldest surviving example of monumental palace architecture on the territory ruled by the Piast Dynasty, the position of Poznań in the early origins of the Polish State was revised. Research findings prove that the city constituted the leading centre of the territory of Mieszko I.

An important date in the history of the city was the year 966; when Mieszko I and his entire court were christened in the Latin rite. The precise location remains unknown - it could have been either Poznań or Ostrów Lednicki. The first documented date in the history of Poznań is 968. The Bishop of the Polish lands - Jordan, being assigned for a mission to propagate the new faith, had his residence on Ostrów Tumski. In the year 1000 the archdiocese of Gniezno was established, but Bishop Unger retained his autonomy, being accountable directly to the Holy See. The town kept its dominant role in the Piast State until 1038, when the Bohemian Prince Bretislav I ravaged the province of Wielkopolska (Great Poland), and also Poznań. In the mid-11 th century the centre was rebuilt and regained its earlier splendour. During the period of division, the city on the island of Ostrów Tumski was the capital of the Duchy and the principal seat of the Wielkopolska line of the ruling Piast dynasty.

Another significant event in the history of Poznań was its receiving municipal rights according to the Magdeburg Law in 1253 from Prince Przemysł I and his brother Bolesław. A new city was established on the left bank of the Warta, where the princes castle was erected on a hill. The exact date of this event is unknown, however the 23rd April is assumed, according to tradition. Thenceforward, Poznań ceased to be a stronghold and turned into a city modelled after the pattern of western European an cities. The market square with the town hall In the middle became its central point. A town council was established, inhabitants received many privileges; craftsmen and merchants became established. In 1264, the first privilege in Poland was bestowed on the Jewish population.

At the same time, the former town on Ostrów Tumski and the Śródka market settlement became the property of the Bishops of Poznań. The Bishop's residence was enlarged, houses for canons and other clergy were built. The separation of the ecclesiastical and the secular districts of the town was so distinct that in 1444 Ostrów Tumski received municipal rights of its own and became a separate urban unit encircled with town walls. The re-incorporation of the island into the city recurred only in 1800.

In spite of the clear separation of church and secular authorities in town, the municipal crest was officially adopted in 1290, bearing the figures of the holy patrons of the cathedral: SS Peter and Paul. Soon afterwards - although only for a short time - Poznań played the role of capital of the Piast monarchy. In 1295, King Przemysł II made just Poznań his capital. From the elevation of the Przemysł's Hill (Wzgórze Przemysła), surrounded with ramparts, the panorama of the old town may still be admired.

After the capital moved to Cracow, Poznań lost its status as the main centre in the country. It became the royal administrative centre of Wielkopolska.This did not, however, result in the cultural decline of the city. In 1303 the first education centre was established, which survives till today as the secondary school of St Mary Magdalene. In 1518, an Academy was founded on Ostrów Tumski by Bishop Jan Lubrański with the status of an academic gymnasium and in 1573 a Jesuit College was opened. In 1611 the college was elevated to the status of a university by decree of King Zygmunt III Vasa. However, the Jagiellonian University mounted a protest, leading to Pope Paul V revoking the royal decree, and in spite of the town's great potential, Poznań regained its university status only in 1919.

Poznań is a city of tolerance. German and Jewish settlement in the town started immediately after it had received its municipal rights. For centuries, Poznań was a cultural bridge between Poland and Germany. The settlers brought many new customs and new scientific and legal ideas. The largest German settlement took place after the end of the Northern War, which had caused considerable damage to the city. In the period of 1719-53, peasants from the province of Bamberg in Bavaria were invited by the town council to settle in the vicinity, the only condition being their becoming members of a Roman-Catholic parish. This condition facilitated the swift assimilation of the immigrants. By the end of the 18th century, the residents of Poznań used the term Bambrowie to refer to all peasants, and in the early 19th century, most of the settlers had already been Polonized in spite of the Prussian occupation of the region at the time.

These relatively good relations between Poles and Germans were brought to a sudden end with the suppression of the January Uprising of 1863 and the ensuing persecution of the Poles. A wave of Germanization followed, which provoked popular resistance and boosted the idea of "organic action", which had been gaining credibility since the early 19th century as the best form of resistance against a stronger occupying power. The idea consisted in relinquishing military struggle in favour of systematic reinforcement of a sense of national identity in the Polish population. Numerous public and cultural initiatives served the purpose of raising the level of education across the social spectrum. Two of the greatest philanthropists of those days were Karol Marcinkowski, a medical doctor who, from 1838 on, treated impoverished residents of the city against tuberculosis free of charge, and Edward Raczyński, who used his wealth to sponsor many cultural and educational initiatives, such as the construction of the Raczyński Library in 1829, which was modelled on the Louvre. The foundation of the first cooperative banks was another highly significant event. The massive efforts of Piotr Wawrzyniak and Augustyn Szamarzewski resulted in the development of one of the most successful networks of these banks in Germany.

The persecutions after the January Uprising, in 1864, prompted the population to reject that part of their tradition which they considered too German in spirit. It can thus be argued that, paradoxically, the Prussian annexation contributed to the unification of the customs of Wielkopolska with those of other historically Polish regions. During that time, until Emperor William II came to power, Poznań had been treated chiefly as a military stronghold. The Prussian government did not undertake any civilian initiatives, focusing on the construction of one of the largest fortification systems in Europe, Fort Winiary, which formed part of the ramparts surrounding the town. By the end of the 19th century the ratio of the military to the civilian population was 3:4, which made Poznań the third largest fortress in Europe.

William's II plan changed the situation, as the Emperor wished to replace the town-fortress with his residence. Following the designs of the most eminent architects of contemporary Europe, an impressive Imperial Forum was erected with an imperial castle and Colonization Commission buildings, a county court, post office headquarters, library, Royal Academy, Hygiene Institute, theatre, museum and railway directorate. The whole district was designed in historicism style with frequent references to the power of German Emperors. The castle is a most peculiar exception to the whole urban plan, partly because of its later history. Built in neo-Romanesque style, it was the last monumental construction erected for a European ruler. In 1919, it became a residence of the Presidents of Poland. After the city was reoccupied by the Germans in 1939, Adolf Hitler adopted it as one of his seats. On his orders the interiors were remodelled in the style of the Third Reich. Nowadays, the castle interiors are the largest extant example of the Third Reich's architecture. After the Second World War the castle was the seat of the city council, and since 1962 the cultural centre of Poznań has been housed there.

In the 20th century history of the city, three major events stand out: the Wielkopolska Uprising, the Second World War and the 1956 Uprising, the latter euphemistically referred to as the "June events". The 1918 Uprising, properly prepared and completed with victory, is exceptional in Polish history. The insurgents took the enemy by surprise, followed a detailed plan of action, and confronted the German soldiers whose morale was low. All of this contributed to a relatively low loss of life, namely: about two thousand people were killed in Wielkopolska.

In the 1939 war, the city was occupied at an early stage by the Germans and incorporated into the III Reich. This was a consequence of the strategy of concentrating Polish forces in central Poland. The German decision to create the Warthenland with Poznań as its capital caused massive resettlement of the Polish population to General Gouvernement: about 100 thousand Poznań residents were resettled, and 33 thousand were forced into slave labour. The Soviet assault on the city, which was the last big fortress before reaching Berlin in 1945, caused extensive damage of up to 55% of the 1939 city area.

June 1956 was a turning point in the history of the Polish People's Republic. The inflated workplace norms, food price rises and low wages caused massive labour unrest in Poznań. On 28th June 1956, a strike broke out in the largest factory in the city, the Stalin Metal Works (currently known as Hipolit Cegielski Poznań) and the workers quickly moved onto the streets. From the early hours of the morning crowds assembled at the foot of the castle. By 9 am over 100 thousand people had gathered in the town centre.At 10 o'clock news broke of the arrest of the workers' delegation, which led to the crowd storming the secret police headquarters and inciting riots throughout the city. To suppress the uprising, the authorities used the military: 10,300 soldiers, 400 tanks and 30 armoured personnel carriers. The fighting in the city continued until 30th June. Resistance was ultimately crushed, but the struggle clearly showed the weakness of the regime and the power of the Polish collective will. After 1956, every significant change in policy made by the Communist party was forced by public unrest.

Contemporary Poznań is one of the most dynamic cities in Poland. Its greatest assets are the largest trade centre in the country (the International Trade Fair in Poznań has an almost 80 year tradition), the second largest after Warsaw and the most modern air terminal in the country, many tourist attractions (every architectural style is represented in the city, from Romanesque to Modernist), two zoological gardens, a palm house - the largest in Poland and third largest in Europe - several lakes within the city limits, an artificial ski slope, and excellent sports facilities on Lake Malta, which is situated in the city centre. Apart from all this, Poznań has the second largest, after Warsaw, job market and is the fifth largest city and the third largest academic centre in Poland. All this attracts investors and contributes to the wealth and happiness of its residents.

Rafał Jaroszewski