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.
Although Danzig became part of the Kingdom of Prussia in the Second Partitition 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 interwar Free City of Danzig (1920–39) included the city of Danzig (Gdańsk), the towns of Zoppot (Sopot), Oliva (Oliwa), Tiegenhof (Nowy Dwór Gdański), Neuteich (Nowy Staw) and some 252 villages and 63 hamlets, covering a total area of 1,966 square kilometers (754 sq mi).
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.
A separate Polish post office was established, besides the existing municipal one.
Unlike Mandatory territories, which were entrusted to member countries, the Free City of Danzig (like the Territory of the Saar Basin) remained directly under the authority of the League of Nations. Representatives of various countries took on the role of High Commissioner:
The League of Nations refused to let the city-state use the term of Hanseatic City as part of its official name; this referred to Danzig's long-lasting membership in the Hanseatic League.
With the creation of the Free City in the aftermath of World War I a security police force was created on 19 August 1919. On 9 April 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 (i. e. Chief) on 1 April 1921. He served in this capacity until the German annexation of the city.
The police initially operated from 12 precincts and 7 registration points. In 1926 the number of precincts was reduced to 7.
After the Nazi takeover of the Senate, the police were increasingly used to suppress free speech and political dissent. In 1933, Froböss ordered the left-wing newspapers Danziger Volksstimme and Danziger Landeszeitung to suspend publications for 2 months and 8 days respectively.
By 1939, Polish-German relations had worsened and war seemed a likely possibility. The police began making plans to seize Polish installations within the city, in the event of conflict. Ultimately the Danzig police participated in the September Campaign, fighting alongside the local SS and the German Army at the city's Polish post office and at Westerplatte.
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.
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.
Henryk Stępniak estimates the 1929 Polish population as around 22,000, or around 6% of the population, increasing to around 13% in the 1930s. Based on the estimated voting patterns (according to Stępniak many Poles voted for the Catholic Zentrumspartei instead of Polish parties), Stępniak estimates the number of Poles in the city to be 25–30% of Catholics living within it or about 30–36 thousand people. Including around 4,000 Polish nationals who were registered in the city, Stępniak estimated the Polish population as 9.4–11% of population. In contrast Stefan Samerski estimates about 10 percent of the 130,000 Catholics were Polish. Andrzej Drzycimski estimates that Polish population at the end of 30s reached 20% (including Poles who arrived after the war)
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 of the Free State of Danzig area in the remaining parts of Germany.
In 1924, 54.7% of the populace was Protestant (220,731 persons, mostly Lutherans within the united old-Prussian church), 34.5% was Catholic (140,797 persons), and 2.4% Jewish (9,239 persons). Other Protestants included 5,604 Mennonites, 1,934 Calvinists (Reformed), 1,093 Baptists, 410 Free Religionists, as well as 2,129 dissenters, 1,394 faithful of other religions and denominations, and 664 irreligionists. The Jewish community grew from 2,717 in 1910 to 7,282 in 1923, and 10,448 in 1929, many of them immigrants from Poland and Russia.
The mostly Lutheran and partially Reformed congregations situated in the territory of the Free City, which previously used to belong to the Ecclesiastical Province of West Prussia of the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union (EKapU), were transformed into the Regional Synodal Federation of the Free City of Danzig after 1920. The executive body of that ecclesiastical province, the consistory (est. 1 November 1886), was seated in Danzig. After 1920 it was restricted in its responsibility to those congregations within the Free City's territory. General Superintendent Paul Kalweit (1920–1933) and Bishop Johannes Beermann (1933–1945) presided over the consistory, one after another.
Unlike the Second Polish Republic, which opposed the cooperation of the United Evangelical Church in Poland with EKapU, Volkstag and Senate of Danzig approved cross-border religious bodies. Danzig's Regional Synodal Federation — just as the regional synodal federation of the autonomous Memelland — retained the status of an ecclesiastical province within EKapU.
After the German annexation of the Free City in 1939, the EKapU merged the Danzig regional synodal federation in 1940 into the Ecclesiastical Region of Danzig-West Prussia. This included the Polish congregations of the United Evangelical Church in Poland in the homonymous Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia and the German congregations in the West Prussia governorate. Danzig's consistory functioned as an executive body for that region. With the flight and expulsion of most German Protestant parishioners from the area of the Free City of Danzig between 1945 and 1948, the congregations vanished.
In March 1945, the consistory had relocated to Lübeck and opened a refugee centre for Danzigers (Hilfsstelle beim evangelischen Konsistorium Danzig) led by Upper Consistorial Councillor Gerhard M. Gülzow. The Lutheran congregation of St. Mary's Church could relocate its valuable parament collection and the presbytery granted it on loan to St. Annen Museum in Lübeck after the war. Other Lutheran congregations of Danzig could reclaim their church bells, which the Wehrmacht had requisitioned as non-ferrous metal for war purposes since 1940, but which had survived, not yet melted down, in storage (e.g. Glockenfriedhof) in the British zone of occupation. The presbyteries granted them usually to Northwestern German Lutheran congregations which had lost bells due to the war.
The 36 Catholic parishes in the territory of the Free City in 1922 used to belong in equal shares to the Diocese of Culm, which was mostly Polish, and the Diocese of Ermland, which was mostly German. While the Second Polish Republic wanted all the parishes within the Free City to form part of Polish Culm, Volkstag and Senate wanted them all to become subject to German Ermland. In 1922 the Holy See suspended the jurisdictions of both dioceses over their parishes in the Free State and established an exempt apostolic administration for the territory.
The first apostolic administrator was Edward O'Rourke who became Bishop of Danzig on the occasion of the elevation of the administration to an exempt diocese. He was naturalised as Danziger on the same occasion. In 1938 he resigned after quarrels with the Nazi-dominated Senate of Danzig on appointments of parish priests of Polish ethnicity. The senate also instigated the denaturalisation of O'Rourke, who subsequently became a Polish citizen. O'Rourke was succeeded by Bishop Carl Maria Splett, a native from the Free City area.
Splett remained bishop after the German annexation of the Free City. In early 1941, he applied for admitting the Danzig diocese as member in Archbishop Adolf Bertram's Eastern German Ecclesiastical Province and thus at the Fulda Conference of Bishops; however, Bertram, also speaker of the Fulda conference, rejected the request. Any arguments that the Free City of Danzig had been annexed to Nazi Germany did not impress Bertram since Danzig's annexation lacked international recognition. Until the reorganization of the Catholic dioceses in Danzig and the formerly eastern territories of Germany the diocesan territory remained unaltered and the see exempt. However, with the replacement of Danzig's population between 1945 and 1948 by mostly Catholic Poles, the number of Catholic parishes increased and most formerly Protestant churches were taken over for Catholic services.
Since 1883 most of the Jewish congregations in the later territory of Free State had merged into the Synagogal Community of Danzig. Only the Jews of Tiegenhof ran their own congregation until 1938.
Danzig became a centre of Polish and Russian Jewish emigration to North America. Between 1920 and 1925 60,000 Jews emigrated via Danzig to the US and Canada. At the same time, between 1923 and 1929, Danzig's own Jewish population increased from roughly 7,000 to 10,500. Native Jews and newcomers established themselves in the city and contributed to its civic life, culture and economy. Danzig became a venue for international meetings of Jewish organisations, such as the convention of delegates from Jewish youth organisations of various nations, attended by David Ben-Gurion, which founded the World Union of Jewish Youth on 2 September 1924 in the Schützenhaus venue. On 21 March 1926 the Zionistische Organisation für Danzig convened delegates of Hechalutz from all over for the first conference in Danzig using Hebrew as common language, also attended by Ben Gurion.
With a Nazi majority in the Volkstag and Senate, anti-Semitic persecution and discrimination occurred unsanctioned by the authorities. In contrast to Germany, which exercised capital outflow control since 1931, emigration of Danzig's Jews was nonetheless somewhat easier, with capital transfers enabled by the Bank of Danzig. Moreover, the comparatively few Danzig Jews were offered easier refuge in safe countries because of favorable Free City migration quotas.
After the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht of 9/10 November 1938 in Germany, similar riots took place on 12/13 November in Danzig. The Great Synagogue was taken over and demolished by the local authorities in 1939. Most Jews had already left the city, and the Jewish Community of Danzig decided to organize its own emigration in early 1939.
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.
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 with several politicians being imprisoned and murdered. The economic policy of Danzig's Nazi-led government, which increased the public issues 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 an "Enabling Act" and the racist 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.
The rights of the Second Polish Republic within the territory of the Free City were stipulated in the Treaty of Paris of 9 November 1920 and the Treaty of Warsaw of 24 October 1921. The details of the Polish privileges soon became a permanent matter of disputes between the local populace and the Polish State. While the representatives of the Free City tried to uphold the City's autonomy and sovereignty, Poland sought to extend its privileges.
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 Polish minority was heavily discriminated by the German population, which openly attacked its members using racist slurs and harassment, and attacks against Polish consulate by German students were praised by authorities
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 harbour. 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.
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. 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. Tensions escalated into the Danzig crisis during the summer of 1939.
World War II began with the shelling of the Westerplatte on 1 September 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. Polish civilian Post Office employees had received military training and were in possession of a cache of weapons – mostly pistols, three light machine guns, and some hand grenades – and were thus able to defend the Polish Post Office for fifteen hours. Upon their surrender, they were tried and executed. (The sentence was officially revoked by a German court as illegal in 1998.) The Polish military forces in the city held out until 7 September. 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. 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 30 March 1945, the city was taken by the Red Army. A number of inhabitants of the city perished when the military training ship Wilhelm Gustloff used for evacuation was sunk by a Soviet submarine. It had up to 10,000 refugees on board at the time, including about 1,000 seriously wounded soldiers and sailors, and 5,000 children.
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.
Historical Danzig forms the setting for several major works of Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass, including his acclaimed Danzig Trilogy novels The Tin Drum and Dog Years, as well as in his memoirs. Grass grew up in the Danzig suburb of Langfuhr (now Wrzeszcz).