Gdańsk, Poland – the City of Freedom, an Introduction

Gdańsk, the capital of Poland’s Pomeranian Voivodeship and the country’s most important seaport. A trading city.

The port of Gdańsk

Gdańsk, founded in the 10th century by Mizelow I of Poland and filled with ancient squares and the tallest church in the world. A historical city.

Gdańsk Dlugi Targ (Long Street)

Gdańsk, the place where the first bullets of World War 2 were sprayed, the site of the Solidarność movement started the unravelling of the Soviet Union. A political city.

Former Gdańsk Shipyard Gate 2, site of the protest that led to the rise of the Solidarity movement

Gdańsk, where tickets to a filharmonic performance are easily bought, music students bask in the streets and murals decorate the walls of while districts. A cultural city.

Gdańsk Zaspa District Murals

This is also known as the City of Freedom

Presently know as an important Polish city on the Baltic coast, Gdańsk is also the least Polish in character. For much of its history, the hands of ownership transferred between different leaders and countries, for a time directly into the hands of the locals. Officially recorded in the 10th century, the oldest artifacts of the town can be traced to around 980 AD, during the reign of Mieszko I. Mieszko I was the first king if the Poles, a king who established the Polish nation. Meaning, Gdańsk is as old as the Polish people. It was ruled as a dukedom by the Samborides on behalf of the Polish royalty and developed as a trading port with German origins.

Because of its proximity to Lübeck, Gdańsk became a minor stopover on the trading lanes of the Hanseatic League (just as  Riga and Stockholm were). However because of proximity, Gdańsk  became more than a trading city but also a political prize. German merchants settled in the area and were viewed suspiciously by the ruling Polish Samborides and were kicked out. Gdańsk was next controlled by the House of Brandenburg (Germanic peoples), Poland and Denmark in turn. During the start of the Northern Crusades in the 14th century, the Polish royal family hired the Teutonic knights to take back Gdańsk  from the pagan Danish.

The altar of the Gdańsk Oliwa Cathedral (Catholic)

The Teutonic knights then established a Monastic State of the Teutonic Order, with Gdańsk among the more prominent cities of the region.

Here is a 1972 movie called Herkus Mantas, a Lithuanian film about the Northern Crusades.

It was the rule of the Teutons that led to the town being enveloped in a German character. Local Kashubians and Poles became outnumbered by Germans and German culture came to dominate the region.  This was however not the plan, the Teutons were not meant to take control of the city, and so the same year that the knights won back control of the city war broke out between Poland the the Teutonic Order. The Teutonics knight won and the holy knights went on to massacre some 10,000 people in what is known as the Danzig Massacre. Peace was agreed upon the following year. The Poles attempted to take back the land again in 1326 over a 6 year war, but lost again, and peace was restored in 1343 with the Treaty of Kalisz with the Polish king renouncing claims to Pomerania and offering Gdańsk  as alms to the knights.

Present day city-scape of Gdańsk

Gdańsk became a signatory to the Prussian Confederation in 1440, a confederation of states in opposition to Teutonic rule. A 13 year war ensued and the city eventually became a self-governing state within the Polish-Lithuanian Empire. Gdańsks’ links with the Polish people were always more tenuous because of the generations of Germans who lived in the area, giving Gdańsk a mixed Catholic and Lutheran persuasion (for example).

This was not the end however of war, and Gdańsk continued to switch hands from Russia to Prussia to Poland to France. It became a Free City during the reign of Napoleon.

And later became the first victim of Nazi Germany. It was in the Westerplatte peninsular of Gdańsk that the first shots of World War 2 were fired.

While many countries could begin rebuilding after World War 2, Poland and Gdańsk were not so fortunate. The nation was to fall under the control of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.

Communism’s collapse however (in my view) came from the failure if ideology to understand human nature – from each his best to each his needs does not understand the most key basic of human economic principle, that humans are self-interested. The first crack of Communism came here in Gdańsk, when people began to fight for the right to a government-free trade union.

The European Solidary Centre and the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 on the site of the protest of 1970

This was the founding of Solidarnosc, the first of many citizen uprisings that would eventually lead to the fall of the Soviet Union (by the democratic election of Solidarnosc as the ruling party instead of the Polish Workers Party).

This is why Gdańsk is the City of Freedom, because the Solidarity movement that was sown here was the first to sprout and free Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union.

Gdańsk today is a very different place. It is home to a revival in its economy, and also social life. Whole new business districts are evolving, unemployment is on the downward incline. Cafes, bars, pubs and nightclubs that would fit in any western city are sprouting.

 Bosko Cafe

Jozef K Bar

Gdańsk is also commonly known as part of the tri-city (with Sopot and Gydnia) forming a larger metropolitan area and one of the most dynamic regions in this country.

Join me over the next few days to explore Gdańsk, from its Teutonic roots to its modern shoots.

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