history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  



by Robert Soule



Some of Poland's greatest cultural achievements during the Middle Ages came in the area of its architecture. During this period the country saw the construction of huge Roman Catholic cathedrals and elaborate town buildings which were the equal of anything in Western Europe. Much of this architecture still survives today, although a great deal of it had to be rebuilt because of the damage caused during the many wars throughout Poland's history. It was, in fact, this constant need to fight for survival that gave birth to what might be one of Poland's greatest legacies, the impressive medieval castles found throughout the country. The local nobility who lived in these often made them centers of culture, buying and commissioning artworks throughout Europe and collecting them in their castle.
One of the best examples of this is Malbork Castle, a huge, sprawling castle complex lying about 30 miles away from Gdansk, a Polish port which was known as Danzig throughout most of Poland's history.

This area has been one of the most hotly-contested areas in Poland for the past 700 years, so it's probably not surprising that the castle is as large as it is. It covers the area of about 40 football fields, and has walls which at most points are 20 inches thick. It is filled with all of the classic castle elements, including turrets, drawbridges, moats, and vaults.


The castle was on Polish territory until 1308, when a group of returning Crusaders calling themselves the Teutonic knights seized it and made it the seat of a new state which controlled most of the wheat and amber trade going into Prussia. They also spent a lot of time raiding Poland, and the Polish spent the next century trying to get the castle back. In 1410 they finally did, and the castle stood up to another few centuries of conflict. Its worst moments came during World War II, when a battle between the Germans and Soviets lasted for six weeks on the site. However, the castle was so well-constructed that even after this conflict, most of its walls were still standing.Of course, much of it wasn't still standing, and the Polish government began restoring it in 1961, and this is something else that the country can be proud of- the fact that Poland has always taken great pride in its architectural heritage, and has refused to let it disappear even in the face of incredible odds.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he began a systematic destruction of the country aimed at taking it off the map. The worst ravages happened in Warsaw, where, says historian Bernard Newman, "The German engineers blew up street after street, house by house...the Nazis took a special delight in destroying historic buildings."


 After the war the city decided to rebuild the Warsaw's Old Town, the historic town center dating back to the 14th century, exactly the way it had been before the war.Poland's castles were just as important to the Polish people, for in a way they represented happier times. Between 1300 and 1500 Poland was a major European power, with land stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and most importantly it was in control of its own destiny. This might be one additional reason why there is so much interest in restoring these castles, since they are symbolically putting Poland back on the map.

When Poland recently allied with several other East European countries, they became the "Visegrad" countries, a name meaning "fortress on a hill."  So it's not surprising that the country would be interested in preserving the real fortresses on hills. In September of 1994 the Polish government announced that it had completed restoring Malbork Castle and that it would now be open for tourism. In addition to the castle itself, visitors can see a large collection of Polish art inside.   Poland's castles are an important legacy for the country to look back upon, not just for the history that they represent but also for the art in their architecture and the art in their furnishings. Castles like Malbork are an example of Polish culture which, by now being restored and open to the public, are a sign that Poland is recognizing that it has a long and rich culture which it can take great pride in.



"Restored Treasures; Poland: Huge 13th-century castle housed Crusaders," New York Times, September 25, 1994.

Newman, Bernard, "The New Poland," (Robert Hale Publishers, London, 1968)

Schmitt, Bernadotte E., "Poland," (University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles, 1945)

Zielinski, Adam, "Poland," (Polish State Railways, Warsaw, 1939)

Pictures from the Web site http://www.zamek.malbork.com.pl








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