Gdansk between the wars: 1919-1939

Recently I’ve been surprised couple of times by foreigners coming to Gdańsk – the city in Poland I live in and which is my home – having no clue that they’re visiting a place where the Second World War broke out, a place which was a witness to so many tragic events in the 30’s and 40’s. Maybe the problem is that when you are interested in some field you are sure that the whole world knows the same about it, you can’t imagine that they’re people who have no clue about the field which is an important part of your life, your biggest hobby. That’s why for me, history enthusiast, guide in the former German concentration camp Stutthof, strongly connected emotionally to Pomeranian region, having had family members imprisoned in camps, persecuted by the Nazis, and what I’m proud of the most – having Polish roots in the pre-war Gdansk – it is often a shock that someone may not be knowledgeable about WWII. Which is of course wrong, instead of demanding from people being an authority in the roots of WWII beforehand, I should provide them with necessary information myself.

That’s why this entry will concern The Free City of Gdansk (Danzig in German) – an artificial country which existed between the two world wars, which became the main reason why WWII broke up no sooner and no later – but it all started in Gdansk.

Gdansk  – the harbour city on the Baltic Sea has always been an intercultural city which would change hands many times throughout its over 1000 years’ history, sometimes being more German, sometimes more Polish, once even French – during Napoleonic Wars. It’s impossible to say was Gdansk more Polish or German, I support the outlook on history saying that until 19th century there was no such thing like nation, therefore we can only take into consideration duchies, kingdoms and states which Gdansk was under the rule of. Needless to say, because of its importance and cultural variety the city has always felt quite independent, which is still something to be proud of for many present inhabitants of Gdansk.

The situation became more compilcated when Poland regained independence after WWI, in 1918, after 123 years of non-existence, being divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The reborn Polish state wanted to include Gdansk to its borders – claiming that Gdansk with the whole Pomeranian region is historically Polish and there would be no Poland without this land. The same was the opinion of the Germans, after all during 123 years of Prussian rule this area became very Germanized – in Gdansk area there was only approx.10% of Poles. The peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which finished the First World War, made a controversial decision – instead of attaching Gdansk to either Poland or Germany, the Western countries created a brand new country – The Free City ofr Gdansk which was supposed to be supervised by the Leauge of Nations, the forerunner of present UN. The new city-state looked like that:

It covered the area of 1900km² (including Gdansk and Sopot) with 90% of German and 10% of Polish population. The state had own parliament, constitution, currency, citizenship, the official language was German. Polish rights declared by the Treaty of Versailles were as follows:

“The Free City was to be represented abroad by Poland and was to be in a customs union with it. The German railway line that connected the Free City with newly-created Poland was to be administered by Poland, as well as all rail lines in the territory of the Free City. On November 9, 1920, a convention was signed between the Polish government and the Danzig authorities, that provided for the Presence of a Polish diplomatic representative in Danzig. In article 6, the Polish government undertook not to conclude any international agreements regarding Danzig without previous consultation with the Free City’s government. After local dockworkers had refused to unload ammunition supplies throughout the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the Westerplatte peninsula (until then a city beach), was also given to Poland to built up an ammunition dump and a military post within the city’s harbour. There was also a separate Polish post office established, besides the existing municipal one.”

The reality wasn’t so positive. Polish rights would be violated chronically, and The League of Nation hardly ever responded to Polish complaints. Poland respresented The Free City of Gdansk only in theory, in reality the Gdansk Senate had a serious independence and only Germans were in charge of it.

But still, the life of Poles and Germans was quite peaceful. Until Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. Already in 1930 he sent to Gdansk the representative of NSDAP party, Albert Forster, whose main aim on this land was to expand the influence of the Nazis in the city-state. When Forster came to Gdansk, he found here only a few houndred of badly-organized members of NSDAP party, 3 years later when Hitler became the head of the German state Forster was proud to inform him that there was already couple of thousands well-organized and motivated Nazis in Gdansk.

Albert Forster in Gdansk

Forster was one of Hitler’s closest friends and one of the biggest Jews and Poles haters. His was determined to purify Gdansk from both these nations and attaching Gdansk back to its ‘motherland’ Germany. Although The Free City of Gdansk was in theory independent from Germany, in fact Hitler quickly managed to gather all power in Gdansk, the Senate was just a theory, in reality it was the Nazis who ruled the state, getting rid of all political opponents. Poles started to lose all their rights,it was hardly possible for them to find a job because of their nationality, already employed Poles would lose their jobs without a reason, the authorities of the state started to find excuses not to create Polish-speaking classes at schools, or in already existing Polish classes they kept low level of education, Poles used to be all the time publically humiliated, Polish flags and symbols chronically destroyed, SA members and other Nazi symphatizers would often beat Polish postmen (because they wore uniforms with Polish symbols) or students of the only 100% Polish school in Gdansk. Such notices could be found on German shop or restaurant windows:

saying: For dogs and Poles the entrance is forbidden.

For Poles and Jews the life in Gdansk became unbearable and many of them decided to emigrate. Those who decided to move to Poland didn’t enjoy the peace for too long – as soon as the war broke out The Nazis found them and ‘took care of them’ by executing in mass executions in Pomeranian forests or sending to Stutthof concentration camp.

Unfortunately the whole atmoshpere of terror and omnipresent propaganda led to cooperation of the German population with the Nazis. Many of them believed in their slogans and became very enthusiastic about making their city 100% German. Such people started to report their Polish neighbours to the authorities, thanks to that NSDAP already in 1935 had very detailed information about Polish “dangerous elements”, meaning Poles who were not afraid to demonstrate their nationality and those who were involved in numerous Polish organizations that existed in The Free City of Gdansk at that time.

To understand why the WII broke out in Gdansk, we need to look at the map of the area from the pre-war period. As you can see, the Treaty of Versailles didn’t solve the border problem between Poland and Germany, it created even more possible conflicts between both nations as Germany was divided by so-called “Polish corridor” – a piece of Pomerania which was included in Poland. Therefore Germans living in Eastern Prussia had no direct acces to the rest of German lands on the West, each time they had to pass the Polish territory. Green color shows the Free City of Gdansk, another artificial and risky solution to the ethnic problems of the area. When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and Western countries felt succesful, Ferdinand Foch, French commander, said:

This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.

And exactly 20 years later another war broke out. After incorporation of Czechoslovakia Hitler demanded from Poland to give Gdansk back to Germany and to let him built an extraterritorial motorway through the “Polish corridor” to unite separated area of the East Prussia with the German territory on the West (see the map above). Poland would never agree on that. Jozef Beck, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in his famous speech on May 5th 1939 gave such an answer to Hitler:

“Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor.

And that because the excuse for Hitler to attack Poland on September 1st 1939. At 4:45 German battleship Scheswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte (Polish Military Transit Depot, the only place in the Free City of Gdansk when the Polish troops had the right to be stationed) in the Gdansk harbour channel. The war broke out.

It is unfair to accuse Poles for the outbreak of WWII, it has to be stressed that Hitler wouldn’t have stopped his demands even if Poland had agreed to give him Gdansk, he didn’t stop after incorporation of Czechoslovakia so he wouldn’t have after getting Gdansk back to the Reich, sooner or later the war would have started because that was Hitler’s main aim – the war, not a peaceful incorporation of all territories possible. History chose that it started in my city.

Hitler in Gdansk

The victory of Hitler was splendid, Gdansk was attached to the Third Reich against the international law. The majority of Poles were arrested already  the very first day of the war and later exterminated or sent to Stutthof camp situated 50km eastwards from Gdansk, on Vistula Spit. But about that I will write maybe next time.

To sum up I recommend watching an excerpt of a movie about Gdansk on the eve of the outbreak of WWII, perfectly depicting the tension between Germans and Poles, it is partially in Polish and in German but the main thing will be understandable for all: there’s a group of Polish marines from Gdynia entering a German bar in Gdansk where they’re not welcome and where they hear insults which results in a fight. Pay attention to the reaction of the owner of the place – he is an average German who doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Nazis, he even doesn’t have Hitler’s portait on the wall which becomes a problem for the policeman who enters. It shows that not all Germans in Gdansk hated Poles, many of them were against the regime, but still, they were a minority.

the first picture comes from http://www.trojmiasto.pl ; quotes were taken from Wikipedia.

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