September 1, 1939, is forever etched in the history books as the day the world went to war. The world would never be the same again, and it started here, seventy-five years ago, with Danzig/Gdansk as the opening gambit in Hitler’s vile master plan.
PreludeEndlessly caught in a tug-of-war between Germany and Poland, the end of World War One saw the League of Nations come up with a hare-brained solution to the ceaseless bickering – it matched the city to neither suitor, instead assigning it the title of Free City of Danzig. Despite the large German speaking population, the country was in no condition to look after the population for one while giving it to the newly reformed Polish state was a gamble; would the Poles side with their Slavic brothers to the east and turn red? Anything was possible in this volatile post-war Europe, and the thought of Danzig/Gdansk – then a hugely important international trading route – falling into the hands of the communists was all too much. And so it was that Danzig/Gdansk became a semi-independent state, an answer that pleased neither Germans nor Poles.
Nonetheless the region thrived, and the two communities co-existed for quite some time; the Germans controlled the State senate, the police and much of the business, while the Poles dominated the railways, port authority and had their own postal service. The rise of Hitler changed all that, and bitter rivalries soon came to the surface after his election in next door Germany. Anti-Polish sentiment spread rapidly, and by 1935 the local police force had started keeping tabs on any Pole seen as a threat to the German way.
The rise in tensions wasn’t lost on the Poles. From 1925 the League of Nations bowed to pressure and consented to the deployment of a token 88 man Polish force across the water from the Free City on the Polish controlled Westerplatte Peninsula. As the years went on, and Hitler’s posturing became ever more threatening, the Poles continued to covertly strengthen their foothold, smuggling in military hardware and secretly building fortifications in breach of League of Nations decrees. To all intents and purposes Westerplatte was guarded by a crack unit, whose unspoken remit was to be able to hold out for one day should the Germans attack, thereby giving other Polish units enough time to rescue Gdansk from Nazi claws.
OutbreakOn August 31, 1939, Nazi units dressed in Polish uniform infamously staged a mock attack on a radio tower in the German border town of Gleiwitz (now Gliwice). Pictures of the victims (actually corpses of concentration camp inmates dressed in German uniforms) were flashed across the world, with Hitler claiming a provocative attack by the Polish army. The following dawn, Germany launched a strike on Westerplatte, an attack that would ultimately kick off World War II.
Popular theory asserts the first shots were fired from the German warship the Schleiswig Holsten, supposedly visiting Gdansk on a goodwill mission. Wrong. Logbooks recovered by the Nowy Port Lighthouse prove beyond doubt that the German battleship was pre-empted by a matter of three minutes by a gun emplacement nestled halfway up the lighthouse. The Poles, taken aback, missed this target entirely. Second time round they scored a direct hit, credited to a Pole called Eugeniusz Grabowski, thereby in all likelihood making the lighthouse gunners the first casualties in a war that would go on to claim 55 million lives.
The German shelling of Westerplatte was simultaneously supported by infantry attacks on the Westerplatte gateway, with the Polish defenders repelling repeated attempts at advance by the navy storm troopers. At precisely the same time this assault had begun, another equally ferocious battle was being waged at the small post office in the city’s then-called Hevelius Square. Detachments of German police and SS laid siege to the 50 Polish post workers inside, who put up a brave struggle for over 17 hours until casualties became intolerable, part of the building collapsed and the Germans began to attack with flamethrowers.
SiegeYet while the post office capitulated, the garrison at Westerplatte – numbering around 220 men – held on. The plan was simple: in the event of an attack in Gdansk the Polish navy, stationed in nearby Gdynia (Poland), would sail in to help, aircraft from Puck would be scrambled, and the bridge in Tczew would be blown to stop a German advance into what was the demilitarized zone of the Free State. In the event nearly everything that could go wrong, did. The navy was caught out in the Bay of Gdansk, while the air force was destroyed while still on the ground. Polish customs officers did succeed in blowing the bridge at Tczew, crucially slowing the German advance whose armour was gathered over in Szymankowo. They paid for their bravery with their lives, and all were later shot by their German opposites, themselves also armed and primed for war. Today Stutthof museum has a post-execution picture of a grinning Nazi shooting party taken outside the Pullman wagons in which the Polish officers had lived.
Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, but hopes of outside help being directed to Poland proved ill founded. Yet still the Westerplatte garrison fought on. By now water had begun to run short, and the terrain they defended had churned up into a pockmarked mass of craters. Intensive bombardment from land, sea and air continued night and day, before finally, at 10:15 on the morning of September 7, Major Henryk Sucharski took the decision to raise the white flag. The battle had cost just 15 Polish lives, and the bravery of the troops was recognized by the German general who allowed Sucharski to keep his sword with him in captivity, as well as by German soldiers who allegedly saluted their Polish counterparts as they were marched away. To this day German losses in the battle for Westerplatte remain an official secret. Gdynia surrendered two weeks later, and then Hel – the final Polish stronghold in Pomerania – fell on the 2nd of October by which time Poland had been invaded from the east by the Soviet Union. Ironically, Hel, the final stand for the Poles, would also be the last place the Nazis would relinquish in 1945.
Under the ReichHitler had always made much of incorporating Danzig into the Reich, yet somewhat surprisingly he only made two visits to the city – a deep held suspicion of Danzigers, and a fear of assassination explaining such apathy. The second of these visits came on September 18, 1939, with an exultant Fuhrer arriving to Sopot on board his armoured train, the Amerika. It was there he checked into the Kasino Hotel (today the Sofitel Grand), booking into rooms 251-253. His stay lasted a week, during which time he received a delegation from Japan, visited the Schleswig-Holstein, Westerplatte and inspected a parade outside Dwor Artus on Gdansk’s Dlugi Targ.
By this time fervent Nazis were already clamouring to rid the region of all traces of Polonization. Intelligentsia and other such targets were arrested and incarcerated in numerous camps and prisons, including the Victoriaschule (ul. Kładki 1. B-5), which was used as a interview and processing centre, the city jail (now replaced by a newer model) and Stutthof – later to morph into a notorious concentration camp. Flags, signs and anything else remotely Polish was torched and destroyed, and even today visitors can view a Polish eagle in the Free City Museum , its form clearly scarred from the rocks thrown at it.
Governor and Gauleiter of the region was Albert Forster, and his reign still arouses controversy and debate among both scholars and survivors. Unlike other Gauleiters in annexed and occupied territories, Forster followed a program of assimilation, granting thousands of locals German citizenship if they swore German heritage. Even more remarkably, those Poles rounded up and persecuted in the first wave of arrests could seek German citizenship, and even pursue compensation and restitution for any property originally seized. Benign by some benchmarks, Forster was a form Nazi on others. Jews faced merciless persecution, Stutthof emerged as a true place of terror and he is personally thought to have given the order for the mass murder of over 2,000 Poles executed between 1939 and 1940.
Today traces of Forster’s Danzig are scant – his country retreat on Wyspa Sobieszewksa, where he hunted and lived in extravagant style, is today fenced from prying eyes. His Danzig home in Oliwa has been pulled down, and the secret escape tunnel running from Party HQ in Wrzeszcz (ul. Orzeszkowej 2 H/I-3) to the foot of a hill in the Siedlice district (ul. Kartuska 135L I-5) has long been bricked up. Eventually caught and held on the Hel Peninsula trying to flee westwards, even his death remains a mystery – some claim he was hung in Biskupia Gora after the war, others that it was his body double who faced the hangman. Yet more sources claim he was taken to Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison and beaten to death. The truth, it appears, will never be known.
The EndFor ordinary Danzigers the quality of life remained relatively good for much of the war. Zoppot/Sopot, especially, became a favourite stamping ground for soldiers on R&R, and in spite of rationing and occasional shortages life didn’t get worse until the closing stages. The first warning signs that all was not well came with the first air raids, yet even so allied bombers targeted the shipyards – home to munitions factories producing U-Boats and V1 and V2 rockets – and the Zaspa airfield. The war still seemed far off, even in 1943 when work commenced on whisking cultural treasures to locations westwards.
By 1944 a different picture had emerged; Danzig had become a major transit point, not least with swarms of refugees fleeing from the east, as well as a regular target for bombing raids. By March, 1945, with the Red Army fast approaching, the population had reached 1.5 million and city stood on the precipice of chaos. Suspected deserters were strung up from the lampposts and trees of al. Zwyciestwa (or Hindenburg Allee as it was then known), and the city descended into a Dantean vision. Historian Antony Beevor writes of the ensuing siege: ‘Fighter bombers strafed the towns and port areas. Soviet Shturmoviks treated civilian and military targets alike. A church was as good as a bunker, especially when it seemed as if the objective was to flatten every building which still protruded conspicuously above the ground... Tens of thousands of women and children, terrified of losing their places in the queues to escape, provided unmissable targets’.
Danzig had been designated a closed fortress, or Festung, and the defence proved bitter and bloody. Zoppot/Sopot fell on March 21, Gotenhafen/Gdynia on March 28, and both faced the full wrath of a drunken, avenging army, spurring the defenders of Danzig to fight even harder to grant the remaining civilians the chance of evacuation. Encircled and out-powered, even when the opportunity to surrender was offered the Germans continued fighting; that fires were burning a month after Danzig was captured is testament to the ferocity of the siege. Polish and Red Army troops finally entered the city on March 30; Gdansk, home to the first shots of the war, now lay adrift on a sea of rape and ruin.