The history of the city of Gdansk is a rich and sometimes complicated one. Described by Napoleon as ‘the key to everything’ when he marched eastward in the early 19th century, the city has moved backwards and forwards between Polish and German/Prussian control over the centuries. Twice in its history the city has found itself functioning as an independent City State, first in the period 1807-1814 under the auspices of Napoleon and secondly in the inter-war years. This second period highlighted the city’s unique and independent population, a bit German, a bit Polish, a bit Kashubian, but first and foremost Danzigers. It also became the focal point for disagreements which resulted in the much wider conflict that became WWII. What exactly was Freie Stadt Danzig, how did it come about and what remains of it today?
HistoryIn 1918 Poland had existed in memory only for over a century (123 years to be exact) since the Third Partition of 1795 imposed by her powerful neighbours saw Poland’s territories carved up between Prussian, Habsburg and Russian empires. Gdansk/Danzig found herself in the Prussian partition, then briefly functioning as a Free City and then becoming part of the German Empire. The end of WWI brought with it a house-of-cards collapse in the occupiers, and a new independent Polish republic was established on the back of this redress of power. Gdansk/Danzig became a huge sticking point at the Versailles negotiations with both Germany and Poland arguing strongly that the city with its port ought to be put under their control. With agreement impossible, Germany in no position to rebuild the devastated local economy because of the paralysing effect of the war reparations and the League of Nations both wary the city contained a large German speaking population and fearful the Poles might go ‘Red’ like the Russians, a hashed together compromise saw the city instead designated as a Free City State.It was placed under the Protectorate of the League of Nations who appointed a High Commissioner to oversee its running. Thus on January 10th, 1920, Freie Stadt Danzig (Free City of Danzig or Wolne Miasto Gdańsk in Polish) came into being.
From starvation to prosperityThe denial of Poland’s demand for a Baltic seaport resulted in the Treaty assigning her a narrow strip of West Prussia which connected the bulk of the landlocked country to the sea and which was flanked on either side by German territory. This went onto become what was infamously named the ‘Polish corridor’ and Poland, denied access to the sea through the port of Danzig instead heavily invested in the village of neighbouring Gdynia (see Gdynia section).
To call what had been created a city, however, is a bit of a misnomer. The area falling into the sphere of the Free City actually consisted of a sizeable area – covering land of nearly 2,000 square kilometres it comprised of 252 villages, as well as towns like Sopot (Zoppot to use its name of the time), Tiegenhof (Nowy Dwor Gdanski) and Neutiech (Nowy Staw), stretched as far as Malbork to the east and numbered a population of 366,000.
Both Germany and Poland felt wronged by the League of Nations’ decision but the residents of the city, used to upheaval and facing starvation as the city reeled from the after effects of war viewed this as a change for the better. With the help of countries such as Poland, France, England and Sweden, the city started to rebuild its economy from the ruins. Although long-standing pre-war policies of Germanization had proved successful the fact was that more than 80% of the population considered themselves Danzigers first rather than Poles or Germans often using the phrase ‘ich bin von hier’ (I am from here) to describe themselves. The first years of the new state were difficult and it was only thanks to Polish food aid that many didn’t starve. Slowly but surely things started to improve, international companies started to move into the city and local businesses demonstrating the traditional Danzig qualities of innovation and entrepreneurship emerged. Heavy industry was built up including ship building, the timber industry thrived as well as food, brewing and confectionery. Some of the firms who helped rebuild the Danzig economy are still present today such as Dr. Oetker, the German food company. The 1920's saw a period of strong growth.
The changes the creation of the Free City brought were far reaching. Citizens of Danzig were issued with new passports, and anyone not wishing to surrender their German citizenship was obliged to leave. Elsewhere Danzig specific coins, banknotes and stamps were brought into circulation. Originally called Marks, the Great Depression saw the introduction of Danzig Gilders which became as much a symbol of the city as the emblem showing 2 crosses and a crown. Danzigers proudly boasted of their Danzig Dollars, so similar were they in texture and colour to the American dollar and the 30s were a time of increasing prosperity. To push the point home the state even got its own national anthem, a great little ditty making liberal use of the phrase ‘In Danzig it must surely be!’
As the city developed an international passenger airport was built in Wrzeszcz with connections to destinations like Prague and Moscow added, while in Sopot the Kasino Hotel opened its doors in 1927. Now known as the Sofitel Grand this was frankly the best hotel for miles, and a gathering spot for the celebs and jet-set of inter-war Danzig.
To make sure the Germans weren’t cheating and ducking out of the rules the League of Nations appointed a series of High Commissioners to lord around, and these guys are worth a book on their own. There were to be ten over the course of history, and these included such characters as Edward Lisle Strutt. He represented the League in 1920, though is probably best remembered for a disastrous attempt at scaling Everest two years later. Accused of being ‘pompous and pontificating’ Strutt’s ascent into the record books hit the skids when an avalanche dropped on heads of seven of his Sherpas. Then there’s Sir Richard Haking, a man who made his name in WWI as one of the nincompoop, blithering, butcher generals so admirably portrayed by Stephen Fry in Blackadder. However, these men were by no means the kings of all they surveyed; domestic affairs were left in the hands of the Danzig Senate, and the clash of German, Polish and League interests were a recipe for disaster which frequently left the commissioners at logger heads with the ruling party.
The League of Nations tried to keep the balance and was keen to press the rights of the Polish minority. The Westerplatte Peninsula, for so long a pleasant little beach kitted out with posh bathhouses, was handed over to the Polish military which set about fortifying it with a trail of bunkers to deter the Germans from any naughtiness. On top of that, a Polish Post Office was established within the city on what is today ul. Obroncow Poczty Polskiej. Now, while that sounds innocuous enough, the German’s assumed there was more going on inside than Postman Patryk sorting postcards. And they were right, as proved by the fierce armed resistance Nazi storm troopers met when they attempted to capture it in 1939.
Keeping the laws that the parliamentarians in the Volkstag passed were the Schutzpolizei, dapper dressed coppers with pointy pike helmets. The police orchestra, led by the composer and major Ernst Stieberitz, was globally renowned for its talent; though don’t think for a minute think this police force was some sort of comedy outfit. By 1935 the infamous death’s head skulls had been added to their caps, an ominous sign of what was to come.
Having first gained a representation in the Danzig Parliament with the elections of 1930, the Nazis would go onto take power in 1933 with just over 50% of the vote which was notably less than in parts of Germany or the other ceded territories. The NSDAP had managed just 16% in 1930 and even after 2 years of Nazi rule the 1935 election only saw their share of the vote increase to 59% despite opposition parties being subjected to attacks, local radio being used exclusively for Nazi propaganda and government officials threatened with the sack if they didn’t vote for the Nazi party. International relations plunged immediately. Polish paper Gazeta Gdanska was outlawed, and Jews were earmarked for specific harassment and persecution. The Synagogue was finally demolished in May, 1939 – a year after a similar effort had been thwarted by guards – and on September 1, 1939 the Nazi warship, Schleiswig-Holstein, shelled the Polish garrison based at Westerplatte. World War Two had begun, the fate of the Free City of Danzig was sealed.