Opole (German name: Oppeln)

the capital of Opole Silesia region, with population of about 130,000. It is located by Odra River in Upper Silesia (south-western part of Poland).

The History

Opole is one of the oldest towns in Poland - tracks of settlements date back to 8th century. Town's name is derived from the word 'opole' which meant a Slavic territorial community of several settlements administratively and economically linked with one another.

Piast rule

In the first half of 9th century, Opole belonged to Bohemia. Around 990 Polish Duke Mieszko I incorporated Silesia into newly forming Polish state. King Boleslaw the Brave establilished a castellan's seat in middle of 10th century. But the real Father of Opole was Duke Casimir I (1211-1299), who located the town on the right bank of the Odra river between 1211 and 1217 and started a construction of a castle on Pasieka Island.

Town's location on the crossroads of major trade routes was bringing regular profits from transit trade. The Opole Piast dukes were running the town; settlers from The Netherlands, Saxony and France were brought here.

Wladyslaw II, Duke of Opole (1382-1401) was quite known in the 14th-century political arena of Europe. He was a palatinate of Hungary, governor of Red Ruthenia and a Polish ruler on behalf of Louis of Hungary. In 1382 he founded the Pauline Monastery on Jasna Gora in Czestochowa (one of the most famous monasteries in Poland). Later on, he became a godfather of later Polish king, Duke Jagiello of Lithuania.

Bad times are coming...

The Piast rule ended in Opole in 1532, when Jan Dobry died childless. After that, the town was seized by Emperor Ferdinand of Habsburg, King of Bohemia, who didn't hesitate to strip the castle of all valuables and send them to his place in Viena. Bad times for Opole continued throughout 17th century, when the town has been destroyed by great fire (1615); devastated by contributions imposed by armies marching through it during Thirty Years' War (1618-1648); decimated by plagues and other natural disasters.
During that time, Opole was used as a subject of trade by various noblemen: in 1645 along with its duchy was passed as a deposit for 50 years to the Polish King Wladyslaw IV to cover an unpaid dowry of three Habsburg brides. When the King died in 1647, duchy has been inherited by King John Casimir, who passed it to his brother, bishop Karol Ferdynand and after his death - to his own wife, Marie-Luise Gonzaga.

When the Swedish Empire invaded Poland in 1655, King John Casimir escaped to Opole region. He couldn't stay in Opole (it's castle was too small for him), so he settled in nearby Glogowek. Opole remained as the site of the assemblies. On November 20, 1655 King issued his famous proclamation calling for a general rise against invaders.

Prussians take over

Starting from 1666, for next 300 years Opole land stays outside Polish borders. On that year, it is incorporated into Austrian Empire by Leopold I. In 18th century the rule changes in favour of Frederick II, King of Prussia who seized Opole regin during his first Silesian war against the Empress Maria-Theresa.

After incorporation into the Prussian state, Silesia underwent adminstrative and judicial reform. Frederick II brought German colonists to the areas deserted by war; he also installed his officials in the town and introduced German as official language in all offices. The same pertained to church - all documentation was written in German and clergymen who didn't speak it were given two years to master the language. In 1784 Friedrich Zimmerman, author of Beytraege zur Beschreibung von Schlesien, wrote about Opole: `...both Polish and German are spoken here but Polish still dominates...' (that was written about 40 years after incorporation into Prussia).

Years of development

19th century was a period of reinassance for Opole. The urban reform and a new administrative division of the Prussian state spurred the town's development. From 1816 Opole was a capital of the Opole administrative district, which prompted its quick spatial develpoment and population growth. The town became an industrial centre as well as the seat of many public institutions. The discovery of chalky clay in the region led to the development of cement industry. The first cement mill was opened in 1857.

In 1843 a railroad arrived in Opole - the town got its first connection to Wroclaw. At the late 19th century it became a major rain junction, having convinient connections in seven directions. The river port on the Mlynowka Canal, existing from the 1860s was moved to Zakrzow, now district of Opole.

In the mid-19th century Opole was inhabited by 8,320 Germans and 557 Poles. Geschichte der Stadt Oppeln by Franz Idzikowski reads: `...Even if Opole is quite German in character, the original Slavic element is still marked in a very typical way... On Sundays and holy days, at the time of markets and fairs, the German-speaking inhabitant in city clothes disappear completely in the crowd of Polish farmers. One feels as if having been suddenly moved to some Polish town.'

In Kulturkampf years (1871-1879) the process of Germanization in Upper Silesia was intensified; the results, however, were mmeagre. All public regulations were printed both in Polish and German. Public houses issued lots of Polish books (along with even more German, of course!). In years 1890-1922 Bronislaw Koraszewski was publishing Opole gazette in Polish, where he promoted works of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Adam Mickiewicz and Boleslaw Prus. In 1891 Polish Catholic Society and in 1893 Lutnia Singers' Socety were established in Opole.

Between the plebiscite and WWII

The outbreak of World War I brought hope to those, who wanted Opole back in Poland again. The situation was not so simple; in order to decide where Upper Silesia should belong to, a plebiscite was organized. It was supervised by Alled Powers Commision, including delegates from France, England and Italy. Both sides increased their propaganda campaigns prior to the plebiscite, but the Germans went a step further than that: 189,000 Silesian emigrants to Germany were brought back to vote. Regular incidents like demolishing offices and crushing demonstrations followed. The whole situation resulted in three Silesian uprisings: in 1919, 1920 (before the plebiscite, with no success) and in May 1921. The third uprising was kind of success; 29% of territory covered by plebiscite was granted to Poland. Opole and the whole Opole Silesia went to Germany.

Paradoxically, the hub of Polish life was located in Opole. Here resided: the board of the I borough of the Polish Union in Germany, the Polish Boy Scouts Union in Germany, the Polish Catholic Youth Union in Opole Silesia, the Polish Catholic School Society, the Lutnia Singers' Society, the Echo Choir and the Consulate General of the Polish Republic.

WWII and beyond

Under the Nazi rule all Polish institutions were dissolved. Their leaders and some members were arrested and deported to concentration camps. In October 1944, in the face of the German army's troubles at the eastern front, Opole was proclaimed a fortress and was to serve as a defensive point on the Odra River line. That explains 64% destruction of all the buildings, when war operations reached Opole in 1945 along with 1st Ukrainian Front.

The Soviet command passed the town to Polish government on 24 March 1945. Opole was reunited with the Polish state. In 1950 it became the capital of the Opole province.

(sources: Opole booklet, Parma Press, 2000)

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