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The Free City of Danzig ( ; ) was a semi-autonomous, Baltic Seamarker port and city-nation that was created on 10 January 1920, against the wishes of the local population but in accordance with the terms of Part III, Section XI of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The Free City included the city of Danzig and over two hundred nearby towns, villages and settlements, all of which had been a part of the former German Empiremarker. As the League of Nations decreed, the region was to remain separated from the nation of Germanymarker, as well as the newly-resurrected nation of Polandmarker. However, the Free City was not autonomous; it was under League of Nations "protection" and put into a binding customs union with Poland. Poland also had other, special utilization rights towards the city.

As the German invasion of Poland began, Danzig's government declared Danzig a part of Germany and the Free City was abolished. This occurred without the approval of Poland or the League of Nations. Anti-Semitic and anti-Polish discriminations and persecutions followed. Then, starting with the city's conquest by the Soviet Army in the early months of 1945, German citizens of the former Free City of Danzig were killed and expelled, and the city was put under Polish administration. The city took its Polish name, Gdańskmarker, and Polish people were brought in to replace them.


Tradition of independence and autonomy

The city-state was denied the use of the term of Hanseatic City as part its official name, which referred to Danzig's long-lasting membership in the Hanseatic League.

Danzig had a long tradition of city-nation–like independence of its own. It was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation ( , , or colloquially ) directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussiamarker. The Confederation stipulated with the Polish king, Casimir IV Jagiellon, that the Polishmarker Crown will be invested — in personal union — with the role of head of state of western parts of Prussia, which became known as Royal Prussia (German: , Polish: ; to contrast with Ducal Prussiamarker) (which remained a Polish fief). In return Casimir IV provided military support. Danzig, and the other cities, like Elbingmarker and Thornmarker, financed most of the warfare and enjoyed a high level of city autonomy. Therefore Danzig took pride in using the title Royal Polish City of Danzig (Polish: ).

When, in 1569, Royal Prussia's Prussian estates (German: , Polish: ) agreed to incorporate into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by way of a real union, it was again Danzig, together with Thorn (Polish: Toruń) and Elbing (Polish: Elbląg), which insisted on preserving their special status. Danzig had to go through the costly Danzig Siege in 1577, but prevailed and got all its autonomy and privileges confirmed. To make clear its position about its special status, Danzig never used the opportunity to send its represenantives to the Polish General Sejm, but always insisted on negotiating its issues by sending emissaries directly to the Polish king.


The Free City of Danzig (Gdansk) included the major city of Danzigmarker (Gdańskmarker) as well as Zoppot marker, Tiegenhof marker, Neuteich marker and some 252 villages and 63 hamlets. Covering a total area of 1,966 square kilometers ( ), the territory was roughly twice the size of the Napoleonic stateletmarker.

Polish rights declared by Treaty of Versailles

pre-World War I German stamp using "Danzig" overprint
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. After local dockworkers had refused to unload ammunition supplies throughout the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the Westerplattemarker 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.

League of Nations High Commissioners

Unlike Mandatory territories, which were entrusted to member countries, The Free City of Danzig (like the Territory of the Saar Basin) remained under the authority of the League of Nations itself, with representatives of various countries taking on the role of High Commissioner:

Name Period Country
1 Reginald Thomas Tower 19191920
2 Edward Lisle Strutt 1920
3 Bernardo Attolico 1920 Italy
4 Richard Cyril Byrne Haking 19211923
5 Mervyn Sorley McDonnell 19231925
6 Joost Adriaan van Hamel 19251929
7 Manfredi di Gravina 19291932 Italy
8 Helmer Rosting 19321934
9 Seán Lester 19341936 Irish Free State
10 Carl Jakob Burckhardt 19371939


The Free City had a population of 357,000 (1919), 95% of whom were Germans, with the rest mainly either Kashubians or Poles.

The Treaty of Versailles, which had separated Danzig and surrounding villages from Germanymarker, now required that the newly-formed state had its own citizenship, based on residency. German inhabitants lost their German Citizenship with the creation of the Free City, but were given the right within the first two years of the state's existence to re-obtain it; however, if they did so they were required to leave their property and make their residence outside of the Free State of Danzig area in the remaining part of Germany.

Total population by language, November 1, 1923
Nationality German German and

Polish, Kashub,



Unclassified Total
Danzig 327,827 1,108 6,788 99 22 77 335,921
Non-Danzig 20,666 521 5,239 2,529 580 1,274 30,809
Total 348,493 1,629 12,027 2,628 602 1,351 366,730
Percent 95.03% 0.44% 3.28% 0.72% 0.16% 0.37% 100.00%


Free City of Danzig/Gdańsk, 1920-1939
Heads of State of the Free City of Danzig
Name Took office Left office Party
Presidents of the Danzig Senate
1 Heinrich Sahm 6 December 1920 10 January 1931 None
2 Ernst Ziehm 10 January 1931 20 June 1933 DNVP
3 Hermann Rauschning 20 June 1933 23 November 1934
4 Arthur Karl Greiser 23 November 1934 23 August 1939
State President
5 Albert Forster 23 August 1939 1 September 1939

Constant tensions between administrators from the Free City and Poland were a catalyst for souring German-Polish relations, and as the Free City arrangement failed to deliver economically, it also failed to help the Free City and Poland overcome ethnic animosity, mutual distrust and temptations to pursue subversive revisionism.

Danzig's population had no interest in future incorporation into Poland, and any effort by Poland to control administrative affairs in the city or open up the city to the Poles was viewed by the people of the Free City as "peaceful penetration" towards this goal. German territorial revisionists helped promulgate this view, reminding the public that, during the Paris Peace Conference, the preliminary to the dismemberment of the German Empire and creation of the Free City and Poland, delegates representing the Polish people had requested that the new Polish state be given control over not Danzig, but the entire region of East Prussia. In addition, the Poles had wanted the city of Königsbergmarker to be put into a customs union with the new Polish state.

It was clear from the start that, if the Free City were to have a chance to succeed, then Germany's government would have to play an active role in discouraging ethnic tensions between Danzig and Poland and denouncing anti-Free City sentiments. Yet as early as 1920, the German government was doing the opposite and actively trying to sow the seeds of discontent between Free City and Poland. The German government believed that increasingly sour relations between the Free City and Poland would give the League of Nations no choice but to accept territorial revisionism; it also tried hard to preserve Danzig's German character because, as long as the Free City retained its German nationalist spirit, there would be few options other than to reincorporate the city into Germany.

Meanwhile concern and paranoia about subversive conspiracies prompted Poland to assert its authority in, and over, the Free City; early on, the Polish government pushed the limits of "economic rights" by creating a military presence in the area and creating defenses. Poland also protested the Free City joining the International Labour Organization. Although the League of Nations courts decided in Poland's favor, arguing that, because of the Free City's economic status, it could not join such organizations, the hysteria did little to cast Poland in a positive light among the Free City's German working community . Poland also tried to challenge the root of the threat of territorial revisionism, the very allowances of the Free City's constitution which assured that Danzig would keep its German character. Poland's citizens were not entitled to the same rights as Free City citizens in the Free City, and this was something that Poland tried to have changed, as it discouraged Polish settlement in the area. However, the League of Nations ruled against Poland, and the law remained in effect. The debacle played into the hands of the German revisionists, who were able to capitalize on the backlash and draw the Poland-fearing crowd to their cause.

Religion also came to play an important role in the battle over control of, and the future of, the Free City. Early on, the Danzig Senate decided to subsidize the churches and concentrate on hardening their German character. The coincidence was uncanny; Germany's government, practically broke, was bankrolling these efforts. Berlin was also padding the salary of the Free City's first bishop in the hopes that he would promote friendly relations with Germany. The Poles were also politicizing religion. To counter the growth of German nationalism and aversions to Polish authority, Polish nationalists were using Catholicism as a weapon to make an appeal to German Catholics by polarizing the Protestant Germans , who were predominant on the Baltic. In 1926, just four years after the Free City was created, Poland began building a new major port from scratch, just eleven miles away, at Gdyniamarker. In May 1932, Gdynia's total exports and imports surpassed those of Danzig, and this trend continued, until the Second World War. Amidst deteriorating economic conditions, the Free City's fortunes grew increasingly sour.

Another important moment came in 1931, after a nationalistic tariff war broke out between Germany and Poland. The Free City saw little reason to stop trading with Germany and importing German goods into Poland, just because of what was going on between Germany and Poland. Poland saw things differently and, to punish the Free City, implemented a boycott on all goods it exported. The results were devastating. Only one year later, after mass protestations, the Polish government said it would no longer "promote" the boycott. However, the government did not try to stop it. The boycott continued until the Nazis came to power in Germany and, after negotiations with Poland, ended it.

Writing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Reinhard Haferkorn noted how the Free City arrangement, which required on-going cooperation on behalf of Danzig and Poland, had tried to turn diametrically opposed communities into instant compliments and was like trying to "square the circle." By 1939, Professor Burckhardt, the League of Nations' High Commissioner in Danzig, found his position as absolute arbiter in the endless disputes almost untenable. However, the warning had come much earlier. In September 1932, a reporter for The Spectator reflected on current developments:

"Germany intends to have Danzig and the Corridor; I have no brief for her.
I deplore the fact that several million Germans would shed their blood for this cause, but since it is a fact and since the Poles certainly cannot be talked out of their territory, how will the matter be settled except by arms?
I believe there must be a war in Europe; the best we can hope for is that it will soon be over, and that it will not spread."

In May 1933, the Nazi Party won the local elections in the city. However, they received 57 percent of the vote, less than the two-thirds required by the League of Nations to change the Constitution of the Free City of Danzig. The government introduced anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic laws, the latter primarily being directed against the Polish and Kashubian inhabitants. The city also served as a training point for members of the German minority within Poland that, recruited by organisations such as the Jungdeutsche Partei ("Young German Party") and the Deutsche Vereinigung ("German Union"), would form the leading cadres of Selbstschutz, an organisation involved in the atrocities which occurred during the German invasion of Poland in 1939 The Danzig Great Synagoguemarker was taken over and demolished by the local authorities in 1939.

The German governments, both before and after 1933, made several proposals to renegotiate Danzig's anomalous position but Poland refused, and as late as April 1939 Professor Burckhardt was told by the Polish Commissioner-General that any attempt to alter its status would be answered with armed resistance on the part of Poland.

Second World War and aftermath

The Nazi government voted for re-unification with Germany on 2 September 1939, the day after the German invasion of Poland began. Although illegal under the terms of the city's constitution, the state was nevertheless formally incorporated by Germany into the newly-formed Reichsgau of Danzig-West Prussia. Polish civilian Post Office employees had been trained and had a cache of weapons, mostly pistols, three light machine guns and some hand grenades, when they defended the Polish Post Office for 15 hoursmarker. They were executed upon their surrender, against international law. The Polish military forces in the city held out until the 7th at the fortified Westerplatte.

Around 90% of the city was reduced to ruins towards the end of the Second World War. On 30 March 1945 the city was taken by the Red Army. It is estimated that more than 90% of the pre-war population were either dead or had fled by 1945. A number of inhabitants of the city perished in the sinking of a ship assisting evacuation, the Wilhelm Gustloffmarker. It had up to 10,000 refugees on board at the time, including about 1,000 seriously wounded soldiers and sailors.

At the Potsdam conference the Allied Powers agreed that the former Free State was to become part of Poland. (The Yalta conferencemarker was unclear on this point).

By 1950, around 285,000 citizens of the former Free City were living in Germany and 13,424 citizens of the former Free City had been "verified" and granted Polish citizenship. By 1947, 126,472 German-born Danzigers were expelled to Germany from Gdańsk, and 101,873 Poles from Central Poland and 26,629 Poles from Sovietmarker-annexed Eastern Poland took their place. As a result of this drastic population exchange, little consideration was given to the idea of reconstituting the Free City after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In fiction

Danzig forms the setting for much of Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass's acclaimed novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum).

See also


  1. page 284.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica Year Book, 1938
  3. Permanent Court of International Justice, Series A/B, No. 44.2, The opinion of the court was given on 4 February, 1932. as cited in: Reinhard Haferkorn, “Danzig and the Polish Corridor,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of Affairs 1931-1939)
  4. Hans Rothfels, “Frontiers and Mass Migrations in Eastern Europe,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 8, No. 1. (Jan., 1946): 37,
  6. Geo. G. Chisholm, “The Free City of Danzig,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Apr., 1920): 306.
  7. Eugene van Cleef, “Danzig and Gdynia,” Geographical Review, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Jan., 1933): 106
  8. Reinhard Haferkorn, “Danzig and the Polish Corridor,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of Affairs 1931-1939) , Vol. 12 No. 2. (Mar., 1933): 266,
  9. Hitlerowskie przygotowania do agresji i eksterminacji Polaków na Pomorzu, Gdańskim iw Wolnym Mieście Gdańsku, National Museum of Sztutowo
  10. Woodward, E.L., Butler, Rohan, Orde, Anne, editors, Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919–1939, 3rd series, vol.v, HMSO, London, 1952:25

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