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An important financial, commercial, intellectual, and cultural center in Eastern Europe, Warsaw is Poland's capital and largest city. In 1999, it had a population of 1,616,500.


Warsaw has a very long history. A settlement has existed on its site since the tenth century. By the thirteenth century Warsaw was considered a city. Warsaw's location on important trade routes soon gave it national significance. In 1611, it replaced Cracow as Poland's capital.

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In the eighteenth century, Warsaw prospered as it became a commercial, manufacturing, and banking center. By 1792, the city's population had attained 100,000. The court of Stanislaw August (reigned 1764-1795) in Warsaw became the motor for the Enlightenment project in Poland. After Poland's second partition, the city rose up against Russian domination in 1794.

When the Polish state was extinguished in 1795, Warsaw was ceded to Prussia. Napoleon entered the city in 1806, and he made Warsaw the capital of the small Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1813), and then of the slightly larger Kingdom of Poland (1815-1830). By 1829, Warsaw's population was 140,000. A series of uprisings against Russian rule (1830-1831, 1863-1864, and 1905) led to increasingly oppressive conditions.

With the construction of railway lines to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the mid-nineteenth century, Warsaw became an important transportation and industrial center. Its population increased dramatically, from 500,000 in 1900 to 764,000 just ten years later. With the development of a large working class, it soon became the center of Polish socialism. By 1900, the city was the most populous Jewish center in the world, and it became a focus of Jewish political, cultural, and intellectual life.

Poland again became independent in 1918, and Warsaw became once again a capital city and Poland's largest industrial and commercial center. By 1939, its population was 1,289,000.

From September 8 to 28, 1939, Warsaw defended itself against the German Blitzkrieg. When the city surrendered, it had sustained over 50,000 dead, as well as heavy damage from incessant bombing.

During the Nazi occupation, Warsaw's population drastically declined: as many as 670,000 residents died, including the city's 375,000 Jews, who were systematically exterminated by the Nazis, along with the Polish intellectual and cultural elite. The city's revolutionary traditions were continued with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, after which Hitler ordered the city depopulated and physically erased. Over 85% of the capital's buildings were systematically burned and destroyed.

Warsaw was liberated in January 1945, and by 1948 a Communist regime firmly controlled Poland. Under the Communists, Warsaw was physically restored. Once again Warsaw became Poland's largest city. Warsaw was a center for the Polish workers' movement, Solidarity, in 1980 and 1981. With the fall of the Communist regime, the city once again became a self-governing municipality.

Most residents are ethnic Poles, and the population is predominantly Roman Catholic, though there is a small Protestant minority and a tiny but vibrant Jewish community.

Gay Traditions

Warsaw has a lively gay tradition. During the late eighteenth century, Warsaw's royal court and magnate palaces were the sites of cross-dressing balls. It was rumored that Poland's last king, Stanislaw August, was bisexual.

The Code Napoleon, in force during the period of the Duchy of Warsaw, was silent on the issue of homosexuality, and this treatment came to be considered Poland's legal norm. However, under Russian rule, imperial laws prevailed: from 1835 homosexuality was illegal throughout the empire. This prohibition was confirmed by the Russian criminal code of 1903. The code's paragraph #516 decreed that those convicted of "" were to be sentenced to no less than three months in prison.

Lesbians in Warsaw

The history of Warsaw's lesbians is barely documented. While isolated figures such as Narcyza Zmichowska (1819-1876) and Maria Dabrowska (1889-1965) are known, social circles or cultural bodies are not documented until the post-Communist period.

Lesbianism was not mentioned in the Russian criminal code in force in Warsaw, and Polish criminal codes have always also been silent on lesbianism. Currently, there are no exclusively lesbian organizations in Warsaw. Some women's organizations provide space for meetings of lesbians, as does the gay men's group Lambda Warsaw.

The Inter-War Period

During the inter-war period, such reformers as Professor Anton Feliks Mikulski (1872-1925) worked to remove the existing foreign laws outlawing homosexuality. Mikulski wrote an influential treatise on homosexuality in 1920 that demonstrated the rise of the medical model of homosexuality on Polish soil. Such reform efforts were successful: independent Poland's criminal code of 1932 was silent on homosexuality, in keeping with earlier Polish legal tradition.

Warsaw's intellectual and cultural elite had a distinct gay component at this time. The Skamander circle of poets, the most important in inter-war Poland, was dominated by homosexual men. Such figures as the composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), the writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980), the poets Boleslaw Lesmian (1877-1937) and Jan Lechon (1899-1956), as well as the novelists Tadeusz Breza (1905-1970), Jozef Czechowicz (1903-1939), and Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) demonstrated the strength of gay life in the Polish capital. However, most Poles looked down upon homosexuality as a perversion, an outlook encouraged by the conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy.

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Top: A skyline view of downtown Warsaw.
Above: Marchers carry an enormous rainbow flag in the 2006 Pride Parade in Warsaw. Photograph by Paul David Doherty.

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