Friday, March 15, 2013

Gdańsk, or a Brief Confusing History of the Eastern Baltic, Part II

Part I is here.

The name Danzig is usually associated with the town's brief interwar spell as a Free City, an intriguing oddity of governance that recalls a brief glow of twentieth-century romance under the looming storm clouds of impending events. But Danzig actually experienced two spells as a Free City, the first as a result of Napoleon's eastward crusade through Europe. French troops captured the city in 1807 after a two-month siege, establishing a small semi-independent Republic of Danzig around the city, and placing it under French military governorship.

Around this time, Napoleon's armies also defeated the Russo-Prussian alliance in a battle just south of Königsberg (in what is now the town of Pravdinsk), forcing Prussia to cede a large portion of its recent Polish territorial acquisitions, which were reorganized into the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw. Polish republicans were largely supportive of this transition, as it seemed to be a step back towards regaining their own independent state, which had been entirely consumed by Prussia, Russia, and Austria just a decade prior. Danzig, however, remained cut off from the Duchy of Warsaw by an intervening strip of Prussia, and suffered from the arrangement, as its economy had relied on its role as a trading the hub between inland Poland and the sea.


The Polish Duchy of Warsaw and Free City of Danzig,
separated by Prussia, 1812. Source.

After Napoleon's defeat three years later, the Congress of Vienna undertook the task of redrawing the borders of a greatly-changed Europe in order to re-balance the Great Powers. Russia received the bulk of the Duchy of Warsaw, although Prussia snatched a few border territories and regained the City of Danzig. This general situation lasted through the nineteenth century, the western German states slowly amalgamating, until in 1871, Bismarck rallied the loose German alliances with a short and decisive war against France, finally solidifying them into the first German Empire. Prussia, by this time, had expanded as well, dominating Germany in both territory and political clout.


Re-division of Europe after the Congress of Vienna, 1815. "Congress
Poland," now part of Russia, theoretically had autonomy, although in
practice its subjugation to Russia was almost total, and only increased
over the years. Source
Prussia's territory in the German Empire, 1871-1918. Danzig became the
capital of the province of West Prussia (number 13 on the map),
Königsberg remaining the center of East Prussia (number 2). Source.

At the end of the First World War, Europe's map changed dramatically again. This time, it was the League of Nations to redraw Europe's borders, and they had different goals for the new balance of power. The Poles, who had retained a national identity, if not an independent state, saw the end of the war as an opportunity to regain their lost sovereign territory, and the Entente powers agreed. Poland was carved back out from its three partitioning powers and was given strategic access to the sea, in order to strengthen its position against Germany and the new Soviet Union, by the creation of a "Polish Corridor," which for the first time separated East Prussia from German proper.

From 1919 to 1939, Danzig existed as a Free City, under the administration of the League of Nations, although with a few important caveats. Danzig's port, customs office, and post office remained under Polish control, with the rationale that they were part of Poland's requisite sea access. The population of Danzig, by this point, was predominately German, which created strong resentment as Poland sought to increase its control over the city. During the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), in which Poland fought with the new Soviet Union over its eastern border, Danzig portworkers went on strike, inhibiting the transfer of ammunition to Polish troops. Poland responded by stationing troops in the port, as well as building its own port city of Gdynia (now part of the greater Gdańsk metro area) just to the north of the city.


German territorial losses after WWI, as drawn up by the Treaty of
Versailles. Poland regained independence and most of West Prussia,
thereby cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Klaipėda (and
the narrow strip of Memelland) was made a separate League of Nations
protectorate, ostensibly to become a Free City, although it was annexed to
Lithuania in 1923 following a successful revolt. Source.
Poland, 1922-1938. East Prussia remained separate from Germany,
Lithuania declared independence in 1918 (sans Vilnius, which Poland
claimed), and Latvia and Estonia won their wars of independence from the
new Soviet Union (and the Germanic pseudo-government of the United
Baltic Duchy--but that gets complicated) in 1920. Source.

Tensions between Danzig and Poland remained high until the mid-1930s, when the National Socialists won majority seats in the Danzig Volkstag, in part due to local German fears of Polish aggression. Interestingly, the 1934 German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact led Danzig to cease its anti-Polish trouble-making, winning the approval of Polish officials, who saw the Nazi government in Danzig as a move in the right direction towards a Danzig-Polish raproachment.

Of course, German-Polish relations changed drastically towards the end of the decade, and in 1938, Ribbentropp, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanded the return of Danzig to Germany, and Poland responded strongly in the negative. In light of Hitler's overall foreign policy during the late '30s, this attitude towards Danzig was not anomalous. The official German rationale for its territorial acquisitions during this period, beginning with Austria, and continuing with the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland and Lithuanian Memelland (including the city of Klaipėda), hinged on rhetoric of uniting areas that had a predominately ethnic German population with the German Reich. Danzig fit this category.


"Danzig is German." Source.

The real difference in Danzig's case was that, unlike Austria, Czechoslovakia, or Lithuania, Poland was ready to fight for the city, and Hitler knew this. Danzig was to be an excuse for much grander designs on the rest of Poland (made possible by the recent Soviet-German non-aggression pact). However, the trick was not to look like an aggressor, but a liberator, drawing out negotiations while amassing troops on the border. Britain and France, meanwhile, had had enough of appeasement, and declared themselves ready to help defend Poland, even at the cost of war, which is what ultimately happened. German troops invaded on the first of September, 1939 (from both Germany and East Prussia), and annexed Danzig on the second.

A large portion of Danzig's Jewish population had fled the city before and after the Kristallnacht riots in 1938, and many managed to escape before the war. Danzig's Polish population was not so lucky, and tens of thousands of the city and surrounding area's ethnic Poles, especially educated elites and intellectuals, were executed in the forests of Pomerania, the goal being complete destruction of the Polish leading class. The city of Danzig itself managed to survive the war relatively intact, despite periodic bombing raids, and its real destruction came with the German withdrawal and Red Army's advance in 1945, when large-scale fires and looting destroyed much of the city. How much of the blame can be laid at whose feet will probably never be known, and might be better that way, but the city of Danzig, much like Königsberg, ended the war in ruins.

Gdańsk, much like Kaliningrad and many Eastern European cities that had substantial pre-war German populations, expelled the majority of its Germans after the war, contributing to one of the largest migrations in modern history. However, unlike Kaliningrad, Gdańsk had a history to look back on, and over the next several decades proceeded to rebuild much of the destroyed downtown areas. Today, the city looks beautiful again, which cannot be said for Kaliningrad.

The post-WWII reconstruction of Europe by the Allies once again re-drew the borders of Poland, and the Soviet occupation of East Prussia finally resolved the long-standing issue of the province's separation from the rest of Germany. (The irony, of course, is that today it is separated from the rest of Russia.) Stalin, looking to increase his western territory, argued that the Polish-Soviet border should follow the Curzon Line, which was roughly the demarcation used in the third Partition of Poland, and which included substantial territory that Poland had possessed between the wars, but which was now under Soviet occupation. The Allies eventually agreed to this, and compensated Poland with more territory in the west.

Stalin also wanted to keep Königsberg for its strategic value as a warm-water port on the Baltic, and was eventually allowed to do this as well, although Klaipėda finally went decisively to Lithuania, and the lower two-thirds of East Prussia remained with Poland. Not knowing where to lump Königsberg's (now Kaliningrad's) administrative control, since Lithuania didn't have any ethnic claims on the territory, Stalin, for lack of a better option and never imagining that the Soviet Union would later dissolve into its constituent republics, made Kaliningrad part of the Russian Soviet Republic. This decision was more fateful than he knew, and for this reason Kaliningrad is still part of Russia today. If he had linked it to the Lithuanian Soviet Republic instead, today I would be sitting in Lithuania.


German territorial redistribution following WWII. The southern part of
East Prussia, as well as West Prussia, Pomerania, and a large slice of
eastern Germany went to Poland, while Königsberg went to the Soviet
Union. Source.
The Curzon Line as it redefined the Polish-Soviet post-war border,
grey areas representing inter-war Polish territorial possessions that
were later annexed by the USSR. Source.

Gdańsk today is a modern city. It has been painstakingly reconstructed over the last half a century, but if you didn't know, you couldn't tell. Tourists mill around the pigeons on the central Long Market street, goggling up at the impressive tower of the city hall every hour, when the bells chime. You can meander down narrow twisty cobbled lanes, passing through brick arches and emerging on one of the canals, or suddenly glimpsing a breathtaking peek upward at St. Mary's Basilica, the largest brick church in the world. Bakeries and chocolate shops and small boutiques fill the street levels of colorful buildings -- of which the foundations and front stairs are the only original parts left. And if the salty breeze and mercurial skies prick you seaward, then you have only to follow the gulls to the long beaches of the Baltic.


St. Mary's Church over the rooftops of Gdańsk.
Reconstructed town hall, now museum.
Long Market and tourists.
Long Market, the other direction, ending in the Green Gate (which isn't
really green). 
Granary Island. Gdańsk has its ghosts too. This area used to be the heart
of the port city's shipping warehouses, but reconstruction has been slow
here and a few brick ruins still remain. 
The Baltic Sea in Sopot, part of the greater Gdańsk metropolitan area.

So why is any of this important? Rather than the solid lines that we usually perceive them to be, borders are mutable, political things. The last millennium has been turbulent for Central Europe in a way that, honestly, I have no idea how to wrap my head around. Cities, in many cases, predate and outlast the countries that have grown up and shifted around them. People come and go and marry and move and speak different languages, and trying to pin down the identity of even one city requires going back hundreds of years -- because it keeps changing and mixing, and every new iteration leaves its mark on the future.

In order to understand the German influences on Königsberg, you have to grasp the spread and expanse of Prussia, which means tracing it westward to Germany and northward to Lithuania, and southward to Poland. None of these places have ever existed insular from the others, just as they are not insular today. The Baltic has raised many different peoples along its stormy shores, each with its own culture and lands and language, but the Baltic is also a region, and that begs for a wider perspective.

I think it's impossible to live in Kaliningrad and not compare it to its sister cities on the sea. Although Danzig and Königsberg and Memel were born in different cultures, they have never been strangers to each other, and all bear the marks of Prussia and Poland somewhere on their pasts. But today, Gdańsk and Klaipėda are sure of themselves, of their places as port and city, comfortable within a larger Europe that stretches beyond the Baltic. It's not just that they rebuilt, but that they have a solid narrative upon which to build. They have something to look back on -- however complex it may be -- even while they move forward.

Kaliningrad has no such map. Königsberg has no future; Kaliningrad has no past, and the destruction of the war still separates them today. While Gdańsk rebuilt, Kaliningrad dismantled its ruins and sent its bricks off to other cities, leaving open parks to be filled with concrete and malls and empty beer bottles. Kaliningrad stumbles into the future aimlessly and unrooted, unsure of where it's going and of how to think about where it's been.

Gdańsk skyline, old city to the right, port city to the left.
Snow was on its way! 

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