Oława began to develop during the early 12th century at a site that was protected by the rivers Oder and Oława. It was first mentioned as Oloua in a document of 1149 confirming its donation to the abbey of St. Vincent in Wrocław. In 1206 Oława became one of the residence towns of the dukes of the Silesian Piast dynasty, who also granted Oława the status of a town in 1234. During its history Oława was destroyed completely three times. In 1241 it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Europe, in 1448 by the Hussites, and again in 1634 during the Thirty Years' War. After the Polish King Casimir III had renounced his rights on Silesia with the contract of Trenčín in 1335, Silesia became until 1806 a part of the Holy Roman Empire as a Bohemian fief. In 1526, when the Habsburgs gained the Bohemian crown, Silesia came under Austrian sovereignty. In 1527 with the Reformation High German language came in use and with it the first usage of the version of the town's name("Ohlau") is reported . After the death of the last Silesian Piast duke George IV William of Legnica in 1675, Ohlau ceased to be a residence town. Together with most of Silesia, the town became part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1741. The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of economic growth and Ohlau became well known as a centre of tobacco-growing. Ethnic Polish traditions and population also remained strong in the area, with a large influx of people from nearby Congress Poland. In 1842 a railroad between Ohlau and Breslau, the first in Silesia, was opened.
The historic town of Ohlau did not suffer any damage during World War I, because there were no fightings in Silesia. However in World War II about 60% of the town was destroyed. On 2 September 1939, one Polish PZL.23 Karaś bomber (scout) plane did bomb a German factory within the city in the first attack on German territory during the war. After World War II the region was placed under Polish administration and ethnically cleansed according to the post-war Potsdam Agreement. The native German populace was expelled and replaced with Poles, the town's name was polonized as "Oława". Oława became a garrison town of the Red ArmyNorthern Group of Forces and remained so until 1992.