Located in the region of Pomerania, and sitting along the Baltic coast, Gdansk is one of Poland‘s most important cities. Nestled at the delta of the Vistula River, and with a population of roughly 470,000, Gdansk is the primary maritime trading port of Poland, housing much of the nations shipyards and maritime industries. Gdansk has had a long and complex history, marked by the struggle between east and west, and between the city‘s independence and supplication. Gdansk has been the historical axis upon which both the powers of Germany and Poland have turned, with the city‘s history playing a pivotal role in the rise of each nation. Till this day, Gdansk is a city that has on show its rich and storied heritage, with its museums and architecture displaying the influences that formed the city today.
Early Beginnings & The Teutonic Order
The earliest traces of settlement in the Gdansk area date back to around the 10th century AD, with much of the settlement located in the area around today’s Dlugi Targ, found in the city‘s old town. The town was ruled as part of the Pomeralian duchy of Poland, connecting Poland with the profitable trade routes of the Baltic sea. It is in this era around the 13th century that Gdansk saw its importance rise as one of the hubs of this Baltic maritime network, later becoming known as the Hanseatic league. Gdansk‘s connection with this network over the years saw the city slowly grow in size, with sizable populations from German city states such as Lübeck establishing markets and trading in the city. The early 13th century saw the city‘s old town playing host to one such merchant settlement around the city‘s Long Market.
Following the town‘s takeover by the Danish in the year 1301, the Polish king hired the German military order the ‘Teutonic Knights‘ to retake the city for the Kingdom of Poland. However, when the knights arrived in 1308 they instead massacred much of the city‘s population and occupied the city, adding the city to the Order’s realm, which now stretched from Gdansk in the west, along the Baltic coast to Estonia in the north. The knights displaced much of the town‘s local inhabitants over the ensuing century, replacing them instead with German settlers. It is also during this time period that Gdansk began to see further growth again, with abundant trade from Poland and Teutonic Prussia making the town wealthy, which was further enhanced with the city‘s accession to the Hanseatic League in the year 1361. As the city‘s demography shifted during this period, the city became more widely known as ‘Danzig’, its German name, which would largely persist up until 1945.
Poland and the Free City of Danzig
Teutonic rule in Danzig would persist until the year 1454, when the ‘Prussian Confederation’, rose up in rebellion against the abuses of the Teutonic Order, instead swearing allegiance to Poland in Krakow. With the aid of the Kingdom of Poland, under the famous King Casimir IV, the former territory of the Teutons was liberated, with the Duchy of Prussia becoming a Polish fief, and the city of Danzig being granted exclusive privileges and allowed to operate as an autonomous, or ‘free city‘. Danzig’s time as a free city was extremely prosperous, being allowed to mint its own currency, as well as being exempted from taxes and tariffs on trade with Poland, Lithuania, and Ruthenia; which at the time formed a greater political entity known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Over the following centuries Danzig would come to be the the largest city in the Baltic Sea region, reaching its apex around the year 1754 with a population of over 77,000, the largest in Eastern Europe. Danzig’s position as the largest and most prosperous city in Poland would persist for years until being eclipsed by the growing Warsaw, which would later become Poland‘s capital city. This period also saw growing diversity in the city again, with Germans, Polish, Latvians, as well as Dutch and Flemish forming a sizable part of the free city‘s population.
Prussia and the World Wars
The 18th century saw the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with successive wars with its neighbours, such as Sweden, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, weakening the state significantly. The beginning of the end came with a succession of partitions between the major powers, with the first occurring in 1772, and the last in 1795; these effectively dissolved any remnants of an independent Polish state. It was the second of these partitions that saw the transition of Danzig from Polish free city, to possession of the Prussian state in 1793. The disconnection of Danzig from the flow of goods coming from the Commonwealth was disastrous for the city‘s economy, which heavily relied upon this as its source of wealth. Danzig was briefly made a free city once more between 1807 and 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars, yet despite the city‘s protests in the lead up to the 1814 Congress of Vienna, it was re-annexed by Prussia following the wars.
The status of Danzig shifted once more towards free city following Germany’s loss in World War I, and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Here the city of Danzig operated once more as an independent city under special provision of the Polish state, which had also re-emerged following the war. However, unlike its earlier history, this period of time did not see harmony or prosperity in the Polish-Danziger relationship. German nationalism and Nazism was a powerful force following the war, and Danzig’s overwhelmingly German population resented its inclusion in the Polish state, rather than that of greater Germany. Danzig’s Polish community at this time endured extreme discrimination, and policies aimed at Germanisation were rife within the city‘s administration. The culmination of this tension occurred in 1939 with Germany famously declaring ‘Danzig or War’, pressuring Poland to cede the territory or face invasion. However, at this point in the rise of fascist Germany, the policy of appeasement had finally run its course, with the Treaty of Munich declaring ‘Peace in our time’, proving an abject failure. British and French guarantees of Polish independence finally met with German aggression, and with the invasion of Danzig began the Second World War.
Post World War II
In the aftermath of World War II, Danzig was reincorporated into Poland proper, being renamed in its traditional Polish, Gdansk. Unfortunately during the war, upwards of 90% of the city had been destroyed by allied bombing, leaving the city decimated. Communist rule in the post-war period saw the forced migration of millions of Germans from its eastern territories, who now lived outside its post-war borders. In addition, vestiges of German or Prussian heritage were systematically erased by communist authorities. Over time, much of the area was gradually repopulated by ethnic Poles, rebuilding the decimated city and re-forging anew the identity of the city. In later years the Gdansk shipyard would become internationally known as the birthplace of the solidarity trade union movement, which later swept across Poland and put an end to Communist rule in 1989. Today Gdansk is a popular tourist destination, and major port city, dotted with museums and sites dedicated to its rich historical legacy.
Traveling to Gdansk
There are a bounty of places and experiences to see on a tour of Gdansk, many of which are easy and suited for a walking tour, while others can make for an entertaining day trip; in either case Gdansk city is certainly a place with plenty to see and do. During your visit, a good place to start would be the Gdansk old town, the city‘s historical center. The old town is where many of the city‘s historical buildings can be found, as well as some of its best food. Running through the centre of the old town is the ‘Dlugi Targ‘ or Long Market, which is the main road running through the centre of the district. At each end of this road is a large gate marking the end points of the way, with the Golden gate at the Western end, and the Green gate to the East, just before the Motlawa River. Along the way you may want to see the Neptune fountain, an impressive monument which has stood since 1633, as well as Artus Court just behind it, which also serves as a wing of the Gdansk history museum. Back off the main strip you can also see the Basilica of St Mary’s, which is the largest brick church in the world, with a unique and distinct style, carefully restored after the Second World War.
At the intersection between the Dlugi Targ and Ulica Dluga, just by the the amazing Flemish inspired Green gate, you can also find the Gdansk Town Hall. The Town hall is one of the city‘s oldest buildings, and is a remarkable example of Gothic-Renaissance architecture, parts of it even date back as far as the 14th century. Nearby, you will also come upon the Gdansk waterfront, which straddles the Motlawa River and features picturesque riverside houses, stalls, cafes, as well as a 15th century docking crane or ‘Zuraw’. Further north it is also worth taking a look at the Museum of the Second World War, which pays tribute to Gdansk‘s heritage, and the legacy of that catastrophic time. Further afield, you may want to take a day trip out to Malbork Castle. Built entirely out of brick in the early 14th century, Malbork Castle was a Teutonic stronghold, named Marienburg in honour of the virgin Mary. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of Poland‘s national historic monument‘s. One of the best way to take in Gdansk‘s sights and history is with a small group tour, Odyssey specialises in this kind of tour, offering a tailored and familiar guided tour that is ideal for the discerning traveller.
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