Gdańsk lies at the point where the Vistula River meets the Baltic Sea. Often a centre of European conflict, in 1938 Hitler demanded the annexation of the city. Poland’s refusal, backed by England and France, provoked German aggression on 1 Sept. 1939 which triggered World War II. In 1980 the city’s dockyards gave birth to the Solidarity movement.
There is evidence of a settlement at Gdańsk from around 2000 BC. Eastern Germanic tribes created settlements within the area throughout the first millennia BC. In the eighth century AD, the site of modern day Gdańsk became part of Pomerelia or Eastern Pomerania (a separate group of Polish peoples inhabiting the coastal regions) who retained control over the area until AD 1308. At this point, the city fell into the hands of the Teutonic Knights under whose control the city became known as Danzig (which remains the German name for the city). In 1466 power was returned to the Poles following a war waged by King Casimir IV, who subsequently granted the city its autonomy as a reward for aid given during the 13 year campaign.
This freedom permitted the exploitation of Gdańsk’s trade opportunities, the city developing as one of the most successful ports on the Baltic Sea. In 1754 it had the largest population of any Eastern European settlement and handled grain exports (of which Gdańsk held the country’s monopoly) of more than 200,000 tonnes per annum. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, the city was caught up in the Napoleonic wars, which severely damaged the economy. In the aftermath Gdańsk was reduced to a province of West Prussia.
The signing of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles in 1919 established Gdańsk as a free city, under the administrative jurisdiction of Poland, yet with its population and legislative assembly composed predominantly of Germans. Antagonism between Germany and Poland culminated in 1938 with Adolf Hitler’s demand for the surrender of Gdańsk to the Third Reich. With the end of World War II the city returned to Poland. This led to the mass ethnic cleansing of Germans from the city and surrounding region.
Poland’s government was modelled on Stalinist communism, yet within a decade there was the first of many pro-democracy riots. In 1970, the nation’s increasing foreign debts and the collapse of Polish industry resulted in further riots in a number of Baltic seaports, including Gdańsk. Further strike action in 1980, centred on the city’s shipyards, led to the creation of Solidarity, the first non-federal trade union to be established within a communist country. Soviet and Polish communist efforts to curb the popularity of Solidarity failed. In the open elections of 1989 only one of the 100 seats went to the communist party. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałęsa, became president of Poland in 1990, remaining so until 1995.
Gdańsk is home to Poland’s largest maritime development, the Port Północny (North Port). With 18 km of quays it specialises in the handling of sulphur, coal, phosphorites, crude oil and pulp. However, bankruptcy hit the port in 1996 and a few years later it was acquired by a firm from the more prosperous neighbouring port of Glydnia. The city still remains one of the front-runners in Polish industry and, together with Glydnia, the two ports deal with the majority of Poland’s import trade. Rail connections are extensive, with lines to Warsaw as well as other major European cities. The airport, 10 km to the west, is the second largest in Poland and has regular flights to Düsseldorf, Warsaw, Kraków and Berlin.
Places of Interest
Gdańsk was almost totally destroyed in World War II and subsequently underwent extensive restoration. The city is the former home of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and writer Günther Grass, and has a variety of theatres, galleries and museums. The Church of St Mary is one of the largest brick churches in the world, housing in one of its 30 chapels a 30 m high astronomical clock dating from the fifteenth century. The memorial to the Martyred Shipyard Workers with its three steel spires stands near the Lenin Shipyard. It was here in 1970 that 27 protesters were shot and where, a decade later, Lech Wałęsa founded Solidarity.