Danzig / Gdansk

Three beautiful old postcards of pre-1920s Danzig (Gdansk). Click on any image to enlarge picture and see more detail.

Danzig Gdansk ansichtskarten

A wonderful lithograph postcard from 1899 of various locations in the city of Danzig (Gdansk).

When Poland regained its independence after World War I it was promised free and secure access to the sea by the Allies. The Poles hoped that Danzig’s harbour would become part of Poland. However, since Germans formed a clear majority of the population of 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. Poland’s rights, however, included free usage of the harbour, a Polish post office, a garrison in Westerplatte district, customs union with Poland etc. This led to considerable tension between the city and the surrounding Republic of Poland. Danzig Free City had its own constitution, national anthem, parliament (Volkstag), and government (Senat). It also issued its own stamps and currency.

Danzig Gdansk

An old picture postcard of Danzig posted in 1902 to the town of Taunton in Somerset, England.

The German population of the Free City of Danzig generally favoured reincorporation into Germany. In the early 1930s the local Nazi Party capitalized on pro-German sentiments and in 1933 garnered 50% of vote in the parliament. Thereafter, the Nazis under Gauleiter Albert Forster achieved dominance in Danzig’s 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 East Prussian and the rest 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 (living space) 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 German 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. The Polish garrison 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 tried and executed then buried on the spot in the Danzig quarter of Zaspa in October 1939. The city was officially annexed by Germany and incorporated into the Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia.

Danzig Gdansk map

A map postcard of the Danzig and Ostsee Baltic Coast area of Pomerania as it looked in 1919.

In 1941, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, eventually causing the war to turn against Germany. As the Soviet Army advanced in 1944, German populations 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, 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 neighbouring Gdynia. In the process, tens of thousands of refugees were killed.

Danzig also endured heavy British, American and Soviet air raids. Those who survived and could not escape had to face the Soviet Army, which captured the heavily damaged city on 30 March 1945. 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 rom all over pre-war Poland, some of whom had themselves been deported by the Russians from Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union, i.e. from the eastern portion of pre-war Poland.

Danzig today

Gdańsk (Danzig) is a city on the Baltic coast, the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship, and the centre of the country’s fourth-largest metropolitan area. It is also Poland’s principal seaport.

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