History of the City Gdańsk

Ostatnia aktualizacja: 10 maja 2017 r.

The origins of Gdansk go back to the year 980. Shortly before Easter 997 St Wojciech or Adalbert, a missionary and bishop of Bohemia, arrived in the area only to be killed soon after, by the pagan Prussians. A Benedictine monk, Jan Canaparius from the Aventine monastery described his life and death. In the records he referred to "urbs Gyddanyzc" or the city of Gdansk as the place where the saint was believed to have baptised a large number of the newly converted. In this context today's city on the Motlawa River was first mentioned in writing.


The complex, combining a castle-town, city, and port, began to take shape in the second half of the tenth century. Gdansk then ruled by the dynasty of Pomeranian princes had a mixed population where the local Slavs lived side by side with growing numbers of merchants and craftsmen that arrived from the west.
Thanks to Prince Swietopelk II the Great, Gdansk obtained city rights (of the Lübeck type). The ruler's son and the last prince of the Gdansk Pomerania, Msciwoj II also called Mestwin, bestowed his land to Przemysl II, Prince of Great Poland in an act drawn in Kepno in 1282. That was a step of great political significance, as it enabled unification of the Polish territories. However, in view of the chaos that spread in Gdansk following the death of the Czech king Vaclav (the Swiec family having sold Pomerania to the Margraves of Brandenburg), the governor of the castle, Bogusza, called on the Teutonic Knights for help. Those, having captured the castle in 1308 butchered the population. Since then the event is known as "the Gdansk slaughter ".

The determined struggle of the Gdansk inhabitants to shake off the Teutonic yoke was long. Having said that, it is worth noting that under the Order's rule the city gained e.g. its Radunia canal and the Grand Mill built upon it, the most imposing secular structure of the port and castle-town. Other tangible benefit Gdansk gained both under the Teutonic rule and later, after the peace treaty of Torun, came from its membership in the Union of Hanseatic Towns (1361-1669). The city of Gdansk was compared to the lion bravely guarding the opulent granaries of Hansa.

After the Teutonic defeat in the battle of Grunwald [Tannenberg] (1410), Gdansk pledged allegiance to the Polish king. However, the Teutonic rule of the city came to an end only in 1454. The knights were ousted. King Casimir the Jagiellonian incorporated Gdansk into the Crown and conferred numerous privileges onto the city. The document establishing the most important privilege called "The Great" was signed on 15th May 1457. The city took over extensive property previously held by the Teutonic Order. Its authorities and local merchants gained numerous rights. It is since those times that the city's coat of arms of two crosses has had the Jagiellonian royal crown added on top.

Reformation that reached Gdansk as early as 1620s, radically changed the religious face of the city. The Protestants ardently fighting for the freedom of faith were finally successful. From then on the tolerant city and its vicinities would give shelter to various religious dissidents. Numerous Dutch Mennonites and Scots, Huguenots and Jews found their haven here.


That ancient Gdansk, affluent and recognized in Europe, a melting pot of nations, cultures, faiths, and tongues, the most international Polish city, formed a unique community of diversity. Polish writers of the times held a grudge against it, though the cause lay not in its cosmopolitan nature, but arrogance towards the Polish kings. And yet, facing the Swedish threat, heedless of the sacrifice and suffered deprivation, the city was able to resist. In 1734, besieged by the Russians and Saxons, Gdansk rose again in defence of honour and the Polish throne of king Stanislaw Leszczynski.

Alas, following the 2nd partition of Poland the city could no longer escape Prussian annexation. Its hopes put in Napoleon 's new order turned out futile. Taken over by the French in 1807 Gdansk did gain the status of a Free City, however it only retained it until 1814.

The following forty years are sometimes referred to as the times of a great crisis, decline, and economic catastrophe of the city.

In June 1919, under the Versailles Treaty Gdansk becomes a Free City supervised by the League of Nations represented by its High Commissioners. The thirties witnessed a mounting wave of Nazism and terror. On 1st September 1939 the armoured ship, Schlezwig-Holstein, began shelling the Polish military post on Westerplatte. This was the breakout of the Second World War.


Recaptured by the troops of the II Belarus Front in March 1945, Gdansk was soon reduced to a sea of ruins. Fortunately, the destroyers left the scene replaced by builders, conservators, and artists who spent another fifty odd years bringing the city back to its previous glory.

The ancient residents of Gdansk had a notorious opinion of being restive and non-submissive. They were said to be tough and bold to any oppressor. Throughout the post-war period Gdansk has invariably remained the synonym of Polish aspirations and actions aiming at freedom. December 1970 left a tragic mark on the city and its inhabitants. Shots fired at the striking workers took their toll. Today, the famous "Three Crosses" or Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers that stands at the gates to the Gdansk Shipyard honours the memory of the victims.


Contemporary historians consider the "Gdansk August "of 1980 the breakthrough that triggered the process of decomposition of the post-war order on the Old Continent. The mass strikes staged then, led to signing the famous August Agreement at the Gdansk Shipyard. This formed a crack in the block that gradually led to the emergence of a new political map of Europe. Gdansk earned another image. It became the city the world will always associate with free trade unions, "Solidarity ", and the winner of the Nobel peace prize and first President of the III Republic of Poland - Lech Walesa.


In 1997 Gdansk celebrated its millennium and worshipped its patron, St Adalbert, thanks to whom the name of the city on the Motlawa River was first mentioned in written records. Widely open to the world, Gdansk has always been a European city to the core. "Nec temere, nec timide", i.e. fearlessly but reasonably, is its motto one can read in Latin on the city's grand coat of arms. History has travelled full circle. The contemporary Gdansk rings with life as in the olden days, and retaining its memories of the past is building its own, separate identity.