Poignant landmarks are plentiful in Poland; even so, the remains of Saski Palace are particularly symbolic of this nation’s discordant past.
Architecturally speaking Warsaw’s evolution has been dramatic and unpredictable, with influences ranging from the Luftwaffe to barmy Russian town planners. Had time-lapse photography been invented earlier, few cities would make more compelling subject matter than this place. The story of what is now pl. Piłsudskiego is especially gripping, and demands an active imagination.
Stepping out here one hundred years back you’d have been presented with a very different scene. For starters, planted bang in the square, you’d have found the Russian Orthodox Nevsky Cathedral: identified by five gold-plated onion domes and a 70 meter bell tower this was, at the time, Warsaw’s tallest building. Like the Palace of Culture in later years, it was also seen as a symbol of Russian dominance – when Poland regained its independence, it was one of the first things to go: between 1924 and 1926 over 15,000 detonations were fired off to erase this piece of Russia from the skyline.
Unbeknownst at the time, the explosive fate of Nevsky would also soon befall the palace that faced it. Once the private residence of the Morsztyn dynasty, Saski Palace was snapped up by Augustus II at the start of the 18th century with the King promptly issuing orders for its enlargement. Following the demise of the Polish monarchy the Warsaw Lyceum was established on its grounds, and the Chopin clan – Fryderyk et al – here.
Following WWI, a surge of patriotism ripped through Poland in the wake of her newfound independence. One of the results was an impromptu memorial commemorating soldiers killed in WWI and the Polish-Soviet war. Erected anonymously in 1923, outside the arcade that linked the two wings of the palace together, the Polish General Staff soon bowed to public pressure and took the decision to create a longer lasting Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The coffins of three unknown soldiers were exhumed from a military cemetery in Lvov and transported to Saski, and on November 2, 1925, a stirring ceremony marked the official inauguration of the tomb. By this time the palace was serving as HQ for the Polish Ministry of War, and it was here that German enigma ciphers were first cracked in 1932. Having sustained just light damage during the 1939 Siege of Warsaw, the conquering Wehrmacht soon utilized it for their own nefarious purposes. Alas, for the palace, the end was nigh. The 1944 Warsaw Uprising had infuriated Nazi top brass, and following its defeat they determined to leave the capital in a heap of bricks.
Saski Palace became an inevitable victim of the wholesale destruction, with only the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier surviving the dynamite. In recent times, plans to rebuild it have been mooted, with the zł. 200 million plan envisioning a Museum of Polish History on the site. That this project will ever be realized, however, looks increasingly unlikely.