Kraków from the European Perspective

Prof. Jacek Purchla

Krakow is often perceived as the heart of Poland and “the most Polish of all Polish cities”. Despite the fact that Poland has changed its borders so many times, Krakow has always remained Polish. At the same time it is the most cosmopolitan city in Poland – foreign influences were not only imported here, but also creatively transformed.

The myth of the old capital of Poland – a symbolic place in Polish politics and national life – needs to be read today in the wider perspective of uniting Europe. If Central European countries must constantly strive to prove their ‘Europeanness’, then Krakow is the exception: it has always been the Polish chapter of European heritage.

Creative city

Krakow belongs to the cities, described in English by the concept of creative cities, that is, a city that has made a creative contribution to building the universal values of our civilization, while maintaining its locality and shaping a unique identity. It is also inseparable from the specificity and genius loci of Central Europe. Three dynasties of Central European rule: Hanseatic, Jagiellonian and Habsburg, coincide with three periods of Krakow’s greatest times of prosperity. Two of these periods took place in the Middle Ages. All came together at Wawel at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Krakow is the only city that creatively and harmoniously combines the influences of all three different integration periods existing in the area of Europa Minor.


Civitas Cracovia

Looking at the development of civilization in Europe in its two main aspects: cultural and economic, we can see clearly progressing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the integration of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary with Carolingian Europe. This was connected, among others, with the Cistercian economic program, and above all with a great settlement action coming from west to east at that time. This movement transferred the Western European settlement model to the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. One of the pillars of urbanization in Europe was the municipal government gradually acquiring new rights and privileges.

Krakow has become a special symbol of the new dimension of urbanization. It was the Middle Ages that created the European metropolis at the foot of Wawel – the holy mountain of Poles. This was decided not only by Krakow’s functions of being the capital, but also by the adoption of the new settlement model. Krakow was organized again in the mid-thirteenth century under German law, planned as a lavish colonial city and was quickly transformed into one of the largest commercial emporia of late medieval Europe. Originating from that time, the characteristic and perfectly legible urban shape has become Krakow’s first creative contribution to European civilization.

This is also the paradox of the invasion of the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan which, by destroying, strengthened the power of civilization of Latin Europe. This is confirmed by both the medieval defensive churches of Transylvania and the example of Krakow. Although materially ruined in 1241, it survived and showed the strength of continuity as a civitas understood not in terms of materiality, but something more – a city as ethnos, as a tangle of functions, as a process, and perhaps primarily a city as an idea. This cataclysm has become an impulse and a chance for unique creation. Krakow took advantage of this opportunity. The impulse came from the ruler – the prince of Krakow, Bolesław V Wstydliwy. The foundation of the new organization of the city was the privilege of location issued by the prince in 1257, which opened a new epoch in the history of Krakow. Up until then, the process of urbanization in Krakow was primarily determined by the self-development of functions and urban space. The great location took Krakow into the framework of the plan. Featuring an unprecedented scale and symmetry of urban layout, it constitutes the uniqueness of Krakow as a place in the history of contemporary civilization. Krakow’s Square itself – one of the largest squares in medieval Europe – surprises with the regularity and scale of advanced planning, harmoniously inscribed in the elements of earlier urbanization. Krakow, liberated from the narrow streets characteristic of medieval towns, was granted a plan in 1257, which has until today remained the blueprint of its metropolitan development!

The Magdeburg Law became the systemic standard of Krakow, and its first followers were visitors from Silesia. As in the entire Central Europe of that time, German language culture played an important role in forming the new Krakow. The influx of German colonists introduced an additional multifaceted factor into the life of the multiethnic metropolis.

Krakow was one of the largest cities in Central Europe in the fifteenth century. Since the battle of Grunwald in 1410 and the magnificent victory of Władysław Jagiełło over the Teutonic Order, it was also the capital of ever stronger European power. Parallel to the political significance of the city, its economic strength grew as well. The strength of the courtiers and the flourishing of the city were conducive to the development of intellectual and artistic communities. The splendor of the last years of the reign of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk and the work of Veit Stoss constitute the culmination of this happy era in the history of Krakow – the 15th century.

Jagiellonian Krakow and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

In the sixteenth century, as the capital of a vast empire, Krakow radiated from the south-western edge of the Jagiellonian state to the vast areas of Lithuania and Russia. The meetings of the Sejm were called by the king and held here, and at the same time Wawel – the dynasty nest – was one of the most important political centers of contemporary Europe. The full of splendor reign of the last Jagiellonians, was a time of Krakow’s top significance on the map of Europe Minor. The multiethnic character of the metropolis meant the presence of large clusters of Jews, Germans, Italians, Ruthenians, Hungarians and Scots near Wawel. At the same time, Krakow was the real center of Polish culture. Krakow of Zygmunt not only imported various foreign influences, but also creatively transformed them, therefore becoming a center of creation radiating far beyond the borders of the Jagiellonian empire.

In the mid-16th century, the Krakow agglomeration had approx. 30,000 inhabitants, as did the largest city in Central Europe – imperial Prague. Prague and Krakow did not match the size and economic significance of such metropolises as: Rome, Venice, Naples, Constantinople, Lisbon, Paris, London or Antwerp. However as for the complexity and strength of functions carried out, it outgrew other cities in Central Europe: Gdansk, Królewiec, Vilnius, and Riga , Kiev, Lviv and Wroclaw.

The triumph, however, soon became the cause of a fall. The idea of union with Lithuania that was born in Krakow at the end of the 14th century and eventually generated a threat to Krakow’s metropolitan community. It was also connected with the systemic evolution of the country in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The noble Republic in which Poland evolved during the 15th century based its political existence on the nobles’ parliamentary system. For practical reasons, Krakow, peripherally located in relation to the northeastern state expanding to the north, could not be a venue for the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. If a seat of a state’s supreme authorities is considered the capital of the state, then Krakow has been gradually losing this function since the 16th century. However, for a long time, Krakow has not only formally preserved, but realistically kept many elements of its being a capital, as it was understood in the era of feudalism. The symbols of state power were located there: the treasury and the Crown Archives. The most important acts of the state, including almost all coronations and royal weddings, were held there almost to the end of the Republic.


The Spiritual Capital of the Nation

The legend of Krakow being a capital at the turn of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries was a decisive factor for Krakow’s fate that also became the natural background of the last great attempt to save the sovereignty of Poland. This was the Kosciuszko Insurrection, which began on March 24, 1794. Krakow’s metropolis gained an unexpectedly new dimension during the Congress of Vienna. In 1815, the city became a subject of fierce competition between the three partitioning powers because it was still perceived as a symbol of Polish sovereignty. As a result of a compromise between Austria, Prussia and Russia, Krakow became a formally independent republic (Freistaat Krakau) under the “protection” of the three Powers from the years 1815-1846.
The nineteenth century brought major changes to the settlement network of Europe. A combination of political and economic conditions meant that until the end of the 19th century, Krakow remained a non-industrial city with relatively low dynamics of growth. It was relatively small and poor and limited by Austrian fortifications. However, in this difficult and complicated situation, in the second half of the 19th century it was possible to find a chance for the development of the city, using the turn towards liberalism, which took place in Austria in the eighteen-sixties on one hand, and on the other, the strength of its metropolitan tradition. And this was the phenomenon of Krakow at that time. It shows that there was no simple relationship between the size of a city and its metropolitan functions, and perfectly illustrates the power of tradition as an important urban-creating factor. Thanks to the power of its past, Krakow has become a place that integrates all Poles and that is the reason the center of Polish national life was created there, rather than in the capital of Lviv.

The development of Krakow at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was based on many contradictions. The systematic economic weakness of the city was compensated with the unique significance of Krakow for Poles. The function of the city as the spiritual capital of the nation stood in opposition to the function of a frontier fortress and the provincial garrison of an alien army. From the perspective of the great, cosmopolitan metropolis to which Vienna transformed at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Krakow was just a peripheral medium-sized city. From the point of view of the Polish raison d’état, though poor, it served as the capital of the non-existent Polish state. These and other antinomies represent the phenomenon of Krakow and the uniqueness of its situation under Austrian rule. At that time, Krakow was not only considered Polish Athens, but also Polish Piedmont. Lviv at the turn of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century served as the capital of Galicia, the largest Austrian province, while Krakow was primarily a center integrating Polish national life, especially after suppression of the 1905 revolution in the Kingdom. At the beginning of the First World War, the activities of the most important independence groups were focused there. Józef Piłsudski also acted as the head of the Polish legions from Krakow to fight for independence against Russia, but still remaining on the side of Austria in August 1914.

The Power of Heritage

Krakow belongs to the old cities of our continent where past and tradition determine the contemporary development of the city in a fundamental way. It is also located between Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest, as the only large city of this kind with historically-shaped metropolitan functions degraded to the role of a provincial center. Today, the cultural heritage of Krakow must be read not only from the national dimension, but also from a universal perspective. The potential of its heritage is the natural capital with which Krakow enters the twenty-first century. This is the first metropolitan function that today determines its position in Europe. Its strength is determined by the archetype of being the spiritual capital of the nation, established in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It still maintains the important role of Krakow as being a factor integrating Poles, and at the same time determines the very high recognition of the city in Europe and the world. Its cultural heritage also has a material dimension: it is a perfectly preserved historical urban example with top-class monuments – the important dimension of this resource has been confirmed, among others, by enlisting Krakow on the UNESCO World Heritage List as early as in 1978. We must not forget about the social aspect of heritage: Krakow – the only big historical city in the present Polish borders that survived the tragedy of the Second World War, as it was not destroyed in a physical sense – is a symbol of continuity and duration. The second, metropolitan function of Krakow, connected with the previous one, is its intellectual and artistic potential. The culture-forming power of Krakow manifests itself in the fact that it is often referred to as the cultural capital of Poland. The third function is connected with that – Krakow has become the center of international tourism.


Heritage and Tourism

After May 1, 2004 – after Poland’s accession to the European Union – Krakow became one of the most dynamic tourism markets on the continent. The spontaneous development of international tourism can be observed at the Balice airport by the planes filled with tourists coming from Western Europe for weekend and longer stays. Some are attracted by monuments and museums, others by the atmosphere of the city, its clubs, pubs and restaurants. The sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, especially the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum are popular tourist destinations.

One of the most important factors in the growth of tourist traffic is also the fact that the Malopolska Region is the home land of John Paul II. The Łagiewniki Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, consecrated on August 17, 2002 by the Polish Pope during his last pilgrimage to Poland, is visited by pilgrims from dozens of countries. Research shows that 25 percent of all pilgrims are foreigners, mainly from Europe, but also from the Philippines, Costa Rica, Cuba, Japan, South Korea, the United States, as well as Ukrainians and Russians.

Cultural tourism has thus become one of the main factors for the economic development of Krakow and the region! The market of tourism services is developing rapidly, including hotel investments and catering facilities. This significantly increases both the labor market and the tax base of the region. The significance of culture and heritage for the economic development of the capital of the Malopolska Region is also growing.

The success of tourism also means that Krakow has overcome the effects of the crisis caused by the lessons of communism. Today, Krakow has become fashionable. The change of its image was not only caused by the fight against overcoming the ecological catastrophe, but also the quick removal of its effects in the area of monument conservation. This was possible, among others, thanks to a special form of state patronage, which is the National Revalualization Fund for Krakow Monuments which was established by the parliament. Within a dozen or so years, expensive conservation works in several hundred historic buildings were financed from the central budget. The image of Krakow’s Śródmieście, but also Kazimierz – the former Jewish quarter – changed much, whereas ten years ago, it was a symbol of the bad fortune of a disinherited Central Europe.

At the same time, the city is trying to resurrect the tradition of multiethnicity lost in the Holocaust. An expression of this is both the phenomenon of the Festival of Jewish Culture in June, which has been active since 1988 gathering audiences from around the world, as well as the phenomenon of Krakow’s Kazimierz. It has become a laboratory for recovering the memory of a world that has gone forever and at the same time an immanent part of Central Europe’s identity. Finally, the most surprising experience: reinterpretation of Nowa Huta’s heritage. “Polish Magnitogorsk” is today not only a symbol of the soviet influence on Poland, but also the fourth phase of a great urban creation in Krakow, going beyond the local dimension. And at the same time it is a legend of fighting for dignity, the legend of Solidarity.

There is no doubt that Krakow is a field of dynamic confrontation between contemporary civilization and the heritage of the past. Heritage is memory, choice and identity. And that is why Krakow is writing today new chapters of Polish heritage in the eyes of Europe and the world. After the death of John Paul II in 2005, Krakow naturally became the guardian of his memory and his work.

Diversity, integrity, continuity, authenticity, representativeness, artistic class of architectural heritage – all that determines not only the significance of Krakow’s heritage, but also the strategy of protection, especially its comprehensiveness. The foundation of such activities is the constant reinterpretation of heritage.