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The city of Gdańsk (German: Danzig) is located at the outlet of the Vistula River to the Baltic Sea in Poland. By 1914 it was inhabited mainly by Germans; Poles and Jews were the two largest national and religious minorities. During World War I, Gdańsk was outside the main sphere of military operations. The rebirth of the Polish Republic and collapse of the German Empire in November 1918 opened the question of Gdańsk's future. Poland viewed Gdańsk as its main harbor on the Baltic Sea. Local Germans did not want to live in the Polish State. The participants of the Paris Peace Conference (1919) solved the problem by changing Gdańsk into the capital of the Free City of Danzig (FCD). This was an autonomous area governed by the local Germans under the supervision of the League of Nations, with Poland having limited rights.

In the years 1920–1933 Polish-Danzig relations were difficult. In order to become independent from the FCD, Poland set up a new harbor at Gdynia, 20 kilometers northwest of Gdańsk. Soon it became the main competitor of Gdańsk. Danzigers were severely effected by the great economic crisis of the interwar period. The existing social frustration helped the Nazis to win elections to the local parliament (Volkstag) on 28 May 1933. By October 1937 all political parties, except for the NSDAP, were dissolved. The local government (Senat) followed the orders of Hitler's representative, the gauleiter Albert Forster. On 24 October 1938, Berlin demanded that Poland return Gdańsk to Germany. Poland rejected the demand. The German attack on the Polish military depot at Westerplatte (part of Gdańsk) on 1 September 1939 marked the beginning of the World War II.

In the first days of the war Polish national activists were arrested. No fewer than 620 of them were murdered and their families deported to Poland. The Nazis had persecuted about six thousand Jews and forced them to emigrate. In August 1939 there were still some fifteen hundred Jews in Gdańsk. About half of them managed to leave for the free world, several hundred others perished in ghettos and Nazi camps. Only a few survived in place.

In Gdańsk there were 287,995 city dwellers in March 1944. During the war Gdańsk was an important center of the naval industry. The Allied air forces started to attack Gdan Gdańsk's factories in 1943 and went on bombing them for the next two years. The Red Army and auxiliary Polish troops eventually took control of 30 March 1945. Until July 1945 Gdańsk ońsk was governed by the Red Army; later, a Polish administration was free to run public matters.

During the fierce fighting, 90 percent of the city center was destroyed. Civilians suffered miserably: they were robbed and raped, and their houses were burned down in the first weeks after the capitulation of the city's garrison. All Germans without Polish citizenship were to be removed from the country. Compared with 123,932 German and 8,525 Polish citizens in June 1945, there were only 13,380 Germans and 151,185 new Polish settlers one year later. From 1946 onward the local population was dominated by Roman Catholics.

Gdańsk became an important point on the map of Poland's economic and academic centers. Between 1945 and 1989 the majority of workers Gdan were employed in local shipyards, the most prominent being the Lenin Shipyard. The maritime industry benefited greatly from cooperation with the vast Soviet market. In 1945 technical and medical universities were founded, and in later years several other institutions of higher learning were started. The University of Gdańsk opened in 1970. Work and education made Gdańsk attractive for thousands of persons coming from all over the country. In two decades a new society was created.


In the years 1946, 1956, and 1970, when workers went on strike, tir demands focused on social issues. The most important was the December Revolt (14–16 December 1970), which began as a protest over sharp increases in food prices just before Christmas. Shipyard workers created a strike committee and soon left their factories. The situation went out of control. The crowd attacked the district police headquarters and prison, and the regional Communist Party headquarters was set on fire. To pacify the demonstration, the regime authorized the use of weapons. Several laborers were killed and many others were wounded.

During the 1970s large immigration and high birthrates exacerbated the city's housing shortage. Young laborers and university graduates were the two social groups most affected by the lack of accommodation and high cost of living. The situation worsened especially in the second half of the decade. In the years 1976–1979 young dissidents founded several opposition organizations. Some of them were close to the Warsaw Worker's Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR). Among them was Bogdan Borusewicz (b.1949. However, because of personal and ideological reasons, KOR was not accepted by all young people. Among KOR's members were some former communists who still hoped to reform socialism in Poland. An important part of the activists in Gdańsk did not want to reform communism but aimed at removing it from the country. They put the stress on the Catholic and national components of their ideology, criticizing ties that bound Poland with the USSR. In July 1979 the patriotic, antisoviet faction founded The Young Poland Movement (Ruch Młodej Polski, or RMP). Its members, led by Aleksander Hall, were mainly young intellectuals who had already cooperated with members of the Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzėza, or WZZ), an organization created in April 1978 by Andrzej Gwiazda, Błażej i Krzysztof Wyszkowski, Anna Walentynowicz, Borusewicz, and Lech Wałęsa. At that time the political opposition in Ggańsk was not very sizable. Nevertheless, it played an important role in the political education of workers. It disseminated illegal newspapers and books and organized patriotic demonstrations to celebrate national anniversaries.

The oppositionists became known when they took charge of the strikes in the summer of 1980, when social discontent grew high. On 14 August, Wałęsa became the leader of the strike committee in the Lenin Shipyard. The leaders of the strike movement were people in their twenties and thirties, backed by advisers from WZZ, KOR, RMP, and other opposition groups. To avoid repeating the experience of the December Revolt, strikers remained at their places of work and maintained strict discipline. Workers used nonviolent tactics of political struggle. The government accepted twenty-one demands prepared by the Interfactory Strike Committee. The most important political ones were those leading to the creation of self-governing labor unions and the liberation of political prisoners. On 31 August the Gdańsk Agreement was signed.

When the independent self-governing trade union "Solidarność" (Solidarity) was registered in October 1980, its headquarters were located in Gdańsk. During the first months of Solidarność, society became very active. Citizens believed that they could create the prosperity of the country and not merely obey arrogant communist officials. However, on 13 December 1981 the communist regime introduced martial law in order to retain power. The inhabitants of Gdańsk tried to protest, but their resistance was suppressed by the army and the antiriot police units. In the next few years there were many antigovernment demonstrations in the streets and in churches. The oppositionists continued their work toward the creation of a civil society. In May 1988 a new strike in the Lenin Shipyard broke out. Solidarity strikes began at the local institutions of higher learning. Some radical groups did not want any negotiations with the communists. But leaders on both sides concluded that the only solution was to start talking with each other in order to change the political and economic system while avoiding bloodshed.


After the fall of the communist regime, one of the most important changes in the city was the creation of a genuine local government. In the years 1990–2005 former communists were unable to gain political control over Gdańsk, although they were represented in the City Council (Rada Miasta). The anticommunist orientation of the majority of the population has been demonstrated in all elections since 1989.

Reform of the economy resulted in the dismantling of many state factories and enterprises. In 2004 the unemployment rate was 11 percent. Local enterprises lost much of the post-Soviet market and fought for new ones. The city ceased to be as economically attractive as it had been in the past. Thousands of young, well-educated people left for more economically developed cities. The combination of these factors, as well as a low birthrate, resulted in a decline in population. There were 468,400 city dwellers in the middle of the 1980s and only 453,719 in 1997. Yet Gdańsk continued to be an important academic center with about sixty thousand students in state or private universities. In 2004 Gdańsk, like the rest of Poland, was in the course of economic transformation.

See alsoGermany; Poland; Solidarity; World War I; World War II.


Cenckiewicz, Slawomir. Oczami bezpieki: Szkice i materialy z dziejów aparatu bezpieczestwa. Kraków, 2004.

Cieślak, Edmund, and Czeslaw Biernat. History of Gdań sk. Translated by BoŻenna Blaim and George M. Hyde. Gdańsk, Poland, 1988.

Karpinski, Jakub. Countdown: The Polish Upheavals of 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980. Translated by Olga Amsterdamska and Gene M. Moore. New York, 1982.

Levine, Herbert S. Hitler's Free City: A History of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925–1939. Chicago, 1973.

Grzegorz Berendt