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.