Describing Gdańsk’s past as ‘eventful’ would be a major understatement. The official history of the much fought-over city is counted from the year 997, when the Bohemian Bishop Adalbert arrived here from Gniezno and baptised the inhabitants. The settlement developed as a port over the following centuries, expanding northwards into what is today the Old Town. The German community then arrived from Lübeck in the early 13th century, the first in a succession of migrants, who crafted the town’s cosmopolitan character.
In 1308 the Teutonic order seized Gdańsk and quickly turned it into a major trade centre, joining the Hanseatic League in 1361. In 1454 the locals decided on a spot of regime change, razing the Teutonic Knights’ castle, and pledging allegiance to the Polish monarch instead.
From here, the only way was up: by the mid-16th century, the successful trading city of 40, 000 was Poland’s largest city, and the most important trading centre in Central Europe. Legions of international traders joined the local German–Polish population, adding their own cultural influences to the city’s unique blend.
Gdańsk was one of the very few Polish cities to withstand the Swedish Deluge of the 1650s, but the devastation of the surrounding area weakened its position, and in 1793 Prussia annexed the shrinking city. Just 14 years later, however, the Prussians were ousted by the Napoleonic army and its Polish allies.
It turned out to be a brief interlude – in 1815 the Congress of Vienna gave Gdańsk back to Prussia, which became part of Germany later in the century. In the years that followed, the Polish minority was systematically Germanised, the city’s defences were reinforced and there was gradual but steady economic and industrial growth.
After Germany’s defeat in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles granted the newly reformed Polish nation the so-called Polish Corridor, a strip of land stretching from Toruń to Gdańsk, providing the country with an outlet to the sea. Gdańsk itself was excluded and designated the Free City of Danzig, under the protection of the League of Nations. With the city having a German majority, however, the Polish population never had much political influence, and once Hitler came to power it was effectively a German port.
WWII started in Gdańsk when the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired the first shots on the Polish military post in Westerplatte. During the occupation of the city, the Nazis continued to use the local shipyards for building warships, with Poles as forced labour. The Russians arrived in March 1945; during the fierce battle the city centre virtually ceased to exist. The German residents fled, or died in the conflict. Their place was taken by Polish newcomers, mainly from the territories lost to the Soviet Union in the east.
The complex reconstruction of the Main Town took over 20 years from 1949, though work on some interiors continued well into the 1990s. Nowhere else in Europe was such a large area of an historic city reconstructed from the ground up.
In December 1970 a huge strike broke in the shipyard and was ‘pacified’ by authorities as soon as the workers left the gates, leaving 44 dead. This was the second important challenge to the communist regime after that in Poznań in 1956. Gdańsk came to the fore again in 1980, when another popular protest paralysed the shipyard. This time it culminated in negotiations with the government and the foundation of Solidarity. Lech Wałęsa, the electrician who led the strike and subsequent talks, later became the first freely elected president in postwar Poland.
In the postcommunist era, Gdańsk has consolidated its role as the leading administrative and industrial city in Pomerania, with some diversification into high-tech products and processes; and tourism has increased enormously. In 1997 the city hosted a range of cultural events and architectural projects commemorating its millennium – a worthy celebration of a great historical survivor.