Seaside cities: short history of Gdańsk, Poland

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I love to live in Wroclaw, but if there would be another city in Poland to choose it would likely be Gdańsk. This city which lies at the bay of the same name is a hanseatic gem. In its thousand years of existence Gdańsk has played several times a crucial role in world history. And despite troubled times, lots of the medieval architecture has survived or been rebuilt and being taken care of until today. It is also a walkable city because most of the attractions are closeby in the city center.


A city for History Geeks

Throughout its more than thousand years of documented existence Gdańsk – or Danzig by its German name – was highly sought after by competing rulers. Typical for the whole region, German merchants settled in the city in the 13th century and peacefully lived and traded with the local population. However the city was always being threatened by the Teutonic Order, a catholic military order which had the aim to christianize the Baltic Old Prussian tribes further north with force.

The Teutonic Order found itself several times at war with the Polish crown until 1521, however it gained control over the city the first time by actually being allied with the Poles to drive out Danish occupants. Gdańsk became an important hub for the order in the region and more German settlers came in. replacing local Kashubians and Poles. In 1358 the city joined the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchants which controlled most of the maritime trade in the Baltic Sea. The newly established trade ties helped the city to grow and prosper, however the real Golden Age of Gdańsk started after the city (which at that time was a multicultural melting pot with Germans, Jews, Poles, Latvian speaking inhabitants and later also Dutch and Scots people) opposed the rule of the Teutonic knights and became willingful under the hands of the Polish crown after having been granted further trade privileges and autonomy rights by the Polish King. Over the next few hundred years it was a city in which the protestant German culture had big influence, but stayed loyal to the catholic Polish crown and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1734 Gdańsk was occupied by Russian troops but quickly returned to the Polish Crown which continued to reign until 1793. Then it was taken over by the Prussian Crown against the will of the largely German population which would have preferred to stay under Polish rule. With the Prussian takeover the multicultural fabric was slowly dissolved. During the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, Gdańsk became a Free City created by Napoleon, but returned to Prussia shortly thereafter and became more germanized.

The 20th century

After Imperial Germany lost the first world war, the Allies created the Free City of Danzig which was under direct supervision of the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN). Between the two world wars the city struggled economically as the Polish Republic refused to use the port of Danzig for international trade and built up its own port in Gdynia nearby. The Polish minority of Danzig had an even harder time as they were discriminated against, and the general hardship was fertile ground for the Nazis to gain power over the city. On September 1st 1939 the Second World War started with the Battle of Westerplatte, a small Polish military base surrounded by the Free City. One day later Danzig was annexed and incorporated into Germany. Under the Nazi rule many Poles, Jews and Kashubians were systematically killed. At the end of the war many Germans fled from the advancing Soviet Red Army and the city laid in ruins. After the war Danzig was renamed Gdańsk and put under formal Polish administration. Most of the remaining Germans were expelled. In the subsequent decades Polish artisans reconstructed the city center as they imagined it to have looked like before 1793. The goal of the leadership was to erase any trace of German heritage of the city.

In 1970 shipyard workers protested in Gdańsk against the Polish government, which caused several casualties and a change of leadership in the ruling Polish Communist Party. The real change which also influenced world politics however came in 1980, when the Solidarność trade union emerged and protested against the communist government of Poland. During most of the 1980’s Poland was under martial law. Many Poles fled to West Germany if they could and supported the Solidarność movement with funds and goods from abroad. (When I went to school in Hamburg, Germany, I too had classmates who were born in Gdańsk but fled in the 1980’s to Hamburg with their parents). Ultimately in summer 1989 the Polish government gave in to new elections with the outlook of winning them, but surprisingly Solidarność won these semi-free elections and therefore ended more than 40 years of communist rule in Poland. It also inspired other protest movements in other Warsaw Pact countries and therefore marked the beginning of the end of communist dictatorship in Central and Eastern Europe. Since then Gdańsk is thriving again whose port is Poland’s gate to world trade and helps to make the it one of the most prosperous cities in Poland.

Of course I have only delivered a very condensed version of the city history. So why not visit Gdańsk and experience its history first hand?


Are you now keen to visit Gdańsk?

If yes, then watch out for my next next post in which I will give you information on:

  • the best time to travel to Gdańsk
  • how to get to Gdańsk
  • where to stay
  • what to see and a proposed walking route
  • what food to try and where not(!) to eat
  • excursions around Gdańsk

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  1. Posted by Maria

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