The Free City of Danzig

Free City of Danzig - Scott #81 (1922)
Free City of Danzig – Scott #81 (1922)

The Free City of Danzig (Freie Stadt Danzig in German and Wolne Miasto Gdańsk in Polish) was a semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939, consisting of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) and the major cities of Zoppot (Sopot), Oliva (Oliwa), Tiegenhof (Nowy Dwór Gdański), Neuteich (Nowy Staw) plus some 252 villages and 63 hamlets, covering a total area of 754 square miles (1,966 km²). It was created on November 15, 1920, in accordance with the terms of Article 100 (Section XI of Part III) of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after the end of World War I to remain separated from post-World War I Germany (the Weimar Republic) and from the newly independent nation of the Second Polish Republic (“interwar Poland”), but it was not an independent state.

The Free City was under League of Nations protection and put into a binding customs union with Poland. Poland was given certain rights pertaining to communication, the railways and port facilities in the city of Gdańsk. The Free City was created in order to give Poland access to the well-sized seaport. The city’s population of 410,000 was 98% German, 1% was Polish and 1% others. The German population deeply resented being separated from Germany.

Poland, despite having been awarded generous rights in the Free City nevertheless went ahead and built, in 1921, with French loans, a completely new port some miles round Danzig Bay on territory awarded them in 1919, laying new railway lines to it also, removing the commerce which would normally have moved through Danzig. By 1933, the commerce passing through Gdynia exceeded that of Danzig. Notwithstanding this, Poland refused to relinquish the trading rights awarded to her, further alienating the Danzigers.

Map of the Free City of Danzig, 1938
Map of the Free City of Danzig, 1938

By 1936, the city’s Senate had a majority of local Nazis. Agitation to rejoin Germany was stepped up. Due to anti-Semitic persecution and oppression, many Jews fled. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis abolished the Free City and incorporated the area into the newly formed Reichsgau of Danzig-West Prussia. The Nazis classified the Poles and Jews living in the city as subhumans, subjecting them to discrimination, forced labor, and extermination. Many were sent to their deaths at Nazi concentration camps, including nearby Stutthof (now Sztutowo, Poland).

During the city’s conquest by the Soviet Army in the early months of 1945, a substantial number of citizens fled or were killed. After the war, many surviving Germans were expelled to West or East Germany as members of the pre-war Polish ethnic minority started returning and as new Polish settlers began to come. Due to these events, Gdańsk suffered severe underpopulation and did not recover until the late 1950s. In 1945, the city officially became part of Poland as a consequence of the Potsdam Agreement.

Map of Danzig published in 1687
Map of Danzig published in 1687

Danzig had an early history of independence. It was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia. The Confederation stipulated with the Polish king, Casimir IV Jagiellon, that the Polish Crown would be invested with the role of head of state of western parts of Prussia (Royal Prussia). In contrast, Ducal Prussia remained a Polish fief. Danzig and other cities such as Elbing and Thorn financed most of the warfare and enjoyed a high level of city autonomy. Danzig used the title Royal Polish City of Danzig.

In 1569, when Royal Prussia’s estates agreed to incorporate the region into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the city insisted on preserving its special status. It defended itself through the costly Siege of Danzig in 1577 in order to preserve special privileges, and subsequently insisted on negotiating by sending emissaries directly to the Polish king. Danzig’s location as a deep-water port where the Vistula river met the Baltic Sea had made it into one of the wealthiest cities in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as grain from Poland and the Ukraine was shipped up the Vistula on barges to be loaded onto ships in Danzig, where it was shipped on to western Europe. As many of the merchants shipping the grain from Danzig were Dutch, who built Dutch-style houses for themselves, leading to other Danzigers imitating them, thus giving the city a distinctively Dutch appearance. Danzig become known as “the Amsterdam of the East”, a wealthy seaport and trading crossroads that linked together the economics of western and eastern Europe, its location at where the Vistula flowed into the Baltic led to various powers competing to rule the city.

Although Danzig became part of the Kingdom of Prussia in the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, Prussia was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, and in September 1807 Napoleon declared Danzig a semi-independent client state of the French Empire, known as the Free City of Danzig. It lasted seven years, until it was re-incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia in 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig (Battle of Nations) by a coalition that included Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The city remained part of Prussia until 1920, becoming part of the Reich in 1871.

[url=][img][/img][/url][url=]danzig[/url] by [url=]Mark Jochim[/url], on Flickr
Danzig waterfront, circa 1920

Point 14 of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points called for Polish independence to be restored and for Poland to have “secure access to the sea”, a promise that implied that Danzig which occupied a strategic location where the Vistula river flowed into the Baltic sea, should become part of Poland. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Polish delegation led by Roman Dmowski asked for Wilson to honor point 14 of the 14 Points by transferring Danzig to Poland, arguing that Poland would not be economically viable without Danzig and that since the city had been part of Poland until 1793, it was rightfully part of Poland anyway. However, Wilson had promised that national self-determination would be the basis of the Treaty of Versailles. As the 90% of the people in Danzig in this period were German, the Allied leaders at the Paris Peace Conference compromised by creating the Free City of Danzig, a city-state in which Poland had certain special rights. It was felt that including a city that was 90% German into Poland would be a violation of the principle of national self-determination, but at the same time the promise in the 14 Points of allowing Poland “secure access to the sea” gave Poland a claim on Danzig, hence the compromise of the Free City of Danzig.

The Free City of Danzig was largely the work of British diplomacy as both the French Premier Georges Clemenceau and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson supported the Polish claim to Danzig, and it was only objections from the British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George that prevented Danzig from going to Poland. Despite creating the Free City, the British did not really believe in the viability of the Free City of Danzig with Lloyd-George writing at the time: “France would tomorrow fight for Alsace if her right to it were contested. But would we make war for Danzig?”.

The Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote in the summer of 1918 that the Germans had such a ferocious contempt for Poles that it was unwise for Germany to lose any territory to Poland even if morally justified as the Germans would never accept losing land to the despised Poles and such a situation was bound to cause a war. During the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the British consistently sought to minimize German territorial losses to Poland under the grounds that the Germans had such an utter contempt for the Poles together with the rest of the Slavic peoples that such losses were bound to deeply wound their feelings and cause a war. For all the bitterness of the French–German enmity, the Germans had a certain grudging respect for the French that did not extend to the Poles at all. During the Paris Peace Conference, a commission of inquiry chaired by a British historian, James Wycliffe Headlam-Morley, investigating where the borders between Germany and Poland should be, started to research Danzig’s history. Upon discovering that Danzig had been a Free City in the past, Headlam-Morley came up with what he regarded as a brilliant compromise solution under which Danzig would become a Free City again that would belong to neither Germany nor Poland. As the British were opposed to Danzig becoming part of Poland and the French and the Americans to Danzig remaining part of Germany, Headlam-Morley’s compromise of the Free City of Danzing was embraced.

Population density of Poland and the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), 1930
Population density of Poland and the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), 1930

The rural areas around Danzig were overwhelmingly Polish and the representatives of the Polish farmers around Danzig complained about being included in the Free City of Danzig, stating they wanted to join Poland. For their part, the representatives of the German population of Danzig complained about being severed from Germany, and constantly demanded that the Free City of Danzig be reincorporated into the Reich. The Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan wrote that a sense of Danzig national identity never emerged during the Free City’s existence, and the German population of Danzig always regarded themselves as Germans who had been unjustly taken out of Germany. The loss of Danzig did indeed deeply hurt German national pride and in the interwar period, German nationalists spoke of the “open wound in the east” that was the Free City of Danzig. However, until the building of Gdynia, almost all of Poland’s exports went through Danzig, and Polish public opinion was opposed to Germany having a “choke-hold” on the Polish economy.

The cities of Danzig (since 1818) and Zoppot (since 1920) formed independent cities (Stadtkreise), whereas all other towns and municipalities were part of one of the three rural districts (Landkreise), Danziger Höhe, Danziger Niederung (both seated in Danzig city) and Großes Werder, seated in Tiegenhof.  In 1929, its territory covered 1,952 km² including 58 square kilometers of freshwater surface. The border had a length of 290.5 km, of which the coastline accounted for 66.35 km.

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 were all rail lines in the territory of the Free City. On November 9, 1920, a convention that provided for the Presence of a Polish diplomatic representative in Danzig was signed between the Polish government and the Danzig authorities. In article 6, the Polish government undertook not to conclude any international agreements regarding Danzig without previous consultation with the Free City’s government.

With the creation of the Free City in the aftermath of World War I a security police force was created on August 19, 1919. On April 9, 1920, a military style marching band, the Musikkorps, was formed. Led by composer Ernst Stieberitz, the police band became well known in the city and abroad. In 1921, Danzig’s government reformed the entire institution and established the Schutzpolizei, or protection police. Helmut Froböss became President of the Police on April 1, 1921. He served in this capacity until the German annexation of the city.

Passport issued by the Free City of Danzig
Passport issued by the Free City of Danzig

The Treaty of Versailles required that the newly formed state have its own citizenship, based on residency. German inhabitants lost their German citizenship with the creation of the Free City, but were given the right to re-obtain it within the first two years of the state’s existence. Anyone desiring German citizenship had to leave their property and make their residence outside the Free State of Danzig area in the remaining parts of Germany.

The Free City’s population rose from 357,000 (1919) to 408,000 in 1929; according to the official census, 95% were Germans, with the rest mainly either Kashubians or Poles. According to E. Cieślak, the population registers of the Free City show that in 1929 the Polish population numbered 35,000, or 9.5% of the population.

The Free City was governed by the Senate of the Free City of Danzig, which was elected by the parliament (Volkstag) for a legislative period of four years. The official language was German, although the usage of Polish was guaranteed by law. The political parties in the Free City corresponded with the political parties in Weimar Germany; the most influential parties in the 1920s were the conservative German National People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party of the Free City of Danzig and the Catholic Centre Party. A Communist Party was founded in 1921 with its origins in the Spartacus League and the Communist Party of East Prussia. Several liberal parties and Free Voter’s Associations existed and ran in the elections with varying success. A Polish Party represented the Polish minority and received between 3% (1933) and 6% (1920) of the vote (in total, 4,358 votes in 1933 and 9,321 votes in 1920).

Initially, the Nazi Party had only a small amount of success (0.8% of the vote in 1927) and was even briefly dissolved. Its influence grew with the onset of difficult economic times and the increasing popularity of the Nazi Party in Germany proper. Albert Forster became the Gauleiter in October 1930. The Nazis won 50 percent of votes in the Volkstag elections of 28 May 1933, and took control of the Senate in June 1933, with Hermann Rauschning becoming President of the Senate of Danzig.

DAN-62-Bank von Danzig-100 Gulden (1931, specimen)
DAN-62-Bank von Danzig-100 Gulden (1931, specimen)

Rauschning was removed from his position by Forster and replaced by Arthur Greiser in November 1934. He later appealed to the public not to vote for the Nazis in the 1935 elections. Political opposition to the Nazis was repressed[76] with several politicians being imprisoned and murdered. The economic policy of Danzig’s Nazi-led government, which increased the public expenditures for employment-creation programs and the retrenchment of financial aid from Germany led to a devaluation of more than 40% of the Danziger Gulden in 1935. The Gold reserves of the Bank of Danzig declined from 30 million Gulden in 1933 to 13 million in 1935 and the foreign asset reserve from 10 million to 250,000 Gulden. In 1935, Poland protested when Danzig’s Senate reduced the value of the Gulden so that it would be the same as the Polish Zloty.

As in Germany, the Nazis introduced laws mirroring the Enabling Act and Nuremberg laws (November 1938); existing parties and unions were gradually banned. The presence of the League of Nations however still guaranteed a minimum of legal certainty. In 1935, the opposition parties, except for the Polish Party, filed a lawsuit to the Danzig High Court in protest against the manipulation of the Volkstag elections. The opposition also protested to the League of Nations, as did the Jewish Community of Danzig. The number of members of the Nazi Party in Danzig increased from 21,861 in June 1934 to 48,345 in September 1938.

Throughout the Polish–Soviet War, local dockworkers went on strike and refused to unload ammunition supplies for the Polish Army. While the ammunition was finally unloaded by British troops, the incident led to the establishment of a permanent ammunition depot at the Westerplatte and the construction of a trade and naval port in Gdynia, whose total exports and imports surpassed those of Danzig in May 1932. In December 1925, the Council of the League of Nations agreed to the establishment of a Polish military guard of 88 men on the Westerplatte peninsula to protect the war material depot.

During the interwar period the Polish minority was heavily discriminated against by the German population, which openly attacked its members using racist slurs and harassment, and attacks against the Polish consulate by German students were praised by authorities.

German Nazi propaganda poster:
German Nazi propaganda poster: “Danzig is German”, circa 1939.

Several disputes between Danzig and Poland occurred in the sequel. The Free City protested against the Westerplatte depot, the placement of Polish letter boxes within the City and the presence of Polish war vessels at the harbor. The attempt of the Free City to join the International Labour Organization was rejected by the Permanent Court of International Justice at the League of Nations after protests of the Polish ILO delegate.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the Polish military doubled the number of 88 troops at Westerplatte in order to test the reaction of the new chancellor. After protests the additional troops were withdrawn. Nazi propaganda used these events in the Volkstag elections of May 1933, in which Nazis won absolute majority. Until June 1933, the High Commissioner decided in 66 cases of dispute between Danzig and Poland; in 54 cases one of the parties appealed to the Permanent Court of International Justice. Subsequent disputes were resolved in direct negotiations between the Senate and Poland after both had agreed to abstain from further appeals to the International Court in the summer of 1933 and bilateral agreements were concluded.

In the aftermath of the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1934, Danzig–Polish relations improved and Adolf Hitler instructed the local Nazi government to cease anti-Polish actions. In return, Poland did not support the actions of the anti-Nazi opposition in Danzig. The Polish Ambassador to Germany, Józef Lipski, stated in a meeting with Hermann Göring

“… that a National Socialist Senate in Danzig is also most desirable from our point of view, since it brought about a rapprochement between the Free City and Poland, I would like to remind him that we have always kept aloof from internal Danzig problems. In spite of approaches repeatedly made by the opposition parties, we rejected any attempt to draw us into action against the Senate. I mentioned quite confidentially that the Polish minority in Danzig was advised not to join forces with the opposition at the time of elections.”

When Carl J. Burckhardt became High Commissioner in February 1937, both Poles and Germans openly welcomed his withdrawal, and Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck notified him not to “count on the support of the Polish State” in the case of difficulties with the Senate or the Nazi Party. While the Senate appeared to respect the agreements with Poland, the “Nazification of Danzig proceeded relentlessly” and Danzig became a springboard for anti-Polish propaganda among the German and Ukrainian minority in Poland.The Catholic Bishop of Danzig, Edward O’Rourke, was forced to withdraw after he had tried to implement four additional Polish nationals as parish priests in October 1937.

Free City of Danzig 1/2-gulden coin, 1923
Free City of Danzig 1/2-gulden coin, 1923

The German policy openly changed immediately after the Munich Conference in October 1938, when German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop demanded the incorporation of the Free City into the Reich. The Polish ambassador to Germany, Jozef Lipski, declined Ribbentrop’s offer, saying that Polish public opinion would not tolerate the Free City joining Germany and predicated that if Warsaw allowed that to happen, then the Sanation military dictatorship that had ruled Poland since 1926 would be overthrown. On March 24, 1939, the Polish Foreign Minister, Colonel Jozef Beck, who was part of the triumvirate which ruled the Sanation regime and largely ran foreign policy on his own, told a meeting of the Polish cabinet that Poland should go to war if Germany made any attempt to alter the status of Danzig. Beck stated that Danzig “regardless of what it is worth as an object” had become a “symbol” in Poland that was so important that Poland should go to war over the issue.

Besides for the possibility of a revolution in Poland overthrowing the Sanation regime should Danzig be allowed to return to Germany, Beck as part of his plans for a “Third Europe” (i.e a block of Eastern European states under Polish leadership) had sought to develop economic relations with Sweden and Finland. Beck envisioned both Sweden and Finland joining the “Third Europe” block, and German plans to take back Danzig threatened to allow Germany a “choke-hold” on Poland’s main link to the sea as the port facilities at Danzig were still better developed than those at Gdynia. Ernst von Weizsäcker on March 29, 1939, told the Danzig government the Reich would carry out a policy to the Zermürbungspolitik (point of destruction) towards Poland, saying a compromise solution was not wanted, and on April 5 told Hans-Adolf von Moltke under no conditions was he to negotiate with the Poles.

On March 31, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced in the House of Commons a “guarantee” of Polish independence, stating that Britain would go to war with Germany if there was an attempt to end Polish independence, through Chamberlain pointedly excluded the borders of Poland from the “guarantee”. In April 1939, High Commissioner 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. Beck had not abandoned hopes of negotiating a settlement with Germany. During the spring and summer of 1939 it was the aim of British foreign policy to built a “peace front” embracing Britain, France, the Soviet Union and a number of other European states such as Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey with the aim of “containing” Germany.

Beck made it clear that he wanted no Polish-Soviet treaty to go along with the British-inspired “peace front” since an alliance with the Soviets would rule out any possibility of a settlement with Germany, which he still had hopes of reaching. Beck declined to have Polish diplomats take part in the talks between British, French and Soviet diplomats about having the Soviet Union join the “peace front”, and during a visit to London in April 1939 he declined British offers to create a military alliance of Britain, Poland and Romania designed to block the Reich’s offers to expand its influence in Eastern Europe. The Polish historian Anita Prazmowska wrote that Beck’s refusal of the British offers of assistance was partly due to his “inflated sense of self-importance and the general overestimation of Poland’s military potential” as he believed that Poland was one of the world’s great powers that could defeat Germany on its own, but also due to his desire not have Poland join the anti-German “peace front” at a time when he still believed that he could settle the Danzig issue.[116] During his visit to London on April 4–6, Beck told Chamberlain that any effort to include the Soviet Union in the “peace front” would cause the very war it was supposed to prevent, and wanted to exclude the Soviet Union from the “peace front” for that reason.

On May 5, Beck in a speech broadcast on Polish radio stated that Poland wanted peace but that “peace…has its price, high but definable. We in Poland do not recognize the conception of peace at any price. There is only one thing, which is without price, and that is honor”.

Danzig police arrest a protester in the aftermath of the 1933 Parliamentary Elections.
Danzig police arrest a protester in the aftermath of the 1933 Parliamentary Elections.

All through the spring and summer of 1939 there was a massive media campaign in Germany demanding the immediate return of the Free City of Danzig to Germany under the slogan “Home to the Reich!”. However, the Danzig crisis was a just a pretext for war. Ribbentrop ordered Count Hans-Adolf von Moltke, the German ambassador to Poland, not to negotiate with the Poles over Danzig as it was always Ribbentrop’s great fear that the Poles might actually agree to the Free City returning to Germany, thereby depriving the Reich out of its pretext for attacking Poland.

However, the German propaganda that all the Reich wanted was to bring Danzig home did some effect abroad. In April 1943, when mass grave of the Polish officers massacred by the NKVD in Katyn Wood was discovered, the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary that it was the Poles who caused the outbreak of the war in 1939 by refusing to give in to Hitler’s demand that Danzig be allowed to rejoin Germany, and as such it was the Poles’ own fault for the Katyn Wood massacre and everything else they had suffered since 1939. The British historian Victor Rothwell described King’s view that the Poles had caused their own suffering as one motivated by spite and his resentment at being pressured by public opinion into declaring war on Germany despite his own inclinations towards neutrality. From distant New Zealand, the Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage offered to return New Zealand Samoa, which had once been the colony of German Samoa together with the rest of the former German islands in the Pacific held by New Zealand, in exchange for Germany promising not to use violence to alter the status of Danzig.

However, in 1938, the Reich government had first demanded autonomy for the Sudetenland region and after Prague had conceded the demand for autonomy, had laid claim to the Sudetenland. On March 15, 1939, Germany had occupied the Czech part of Czecho-Slovakia, which had done immense damage to Hitler’s claim that he was only trying to undo an “unjust” Treaty of Versailles by bringing all of the ethnic Germans “home to the Reich”. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax late in August 1939 told Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador in London:

“Last year the German government put forward the demand for the Sudetenland on purely racial grounds; but subsequent events proved that this demand was only put forward as a cover for the annihilation of Czechoslovakia. In view of this experience… it is not surprising that the Poles and we ourselves are afraid that the demand for Danzig is only a first move towards the destruction of Poland’s independence”.

Tensions escalated into the Danzig crisis during the summer of 1939. F.M Shepard, the British consul in Danzig, reported that the Danzig Nazis were bringing arms from Germany and building fortifications. In July 1939, the British government reluctantly extended its “guarantee” of Poland to the status of Free City of Danzig, stating a German attempt to take Danzig would be a casus belli. At the beginning of August, the Senate told Warsaw that henceforward the Free City would not longer recognize the authority of Polish customs officers in Danzig, which led Beck in response to warn that the Senate did not have the right to disregard the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and that the German government also did not have the right to speak for Danzig. Much to the chagrin of the British Foreign Office, Warsaw did not to consult Britain first when it issued a warning that the Polish Air Force would bomb Danzig if the authority of Polish customs officers continued to be ignored. The Senate backed down while the British who were informed after the fact of the Polish decision to confront the Free City were thrown into panic over the possibility of an armed clash in Danzig plunging Europe into war. The British ambassador to Poland, Sir Howard William Kennard, sought in vain for a promise from Colonel Beck that Poland would take no action in Danzig without first obtaining British approval. Beck disliked Kennard and kept him in the dark about what Poland would do if Danzig voted to rejoin Germany, but also about the state of German-Polish relations, much to the vexation of the Foreign Office.

Polish passport issued at Danzig by the
Polish passport issued at Danzig by the “Polish Commission for Gdansk” in 1935 and extended again in 1937, before the holder immigrated to British Palestine the following year.

In the middle of August, Beck offered a concession, saying that Poland was willing to give up its control of Danzig’s customs, a proposal which caused fury in Berlin. However, the leaders of the Free City sent a message to Berlin on August 19 saying: “Gauleiter Forster intends to extend claims…Should the Poles yield again it is intended to increase the claims further in order to make accord impossible”. The same day a telegram from Berlin expressed approval with the proviso: “Discussions will have to be conducted and pressure exerted against Poland in such a way that responsibility for failure to come to an agreement and the consequences rest with Poland”. On August 23, Albert Forster, the Gauleiter of Danzig, called a meeting of the Senate that voted to have the Free City rejoin Germany, raising tensions to the breaking point. The same meeting appointed Forster the Danzig State President, through this was due to Forster’s long-running rivalry with Arthur Greiser, a völkisch fanatic who regarded Forster as too soft on the Poles. Both the appointment of Forster as State President and the resolution calling for the Free City to rejoin the Reich were violations of the charter the League of Nations had given Danzig in 1920, and the matter should had been taken to the League of Nations’s Security Council for discussion.

Since these violations of the Danzig charter would had resulted in the League deposing the Danzig’s Nazi government, both the French and British prevented the matter from being referred to the Security Council. Instead the British and French applied strong pressure on the Poles not to sent in a military force to depose the Danzig government, and appoint a mediator to resolve the crisis. In the meantime, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein had arrived in Danzig. Upon anchoring in Danzig harbor, the Schleswig-Holstein ominously aimed its guns at the Polish Military Depot on the Westerplatte peninsula in a provocative gesture that further raised the tensions in the Free City.

At about 4:48am on 1 September 1939, the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Westerplatte, firing the first shots of World War II.

After the German invasion of Poland German soldiers are removing Polish signs at the former border between Zoppot (today Sopot) and Gdingen (today Gdynia). The sign reads Lasy Państwowe, Nadleśnictwo Wysoka, Leśnictwo Gołębiewo meaning “National Forests, forest inspectorate Wysoka, forest district Gołębiewo” Photo taken by Hans Sönnke on September 1, 1939.
After the German invasion of Poland German soldiers are removing Polish signs at the former border between Zoppot (today Sopot) and Gdingen (today Gdynia). The sign reads Lasy Państwowe, Nadleśnictwo Wysoka, Leśnictwo Gołębiewo meaning “National Forests, forest inspectorate Wysoka, forest district Gołębiewo” Photo taken by Hans Sönnke on September 1, 1939.

World War II began with the shelling of the Westerplatte on September 1, 1939. Gauleiter Forster entered the High Commissioner’s residence and ordered him to leave the City within two hours, and the Free City was formally incorporated into the newly formed Reichsgau of Danzig-West Prussia. Local SS and the police cooperated with the Germans with expelling Polish authorities from in and around the city.  The Polish military forces in the city held out until September 7.  Up to 4,500 members of Polish minority were arrested with many of them executed.

In the city itself, hundreds of Polish prisoners were subjected to cruel Nazi executions and experiments, which included castration of men and sterilization of women considered dangerous to the “purity of Nordic race” and beheading by guillotine.

Even though the Free City was formally annexed by Nazi Germany in October 1939, the police force more or less continued to operate as a law enforcement agency. The Stutthof concentration camp, 22 miles east of the city, was run by the President of the police as an internment camp from 1939 until November 1941. Administration was finally dissolved when the city was occupied by the Soviets in 1945.

SS soldiers attacking the Polish Post Office in Danzig under cover of ADGZ vehicle on September 1, 1939.
SS soldiers attacking the Polish Post Office in Danzig under cover of ADGZ vehicle on September 1, 1939.

The judicial system was one of the main tools of extermination policy towards Poles led by Nazi Germany in the city and verdicts were motivated by statements that Poles are subhuman. By the end of the Second World War, nearly all the city had been reduced to ruins. On March 30, 1945, the city was taken by the Red Army.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies agreed that the city would become part of Poland. In 1947, a Free City of Danzig Government in Exile was established.

By 1950, around 285,000 fled and expelled 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 Danzigers of German ethnicity were expelled to Germany from Gdańsk, and 101,873 Poles from Central Poland and 26,629 from Soviet-annexed Eastern Poland took their place.

The opening of the Polish Post Office
The opening of the Polish Post Office “Gdańsk 3” in 1925

The first stamps of Danzig were overprinted German stamps issued on June 14, 1920. The first stamps of the Danzig Free State appeared in January 1921 and continued in use until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. At that time the Free City was annexed by the Third Reich.

A separate Polish post office was established, operating in the harbor of Danzig, besides the existing municipal one. This used Polish stamps overprinted PORT GDANSK. The Polish Post Office in Danzig comprised several buildings, originally built as a German military hospital. In 1930, the “Gdańsk 1” building on Hevelius Platz in the Danziger Altstadt became the primary Polish post office, with a direct telephone line to Poland. In 1939, it employed slightly over 100 people. Some employees at the Polish Post Office belonged to a self-defense and security organization, and many were also members of the Polish Związek Strzelecki (Riflemen’s Association). According to the testimony of Edmund Charaszkiewicz, the Polish Post Office was from 1935 an important component of the Polish Intelligence organization, “Group Zygmunt”.

As tensions between Poland and Germany grew, in April 1939 the Polish High Command detached combat engineer and Army Reserve Sublieutenant (or 2LT) Konrad Guderski to the Baltic Sea coast. With Alfons Flisykowski and others, he helped organize the official and volunteer security staff at the Polish Post Office in Danzig, and prepare them for eventual hostilities. In addition to training the staff, he prepared the defenses in and around the building: nearby trees were removed and the entrance was fortified. In mid-August, ten additional employees were sent to the post office from Polish Post offices in Gdynia and Bydgoszcz (mostly reserve non-commissioned officers).

In the building of the Polish post on September 1, 1939, there were 57 people: Konrad Guderski, 42 local Polish employees, 10 employees from Gdynia and Bydgoszcz, and the building keeper with his wife and 10-year-old daughter who lived in the building. Polish employees had a cache of weapons, including three Browning wz.1928 light machine guns, 40 other firearms and three chests of hand grenades. The Polish defense plan assigned the defenders the role of keeping Germans from the building for 6 hours, when a relief force from Armia Pomorze was supposed to secure the area.

The German attack plan, devised in July 1939, stipulated that the building defenders would be stormed from two directions. A diversionary attack was to be carried out at the front entrance, while the main force would break through the wall from the neighboring Work Office and attack from the side.

Captured Polish postmen being led away under SS escort, while SA men and Danzig police look on, September 1, 1939.
Captured Polish postmen being led away under SS escort, while SA men and Danzig police look on, September 1, 1939.

On September 1, Polish militiamen defended the building for some 15 hours against assaults by the SS Heimwehr Danzig (SS of the city Danzig), local SA formations, German Ordnungspolizei, and special units of Danzig police. Their cache of weapons consisted mainly of pistols, three light machine guns and some hand grenades. All but four of the defenders who escaped from the building during the surrender were sentenced to death by a German court martial as illegal combatants on October 5, 1939 and executed. The sentence was officially revoked by a German court as illegal in 1998.

In Poland, the whole episode has become one of the better known episodes of the Polish September Campaign and it is usually portrayed as a heroic story of David and Goliath proportions. In this view, it was a group of postmen who held out against German SS troops for almost an entire day. Currently, the building is the site of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk and the Museum of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk. In front of the Post Office there is the Monument of the Defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk (unveiled in 1979).

During 1920, contemporary Germania and other issues of Germany were overprinted in various formats for use in the Danzig area. The following year, Danzig began issuing its own postage stamps, utilizing the German language and German currency values. Ten pictorial definitive stamps were issued on January 31, 1921 to celebrate the new constitution of the Free State of Danzig (Scott #49-48). These new stamps were typographed, serrate rouletted 13½, and the paper was watermarked with a honeycomb pattern. The designs feature a Hanseatic trading ship, symbolizing the historical importance of the port city of Danzig as a major Baltic Sea trading center. Several denominations from this set were reissued on March 11, 1921, perforated 14. All of the stamps in this set are also known imperforate and part perforated, though they were not officially issued in that manner.

Six airmail stamps were issued between May 1921 and May 1922 with the design featuring a monoplane above a silhouette of the city of Danzig (Scott #C4-C9). They are typographed and watermarked honeycomb. These stamps also exist with sideways watermarks which are considerably more expensive than those with the normal upright watermark.

Fourteen definitive stamps portraying the Coat of Arms of the Free City were issued during 1921 (Scott #63-76). The pfennig denominations are printed on white paper while the mark values are printed on white paper overprinted with a gray network. All of the denominations were printed on paper with the upright honeycomb watermark, except for the 3 mark, which has a sideways honeycomb watermark. They are all perforated 14.

Monument to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk. Photo taken on July 15, 2010.
Monument to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk. Photo taken on July 15, 2010.

Three semipostal stamps were issued on October 16, 1921, to publicize Tuberculosis Week. All three denominations feature St. George Slaying the Dragon (Scott #B1-B3). Only definitive postage stamps were issued in 1922, primarily being changes to the Coat of Arms definitive types of 1921, and the addition of new higher denomination stamps. By the end of 1922, the definitive letter postage stamp types, denominated in pfennigs, had rapidly been replaced by those denominated in marks. Like Weimar Germany, Danzig would soon see spiraling hyperinflation which would continue to plague the small city-state through late 1923, though it was not nearly as extreme as the hyperinflation that took place in Germany during 1923.

The Free City of Danzig) saw many provisional stamp issues during 1923 some with astounding denominations. Seven airmail stamps were issued in early January, utilizing paper with a new webbing watermark. Four new very high denomination definitive stamps were issued in January and February. At the end of October 1923, Danzig implemented currency reform measures to put an end to hyperinflation. The old currency, 100 Pfennig = 1 Mark, was replaced by the new reformed currency, 100 Pfennig = 1 Danzig Gulden. During the nearly 6-year period from 1924 to 1929, only 27 new stamps were issued, with most of them being definitive postage stamps or airmail stamps.

The final postage stamps issued by the independent Free State of Danzig were three released on April 29, 1939, to honor the achievements of Gregor Mendel, Dr. Robert Koch and Wilhelm Roentgen. On September 18, 1939, a pair of stamps was issued by the Third Reich to celebrate Danzig’s Incorporation into Nazi Germany. Ten days later, fourteen Free State of Danzig stamps  were overprinted and/or revalued by the Third Reich indicating Danzig’s status change (Scott #241-254). While I only have a few definitive stamps from the Free State of Danzig in my collection, it is such an interesting area that I plan to obtain more in the near future as well as a few from the Polish Post Office of Gdańsk.

Flag of the Free State of Danzig
Flag of the Free State of Danzig
Coat of Arms of the Free City of Danzig
Coat of Arms of the Free City of Danzig

One thought on “The Free City of Danzig

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