Free City of Danzig

Michael O. Varhola
The Free City of Danzig was a semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939 that consisted of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig — now Gdansk, Poland — and the territories surrounding it. It was a unique historical phenomenon and a fascinating entity in many ways, not the least of which was serving as the site for the very first battle of World War II. As with any complex international city like Berlin, Paris, Beirut, Casablanca, or Shanghai, it can serve as a perfect backdrop for any sorts of stories or adventures, especially those involving intrigue, conflict, and imminent war. Following is an overview of the sort that might appear in a universal sourcebook that can allow it to be readily used as a stage for such scenarios. 

We can see here a colorized photo of the Danzig waterfront taken sometime between 1890 and 1900 in the years before its establishment as the Free City. 

 
EARLY HISTORY

While Danzig was dominated variously by Germans, Poles, and Danes throughout the Middle Ages, from the 15th century onward it frequently enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Beginning around 1440 it was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation, which sought to curtail the power of the State of the Teutonic Order (see "Land of the Teutonic Knights" on this site for more information about this monastic military order). Danzig was part of the kingdom of Poland during this period, taking the title Royal Polish City of Danzig, and played an important role in financing the confederacy’s wars against the Teutonic knights, which helped it to assert its relative independence.

In 1569, when the region in which Danzig was located was incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the city insisted on retaining its special, semi-autonomous status. In 1577, the city suffered a costly six-month siege at the hands of the commonwealth and, after the two sides more-or-less fought each other to a standstill, came to an agreement that allowed it to retain much of its independence.

In 1793, Danzig became part of the Kingdom of Prussia under the Second Partitition of Poland. Just 13 years later, however, in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Prussia, and in September 1807 the French emperor declared the city to be a semi-independent client state of France known as the Free City of Danzig, the flag for which we can see here at upper right. Danzig retained this status for seven years and was then re-incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia after Napoleon was defeated at the 1814 Battle of Leipzig by a coalition that included Prussia, Austria, and Russia.

The main image we are looking at here is a plan and panorama of Danzig created in 1687 by city architect Peter Willer. At lower right we can see a map from a 1926 atlas the shows Danzig during the Napoleonic era. At upper right is the banner of the Free City of Danzig. 

 

CREATION OF THE FREE CITY

The Free City of Danzig was created on November 15, 1920, in accordance with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the agreement that marked the end of World War I, in order to give Poland access to a substantial seaport. It included the city of Danzig itself, along with the towns of Zoppot, Oliva, Tiegenhof, Neuteich, and some 252 villages and 63 hamlets, and covered a total area of 759 square miles, including 22 square miles of freshwater surface, and had a 181-mile-long border of which coastline accounted for about 41 miles.

Under the terms of the treaty, this area was to remain separated from post-war Germany and from the newly-independent Second Polish Republic. Danzig was not, however, an independent state, but rather an entity under the direct authority and protection of the League of Nations — which declined to let the city-state use as part of its official name the term Hanseatic City, a reference to its prominent role as a member of the former German-dominated Hanseatic League.

Representatives of various member states took on the role of High Commissioner for the Free City, and between 1920 and 1939 this role fell to 10 men from a half-dozen nations, including four from the United Kingdom, two from Italy, and one each from the Netherlands, Denmark, the Irish Free State, and Switzerland.

Danzig was also incorporated into a binding customs union with Poland, which was given full rights to develop, maintain, and administer communication, transportation, and port facilities in the Free City, to include all rail lines within its territory and the German railway line that connected it with Poland. A separate Polish post office, in addition to the existing municipal one, was also established.

Poland also represented the Free City of Danzig abroad and a Polish diplomatic representative was present in the city. As part of the agreement that permitted this, the Polish government agreed not to conclude any international agreements affecting Danzig without first consulting with its municipal government.

The map we are looking at here, which shows the Free City of Danzig and its corridor into Poland, is from a 1938 German atlas. At upper right we can see the coat-of-arms of the Free City of Danzig, and at lower right we can see its official seal. 

RESIDENTS OF DANZIG

While Danzig and its surrounding communities had a significant ethnic Polish minority population, most of its residents were ethnic Germans who deeply resented their separation from Germany.

Between 1919 and 1929, the population of the Free City of Danzig rose from 357,000 to 408,000. According to official statistics from 1923 — which we can see here in the chart at the bottom half of the page that breaks down residents by language — some 95% were Germans and the rest were mainly either Kashubians or Poles. By 1929 these proportions had shifted a bit, and the Polish population had increased to between 22,000 and 35,000 and represented somewhere between 6% and 9.5% of the total residents. Presence of Polish residents in the Free City continued to increase over the following decade, apparently reaching 13% or more in the early 1930s and 20% by the late 1930s. Some of these numbers are a bit uncertain, however, as many records were destroyed in World War II, and a lot of them have been extrapolated from things like church memberships.

Under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the new state of Danzig was required to have its own residency-based citizenship. German residents therefore lost their German citizenship with the creation of the Free City, but were given the option of re-obtaining it during the first two years of Danzig’s existence. Anyone wishing to do so had to relinquish their property in the area of the Free City and move to one of the remaining parts of Germany.

The large image here is from 1930 and shows the population density of Poland and the Free City of Danzig. At upper right we can see Danzig policemen arresting a protester in the wake of the 1933 Parliamentary Elections.

 
RELIGION

Danzig was somewhat more diverse religiously than it was ethnically. In 1924, some 54.7% of the residents were Protestants, most of them Lutherans; 34.5% were Roman Catholics, and 2.4% were Jewish. Other Protestants included significant minorities of Mennonites, Reformed Calvinists, Baptists, and Free Religionists, along with much smaller numbers of people of other religions or denominations, dissenters, and irreligionists.

After the establishment of the Free City in 1920, there were some shifts in the way religious bodies within its territory were administered. This was especially true in the case of the Lutheran synod, which no longer had authority over congregations in Germany that had previously fallen under it and was instead limited to those within the Free City. We can see here in the center, what was at that point the Lutheran Supreme Parish Church of St. Mary's in Danzig, and which is now a Roman Catholic church.

In 1922, the 36 Catholic parishes within the Free City were equally divided between the Diocese of Ermland, which was mostly German, and the Diocese of Culm, which was mostly Polish. While the legislature of Danzig wanted all these parishes to be subject to German Ermland, the government of Poland wanted them all to fall under Polish Culm. In 1922, the Vatican stepped in and suspended the jurisdictions of both dioceses over parishes in Danzig and instead assigned a separate apostolic administrator over them. We can see here at left the Archcathedral of the Holy Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary, and Saint Bernard in Danzig.

By the time the Free City was established, most of the Jewish congregations in its territory had already merged into the Synagogal Community of Danzig. During this period, Danzig became a center of Jewish emigration to North America, and between 1920 and 1925 some 60,000 Polish and Russian Jews emigrated via the city to the United States and Canada. Simultaneously, between 1923 and 1929 Danzig's own Jewish population increased about 50%, from around 7,000 to 10,500, and the city became a venue for international meetings of Jewish organizations, including ones attended by David Ben-Gurion, future prime minister of Israel, in 1924 and 1926.

After Nazis gained control of the city’s legislature in 1933, anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution was no longer opposed by the authorities. Emigration from Europe for Jews in the Free City was, nonetheless, easier than for those in Germany. In part this was because the Bank of Danzig facilitated capital outflow transfers that were restricted in the Third Reich, and in part because it was easier for Jews to relocate to other countries as a result of favorable migration quotas for Danzig.

After the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht attacks occurred on November 9-10, 1938, in Germany, similar incidents took place on November 12-13 in Danzig. Less than six months later, the Great Synagogue — which we can see here on the right — was taken over and destroyed by the local authorities. By that point, however, most of the Jews in Danzig had already left the city.

 

GOVERNMENT

Danzig was governed by a Senate that was elected by the Volkstag, or parliament, for a legislative period of four years. Its official language was German but the usage of Polish was protected by law. On the upper left we can see the flag of Danzig’s Senate.

Political parties active in the Free City corresponded to a great extent with those in Weimar Germany, with the most influential in the 1920s being the conservative German National People's Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Catholic Center Party. A Communist Party was also established in the city in 1921. A Polish Party represented the Polish minority and received 6% of the vote in 1920 and just 3% in 1933. Several Free Voter's Associations and liberal parties also existed and participated in the elections with varying degrees of success.

The Nazi Party initially enjoyed only limited success, receiving only 0.8% of the vote in 1927, and was even dissolved for a short time. With the increasing popularity of the Nazi Party in Germany and the onset of difficult economic times, however, its popularity grew. Nazis won 50 percent of the votes in the Volkstag elections of May 1933 and took control of the Senate the following month. Political opposition to the Nazis was thereafter repressed, with several politicians being murdered or jailed. 

Faulty economic policies of the Free City's Nazi-led government led to the gold reserves of the Bank of Danzig to decline from 30 million Gulden in 1933 to 13 million in 1935, the foreign asset reserve to decline from 10 million to a mere 250,000 Gulden in the same period, and the Danziger Gulden to be devalued 40% by 1935. We can see a Danzig 1,000 Gulden note on the lower left.

As they did in Germany, Danzig’s Nazis introduced the racist Nuremberg laws in November 1938 and an "Enabling Act" that allowed the Senate to pass laws without a confirming vote from the Volkstag, and gradually banned unions and other political parties. Presence of the League of Nations, however, held the Nazis to a certain legal standard for awhile. In 1935, most of the opposition parties filed a lawsuit with the Danzig High Court to protest the manipulation of the Volkstag elections and, along with the Jewish community, also protested to the League of Nations. Membership in the Nazi Party of Danzig, however, continued to grow, increasing from 21,861 in June 1934 to 48,345 in September 1938.
 
In the large image in the middle we can see the first president of the Danzig Senate, Heinrich Sahm, who presided from 1920 to 1931 and did not have a party affiliation. At upper left in the cluster of smaller photos we can see Ernst Ziehm, who presided from 1931 to 1933 and was a member of the conservative German National People’s Party; below him is Hermann Rauschning, who presided from 1933 to 1934 and was initially a member of the Nazi party but eventually turned against it; at upper right is Arthur Karl Greiser, who presided from 1934 to 1939 and was also a Nazi; and at lower right is Albert Forster, who presided until the occupation of the Free City by German military forces in September 1939.

 

POLICE & CONSTABULARY

On August 19, 1919, some 15 months before the foundation of the Free City, a police force was created to maintain order in Danzig. In 1921, however, the government of Danzig reorganized this entire institution and dubbed it the Schutzpolizei, or security police, a detachment of which we can see marching through the city in the main image below. These policemen initially operated out of 12 precincts and seven registration points, but in 1926 its precincts were consolidated into just seven.

On April 1, 1921, a man named Helmut Froböss became President of the Police and served in this capacity until the German annexation of the city in 1939.

Danzig’s paramilitary police force had a number of special units within it. One was its Musikkorps, a military style-marching band, that was led by a well-known composer named Ernst Stieberitz, and which acquired renown both within the city and abroad. We can see a picture of it playing on the upper left. Other units included railway police, a police air squadron, and, naturally, harbor police, a vessel for which we can see at upper right with Froböss on board.

Once the Nazis took over the Senate in 1933, Danzig’s police were increasingly used to suppress political opposition and free speech, and that year Froböss punitively ordered the left-wing newspapers Danziger Landeszeitung and Danziger Volksstimme to suspend publication for periods ranging from eight days to two months.

Polish-German relations had worsened by 1939 and, as war seemed increasingly imminent, Danzig’s police started making plans to seize key Polish sites in the city. And, as we will see presently, the municipal police force ultimately played a direct role in allowing the Third Reich to take control Danzig.

After Danzig was formally annexed by Nazi Germany in October 1939, the city’s police force was taken over by the Gestapo but more-or-less continued to operate as a law enforcement agency. It also ran the Stutthof civilian internment camp, located 22 miles east of Danzig, until November 1941, when it was expanded into a full concentration camp. 

Danzig’s police force was finally dissolved in 1945, when the Soviet Union captured and occupied the city. 

 

TENSIONS WITH GERMANY

From the start, Polish privileges within Danzig were a matter of constant disputes between the local German populace, which sought to maintain the city’s sovereignty and autonomy, and the Polish government, which continuously attempted to extend its privileges. During the period between the world wars the Polish residents of Danzig were also heavily discriminated against by their German neighbors, who openly harassed and insulted them, and attacks by German students against the Polish consulate were praised by the authorities.

During the 1919-1921 Polish–Soviet War, local German dockworkers went on strike and refused to unload ammunition for the Polish Army. This incident led to the establishment of a permanent ammunition depot on the Westerplatte peninsula and construction of a trade and naval port in Gdynia, about 13 miles to the north. In 1925, the League of Nations agreed to the stationing of a Polish military guard of 88 men to protect the Westerplatte supply depot.

After Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the Polish military increased the number of troops at Westerplatte to test his reaction but, after protests erupted, withdrew them. The Nazis subsequently used these events in their propaganda during the Volkstag elections of 1933, which the Nazis won with an absolute majority.

Dozens of other disagreements occurred between the governments of Poland and the Free City. Danzig protested against the Westerplatte depot, the presence of Polish warships in the harbor, and the placement of Polish letter boxes within the city. An attempt by Danzig to join the International Labor Organization was rejected by the Permanent Court of International Justice after protests from the Polish delegate to the League of Nations.
 
Following the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1934, relations between Poland the Free City improved. Adolf Hitler instructed the local Nazi government to cease anti-Polish actions and Poland stopped supporting the efforts of the anti-Nazi opposition in the Free City.
 
While the Senate appeared to respect the agreements with Poland, the Nazification of the Free City continued inexorably and Danzig became a springboard for anti-Polish propaganda among the German and Ukrainian minorities in Poland. Germany’s policy openly changed after the October 1938 Munich Conference, when the German Minister of Foreign Affairs demanded the incorporation of Danzig into the Reich, which was met with promises of armed resistance from Poland.

At the lower left we can see a photograph of a 1933 Nazi rally in Danzig. On the right we can see a Nazi propaganda poster from 1939 that says "Danzig is German.” At the upper left we can see the banner of the SS unit established in Danzig in June 1939.

 

BATTLE OF WESTERPLATTE

World War II began September 1, 1939, with a German attack on the Polish Military Transit Depot on the Westerplatte Peninsula in the harbor of the Free City of Danzig and the battle that ensued there was the first of the conflict.
 
Polish forces on the peninsula consisted of 209 men equipped with small arms, hand grenades, a 3-inch field gun, two 1.5-inch antitank guns, four 81-millimeter mortars, 25 light or medium machineguns, and 16 heavy machineguns.

The Nazi force consisted of about 3,400 men — including Danzig paramilitary policemen, 1,500 members of the Danzig SS Heimwehr unit, 225 marines, and a platoon of combat engineers — equipped with several armored cars, about 65 artillery pieces of various sizes, more than 100 machine guns, and some mortars and flamethrowers. They were supported by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, at least one torpedo boat, and as many as 67 dive bombers and other aircraft.

As we can see on the map at upper left, the Polish depot was separated from the New Port of Danzig by the harbor channel, and it was connected on its landward side to the territory of the Free City. Polish fortifications at Westerplatte were minimal and consisted of five small concrete guardhouses concealed in woods, a large concrete-reinforced barracks that was supported by a network of trenches and barricades, and a couple of basement bomb shelters. By the time the attack began, the Poles were on high alert, in large part because of the “courtesy visit” from the German warship.

The Nazis opened their attack with a broadside from Schleswig-Holstein followed by a ground assault, and were surprised to have it blocked by obstacles and then ambushed and repulsed by the well-prepared Polish defenders. Subsequent attacks later the same day also failed.

Over the following days, the Germans launched assaults that included seaside attacks from torpedo boats; burning trains being driven into the depot; and aerial bombing and artillery bombardment that destroyed the Poles’ food supplies and their only radio and transformed the former park into a World War I-style wasteland.

Polish troops held out for a week in the face of these onslaughts but finally, lacking water and medical supplies, were forced to surrender. By the time the battle was over, up to 20 of the Poles had been killed, 53 had been wounded, and all of the survivors were captured, while German casualties were somewhere between 200 and 400 killed or wounded. This battle has since been referred to as a Polish Thermopylae and held up as a symbol of resistance against the Nazi invasion. 

In the main image here we can see German soldiers on the Westerplatte after the battle, as well as evidence of massive artillery fire and aerial bombing. At lower left we can see Polish soldiers being led away by Germans on September 7.

 
END OF THE FREE CITY

After the Nazis conquered Poland in 1939, they abolished the Free City of Danzig and incorporated it into the newly-formed Reichsgau of Danzig-West Prussia, and its military governor ordered the High Commissioner to depart within two hours. In the image at left, we can see German troops removing Polish insignia at the Polish–Danzig border on September 1, 1939.

Resistance against the Nazis continued for a time, the most notable example being the defense of the Polish post office. Its civilian employees had been given military training and had access to weapons that included a number of pistols, three light machineguns, and some hand grenades, and they managed to defend the facility for 15 hours. When they finally surrendered, they were tried and summarily executed, a sentence that in 1998 a German court determined to be illegal. In the image at lower right we can see the captured postal workers being led away by SS troops, with Danzig policemen and other Nazis looking on. 

Danzig policemen and SS troops helped the Nazis gain control of the city by expelling Polish authorities from the territory of the Free City. The Nazis subsequently declared the Poles and Jews living in Danzig and its territories as subhumans and subjected them to discrimination, forced labor, and extermination, sending many of them prison camps, including the one at nearby Stutthof. 

On March 30, 1945, Danzig was captured by the Soviet Red Army and, by that time, the city had been almost completely been reduced to ruins and many of its residents killed by the invading communist forces. About 10,000 people, among them about 1,000 seriously wounded soldiers and sailors and 5,000 children, attempted to flee the city on board the German military training ship Wilhelm Gustloff and many of them were killed when it was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine. 

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies decided that Danzig would become part of Poland and this was finalized in the Potsdam Agreement six months later. 

By 1947, 126,472 ethnic German residents of Danzig were expelled to Germany, and 128,502 Poles took their place. That same year, a number of German former residents of Danzig established a Free City of Danzig Government in Exile in Berlin. By 1950, approximately 285,000 ethnic German former citizens of the former Free City were living in Germany, while some 13,424 of its ethnic Polish residents had been granted Polish citizenship.