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The history of the Institute of History, University of Warsaw

Those who would like to see one of the few historic interiors that survived the war in left-bank Warsaw almost unchanged should come to the building of the Institute of History. The classical Column Room, i.e. the interior in question, was constructed in the first quarter of the 19th century and was to serve as a museum of copies of great works of ancient art, used in the teaching of University of Warsaw students at the time. It housed the famous plaster cast collection of King Stanisław August Poniatowski, a natural history museum and other collections compiled for the purposes of academic education. Having been forgotten for a long time, recently the Room has again been made available to scholars and students as a venue for lectures and conferences; and again, like all those years ago, the same plaster casts from the royal collection have been placed there. We could say that history has come full circle.

For over 75 years the history of this beautiful interior and former museum building has been inextricably linked to that of the Institute of History, University of Warsaw. Historians moved in here in 1938, though the Institute has existed much longer, since the 1930-1931 academic year, when the previously separate historical seminars were combined into one organisational unit at the University. The founding father of the IH UW was Prof. Marceli Handelsman, who even before the end of World War One contributed to the creation of the Historical Cabinet of the Warsaw Society, which brought together Warsaw history scholars, and in 1916 was instrumental in establishing the History Seminar at the University of Warsaw, revived in 1915. Marceli Handelsman had studied at the Faculty of Law of the Imperial University of Warsaw – a Russian university founded in 1869 to replace the Polish university closed down during post-uprising crackdown.

The year 1916 and the establishment of the History Seminar became a turning point in the story of the Warsaw historical school. From that moment on, as the number of students grew and the professor body became increasingly strong, new departments of history were gradually established at the University and were eventually combined into one unit in 1931, though they maintained considerable autonomy. The newly established Institute of History became part of the Faculty of the Humanities (founded in 1927), though it did not have its own building, occupying part of what is now the building of the Faculty of Law and Administration. At that time the Institute comprised the following seminars: Ancient History, headed by Prof. Tadeusz Wałek-Czernecki; History of Poland in the Middle Ages – Prof. Jan Karol Kochanowski; History of Poland in the Early Modern Period – Prof. Wacław Tokarz; History of the World – Prof. Marceli Handelsman; History of Eastern Europe – Prof. Oskar Halecki; History of Ukraine – Prof. Myron Korduba; Economic-Social History and Historical Geography – Prof. Stanisław Arnold. The position of the administrative head of the Institute was entrusted to Prof. Handelsman. The move to a new building, the arrival of many young, talented scholars and the strengthening of the organisational structure brought with them hopes for a speedy development of research and teaching at the IH.

The plans were thwarted by the outbreak of the war. The IH professors tried to continue teaching during clandestine classes. Clandestine history classes were conducted from 1940 until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising and in their heyday had 90 students and 12 lecturers. The war was a harrowing experience for people associated with the IH. Many students and professors were killed during the occupation and the Warsaw Uprising; some ended up in POW camps and concentration camps (Prof. Marceli Handelsman died in one of such camps), some decided to emigrate. During the war the results of many scholars’ work were irretrievably lost.

            Despite all this the IH was quickly reborn in the ruined Warsaw after the war. Fortunately, the Institute building survived the war with only minor damages, so already in 1945 the first students could be admitted. In the 1945-1946 academic year there were no fewer than 150 of them, studying at 7 history seminars. However, the first few years had to be devoted to the rebuilding of both human resources and teaching facilities, beginning with the furnishing of empty rooms and ending with the replenishment of the Institute’s partially destroyed library. During this difficult period – difficult not only because of material difficulties but also because of political pressure – the Institute was headed by Prof. Tadeusz Manteuffel, whose closest collaborator was a young assistant professor, Aleksander Gieysztor. Prof.  Manteuffel tried to renew contacts – broken by the war – with scholars from Western Europe, especially France, well-aware as he was of their significance to the quality of research carried out at the IH.

            Until 1950 the Institute managed to maintain its pre-war structure and follow its original and modern teaching curriculum. In that year, under pressure from the authorities, some changes were introduced, consisting in the division of the Faculty of the Humanities into three departments: of Philosophy and Social Sciences, of History and of Philology. The Faculty of History consisted of the Institute of History (with 11 departments), Division of History of Art Departments, Institute of Papyrology, Institute of Archaeology and Institute of Musicology. Organisational changes (a system of 3-year studies in the humanities and 1.5-year MA programme, replacement of the PhD with the title of candidate of sciences), aimed at making the structure of the academic life similar to the Soviet model, were followed by changes in the curriculum (introduction of the so-called ideological subjects, removal of auxiliary sciences of history, limitation of individual choices of classes). They were to strengthen the ideological control of the content taught to the students and to limit the freedom of both lecturers and students. For several years the authorities made visits to foreign universities absolutely impossible and significantly restricted the exchange of publications.

            In 1955 Aleksander Gieysztor became the head of the Institute, remaining in this position until 1975. During that period, despite various obstacles the Institute maintained contacts with European scholars, primarily those from France and Italy, and was a venue for discussions not only about the past. It was here, in room 17, that students met Leszek Kołakowski in 1966, a meeting which led to Kołakowski being thrown out of the Polish United Workers’ Party and which was one of the most important events leading up to the student revolt in March 1968. In the following years one of the objectives of those in charge of the Institute was to protect it against repressive actions of the government – which was not an easy task, given political pressure on the one side and involvement of many lecturers and students in the opposition activities on the other. In 1975 Aleksander Gieysztor passed the helm of the IH to Prof. Henryk Samsonowicz, who, after becoming the rector of the University of Warsaw in 1980, was replaced by Prof. Antoni Mączak. The years 1980 and 1981 were a period of political and civic initiation of many IH students and lecturers, a period of student strikes, which became an important generational experience for young historians.

            Since the breakthrough year of 1989, which the Institute entered under the guidance of Prof. Juliusz Łukasiewicz (1987-1993), through terms in office of Prof. Bronisław Nowak (1993-2002), Prof. Michał Tymowski (2002-2008), Prof. Maria Koczerska (2008-2012) and Prof. Dariusz Kołodziejczyk (2012-), the Institute has undergone considerable changes. The period has been marked by an increase in the number of students, changes in the organisation of studies (two-stage course) and the curriculum, opening up of unprecedented possibilities of international exchange, both for students and for researchers, emergence of new research topics and new methodological proposals, finally – arrival of a completely new generation of students living in the world of omnipresent digital media and not index cards and yellowish notes. Yet both those who remember the Institute from the times when you could find there laboratory mice which had escaped from the premises of the Faculty of Biology (today housing the Department of Ancient History) as well as those who do not remember even the most recent past, when the site of the glass library building was occupied by a carpenter’s shop, can have a shared sense of belonging to this historical place.