Friday, March 29, 2013

Repurposed Religion

When Lenin's statue was removed from the center of Ploshad Pobedi, it was replaced with a giant triumphal column to victory in World War II, and with the gleaming onion domes of the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The symbolism is clear: in exchange for one founding narrative of Kaliningrad, a re-branding into two, both tied in some degree to religion. Königsberg's religious community, along with the rest of the city's population, evacuated or were expelled in the city's transfer of power, leaving behind their churches in varying states of ruin for a surprisingly varying list of fates. The few of these buildings that still exist in some form tell a convoluted tale that encompasses several hundred years of the city's history and identity, from the Teutonic Knights to Russia today.

In the aftermath of 1945, the Soviet deportation of East Prussia's German residents in order to import a new population from war-torn Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus was the first step towards developing the freshly-christened Kaliningrad's new identity as a mainstay of Soviet strength in the west. This process was reinforced by the closing of the territory and its quick transformation into the top-secret cold war headquarters of the Baltic Fleet. For the new citizens of Kaliningrad, who had little in common except the experience of the war and their new home, and who were usually connected to the military in some way, it's unsurprising that the new identity was primarily Soviet, perhaps to a greater extent than many other areas in the Soviet Union. Kaliningrad was a proving ground for the new Soviet Man.1

Now, of course, Kaliningrad is no longer Soviet, no longer closed, and also no longer geographically contiguous to Russia, and the region's founding myths have shifted accordingly. The wartime military seizure of the territory remains a central tenet of the city's narrative, but the focus has shifted from emphasizing Kaliningrad as a model military and ideological Soviet bastion against the forces of fascism and capitalism, to subtly reinforcing the legitimacy of the Russian presence in the territory, as well as the primacy of Kaliningrad-as-Russia. Instead of Lenin, now St. George eternally slays the dragon under a banner memorializing victory, while the Orthodox church, in which St. George is one of the most venerated figures (as well as one with long and complex national military connotations), gleams in the square's immediate background. The message is not hard to read: Russia's triumph over and possession of the territory is parallel to St. George's victory (and perhaps as divinely mandated?), and Kaliningrad, though geographically separated, is fundamentally part of Russia and the Russian Orthodox tradition.

"Dedicated to the Great Victory, 1941-1945."

Economically, Kaliningrad's interests don't always align with Moscow's, but the Orthodox Church is a universal institution uniquely situated to reinforce a uniform set of ideals and experiences that are increasingly associated with Russian-ness. It is a gross oversimplification to equate Russian identity with Russian Orthodoxy, but nonetheless the Church has experienced a truly stunning popular resurgence in the last twenty years, and wields a great deal of power, both socially and de facto politically. While the country of Russia incorporates quite a large number of religions, including a substantial Muslim population, ethnic Russians are overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox, even if nonpracticing, and considering oneself part of the Orthodox Church is arguably more an element of national identity than of religion. The prominent and ubiquitous presence of the Church in Kaliningrad, then, takes on substantial importance in tying the exclave to Russian national identity.

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church came to a crisis in Kaliningrad three years ago, following the introduction of a bill in the State Duma (Russian federal congress) to transfer all religious properties that had been appropriated by the state in 1917 back to their original owners. In Russia proper, the Russian Orthodox Church of course stood to gain an enormous amount of property that had been secularized following the revolution. However, Kaliningrad's situation was unique, since religious properties here had been either Protestant or Roman Catholic before the war.

The federal bill was set to take effect on January 1, 2011, and at the end of 2010 the Kaliningrad Regional Duma passed a hasty couple of resolutions transferring a large number of state-owned former churches and religious property to the Russian Orthodox Church, without meaningful public discussion. These properties included not just extant churches, but Teutonic castles, buildings that were part of educational institutions, museums, and many other properties, regardless of their current use. The rhetoric in defense of the hurried property transfers focused on the need to put these sites of historical and cultural value under a Russian protector before they could be seized by their old foreign masters and used to promote foreign influence in the region. A large group of local citizens petitioned the transfers, which included the Kaliningrad Cathedral (until a personal petition from Angela Merkel removed it from the list), the museum of the Lithuanian writer Kristijonas Donelaitis (until an appeal from the President of Lithuania), the regional philharmonic, the puppet theater, various castles, and many other buildings, but were largely unsuccessful at stopping the transfers to the Church.2

Of the multitude of various religious buildings that existed in Königsberg‎, few survived the war (although the city's three synagogues never made it past 1938), and even fewer survived the Soviet post-war iconoclasm of all things both German and religious. As with much of the city, many churches were partially destroyed in the war but could have been rebuilt, however their ruins were torn down in the 1960s instead. The Soviet Union was also famous for re-purposing church buildings to secular (sometimes ironically irrelevant) uses, and Kaliningrad was no exception. The list of extant pre-war churches is so short that I was curious to see what had become of them all today, and able to do so in the span of a couple weekends. As far as I am aware, the following list contains all of Königsberg‎'s churches that still substantially exist today (but please correct me if I've missed one).

Pre-war churches of Königsberg that still exist in some form today.
Numbers refer to descriptions as follow.

1: Königsberg Cathedral (Königsberger Dom), Kant Island, abutting the no-longer extant Albertina University. The cathedral is probably the most photographed and written-about building in Kaliningrad, except perhaps possibly for the House of Soviets. Construction originally began in the mid-fourteenth century, and the cathedral became Protestant following the Reformation. Largely destroyed in the August, 1944 RAF bombings, the ruined shell remained thus until restoration in the mid-1990s, and now is used primarily for organ concerts. Immanuel Kant's tomb is adjacent.

Ruins of the cathedral, 1988. Source.
Cathedral today. Sorry for the grey sky of death.

2: Holy Cross Cathedral (Kreuzkirche), ул. Генерала Павлова, 2. Built between 1930 and 1933 for the Prussian Evangelical Church (Protestant) and barely damaged in the war, it later became an auto repair shop and fishing equipment factory before structural problems forced its abandonment in the eighties. In 1986 it was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, which later repaired and consecrated it. Today, it is still a functioning Orthodox church, and looks extremely out of place as a lone brick survivor completely surrounded by a towering maze of crumbling Soviet apartments, with a new bridge highway directly behind it.

Holy Cross from the side. It's an interesting building architecturally.
Holy Cross from the front. The inside has been
completely renovated into an Orthodox church.
Standing in front of the Holy Cross and looking out at its immediate
neighborhood. Swanky.

3: Church of the Holy Family (Kirche zur Heiligen Familie), ул. Богдана Хмельницкого, 61а. Originally a Catholic church built between 1904 and 1907, it survived the war well and was used by the Red Army as a hospital, and then as a fertilizer depot. In the 1980s, it was repaired and became the concert hall of the Kaliningrad Philharmonic, and received a new pipe organ as well as the clock that had been on the outside of the Holy Cross Cathedral. Today it is still the Philharmonic's concert hall, and is located in a neighborhood in the southern half of the city with several surviving pre-war buildings, which makes for a nice atmosphere.

Church of the Holy Family. Source.
The Kaliningrad Philharmonic today.

4: Queen Louise Church (Königin-Luise-Gedächtniskirche), Победы проспект, 1а. Located just inside Central Park, this white and green church used to have exposed brick, and was built 1899-1901 for the Protestant communities, and named in honor of the Prussian Queen Louise (1776–1810). It was heavily damaged and scheduled for demolition in the 1960s, but spared by the intervention of a civil engineer, who repaired the building for use as the city puppet theater. The outside was built to look similar to its original form, but the inside was completely renovated for its new theatrical purpose. Today, it is still a very popular destination for Kaliningrad's children.

Queen Louise Church. Source.
Sorry about the trees. Those weren't there
seventy years ago.
The Puppet Theater.

5: St. Adalbert's Church (Adalberts-Kirche), Победы проспект, 41. Built 1902-1904 as a Roman Catholic church, St. Adalbert's (named after the patron saint of Prussia) survived the war and was briefly used for manufacturing before being acquired in 1975 by the Nikolay Pushkov Institute of Earth Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radiowaves Propagation (or IZMIRAN, whatever any of that actually means). It's still used for those mysterious purposes today.

St. Adalbert's Church, ca. 1908. Source.
This one was impossible to get a good angle of, sorry.
Note the peaked spire on the tower is gone.
IZMIRAN in all its glory, from the back.

6: Ratshof Church (Ratshöfer Kirche/Christuskirche), ул. Станочная, 10-12. The last church constructed in Königsberg, built between 1936 and '37, in the Protestant working-class district of Ratshof. Not a particularly beautiful example of Bauhaus architecture to begin with, it suffered serious damage (especially the bell tower), and managed to become shockingly ugly after some inspired Soviet renovation, which involved expanding the building and covering the whole thing with geometric concrete panels. Perhaps this is why, when it became a "the westernmost nightclub in Russia" in 1978, it was (and is still today) named Вагонка, which roughly translates to "siding." At any rate, the interior is as grotty as one might extrapolate from the exterior, complete with velvet walls, red pleather couches, and heavy gilt frames. The property was among those transferred to the Orthodox Church, although apparently there are plans for the nightclub to continue operating for at least a few more years. Kaliningrad never ceases to amaze me.

Ratshof Church, 1940. Source.
Вагонка Club today. Beautiful, ain't she?
The extension to the left, which now houses some sort of chapel,
I think.
Here you can see the fantastic siding, as well as
what's become of the bell-tower.

7: Juditten Church (Kirche von Juditten), Тенистая Аллея, 39Б. Generally believed to have been built in the mid-thirteenth century, the church is claimed to be the oldest building in Kaliningrad, although considering how much of it has been restored, I'm not sure it can claim that title without significant caveats. Originally Catholic (as were the Teutonic Knights who built it), it was later converted to Lutheranism, along with the state religion of East Prussia. Tragically (but all too common of a story), it was almost completely undamaged in the war, but was plundered and destroyed by occupying forces in the immediate post-war period, and remained in an increasing state of ruin over the next several decades. In the '80s it was given to the Orthodox Church, which rebuilt it (well, they rebuilt the walls and put the roof back on), although I'm not sure how faithful they were to the original design. Today, it is still a functioning church, and part of the St. Nicholas Convent.

Illustration of Juditten Church, 1898. Source.
More or less what remains of the oldest building
in Kaliningrad. I was unimpressed with the
quality of the restoration.
I'm pretty sure that icon wasn't been pasted on
seven hundred years ago.

8: Rosenau Church (Rosenauer Kirche), ул. Клавы Назаровой, 24. Construction began on the suburb of Rosenau's new Protestant church just a week before World War I broke out in 1914, and completion was delayed until 1926. The entire immediate neighborhood survived the Second World War relatively unscathed, and today it's possible to walk down a few long streets of row-houses and imagine yourself in a different era. The building was a warehouse for much of the Soviet period, and given to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990, which repaired and converted it into the functioning church it is today.

Rosenau from the front. 
From the back.
What remains of the district of Rosenau.

9: Ponarth Church (Ponarther Kirche), ул. Киевская, 75. Located in Königsberg's southern district of Ponarth (today part of Балтрайон), the Lutheran church was built from 1896-97, and suffered only minor damage in the war. During the Soviet period, it was a warehouse and then a gym (my Russian tutor grew up in Балтрайон and used to have PE classes there), before becoming an Orthodox church in the early '90s. Many of the outlying districts, including what was Ponarth, were apparently far enough away from the city center and escaped heavy bombing, so that today the neighborhood still has many (albeit crumbling) old buildings lining the main street and courtyards. If I thought the center of Kaliningrad was a strange mish-mash of time, then the outlying districts are even more so, and it's hard to tell whether you feel like you're one hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or now (or all at the same time).

Ponarth Church. Source.
Brandenburger Straße in Ponarth. Source.
Ponarth Church today, on Kievskaya Street. 
The view down Kievskaya.
"In case of fire, call 01."

1. See Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen, Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 130, and Richard Krickus, The Kaliningrad Question (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 42.
2. This event is discussed in many online articles from the time, but two astute (and English) sources are  Vasilijus Safronovas, translated by Kristina Aurylaite, "Rewriting History in Kaliningrad: Facts on the Ground," 20 June, 2011,, and Anna Karpenko, translated by Kristina Aurylaite, "The Debate Over Kaliningrad's Architectural Heritage: An Insider's Perspective," 15 June, 2011,

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! 

Monday, March 11, 2013

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

Kaliningraders know Gdańsk as a destination for cheap shopping, convenient airport connections, and easy entry into the European Union, but although today Gdańsk enjoys affluence and tourists alike, it has a long and convoluted history that surpasses even Kaliningrad's. Located directly on the Baltic and a branch of the Vistula delta, Gdańsk -- Danzig, in German -- is Poland's primary seaport, and has a population of around half a million, although the surrounding metropolitan area is much larger. Although the city suffered greatly in World War II, today Gdańsk is beautifully reconstructed and fully deserves its six-hundred year reputation as one of the Baltic's prize capitals.

Founded sometime just before the turn of the millennium, Gdańsk's (then Danzig's) early history, like Memel/Klaipėda's, eventually touches Königsberg's, and then departs again, creating interesting parallels in historical hindsight. Originally part of the Kingdom of Poland, which was recognized as a state by the Pope in the year 1000 (stay with me here, this gets a bit complicated), Danzig was caught in the middle of a messy dynastic struggle in the thirteenth century after invasion by Danes, and was briefly part of an independent Duchy of Pomerelia before being re-integrated into the Kingdom of Poland. This transfer was brief, however, since the Teutonic Order (an independent crusader state based in Prussia) seized and incorporated the the Danzig area (Pomerelia) in 1309. A few decades later, Danzig joined the Hanseatic League, eventually becoming a major shipping hub on the Baltic.

Kingdom of Poland (yellow), Prussia (brown), and Lithuania (olive)
in 1190. Source.
The Baltic in the early 1300s. The Kingdom of Poland (green) has lost
Pomerelia to the Teutonic Order (purple, note it has expanded northward
from Prussia), but not yet joined with Lithuania (orange), which it does
in 1385. Source.

The Teutonic Order, a group of Germanic Christian crusaders that conquered Prussia in the early 1200s (founding Königsberg in 1255), gradually expanded their control along the Baltic, and engaged in a series of wars with Poland over the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Poles eventually won a decisive victory in 1466, returning Pomerelia and Danzig to Polish control. They incorporated this newly re-gained territory into the Kingdom of Poland as a province under the name of Royal Prussia, where it enjoyed a great deal of internal autonomy.

Meanwhile, Albert, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, was losing control of his Catholic Teutonic state as the Protestant Reformation was gaining momentum. From 1519-21, the Teutonic Order fought another war with Poland, culminating in an unstable truce that Albert, under the advice of Martin Luther, solved by converting to Protestantism, resigning as head of the Teutonic Order and making homage to his uncle, the King of Poland, from who he received hereditary rights to the newly renamed and secular Duchy of Prussia. Duke Albert established his new capital in Königsberg in 1525, ending the Teutonic Order for good.

The Duchy of Prussia eventually joined through marriage with the German Electorate of Brandenburg, of which its ruler, the Elector of Brandenburg, was subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire. In exchange for a few good deeds, Elector Frederick in 1701 was granted the right to call himself "King in Prussia," which was outside the borders of the Empire, although within the borders he was still only an elector. The title "King of Prussia" was reserved for the Kings of Poland, who still ruled over Royal Prussia. The Brandenburg-Prussian rulers didn't get to claim this title for themselves until 1772, after they re-annexed Royal Prussia in the First Partition of Poland.

Baltic Tribes around 1200, before the Teutonic conquest,
Western Balts in greens, Eastern Balts in browns. Source
Royal Prussia (light pink), part of the the Kingdom of Poland (yellow),
around 1575. Ducal Prussia (stripes) still retains Memel (Klaipėda). Source.
Brandenburg-Prussia in 1600. The original Brandenburg territory is dark
 red, with the Prussian (and a few other miscellaneous) additions in pink.

Danzig, in the meantime, had become a bi-cultural trading hub, with a German-speaking Lutheran majority, but substantial Polish minority. The city was host to a strong printing industry, as well as advances in celestial navigation. Although it suffered during the plague, the population grew steadily, and experienced a period of overall prosperity thanks largely to its prime trading location between the Baltic Sea and the Vistula River.

But the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom had fallen increasingly under the influence of Imperial Russia, which was gaining power and territory as it expanded East and South. This worried the Austrian Habsburgs and Brandenburg-Prussians, and in order to rebalance the changing European powers, they agreed to divide up Poland-Lithuania in the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Prussia, Russia, and Austria then all simultaneously invaded, seizing chunks of Poland for themselves and leaving only a rump. Royal Prussia was taken by Brandenburg-Prussia, leaving only the resistant Danzig as a small island still belonging to Poland. A few years later, Russia and Prussia each took a little more of Poland in the Second Partition, Prussia finally conquering the port of Danzig, which strongly resented its annexation. The Third and final Partition divided the remaining territory between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, completely eliminating Poland and Lithuania as independent territories until their reinstatement following World War I.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before partition in 1772. Source.
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the First Partition, 1773. Source.
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Second Partition, 1793. Source.