The history of Bielsko-Biała is, in fact, a story of two towns – Bielsko and Biała – which were separate municipal centres until January 1951.
In the district now called Stare Bielsko, a fortified town was founded in the 12th century, at a time when a wave of German colonists had settled in the Silesian Foothills. The first historical mention of the Bielsko settlement dates back to 1312, when a forest “between Kamienica and Mikuszowice” was granted to local townspeople. From 1327 on, Bielsko remained under Czech rule and shared the political fate of Silesia. The fact that the town played a significant role on the salt route leading from Kraków to Cieszyn and further onwards to Moravia was confirmed by the renewal of the town's privileges by Duke Bolesław I in 1424. From the 15th century onwards, the town was known for cloth-making. From 1526 onwards, Bielsko fell under Habsburg rule along with the rest of Silesia. In mid-16th century, the strongest Protestant community in Cieszyn Silesia was established in Bielsko, and in 1572, the Bielsko territory was separated from the Duchy of Cieszyn and subsequently turned into a free city-state.
As a part of the Duchy of Oświęcim and later of the Silesian County, Kraków Province, Biała, which was founded around 1560 on the territory of the Lipnik Crown Lands (Starostwo Lipnickie), was located on the right bank of the River Biała. It would develop as a small farming and craft village and exist as a separate municipality from the year 1613 onwards.
Between 1642 and 1660, Bielsko and Biała were destroyed and plundered multiple times by the Swedish Army. In 1659 and 1664, fires ravaged Bielsko, but the town was quickly rebuilt. In 1686, Bielsko received a privilege for free cloth manufacture, and, soon afterwards, cloth from Bielsko was regarded as the best in Silesia and the Czech state. Despite this, strong economic competition had been slowly emerging in the vicinity of Bielsko. In 1710, a customs chamber was created in Biała, and on 9 January 1723, Biała received municipal rights. The town quickly became one of the most important centres of cloth and linen production in western Lesser Poland. In the mid-18th century, the first manufacturing plants were established in both towns.
In 1752, the Bielsko city-state was purchased by Count Aleksander Józef Sułkowski and then transformed, under an imperial privilege, into a duchy. In 1757, King August III granted Biała a privilege allowing for the establishment of guilds in the town. From 1769–1772, Biała was the seat of the General Council of the Bar Confederation. Despite its success, in 1772 it was conquered and looted by the Russian Army.
As a result of the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, Biała became part of the Austrian partition and incorporated into Galicia. In 1784, the customs border was removed on the River Biała. In the years 1820–1850, Biała, along with the territory of the old Duchy of Oświęcim, was incorporated into the German Confederation. In 1849, the Duchy of Bielsko was dissolved; it was replaced by Bielsko County a year later. In 1872, the German residents of Biała filed a petition with the emperor asking for the town to to be annexed to Austrian Silesia. The attempt was unsuccessful and was followed by another unsuccessful attempt in 1916.
In 1810, Joachim Adler opened the first textile factory in the area, sparking industrialisation in both towns in the form of the Industrial District of Bielsko (Bielski Okręg Przemysłowy), which led to the collapse of local cloth-making guilds. A railway connection from Bielsko to Vienna via Kraków was opened in 1849. The industrialisation process in Bielsko and Biała was spurred on by settlement of German and Jewish industrialists in the towns. By 1910, Germans constituted 84% of the entire population of Bielsko, and throughout the 19th century both towns constituted one of the largest industrial centres in the Habsburg Monarchy. In 1871, Biała and neighbouring Bielsko organised a huge industrial expo.
In the second part of the 19th century, numerous technological innovations (i.e. telephone exchanges, water supply systems, a powerhouse, and gasworks) were introduced in both towns. A general workers' strike was organised by socialists in Biała in 1890. It was the first protest of its kind ever held in Galicia. During the riots of 28 April, volleys fired by the military police killed 11 labourers. In May 1890, huge workers' demonstrations took place in the towns. That same year, the imperial authorities created a military garrison in Bielsko. In 1859, a tram line was launched in Bielsko.
After WWI, Biała was incorporated into the reborn Polish state, and an armed Polish-Czech conflict began over Bielsko and Cieszyn Silesia, which was concluded in July 1920 by the Spa Conference. In 1922, Bielsko became part of Śląskie Province, which was the only autonomous province in Poland.
In 1921, Biała, along with Biała County, became a part of Krakowskie Province, which resulted in numerous discussions, just like a century before, of the possibility of annexing the town to Śląskie Province. In 1925, after Lipnik had become a district of Biała, the town was renamed Biała Krakowska.
During WWII, in September 1939, the German Army seized both towns, incorporating them into the Reich and simultaneously annexing Biała into a district called Bielsko Wschodnie (Bielitz-Ost). On 8-10 February 1945, fierce battles between Germany and the Soviets were fought in the Bielsko area, after which the town was taken over by the Red Army.
On 12 June 1945, at the first meeting of the District National Council (Powiatowa Rada Narodowa) Bielsko and Biała were once again separated. From 1945-1948, detachments of the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne) were active in the region and led armed struggle against the Communist regime. In 1946, the Russian Army plundered most of the town's industrial plants, taking machines and equipment to the Soviet Union. A large resettlement of the German population from the town began in July 1946.
The final administrative merger of the two towns into Bielsko-Biała took place on 1 January 1951. There was a debate about the administrative affiliation of the newly formed town and whether it should belong to Katowickie Province or Krakowskie Province; the former was chosen. In 1950, according to the National Census, Bielsko and Biała were inhabited by 73,000 people.
A number of housing developments and a gondola line to Szyndzielnia were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The two main symbols of Bielsko-Biała became Fiat 126p (with the car factory opened in 1972) and a cartoon for children called Bolek i Lolek, which was produced in the Bielsko-basded Cartoon Animation Studio starting from 1963. Textile factories, which had been producing world-famous Bielsko wool for two centuries, were shut down at the turn of the century.
In 1975, Bielsko-Biała became the seat of the new Bielsko District, which existed for 23 years. After administrative reforms carried out in 1999, Bielsko-Biała became part of the newly created Śląskie Province as a district town and the centre of Bielsko District. The Bielsko-Żywiec Catholic diocese was established in 1992, while the Technical-Humanistic Academy (Akademia Techniczno-Humanistyczna) was founded nine years later.
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