Central and Eastern Europe, International Journalism and PR, Tourism

The University of Warsaw, one of the world’s top 400 celebrates its 200th anniversary


The University of Warsaw, one of the top Polish academies was ranked by international rankings such as ARWU and University Web Ranking as the best Polish higher level institution. On the list of 100 best European colleges the University of Warsaw was placed as 61st. QS World University Rankings positioned it as the best higher level school among the world’s top 400. This month the University of Warsaw celebrates its 200th anniversary.

Anything but darkness

November 19th, 1816 was the day when a total solar eclipse occurred. The Moon’s apparent diameter was larger than the Sun’s, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness. November 19th, 1816 in Poland was anything but darkness. It was still the age of Enlightment, however reaching its end and in fact you might call those days the Dark Ages in Poland. The country had been partitioned by the neighbouring countries: Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia but on that day of darkness Emperor of Russia and King of Poland Alexander I signed the Royal University of Warsaw Foundation Act, thereby letting daylight into Polish education. One and a half year later, on 14 May 1818 the academy officially was launched.

Five stars representing five faculties

It was founded when the Partitions of Poland separated Warsaw from the oldest and most influential Jagiellonian University located in Kraków having become part of Habsburg Austria. It left current capital of Poland with access only to the Academy of Vilnius. Actually in 1815, the newly established autonomous Congress Poland de facto belonging to the Russian Empire found itself without strictly Polish university at all, as Vilnius was incorporated into Russia. The first to be established in Congress Poland were two schools of the Napoleonic epoch – the Law School founded in 1808 and the School of Medicine founded one year later. In 1816 Tsar Alexander I granted the Polish authorities permission to create a uni and both of these schools were transformed into two important faculties of the University as time went by. They were designed to educate specialists needed in everyday life of the Duchy of Warsaw. The tsar allowed to establish a university, comprising five departments: Law and Administration, Medicine, Philosophy, Theology, and Art and Humanities.

Earl Stanisław Potocki, the minister for Religions and Public Enlightenment and priest Stanisław Staszic were great advocates of the formation of the University. Potocki was a Polish noble, politician, writer, publicist, collector and patron of art. The other man Staszic was a leading figure in the Polish Enlightenment, a Catholic priest, philosopher, geologist, writer, poet, translator and statesman. A physiocrat, monist, pan-Slavist (after 1815) and laissez-fairist, he supported many reforms in Poland. He is particularly remembered for his political writings during the “Great (Four-Year) Sejm” (1788–92) and for his support of the Constitution of May 3rd 1791, adopted by that Sejm. Both of them supported the idea of establishing the University which started to function under the supervision of the General Council headed by Stanisław Staszic. The official name of the university opened on 14 May 1818 was the Royal University of Warsaw. An eagle with laurel and palm branches in its talons surrounded by five stars representing five faculties became the emblem symbolizing the University of Warsaw.

The defeat of the November Uprising determined the fate of the University

From the very beginning, the history of the University of Warsaw has been inextricably linked to the history of Warsaw itself and in some measure – the history of the entire Republic of Poland, which, partitioned by the neighbouring countries towards the end of the eighteenth century disappeared from the European map for 123 years. The hopes for the rebirth of the country emerged as early as in the first decades of the nineteenth century. These were brought first by the Napoleonic times and subsequently by the Congress of Vienna. So, first the Duchy of Warsaw (1807–1813) and then Kingdom of Poland, which being a part of the Russian empire in 1815 became a poor substitute for the Polish state.

Meanwhile the University expanded rapidly growing to 800 students and 50 professors. The defeat of the November Uprising, one of the major forms of the Polish struggle for independence of the Polish people in which university students took part in great numbers, determined the fate of the academy which would be closed down. Only after fifteen years since its creation, the University ceased to exist and one year later the majority of its collections were taken to St. Petersburg. After the Crimean War, Russia entered a brief period of liberalization. As time went by, the resurrection of the university in Warsaw became a necessity. Temporary liberalization in Russia enabled the consent to be obtained in 1857 to open a Polish university – the Medical and Surgical Academy (Akademia Medyko-Chirurgiczna). In 1862 departments of Law and Administration, Philology and History, and Mathematics and Physics were also opened. The newly established academy gained importance and was soon renamed the “Main School” (Szkoła Główna).

The Imperial University of Warsaw

The participation of the Main School students in the January uprising, which was the next great patriotic rebellious bid resulted in the university being closed in 1869 and being replaced by the Imperial University of Warsaw – a university with Russian as the language of instruction. At the time 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. Meanwhile the Main Building was reopened as the Imperial Russian University aimed at training military personnel. In fact its purpose was to provide education for the Russian military garrison of Warsaw, the majority of students (up to 70% out of an average of 1,500 to 2,000 students) were Poles. The tsarist authorities believed that the Russian university would become a perfect way to Russify Polish society and spent a significant sum on building a new university campus. However, various underground organizations soon started to grow and the students became their leaders in Warsaw. Most notable of these groups (the supporters of Polish revival and the socialists) joined the ranks of the 1905 Revolution. Afterwards a boycott of Russian educational facilities was proclaimed and the number of Polish students dropped to below 10%. Most of the students who wanted to continue their education left for Galicia and Western Europe.

The Imperial University of Warsaw continued its existence until July 7th, 1915. Almost a month later, Russian troops left Warsaw and the German army took their place.

Two Universities of Warsaw

There were two times when the question of moving the university into Russia was considered. During the 1905–1907 revolution, such a proposal was made by some of the professors, in the face of a boycott of the university by Polish students. Talks on that subject were conducted with a number of Russian cities, including Voronezh and Saratov. The Russian government finally decided to keep a university in Warsaw, but as a result of the boycott, the university was Russian not only in the sense of the language used, but also of the nationality of its professors and students.

For the second time the question emerged during World War I, when the military and political situation forced the Russian authorities to evacuate. Beginning from the autumn of 1915, there were two Universities of Warsaw: one Polish, in Warsaw, and another Russian, in Rostov-on-Don which functioned until 1917. On May 5th, 1917 the Russian Provisional Government decided to close the University of Warsaw. The decision took effect on July 1st, 1917. On the same day, the University of the Don, now called Rostov State University (Southern Federal University since 2006), was inaugurated.

Women were admitted to study at the University

During the war Warsaw was seized by Germany in 1915. In order to win the Poles for their case and secure the Polish area behind the front lines the governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary allowed for a certain liberalization of life in Poland. In accordance with the concept of Mitteleuropa, German military authorities permitted several Polish social and educational societies to be recreated. One of these was the University of Warsaw where the Polish language was reintroduced, and the professors were allowed to return to work. The solemn inauguration of the University took place on November 15th, 1915 in the presence of the German governor, general Hans Hartwig von Beseler. In order not to let the Polish patriotic movement out of control the number of lecturers was kept low (usually not more than 50), but there were no limits on the number of students. Until 1918 their number rose from a mere 1,000 to over 4,500.

The old emblem of the University was restored and the academy gained greater independence. Also women were admitted to study.

The level of education in Warsaw had reached that of western Europe

After Poland had gained independence in 1918, the University of Warsaw could develop in the circumstances where there was freedom in relation to education and teaching for the first time in its history. The uni began to grow very quickly and it was reformed. All the important posts: the rector, senate, deans and councils became democratically elected, and the state spent considerable amounts of money to modernize and equip it. Many professors returned from exile and cooperated in the effort. By the late 1920s the level of education in Warsaw had reached that of western Europe.

1920 saw the next threats from the East. Also this time many students and readers of the University of Warsaw forming the Academic Legion, defended Warsaw in the Polish-Bolshevik war.

In the late twenties of the 20th century the University was the largest Polish academy with 250 professors and associate professors and 10,000 students. However, the financial problems of the newly reborn state did not allow for free education, and students had to pay a tuition fee for their studies, an average monthly salary, for a year. Also, the number of scholarships was very limited, and only approximately 3% of students were able to get one. Despite these economic problems, the University of Warsaw grew rapidly. New departments were opened, and the main campus was expanded. After the death of Józef Piłsudski, “First Marshal of Poland” and de facto leader of the Second Polish Republic, the senate of the University of Warsaw changed its name to “Józef Piłsudski University of Warsaw” (Uniwersytet Warszawski im. Józefa Piłsudskiego). The Sanacja government proceeded to limit the autonomy of the universities. Professors and students remained divided for the rest of the 1930s as the system of segregated seating for Jewish students, known as ghetto benches, was implemented customarily, not institutionally, which should be noted comparable to the era of the Civil rights movement in the United States.

The Sanacja was a Polish political movement created in the interwar period by a cadre of prominent activists from the Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government. Sanacja came to power in the final decade of the Second Polish Republic, as a result of Józef Piłsudski’s 1926 May Coup d’État.

“Secret University of Warsaw” was unique in the whole world

After the Polish Defensive War of 1939 the German authorities of the General Government closed all the institutions of higher education in Poland and the University of Warsaw, just like other universities, was closed. 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.

German racial theories assumed that no education of Poles was needed and the whole nation was to be turned into uneducated serfs of the German race. Education in Polish was banned and punished with death. However a great number of readers did not stop their classes. Thus the so-called “Secret University of Warsaw” (Tajny Uniwersytet Warszawski) which was unique in the whole world where classes took place both in private apartments and schooling establishments as well as in buildings of religious orders developed. The lectures were held in small groups and the attendants were constantly risking discovery and death. However the net of underground faculties spread rapidly and by 1944 there were more than 300 lecturers and 3,500 students at various courses.

Before this somber time of occupation ended, there was a time of great heroism and hope for Warsaw and its University. Many students took part in the Warsaw Uprising as soldiers of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa – AK) and Szare Szeregi. The university campus was transformed into German gendarmerie barracks, a fortified area with bunkers and machine gun nests. It was located close to the buildings occupied by the German garrison of Warsaw. Heavy fights for the campus started on the first day of the Uprising, but the partisans were not able to break through the gates. Several assaults were bloodily repelled and the campus remained in German hands until the end of the fights.

The war-time losses of the University were colossal with buildings, scientific devices and collections regained after the Russo-Polish war being destroyed and an irreparable loss of life. The plaques placed on the former building of a museum and that set in the wall with the info-kiosk, inter alia, inform us about students and employees of the University and the Home Army (AK) murdered or killed in combat.

During the uprising and the occupation 63 professors were killed, either during fights or as an effect of German policy of extermination of Polish intelligentsia. The University lost 60% of its buildings during the fighting in 1944. A large part of the collection of priceless works of art and books donated to the University was either destroyed or transported to Germany, never to return.

What professors could not say during lectures, they expressed during informal meetings with their students

After World War II it was not clear whether the university would be restored or whether Warsaw itself would be rebuilt. However, many professors who had survived the war returned, and began organizing the university from scratch. In December 1945, lectures resumed for almost 4,000 students in the ruins of the campus, and the buildings were gradually rebuilt.


Until the late 1940s the university remained relatively independent. Starting in the 1940s the imposed cult of Stalin took place. Many professors were arrested by the Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (Secret Police), the books were censored and ideological criteria in employment of new lecturers and admission of students were introduced. On the other hand, education in Poland became free of charge and the number of young people to receive the state scholarships reached 60% of all the students. After Władysław Gomułka’s rise to power in 1956, a brief period of liberalization ensued and an authentic academic life emerged. Freedom in education and research appeared in most fields of instruction, though communist ideology still played a major role in most faculties, especially in such faculties as history, law, economics and political science. International cooperation was resumed and the level of education rose.

By mid-1960s the government started to suppress freedom of thought, which led to student riots. A political struggle within the communist party prompted Zenon Kliszko, being considered the right-hand man of Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) leader Władysław Gomułka to ban the production of “Dziady”, a poetic drama by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz which is considered one of the great works of European Romanticism at the Polish Theatre. It led to 1968 Polish political crisis coupled with anti-Zionist and anti-democratic campaign and the outbreak of student demonstrations in Warsaw, which were brutally crushed – not by police, but by the ORMO reserve militia squads of plain-clothed workers. As a result of these events which were coupled by an anti-Semitic campaign escalated by the authorities a large number of students and professors were expelled from the university. Some of them were forced to emigrate out of the country. However, the University retained its role as a center of independent thought from which many intellectuals graduated and from which a considerable number of political opposition activists as well as reformers came. Many of them became leaders and prominent members of the Solidarity movement and other societies of the democratic opposition which led to the collapse of communism. The scientists working at the University of Warsaw were also among the most prominent printers of books forbidden by censorship.

350 international partners in 70 countries

Today the University of Warsaw is the largest and one of the best universities in Poland at the same time. It is also one of the leading scientific research centres in Poland, recognized internationally. It runs a bilateral cooperation with 350 international partners in 70 countries worldwide. Nearly 60,000 students from Poland and abroad are educated every year. In 2014 and 2015 the University not only won the national ranking of universities, but also has shown very good results in international rankings. Taking into account the total number of research universities that reaches 20 thousand the UW is among the top two per cent of the world’s best universities. It offers courses of 43 foreign languages. The UW students have won numerous national and international contests in the fields of computer science mainly, but also in other fields of science as well as in the humanities.


The facade of the UW Library building, which resembles a line of open books and includes a roof garden, is one of the most impressive examples of contemporary architecture in Poland.

I would like to invite you to visit the University of Warsaw, my Alma Mater.

Agata Szostkowska

alumnus of Institute of Journalism (Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, former Faculty of Journalism and Political Science)


Photos: Michał Stanisławski and Aloys Bruggeman

© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2016. All rights reserved






uw uw-1

warsaw-old-town img_3975