A brief History of Krakow

In its more than 1,500 years, Krakow has been an imperial capital, a political backwater, an independent city state, and the scene of earthshaking triumphs and tragedies in Polish history.

It was more than six centuries after its founding as an obscure settlement on a bend in the River Vistula that Krakow became the royal capital of a recently unified Polish nation. Mieszko I, the first King of Poland, added Krakow, already a thriving commercial centre, to his dominions in the last decade of the 10th century. By 1038 the city had become the seat of his royal line. 

At that time, the chalky outcrop known as Wawel Hill was the heart of the city, providing a defensive position and solid ground above the marshy meanderings of the river. The beginnings of Wawel Castle, regarded today as the spiritual heart of the Polish nation, were built on the hill by Casimir III in the 14th century.

Casimir III, the only Polish king to be called ‘the Great,’ was a tireless builder, warrior and lawmaker whose four decades of rule transformed Krakow. It is said he found Poland made of wood, and left it made of stone. He laid the foundations of what would become the Jagiellonian University and, in 1335, added a new district to the city – Kazimierz. He encouraged Jews to settle there, establishing and protecting a community that was to play a central role in the city’s history for the next six centuries.

During the Medieval period, Krakow found itself at the edge of Christian Europe. Fortifications did not save Krakow from near total demolition at the hands of the Mongols in 1241 and 1259, but the destruction did allow a new urban plan that included the city’s famed, and enormous, Market Square. An impressive ring of walls and towers later provided protection from raids carried out by Muslim Tatars over several centuries. The remnants of the city’s three kilometres of walls and 46 towers are still visible at the northern end of the Old Town. 

When Warsaw took over from Krakow as the capital in 1596, Poland was at the height of its political and cultural power. Renaissance influences were in full flood, and have left modern Krakow with more surviving Renaissance structures than any city outside of Italy. A long decline that culminated in the partition of Poland’s lands between the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires at the end of the 18th century was marked by sieges, occupation and economic stagnation for the city in the south.

Under Austrian occupation, Krakow became a fortified outpost. Situated close to the border with Prussian territory, Krakow was a strategic garrison town for imperial troops. The Austrians constructed rings of forts around the city, each one further from the centre as artillery technology improved. Dozens of these massive, red brick redoubts remain in the city’s modern suburbs and the surrounding countryside.

The 123 years of Poland’s subjugation were punctuated by popular rebellions. One of the most celebrated, the Kosciuszko Uprising of 1794, kicked off in Krakow’s Market Square – the site is marked by a monumental paving slab today. The rising failed but its leader, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, already a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, is commemorated by one of several earthen mounds (see Krakow’s Mounds) that ring the city.

Poland regained its independence in 1918, and lost it again 21 years later under the onslaught of German and Russian troops at the start of World War II. German forces arrived in Krakow on September 6, 1939 – just five days after war began. The then mayor, Stanislaw Klimecki, is credited with saving the city by appealing to the invaders to leave its defenceless citizens unharmed.

Hans Frank, the despised governor of Nazi-occupied Poland, installed himself in Wawel Castle soon after, ushering in the darkest period in the city’s history. Krakow’s Jews were confined to a stifling ghetto in the Podgorze district south of the river, and then marched to the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps, or shot on the streets. Among many acts of individual heroism from this period, the schemes of local factory owner Oskar Schindler have been immortalised on film (see Krakow and WWII).

The post-war period brought massive change to Poland’s cultural capital. The Communist authorities tried to undermine Krakow’s reputation as a hotbed of intellectualism by establishing a vast, proletarian suburb called Nowa Huta (New Factory). They succeeded only in creating a major headache for themselves as the district became a centre of opposition to totalitarian rule. The then Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, was soon to become the regime’s sternest and most effective enemy as Pope John Paul II.

Today, Krakow is one of Poland’s economic and cultural powerhouses. Millions of Poles and non-Poles visit every year to soak up the centuries of history and a laid back atmosphere that is second to none in Northern Europe. Krakow has also become Poland’s Silicon Valley. Dozens of multinationals have set up shop here, and local start-ups are reminding the world that Polish education and innovation are second to none. The future looks bright.