Gdańsk (pron.: /ɡəˈdænsk/ or /ɡəˈdɑːnsk/; Polish: [ˈɡdaɲsk]; Kashubian: Gduńsk; German: Danzig, pronounced [ˈdantsɪç]) is a Polish city on the Baltic coast, the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship, Poland’s principal seaport and the center of the country’s fourth-largest metropolitan area.
The city lies on the southern edge of Gdańsk Bay (of the Baltic Sea), in a conurbation with the city of Gdynia, spa town of Sopot, and suburban communities, which together form a metropolitan area called the Tricity (Trójmiasto), with a population near 740,000. Gdańsk itself has a population of 455,830 (June 2010), making it the largest city in the Pomerania region of Northern Poland.
Gdańsk is the historical capital of Gdańsk Pomerania and the largest city of Kashubia. The city is close to the former late medieval/modern boundary between West Slavic and Germanic lands and it has a complex political history with periods of Polish rule, periods of German rule, and extensive self-rule, with two spells as a free city. It has been part of modern Poland since 1945.
Gdańsk is situated at the mouth of the Motława River, connected to the Leniwka, a branch in the delta of the nearby Vistula River, whose waterway system supplies 60% of the area of Poland and connects Gdańsk to the national capital in Warsaw. This gives the city a unique advantage as the center of Poland’s sea trade. Together with the nearby port of Gdynia, Gdańsk is also an important industrial center. Historically an important seaport and shipbuilding center, Gdańsk was a member of the Hanseatic League.
The city was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement which under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa, played a major role in bringing an end to Communist rule across Central Europe.
The origins of the city are subject to ongoing research. The first written record thought to refer to Gdansk (Danzig) is the vita of Saint Adalbert. Written in 999, it describes how in 997 Saint Adalbert of Prague baptized the inhabitants of urbs Gyddannyzc, «which separated the great realm of the duke [i.e. Boleslaw the Brave of Poland] from the sea.» No further written sources exist for the 10th and 11th centuries. Based on the date in Adalbert’s vita, the city celebrated her millennial anniversary in 1997.
Archaeological evidence for the origins of the town was largely retrieved between 1948 and 1978, after World War II had laid 90% of the downtown districts in ruins and extensive surveys and excavations were carried out. The oldest seventeen settlement levels were dated to between 980 and 1308. It is generally thought that Mieszko I of Poland erected a stronghold in the 980s, thereby connecting the Polish state ruled by the Piast dynasty with the trade routes of the Baltic Sea. The dates assigned to the oldest finds have been questioned, resulting in a verification survey in 2003, re-evaluating old finds and also examining new sites on the basis of dendrochronology. None of the remains of the medieval stronghold date to before the 1050s/1060s.Loew (2011) asked if there maybe was an earlier, not yet located stronghold, and said that the identified stronghold site, consisting of a fort and a suburbium covering 2.7 ha which may have held 2,200 to 2,500 inhabitants, does not only lack finds from before 1060, but that no material from after the mid-12th century has been retrieved from the fort. Loew adds that traces of settlement dating to the 10th century have been found in parts of today’s Gdansk outside said stronghold.
The site was ruled on behalf of Poland by the Samborides’ duchy and consisted of a settlement at the modern Long Market, craftsmen settlements along the Old Ditch, German merchant settlements around the St Nicolas church and the old Piast stronghold. In 1186, a Cistercian monastery was set up in nearby Oliwa, which is now within the city limits. In 1215, the ducal stronghold became the center of a Pomerelian splinter duchy. In 1224/25, German merchants from Lübeck established a presence in the area of the earlier fortress as «guests» (hospites) but were soon forced to leave by Swantopolk II of the Samborides in 1238 during a war between Swantopolk and the Teutonic Knights, during which Lübeck supported the latter. Migration of German merchants to the town resumed in 1257. Significant German influence did not appear until the fourteenth century, after the takeover of the city by the Teutonic Knights.
About 1235, the town was granted city rights under Lübeck law by Pomerelian duke, Swantopolk II. It was an autonomy charter similar to that of Lübeck, which was also the primary origin of many settlers. In 1300, the town had an estimated population of 2,000. While overall the town was not that an important trade center at that time, it had some relevance in the trade with Eastern Europe. Low on funds, the Samborides lent the settlement to Brandenburg, although they planned to take the city back and give it to Poland. Poland threatened to intervene, and Brandenburg left the town. Subsequently, the city was taken by Danish princes in 1301. The Teutonic Knights were hired by the Polish nobles to clear out the Danes.
In 1308, the town was taken by Brandenburg and the Teutonic Knights were hired by the Polish prince (later king) Władysław I the Elbow-high to restore order. Subsequently, the Knights took over control of the town. Primary sources record a massacre of 10,000 people, but the exact number killed is subject of dispute in modern scholarship: Some authors accept the number given in the original sources, while others consider 10,000 to have been a medieval exaggeration. The events were used by the Polish crown to condemn in a subsequent papal lawsuit.
The knights colonized the area, replacing local Kashubians with German settlers. In 1308, they founded Osiek Hakelwerk near the town, initially as a Slavic fishing settlement. In 1340, the Teutonic Knights built a large fortress, which became the seat of the knights’ Komtur. In 1343, they founded Rechtstadt, which in contrast to the pre-existing town (thence Altstadt, «Old Town» or Stare Miasto) was chartered with Kulm Law. In 1358, Danzig joined the Hanseatic League, and became an active member in 1361. It maintained relations with the trade centers Bruges, Novgorod, Lisboa and Sevilla. In 1377, the Old Town’s city limits were expanded. In 1380, Neustadt («New Town» or «Nowe Miasto») was founded as the fourth, independent settlement.
After a series of Polish-Teutonic Wars, in the Treaty of Kalisz (1343) the Order had to acknowledge that it would hold Pomerelia as an alm from the Polish Crown. Although it left the legal basis of the Order’s possession of the province in some doubt, the city thrived as a result of increased exports of grain (especially wheat), timber, potas, tar, and other goods of forestry from Prussia and Poland via the Vistula River trading routes, despite the fact that after its capture, the Teutonic Knights tried to actively reduce the economic significance of the town. While under the control of the Teutonic Order German migration increased. A new war broke out in 1409, ending with the Battle of Grunwald (1410), and the city came under the control of the Kingdom of Poland. A year later, with the first First Peace of Thorn, it returned to the Teutonic Order. In 1440, the city participated in the foundation of the Prussian Confederation which was an organization opposed to the rule of the Teutonic Knights. This led to the Thirteen Years’ War of independence from the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia (1454–1466). On May 25, 1457, when the city – jointly with Royal Prussia – became part of the Crown of Poland while maintaining its rights and independence as an autonomous city.
Green Gate inspired by the Antwerp City Hall, was built to serve as the formal residence of the Polish monarchs. On 15 May 1457, Casimir IV of Poland granted Danzig the Great Privilege, after he had been invited by the town’s council and had already stayed in town for five weeks. With the Great Privilege, the town was granted autonomy within the Kingdom of Poland. The privilege conferred to the town independent jurisdiction, legislation and administration of her territory, and the rights of the Polish crown were limited to the following: The Polish king was allowed to stay in town for three days a year, he was further allowed to choose a permanent envoy from eight councilmen proposed to him by the town, and received an annual payment. Furthermore, the privilege united Old Town, Hakelwerk and Rechtstadt, and legalized the demolition of New Town, which had sided with the Teutonic Knights. Already in 1457, New Town was demolished completely, no buildings even remained.
Gaining free and privileged access for the first time to Polish markets, the seaport prospered while simultaneously trading with the other Hanseatic cities. After the Second Peace of Thorn (1466) with the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia the warfare between the latter and the Polish crown ended permanently. After the Union of Lublin between Poland and Lithuania in 1569 the city continued to enjoy a large degree of internal autonomy (cf. Danzig Law).
King Stephen Báthory’s attempt to subject the city, which had supported Maximilian II in the prior election of the king, failed. The city, encouraged by its immense wealth and almost impregnable fortifications, as well as by the secret support of Denmark and Emperor Maximilian, shut its gates against Stephen. After the Siege of Danzig (1577), lasting six months, the city’s army of 5,000 mercenaries was utterly defeated in a field battle on December 16, 1577. However, since Stephen’s armies were unable to take the city by force, a compromise was reached: Stephen Báthory confirmed the city’s special status and her Danzig Law privileges granted by earlier Polish kings. The city recognised him as ruler of Poland and paid the enormous sum of 200,000 guldens in gold as payoff («apology»).
Beside the German-speaking majority, whose elites sometimes distinguished their German dialect as Pomerelian, the city was home to a large number of Polish-speaking Poles, Jewish Poles, and Dutch. In addition, a number of Scotsmen took refuge or immigrated to and received citizenship in the city. During the Protestant Reformation, most German-speaking inhabitants adopted Lutheranism. Due to the special status of the city and significance within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the city inhabitants largely became bi-cultural sharing both Polish and German culture and were strongly attached to the traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The city suffered a last great plague and a slow economic decline due to the wars of the 18th century, when it was taken by the Russians after the Siege of Danzig in 1734. Danzig was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1793. During the era of Napoleon Bonaparte the city became a free city in the period extending from 1807 to 1814. After France’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars it again became part of Prussia and became the capital of Regierungsbezirk Danzig within the province of West Prussia from 1815. The city’s longest serving Regierungspräsident was Robert von Blumenthal, who held office from 1841, through the revolutions of 1848, until 1863. The city became part of the German Empire in 1871.
The Town Hall spire, with a gilded statue of King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland on its pinnacle (installed in 1561), dominates Long Market skyline.
When Poland regained its independence after World War I with access to the sea as promised by the Allies on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s «Fourteen Points» (point 13 called for «an independent Polish state», «which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea»), the Poles hoped the city’s harbour would also become part of Poland. However, since Germans formed a majority in the city, with Poles being a minority, the city was not placed under Polish sovereignty. Instead, in accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig, an independent quasi-state under the auspices of the League of Nations with its external affairs largely under Polish control. Poland’s rights also included free usage of the harbour, a Polish post office, a garrison in Westerplatte district, customs union with Poland etc. This led to a considerable tension between the city and the surrounding Republic of Poland. The Free City had its own constitution, national anthem, parliament (Volkstag), and government (Senat). It issued its own stamps as well as currency.
The German population of the Free City of Danzig favored reincorporation into Germany. In the early 1930s the local Nazi Party capitalized on these pro-German sentiments and in 1933 garnered 50% of vote in the parliament. Thereafter, the Nazis under Gauleiter Albert Forster achieved dominance in the city government, which was still nominally overseen by the League of Nations’ High Commissioner. The German government officially demanded the return of Danzig to Germany along with an extraterritorial (meaning under German jurisdiction) highway through the area of the Polish Corridor for land-based access between those parts of Germany. Hitler used the issue of the status of the city as a pretext for attacking Poland and on May 1939, during a high level meeting of German military officials explained to them: It is not Danzig that is at stake. For us it is a matter of expanding our Lebensraum in the east, adding that there will be no repeat of the Czech situation, and Germany will attack Poland at first opportunity, after isolating the country from its Western Allies. As Nazi demands increased, German-Polish relations rapidly deteriorated. Germany invaded Poland on September 1 after having signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in late August. The German attack began in Danzig, with a bombardment of Polish positions at Westerplatte by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, and the landing of German infantry on the peninsula. Outnumbered Polish defenders at Westerplatte resisted for seven days before running out of ammunition. Meanwhile, after a fierce day-long fight (1 September 1939), defenders of the Polish Post office were murdered and buried on the spot in the Danzig quarter of Zaspa in October 1939. The city was officially annexed by Nazi Germany and incorporated into the Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia.
«Danzig is German». Postage stamp issued by Nazi Germany to celebrate the incorporation of Danzig into Germany after the invasion of Poland. About 50 percent of members of the Jewish Community of Danzig had left the city within a year after a Pogrom in October 1937, after the Kristallnacht riots in November 1938 the community decided to organize its emigration and in March 1939 a first transport to Palestine started. By September 1939 barely 1,700 mostly elderly Jews remained. In early 1941 just 600 Jews were still living in Danzig who were later murdered in the Holocaust. Out of the 2,938 Jewish community in the city 1,227 were able to escape from the Nazis before the outbreak of war[dubious – discuss].Nazi secret police had been observing Polish minority communities in the city since 1936, compiling information, which in 1939 served to prepare lists of Poles to be captured in Operation Tannenberg. On the first day of the war, approximately 1,500 ethnic Poles were arrested, some because of their participation in social and economic life, others because they were activists and members of various Polish organizations. On September 2, 1939, 150 of them were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp some 30 miles from Danzig, and murdered. Many Poles living in Danzig were deported to Stutthof or executed in the Piaśnica forest.
Defense of the Polish Post Office in Danzig in 1939. Captured Polish defenders of the Post Office shortly before examination and illegal murder conducted by German Wehrmacht
In 1941, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, eventually causing the fortunes of war to turn against it. As the Soviet Army advanced in 1944, German populations in Central and Eastern Europe took flight, resulting in the beginning of a great population shift. After the final Soviet offensive began in January 1945, hundreds of thousands of German refugees, many of whom had fled to Danzig on foot from East Prussia (see evacuation of East Prussia), tried to escape through the city’s port in a large-scale evacuation involving hundreds of German cargo and passenger ships. Some of the ships were sunk by the Soviets, including the Wilhelm Gustloff after an evacuation was attempted at neighboring Gdynia. In the process, tens of thousands of refugees were killed.
The city also endured heavy Allied and Soviet air raids. Those who survived and could not escape had to face the Soviet Army, which captured the city on March 30, 1945. The city was heavily damaged. In line with the decisions made by the Allies at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the city became part of Poland. The remaining German residents of the city who had survived the war fled or were forcibly expelled to postwar Germany, and the city was repopulated by ethnic Poles, up to 18 percent (1948) of them had been deported by the Soviets in two major waves from Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union, i.e. from the eastern portion of pre-war Poland.
Parts of the historic old city of Gdańsk, which had suffered large-scale destruction during the war, was rebuilt during the 1950s and 1960s. The reconstruction was not tied to the city’s pre-war appearance, instead its politically motivated purpose was to rebuild a pre-German city. Any traces of German tradition were ignored, suppressed, or regarded as «Prussian barbarism» worthy of demolition while Flemish-Dutch, Italian and French influences were emphasized.
Boosted by heavy investment in the development of its port and three major shipyards for Soviet ambitions in the Baltic region, Gdańsk became the major shipping and industrial center of the Communist People’s Republic of Poland.
In December 1970, Gdańsk was the scene of anti-regime demonstrations, which led to the downfall of Poland’s communist leader Władysław Gomułka. During the demonstrations in Gdańsk and Gdynia, military as well as the police opened fire on the demonstrators causing several dozen deaths. Ten years later, on August 31, 1980, Gdańsk Shipyard was the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union movement, whose opposition to the Communist regime led to the end of Communist Party rule in 1989, and sparked a series of protests that successfully overturned the Communist regimes of the former Soviet bloc. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland in 1990. Gdańsk native Donald Tusk became Prime Minister of Poland in 2007.
Today Gdańsk is a major shipping port and tourist destination.