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 continued to live together as they had for centuries; now though 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 met with surprise by the Poles. In 1925 the League of Nations had 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.