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The history of Olsztyn

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Olsztyn has shared a sophisticated history together with the whole of Warmia and Masuria, and the former lands of the Old Prussians. For over 600 years of its existence, it has changed its national status, and ethnic, cultural, and religious influences have clashed on its territory. Learning about the intriguing history of the city will help us better understand the mosaic of its modern complexity.


Before even a city was founded on the conquered lands of the Old Prussians, people had been living in these lands for thousands of years. As a proof, there have been discovered traces of settlements, the oldest of which are dated back to 7,000 BC. Within the modern borders of Olsztyn, settlements from the Neolithic period, the Bronze and the Iron Age have also been found. What has been preserved from the times of the Old Prussian settlements are gords i.a. by Lake Ukiel, in Track, and in the City Forest (Sądyty). In Kortowo, on the other hand, a Goth cemetery was found.

In the XIIIth century, these lands, settled by the Prussian tribe of Galindians, were conquered by the Teutonic Order. According to the treaty of 1243, the lands were handed over to the Warmian diocese, in order to become a part rightful to the Warmia Chapter at the turn of the years 1346 and 1347.

The first guardhouse in a bend of the Łyna was built in 1334 by the State Warmian Vogt Henryk von Lutera. Since 1347, a magnificent castle of the Chapter had stood here. The first record on the village which developed nearby, dates back to 1348.


The foundation and first years of Olsztyn

The Warmia Chapter issued the location privilege on 31 October 1353 in Frombork. Jan of Łajsy became the founder of the city and the city's future village administrator, and later on he was awarded a nobility for the achievements for the settlement and became an important person in Warmia.

The city was named Allenstein, from the Prussian Łyna – Alna (that means "doe"). The German word "stein" in this meaning is translated as "castle". The current name is the polonization of the original name used by the local people for centuries.

The city was founded under the Kulm law, on 178 lans (1 lan = 16.8 ha). Due to rapid development, already on the 4th of May 1378, the chapter issued an act on the basis of which Olsztyn was expanded in a north-east direction. After some time, the defensive walls from this side were closed with the Górna Brama (Upper Gate), which was later on named Wysoka (High) and is preserved till this day.

Among the city's fortifications were also gates – Dolna (Lower) and Młyńska (Mill) and Furta Wodna (Water Door). Before the gates, that were connecting the main communication trail, the Suburbs began to develop – accordingly the Upper and the Lower.

Among other investments of the Olsztyn of the time, till the end of the XIVth century the first wing of the castle and the corpus of the St. James Church were constructed. The office of the municipal authorities was built as well in the place where nowadays stands the southern wing of the Old City Hall from approx. 1500. The first record about the City Council dates back to 1404.


In the battleground of Polish and Teutonic Order wars

The XVth century was dominated in the history of the city by the conflicts between the Teutonic Order and Poland. During the Great War in 1410, the administrator of Olsztyn castle surrendered to the Polish king. After the end of the war, the castle returned to the Order. However, already after a few years – in 1414, during the Famine War – the army of the King Jagiełło plundered the city.

The next battles here took place during the Thirteen Year's War caused by the Prussian Confederation that Olsztyn joined in 1440. At the beginning of 1454, the town’s folk took over the castle. Due to the treason of the capitulators, the castle and the city was taken over by the Teutonic Order one and a half year's later. After the next mishaps and when the Warmian bishop changed sides to the Polish, from the end of 1463 the king's troops were stationed in Olsztyn.

The Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 surrendered the city with the whole of Warmia to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. However, it did not end the conflict and already in 1478 Olsztyn was part of the so-called "War of the Priests" between the Warmian bishop Mikołaj Tungen and the King of Poland.

The last chapter of this conflict lasting over 200 years took place in the years 1519-21. At the beginning of year 1521, the Teutonic Order tried to conquer the city. But the attack was fended off and the administrator of the Warmia Chapter properties, Nicolaus Copernicus, was titled the defender of Olsztyn.


The Golden Age and the Age of Downfall

The great astronomer served here as the administrator in the years 1516-19 and 1520-21. He was responsible i.a. for the settlement of the nearby villages; he wrote a treatise on currency and conducted astronomical observations. The tablet, made by his hand, in the wall of the castle's gallery is the relic of these observations.

After the secularization of the Teutonic Order and after the Prussian Homage in 1525 came the decades of peace, called here "the Warmian Golden Age". During this period, in Olsztyn were built i.a. the castle's chapel (1530), the Jerusalem Chapel in the Lower Suburbs (1565), and the St. James Church was rebuilt, including the elevation of its monumental tower (1596).

Unfortunately, the period of prosperity was ended by a great fire in 1620 that burnt down all the buildings except for the church and the castle. The plague in 1624 was another disaster.

Although the Swedish army did not reach Olsztyn during their attacks on Warmia in 1626, the echoes of war were resounding also here. And during the next conflict with Sweden in 1656 the city was taken over by the army of Brandenburg (allied with Sweden). Two years later, another great fire started in Olsztyn, and after the Swedish soldiers, the city was plundered by Austrian troops, which resulted in famine during the winter.

The next fires (1669, 1708, and 1712) and the "visits" of Swedish soldiers during the Great Northern War (1703-04, 1708) completely destroyed the city. The most significant factor of its downfall was the plague, which killed a considerable number of people in the years 1709-10.


On the margins of great history

Despite these unfavourable circumstances, the St. James church was enriched by tower chapels (in 1721), and in the years 1756-58 a new baroque wing was built in the castle.

In 1772, as the result of the First Partition of Poland, Olsztyn became a part of the Kingdom of Prussia together with the rest of Warmia. Olsztyn had then 1770 citizens. After the annex of the chapter properties by the country, the role of the city was marginalized.

Another fire took place in Olsztyn in 1803 and destroyed a part of its buildings. A significant historical event occurredin the city at the beginning of 1807 with the entrance of Napoleon with his army. Bonaparte himself spent several hours in the local castle on the 3rd of February. On the same day, he observed the skirmish of his troops near Jonkowo from the tower of St. Lawrence in Gutkowo. Later on, in the St. James Church, his soldiers prepared a prison for 1,500 Russian prisoners. The prisoners, in order to warm themselves, burnt the fittings of the church, leading to its devastation.

The year 1818 became a significant date for Olsztyn when the Olsztyn District was formed, and the buildings of the city exceeded the city walls. Before the city entered a phase of rapid development, it had to struggle with the epidemic of cholera in 1831 and famine, which lasted for several years.


Aspects of the XIXth century development

In 1836, Jakub Rarkowski took over the position/took up the seat of mayor and held it for 29 years. During this time, the boundaries of Olsztyn extended, the remainings of the city fosse were dried, and the streets became cobbled and lighted. Moreover, a swimming area, and the first municipal school were opened and Kortowo and Jakubowo were founded. During the period of office of the next mayor, Robert Zakrzewski, the construction of the city hospital was completed (1867) and railways were built (1872).

The most spectacular stage of the city's development, however, took place during the office of the mayor Oskar Belian, who held this seat for 31 years from 1877. The area of buildings expanded threefold and the population increased from 7,000 to 31,000.

Among many ideas of Belian, bringing in the army was the most important for the city. As a result, over a period of 15 years the division headquarters were created and Olsztyn was given the name of "Kasernopolis" (the city of barracks), while the percentage of soldiers within the city's population reached as high as 17%.

Moreover, a railway junction was established, industry rose, and education, health care, and jurisdiction developed. New public buildings were raised i.a. the new city hall, churches: Catholic, of the Holiest Heart of Jesus Christ, and Evangelical, in the Old Town (and later on the Catholic Church of St. Joseph and the Evangelical garrison church). Whole residential areas were built as well.

In 1889, a gasworks was launched, in 1892 – telephones, in 1898 – the water sewage system, and in the 1907 a hydroelectric plant which supplied i.a. the city trams. In 1905, Olsztyn became the seat of the new regency for the purpose of which a monumental building was constructed.


The restless beginning of the twentieth century

Belian became famous for throttling national and social activities of the Polish population, as well as for the struggle with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, from 1886 the Polish "Gazeta Olsztyńska" was working in the city. Then (1893-1900) worked here the composer of i.a. "Rota", Feliks Nowowiejski. Another great citizen of Olsztyn of this age was the future architect Erich Mendelsohn (born in 1887).

This period of dynamic development was interrupted by the onset of the First World War. In 1914, Russian soldiers entered Olsztyn for one day. After the war activities, authority was temporarily taken by the Proletarian and Soldier's Council.

The plebiscite conducted in 1920 was to decide about the national status of the southern districts of Warmia and Masuria. Due to the provisions of its terms, which were advantageous for the German side, and due to a mass propaganda campaign and harassment towards the Polish movement, the result of the plebiscite did not reflect the actual national structure of the city. Only 342 people voted for Poland. During the next years, Dom Polski became the mainstay of Polish culture. It was the place where Polish social organizations and "Gazeta Olsztyńska" worked.

The post-war stagnation, and later on the economic crisis, were not favourable for new investments. Nevertheless, a theater (1925) and an airport (1926) were created, and Franciscans built the monumental Church of Christ the King and St. Francis (1927).

After the NSDAP took over power in Germany in 1933, the Nazi propaganda and harassment towards Polish and Jewish citizens increased. However, the economic situation was enhanced i.a. due to the war preparations. Many buildings were constructed by the streets of the city centre and in Zatorze, as well as housing developments around the city.


The Second World War and the post-war times

In 1939, troops set out from the Olsztyn barracks and attacked Poland. In the first days of the Second World War, trolley buses were started in the city. The executive editor of "Gazeta Olsztyńska", Seweryn Pieniężny Jr., also was arrested, and later on murdered in the Hohenbruch concentration camp. After a few days, all Polish organizations were closed down, and the headquarters of "Gazeta Olsztyńska" was demolished in November. In 1942, all the Olsztyn Jews were taken away to the extermination camp. The mentally ill people from the hospital in Kortowo were also successively murdered.

In January 1945, the majority of citizens fled from the attacking Red Army, who entered Olsztyn on 22 January and made it an arena of slaughter, rape, and plunder of the remaining – in most cases Polish-speaking – population. The soldiers of the Red Army i.a. murdered (also by burning alive) the patients and the personnel of the local hospitals.

In February, they set fire to the city, as a result of which 36% of the city's buildings were totally demolished. The churches were saved from destruction – thanks to the care of the Rev. Jan Hanowski, the parish priest of St. James's Church.

On 23 May 1945, the Russians handed over the demolished Olsztyn to the Polish administration. The previous citizens who had been evicted were replaced by the migrants from Kresy Wschodnie – from the regions of Wilno, Grodno and Wołyń – and also from the central part of Poland. Decluttering and rebuilding the city was conducted till the end of the 1950s.


Construction of the modern city

Olsztyn became the capital of the Masuria District, and, from 1946, of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship. This is also the place where the seat of the diocese from Frombork was established (it became the archdiocese in 1992).

In 1950, the Agricultural Academy was founded in Kortowo. The largest factory in the region – Olsztyńskie Zakłady Opon Samochodowych (the Olsztyn Plants of Car Tyres) – was launched in 1967. In 1973, a planetarium was built on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The next investments were related to the Centralne Dożynki (Central Harvest Festival) that was held in Olsztyn in 1978.

In 1966, Pozorty, Nagórki, Jaroty, Dajtki, Grądek, Track, and part of Likusy were annexed to Olsztyn. The rest of Likusy and Gutkowo, Redykajny, and Łupstych became a part of the administrative territory of Olsztyn in 1987. The city's population exceeded 100,000 at the beginning of the 70s, 150,000 in 1986, and 170,000 in 1998.

In 1990, the first democratic local government elections were held in the city. A year later, Olsztyn became one of the parts of John Paul II's pilgrimage. After the reform of the administration in 1999, the city became the capital of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship. In the same year, the University of Warmia and Masuria was founded from the fusion of three other universities.

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