Deconstructing Danzig: a reevaluation of the Danzig Crisis and the longbuildup to the Second World War

The following groundbreaking thesis is an original piece of research that sheds light on the background of World War II and the German-Polish conflict. For an optimal reading experience, I have removed all 358 citations and added visuals. The original piece can be viewed in full, with all footnotes intact, by clicking on the .PDF icon below:

From the Carpathian Mountains in Europe, the Vistula River heads north and winds through several cities, including Kraków, Warsaw, Toruń and Bydgoszcz; then, the Vistula approaches the Baltic Sea and, en route to open waters, descends towards one last, important stop: the eidolic port city of Gdańsk.

Three generations ago, if you had worked in Gdańsk's port, you probably would have been paid in Papiermarks. After all, Gdańsk was part of Germany and Germany's currency was the Papiermark. Like ninety-five percent of Gdańsk's population, you also may have spoken German and known the port city by its German name, which is Danzig. But on one crucial day, your world would have changed.

On January 10, 1920, Danzig and over two hundred surrounding villages became a semi-independent entity known as the Free City of Danzig. With that, the neighboring state of Poland received the right to develop, maintain and utilize the Free City’s transportation, communication and port facilities. The new arrangement was supposed to set up a rewarding business relationship between Poland and the Germans of Danzig. To the contrary, it created a situation where administrators from Danzig and Poland struggled against each other for influence over the Free City’s affairs. Neither Germany nor Poland approved of what they had been given. Consequently, when the new plan was put into place, Germany pursued policies towards the Free City which were in its own best interests instead of the best interests of the new arrangement's functionality. Poland was guilty of the same offence. Placed together, these conditions fostered the growth of tensions between the German and Polish nations, which set the pace for tariff wars, economic sanctions and an atmosphere of hostility that put the city’s commercial livelihood in danger.

On several occasions, Germany’s government tried to convince the Poles to allow for a new plan to take form in the Baltic region. But Poland’s leaders feared that a new plan would compromise their power. Accordingly, the Free City arrangement remained intact until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, at which time Germany took control of the Free City. The invasion of Poland also triggered a larger conflict between Germany and its Western rivals - a conflict often said to have been about curtailing Germany’s ambitions to conquer Poland and the rest of Europe. In this manner, the controversy over the Free City came to be viewed as little more than a German pretext to seize Poland. Germany’s leader in 1939, Adolf Hitler, came to be seen as the creator of the controversy over the Free City.

Common view of the war that began in 1939 and changed the way the Danzig dispute is remembered

Although Hitler played an important role in the conflict over the Free City, he did not create the controversy over the city’s fate and future. A comprehensive analysis of the Free City’s history, and a clear understanding of the long-running conflict over the Danzig region, reveals that, five hundred years prior to Hitler, ethnic German and Polish leaders were already at odds over control of the region. The argument over Danzig’s “rightful ownership” went back even further, arguably to the 1st century.

As early as the 1st century, the Germanic peoples - who the Germans call their distant ancestors - arrived in mainland Europe from the Scandinavian isles and made the Danzig region into their home. Etymologists and historians state that the primary Germanic settlement “Gothiscandza”, allegedly established near the mouth of the Vistula around the 1st century, may have been the exact site recorded in Latin as "Gyddanyzc" and, later, referred to as Kdanzk, Gdanzc, Danceke, Gdansk, Danzc, Danczk, Danczik, Danczig and Danzig. This is the basis for the argument that “Gothiscandza” may have evolved into the very site known as Danzig- one argument used to buttress Germany's claims to the region. Of course, even if the locations of Gothiscandza and Danzig coincide, it is highly plausible that the Germanic peoples who founded Gothiscandza were not among those whose direct descendants ultimately settled in Germany. The reason is Germanic resettlement did not just stop at Gothiscandza; it continued deeper into the interior of Europe, and as far south as the Black Sea or the Alps. Some of their descendants became intertwined with the history of Rome and ended up in North Africa or other distant places instead of what became Germany. In any case, the claim of rightful ownership based on 1st century Germanic settlement is nebulous.

Germanic expansion in Europe from 750 BC to 1 AD

Furthermore, using the geopolitical situation of the 1st century as the basis of claimed land ownership is troublesome because the face of Europe soon changed indefinitely. By the 4th century, the Huns had entered southeastern Europe; pushing north, they started ravaging the settlements in the Germanic-inhabited lands. Around the same time, the Slavs had left southern Europe and also moved into Germanic-settled northern Europe. Little evidence exists to show to what degree the arrival of either of these peoples - the Huns or Slavs - spurred the migration of the Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, by the 8th century, the Germanic peoples had cleared to western Europe, the Huns had disappeared to the south and Slav influence extended from present-day Russia to nearly as far west as the Elbe River, near the current city of Hamburg. Accordingly, the Slavs had spread out across roughly sixty percent of present-day Germany and the heart of the European subcontinent had been split into two halves from which two separate Slav-influenced and Germanic-influenced worlds began to develop.

Contrary to popular understanding, shared experiences linked the two worlds in a major way; both halves were subject to the influence of Christendom and its struggle for the souls of both the Germanic and Slav peoples. In time, the Christian sword sliced through the continent and a major Christian power emerged from within the Germanic sphere. It was spearheaded by a formerly pagan Germanic tribe known as the Franks. By 804, under the leadership of Karl the Great, the Franks had defeated the last pagan opposition within the Germanic sphere.  Incidentally, Christianized Slavs such as the Obotrites tribe had helped in the military effort and, in exchange, received military protection and land from Karl the Great.

After Karl the Great's death, the Germanic kingdom was split into thirds and conflict erupted over the succession of power. Chaos set in. Raiders began attacking from the south and, in 915, the Obotrite Slavs attacked the Germanic lands from the east. The conflicts had tremendous repercussions; first, they brought the eastern third of the Germanic lands into an alliance that fostered the creation of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a primordial "Germany"; second, the new alliance that arose from within this entity repelled the Obotrites raiders, and terrorized the vanquished after achieving a total victory in 955. In the aftermath, the land of the Obotrites carved into German-controlled provinces called marches. To settle the marches, the rising German leader, Otto the Great, encouraged those in the German-speaking realm to immigrate east. In search of land and new opportunity, they arrived. A general trend of eastward migration took hold. It soon involved German resettlement beyond the marches.

According to the late American historian T. Walter Wallbank and noted in his master work Civilization Past and Present, the early German migration beyond the marches embodied much of the same “pioneer spirit” that is often portrayed as the “backbone of European settlement in the American West.” But this resettlement also set the stage for the very conflict and controversy that shaped the dispute over Danzig and made a compromise regarding ownership of this part of the eastern Baltic almost inconceivable. To borrow a quote from political analyst Eugene van Cleef, the region quickly became a “storm center of rival aspirants.”

Long before the wave of German resettlement had reached the Vistula river delta, the region was sparsely populated by two groups of Slavs: the pagan Pomeranians and the Christianized Polans.

Slavic tribes in the Vistula region

Whereas the Pomeranians had ostensibly lived in the Vistula river delta region since the period of Great Migrations had pushed the Germanic peoples out, the Polans had come in the late 10th century to spread the Gospel and the borders of what came to be known as Poland. Thus, as Polish intellectuals claimed during the Danzig crisis - and still maintain - Poland was indeed the first foreign sovereign entity to establish a presence along the Vistula river delta. The nature of that control, however, is a subject of debate. In the years that followed, Poland's leaders successfully Christianized the Pomeranians; they also built fortifications in the Vistula river delta region and stopped each Pomeranian rebellion there, including the uprisings of 1030 and 1090. But it was not until 1155 that, in agreement with Poland, a stable dynasty managed to secure long-term control over the Vistula river delta region. Even more importantly, that dynasty, the Sobiesławice, broke from Poland's direct control and became an independent sovereign.

As the Vistula river delta settlement grew, the dynamics of power at the site changed yet again. This time, merchants pleaded for the settlement’s autonomy from the Sobiesławice. The Sobiesławice obliged. But trouble began when the Sobiesławice monarch died and, in 1266, his sons began feuding over the land they were to inherit. To gain the upper hand in the dispute, the older son, Mestwin, formed an alliance with a part of the German Holy Roman Empire called Brandenburg. Between 1270 and 1271, the forces of Brandenburg captured a number of sites for Mestwin, including the formerly-independent settlement along the Vistula river delta region. Unfortunately for Mestwin, the garrisons from Brandenburg also refused to leave, having decided to claim the site for themselves.

To dislodge the forces of Brandenburg from the Vistula river delta site, Mestwin turned to Poland.  In return, Mestwin, who was unable to produce an heir, declared that Poland would inherit all of his land upon his passing.  The agreement was finalized. Thus, when Mestwin died during the Christmas of 1294, Poland's leader at the time, Przemysł II, took title to the river delta site and acted to demonstrate his control by sending representatives to the region. Needless to say, in 1296, Przemysł II was assassinated. Some sources claim the assassins were agents acting on behalf of German Brandenburg.

In any case, Przemysł’s death triggered a power dispute in Poland; it also created an opportunity for one of Mestwin’s relatives, a prince from Denmark, to try to seize control of the Vistula river delta settlement in 1301. In response, Poland’s emerging leader, Władysław the Elbow-high, began searching for an ally to help him establish Polish rule at the site. He ultimately chose his nearby neighbors, the German Knights of the Teutonic Order. The plot thickened.

1226: the Order begins to build fortifications near the Vistula, in the Kulmerland.

The Order had begun as a council of German knights in service to both the German Holy Roman Empire and the papacy in Rome. It was first summoned to conduct Christianizing crusades and protect Christian settlers in the Middle East and southern Europe. The Order's resume also included services for Konrad, the leader of a group of Christianized Slavs later known as the Masurians. Living east of the Vistula river delta along the periphery of Christendom, Konrad's people had been subject to frequent raids by the neighboring Baltic pagans. Thus, in 1226, Konrad had called upon the Order to launch a fierce Christianizing crusade in the region. In return, the Order was permitted to keep part of the conquered territory for itself, the Kulmerland, which became its permanent home.

In 1302, the Order acted on Władysław's orders to seize the Vistula river delta city and quickly established Polish rule. But after the Order left, the new peace did not last long. In 1308, rebels at the Vistula river delta settlement ousted the Polish loyalists and again opened the city to the Germans of Brandenburg. In response, the Polish administrators fled and petitioned the German Knights of the Teutonic Order to return. Once again, the Knights stormed the site and quickly put an end to the rebellion. Problems soon arose, however, when the Order demanded payment for its services and Poland refused to comply.

As tensions grew, the Order set the walls of the city aflame – either to make the site more difficult for Brandenburg to recapture or, according to the Order’s opponents, to destroy the site as a future competitor that could take away from other Order-held settlements in the Baltic. Whichever the case, the Order refused to leave the city and eventually sent its knights into surrounding settlements to take possession of these sites, too. The Order agreed to pay 10,000 silver marks for the land it wished to retain. But the Order had one last surprise: Brandenburg was to receive the full sum, not Poland. These events became part of the controversy over the ownership of the river delta settlement – a settlement that, over time, became known as Danzig.

In the 15th century, Polish diplomat Jan Długosz described the Order’s takeover at Danzig as a “slaughter” in which “no person of Polish nationality was spared, whatever his condition, sex or age might be.” According to Długosz, “seldom was the spilling of Polish blood attending the conquest of any place more profuse, seldom the slaughter more inhuman.” At the time of the account, Poland was embroiled in a series of wars with the Teutonic Order, so the diplomat had good reason to paint such a picture – and, in inspiring support against the Order, a clear motivation. But the significance of Długosz’s view should be emphasized. Next to the Polish author Jan Ostroróg, who called the Germans “dirty, filthy artisans” and “rabble”, Długosz has been considered “one of the greatest of Polish writers” in history and is credited with giving the Poles “knowledge of the past and a love of their past history” that “remained with them” and “inspired them in later times of troubles.” Thus, the critical point is not whether Długosz’s view of the Order’s actions in 1308 was accurate, but whether it became part of the Poles’ knowledge of the past on the one hand and remained with and inspired them on the other. After all, Długosz had portrayed a defining moment in the history of a city that, in the 20th century, Germans and Poles were at odds over. At the very least, Długosz’s view of the Order’s takeover in 1308 had the potential to influence Polish minds and create cynicism about Germany’s attempts to renegotiate the city’s status as the Free City.

As for whether the Polish people came to see “1308” as Długosz did, no sooner had Germany abandoned its peaceful attempts to acquire the Free City and invaded Poland in 1939, the Polish press immediately drew reference to the events of 1308. “The Germans of today are the worthy successors of the Knights who massacred ten thousand souls,” proclaimed one source. A second account claimed that the new attack would “repeat what the Germans had done in 1308.” By all accounts, the subsequent German occupation of Poland left much more to be talked about than the events of 1308. Nevertheless, in a report on administrative policies in “German-occupied Europe” in 1944, U.S. foreign affairs advisor Raphael Lemkin mentioned “1308” in his overview of the ongoing war-time conditions in Danzig. Lemkin’s comment was the only part of the entire publication to mention the distant past. In it, Lemkin portrayed the German people as a murder band that had invaded a Polish city in 1308 to kill off the population. As one might expect, Lemkin had been born in Poland. But just as importantly, the source for his claims was none other than Długosz himself. These facts show the impact of Długosz’s work and the resonance of his ideas in the Polish collective consciousness.

Echoing the sentiments of Długosz, Polish National Democrat politician Jędrzej Giertych also provided commentary on “1308”. Giertych claimed that, in 1308, the Order had “approached the Polish forces as allies, turned arms against them and murdered everyone in sight, including Danzig’s men, women and children.” Giertych’s quote appeared in a letter he had sent to the United States government to emphasize Poland’s rightful ownership of Danzig. While some may argue that this type of dramatic rhetoric is typical of the National Democrats, these sentiments are mainstream and the resonance of “1308” in Polish culture can still be felt to this day. For example, Poland’s official website for the city, run by Polish municipal authorities, boldly claimed that, in 1308, the Knights “butchered the population” in a “slaughter” that put the region under the “Teutonic yoke”.

As some of these examples show, Poland’s long-standing view of “1308” often includes more than just an opinion on what the Order may have done; also covered is the nationality of the victims. But the argument extends beyond whether a Polish sovereign was in control. Polish historians assert that the Pomeranians who lived at the settlement had spoken a Slavic tongue similar to Polish and assimilated into Polish culture. Over the years, experts on Danzig’s history, such as James Minahan and Hartmut Boockmann, have clashed over whether the majority population at Danzig in 1308 was either of Pomeranian or German origin. In any case, Poland has never had trouble identifying the nation or sovereign who the victims belonged to. In fact, in 1969, Poland built a monument called the “Pomnik Tym co za Polskość Gdańska” to memorialize “the city’s Polishness” and honor those who, in 1308 and 1939, had died to protect it. The statue stands to this day.

For all that has been said about “1308”, it is unclear what actually occurred during the fateful event. It is known that, in the aftermath, Polish authorities complained to the Pope and the figure of 10,000 dead was produced as evidence of the Knights' gross misconduct; it is also known that the Knights were subsequently expelled from the Catholic Church and a papal court ruled that the Order's land purchases were not legitimate. But the Pope eventually reversed the rulings related to the events of 1308 and the Knights were exonerated of all charges. In 1966, the academic journal Medievalia et humanistica produced a study that claimed it was “impossible” for the Knights to have killed 10,000 people in 1308 because the city’s population was “much smaller” at the time. The journal also maintained that an eyewitness on the scene, who charged the Order with killing a mere sixteen people, had given a “more credible” figure. Either way, Poland’s rulers refused to change their views of the events in 1308, likely influencing the views which sustain to this day. Poland’s leaders also refused to recognize the Teutonic Order State’s land claims. Thus, for nearly four decades, Poland and the Order continued to spar over power in the eastern Baltic.

With the signing of the Treaty of Kalisz in 1343, an era of peace between the Order and Poland began. However, the years of tranquility came to an abrupt end with onset of a brand-new controversy in 1410. In 1410, the German Knights attacked the Polish forces near Tannenberg, which triggered one of the largest and most decisive battles in Medieval European history. Some have called it the ultimate German-Polish showdown, while others have labeled the conflict “the most important battle in Poland's history.” Whatever the case, like the events of 1308, the battle had a lasting effect on the ethnic Polish collective social consciousness and, through its use in propaganda, a tremendous effect on German-Polish relations. For example, in 20th century history texts, Polish schoolchildren read that the Order had attacked the Polish forces near Tannenberg to procure the Baltic lands for itself. In this assessment, comparisons were drawn between the assault and what Polish intellectuals perceived to have happened at Danzig in 1308. The indirect conclusion was that, like in 1308, the German people were a “race of imperializers from the west” who were not to be trusted.

Of course, neither the Germans nor the Poles had been in the Baltic prior to their own respective resettlement or state expansionisms. Furthermore, although the Order had indeed attacked Poland near Tannenberg, the conflict had grown from a taut situation in which Poland’s ally, Lithuania, had assisted a coup against the Order, the Order had mobilized against Lithuania and, in response, Poland had threatened to go to war with the Order State. Still, in determining how future generations learned to see their neighbors and were inclined to interact with them, what mattered most was not whether history had been recounted accurately, but what the public took away from the way the history had been recounted. As it were, Polish state loyalists and nationalists earmarked stories about the battle near Tannenberg in 1410 and the takeover of Danzig in 1308 and used them to lecture to their fellow countrymen that compromises and negotiations with the Germans would be followed by betrayal and a back blow to Polish interests.

The German people also remembered the Battle of Tannenberg; as evidence of this fact, when the German army stood firm against the Russian army at the beginning of the First World War in August 1914, the Germans declared the confrontation to be a second “Battle of Tannenberg”. The implication was that the encounter had been part of an ongoing conflict over the boundaries between the German people and “the Slavs” dating back to at least the conflict with Poland in 1410. The claim made for a fantastic piece of German war propaganda; by romanticizing the importance of the encounter, the Germans had a victory on their hands that, even more than before, was sure to have an effect on morale. Furthermore, the idea of a “sequel to 1410” at Tannenberg allowed the Germans to chalk up the encounter of 1914 as a retributive victory. The reason is, unlike the 20th century confrontation, the battle of 1410 was a terrible defeat for the German-led forces and German administrative interests in the long run. The defeat of 1410 set the pace for the Second Treaty of Thorn in 1466 which, financially and militarily, reduced the German-led Order State to fiefdom, to little more than a viscerally independent, yet militarily-obligated servant of Poland. The treaty also allowed Poland’s leaders to affirm their control over the stretch of the Baltic extending from March Brandenburg of the Holy Roman Empire to just beyond the eastern banks of the Vistula River; within this region was Danzig, which the Order had controlled since the takeover of 1308. Poland also gained control over the two major Order settlements, Elbag and Lidzbark, as well as the rest of land in the Marienburg, Warmia, and the Kulmerland regions. Accordingly, Polish authorities obtained control over a large body of German settlers where German administration came to an end. During the 20th century, when arguments for rightful possession of Danzig defaulted to discussions about past ownership, these developments became particularly important and buttressed Poland’s claims of rightful ownership in the Baltic.

Control over the Vista river delta region after the Second Treaty of Thorn, in 1466.

The Second Treaty of Thorn also gave root to the very ethnographic controversy that the 20th century conflict over Danzig should be associated with; while the regions assigned to Poland after the treaty lost most of their budding, ethnic German character, Danzig, a popular destination for city-bound German immigrants, and the regions held onto by the Order State did not. Thus, the conditions were ripe for Danzig and the territory of the Order State to become an isolated, German-speaking Baltic region, cut off from the rest of the German-led world by a chunk of territory that, since the Second Treaty of Thorn, had been administered by the Kingdom of Poland, settled by the Poles and influenced by Polish socio-political and cultural forces. These are the exact changes that began to occur; then, in the midst of these changes, a new dimension was introduced to the territorial conflict in-the-making.

In a 1512 war between Poland and the Moscow-based state later known as Russia, Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the leader of the Order State, was obligated to uphold his contractual duty to support Poland. In defiance, Albrecht pushed for an alliance with the forces from Russia. Albrecht’s goal was to gain diplomatic leverage and get Poland’s leader to give up some of the territory that the Order had handed over in the aftermath of the Battle of Tannenberg. Instead, Albrecht’s actions prompted Poland to declare war on the Order State in 1519. All at once, the fate of Danzig and the eastern Baltic was at stake. Then, in 1521, news came that the Islamist Ottoman forces had invaded Central Europe and were advancing north; a representative of the Holy Roman Empire pleaded for the leaders of Poland and the Order to end their war and send forces to help push back the Ottomans and save Christendom in Europe. Poland and the Order obliged.

Unable to reclaim the land the Order State had yielded to Poland in the 1400s, Albrecht vowed to improve the Order State's fortunes by focusing on internal matters, such as getting rid of the Order. In 1525, Albert expelled the knights who refused to pledge loyalty to him and denounce the Pope. Fed up with papal influence and inspired by Martin Luther and the Reformation, Albrecht proclaimed himself a Lutheran Protestant. The Order State was subsequently converted into a duchy called Prussia. Poland continued to exercise power over the territory; however, Albrecht now had the freedom to appoint his successor and create a dynasty of hereditary succession. No longer would an assembly of knights and clerics decide the territory’s leaders. Oddly enough, in relation to the 20th century dispute over Danzig, this detail became extremely important.

In 1618, the last able ruler in Albrecht’s line died, so the son-in-law, the elected ruler of March Brandenburg, took over. Consequently, Brandenburg and the Prussia came together under the auspices of the same authority. Yet the two regions were hardly “together”; whereas Brandenburg answered to the collective decisions of the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia was still linked to the Polish Crown. Therefore, as a whole, Brandenburg-Prussia was little more than a set of borders on a map. Needless to say, Brandenburg-Prussia was in no position to loosen itself from powerful Poland’s influence; Poland was in its Golden Age and, in union with Lithuania, had built a powerful empire known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The largest country in Europe, the Commonwealth stretched as far to the east as the cities of Kiev and Smolensk in present-day Ukraine and Russia, respectively. But, in the mid 17th century, fate reared its head and the leader of Brandenburg-Prussia, the "Great Elector" Friedrich Wilhelm, got an incredible hand to play in his state's quest for independence.

In 1655, Sweden’s armies took control of most of Poland and an era called “the Deluge” began. During this time, Danzig clung to the Polish crown, amazingly withstanding even a year-long siege by the Swedes. Polish sources would later use this fact to emphasize the city’s connection to Poland. However, whether the city was indeed “Polish” at this time is open to interpretation; first of all, most of the people who lived in the city were not ethnic Poles. Since the 16th century, the city had been a predominantly German-populated settlement. Secondly, Poland had allowed Danzig to create its own coinage, court systems and even its own commercial regulation laws and, as the residents of Danzig stipulated, the Polish king could not visit the city more than three days a year. The city was principally autonomous; in fact, in this condition, it had also become one of the richest ports in Europe. Consequently, Danzig was determined to stick with Poland. By contrast, Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Prussia was looking to escape the clutches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He soon got his chance.

Danzig circa 1600: a rich, semi-autonomous, fortified, mostly ethnic German city loyal to the Polish Crown.

1655: as Sweden expands its power into central Europe ( i i  ), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is nearly wiped off the map (  ii  )

In exchange for limited control over part of the Swedish-controlled Baltic, Friedrich Wilhelm forsook his oath to support Poland and instead put his state in Sweden’s corner of the ring. In retaliation, Polish authorities threatened to put the rebel "where neither sun nor moon would shine". But Poland’s leaders eventually overlooked the betrayal; they also promised to stay out of Brandenburg-Prussia's affairs if the state helped Poland to defeat Sweden. Friedrich Wilhelm accepted these terms and, in 1657, switched back to Poland’s side. When the war ended in 1660, the arrangements concerning Brandenburg-Prussia’s sovereignty remained intact. However, Friedrich Wilhelm’s state was still not fully “together.” Territory belonging to Poland, including Danzig, sat directly in Brandenburg-Prussia’s lap, dividing the new state into two unconnected parts. The state of affairs created numerous problems in terms of logistics and defense. Still, change was in the air – not just for Brandenburg-Prussia, which had a name change and came to be known jointly as “Prussia”, but for Poland, too.

By the end of the 17th century, Poland and Lithuania had staved off the Swedes; additionally, alongside the Holy Roman Empire, Poland had helped drive the Islamic Ottoman invaders from Vienna and out of the heart of Europe. However, a series of costly wars with the forces from Russia had not ended as well for Poland and had drained its treasury just the same. Perhaps more importantly, the Polish government had erred by refusing to grant parliamentary representation to the Cossack people in Polish-held Ukraine, or recognize the Cossacks’ Christian Orthodox traditions. As a result, the Cossacks had turned to Orthodox Russia, led by the Russian Czar, and Poland promptly lost control of the Ukraine, its breadbasket. The Czar and his allies pushed for increasing influence in the Polish heartland too, particularly by supporting the appointment of weak Polish kings who would allow for Russian intervention. Although Poland’s parliamentary aristocracy of powerful, land-owning nobles and magnates also preferred a weaker king, their goal was to secure their own domination, not Russia’s. Nonetheless, Poland was destabilized by these changes and, as anarchy and the black market became the order of the day on the streets, its people were subject to outside influences and pulled east. In 1768, Poland became a vassal state controlled by the Russian Czar. Fearing a complete takeover, the rulers of Prussia and the Austrian Empire sent their own forces into Poland. It was a clear sign that Russia could either risk war over complete control of the Polish state or agree to split it with others. The Russian Czar chose to the latter and, in 1772, the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place. Russia, Prussia and Austria each grabbed a chunk of the Commonwealth’s territory. In this manner, Prussia solved its territorial discontinuity problem. Two more partitions ensued and, by 1795, the Commonwealth and a sovereign, Polish-led state had both seized to exist.

Prussia’s leader at the time of the partitioning of Poland, Frederick the Great, justified Poland’s fate as revenge for the “partitioning” of the Order State “in the 1400s” following the aftermath of the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. It was not the first time that a German or Polish leader had referenced the past in order to create sentiments about the present, nor would it be the last. In fact, the trend was becoming quite common in the Polish-speaking realm, where a movement to reestablish an independent Polish state was rapidly taking form. Interestingly, Prussia watched most of the action from the sidelines; as noted by Polish historian Wilhelm Feldman, “most-influential writers” in the early 19th century Polish sphere “did not advocate an anti-Prussian orientation,” nor did they provoke agitation against Prussia. One reason may have been that, after 1815, the Poles had been entitled to limited self-government within Prussia, at least within the region the Prussian king had placed under the control of Antoni Radziwiłł, a reputable Polish aristocrat and Prussian loyalist. Radziwiłł had hoped that Prussia could slowly become a “two-nation kingdom” of ethnic Germans and Poles. A number of Prussian liberals shared his view. Consequently, the Polish nobles who nevertheless wished to preserve the Polish nation to one day forge an independent Polish state were spared discriminatory and power-stripping legislation and did not feel that their toes had been stepped on.

By contrast, after acquiring most of the Polish population and their land, imperial Russia demolished the Polish aristocracy and introduced the Polish people to the harsh terms of serfdom. Accordingly, the movement to create a new Poland based on the liberal precepts of the French Revolution focused on achieving freedom from the Russian absolutists. The writings of former Commonwealth statesman Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz give a clear picture of the movement’s hostility towards Russia.

According to Niemcewicz, the Russians had “vilified” the Polish people as “unworthy of forming a nation” and played the card of Pan-Slavism to chain the Polish nation to the Czar’s despotic system. Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz cursed these “despots from the East”, who he described as “yellow-faced posers” who “chatted through their noses” and were “worse than wild Tartar bands.” Meanwhile, Polish publicist, jurist and political activist Karola Boromeusza Hoffmana urged the Polish people to unite with fellow “West Slavs” to push out the “Moscow” state – a state that Polish politician and historian Walerian Skorobohaty Krasiński declared synonymous with “Hell”.

Indeed, as most of the Poles under Russian control were traditional Catholics, the Christian world view found its way into the spirit of the movement to create a new Polish state. Whereas Polish works portrayed Russia as “Hell”, the old Poland became the “Christi” of nations that, because of its “belief in freedom and democracy for all people”, had gone under in a dark, militant world to become a beacon of light for the future. Some sources even claimed that the old Poland had been “with God” and structured according to “His divine will”. Among those who forwarded these ideas were writers and philosophers such as Adam Mickiewicz, Kazimierz Brodzinski, Maurycy Mochnacki, Karol Libelt and Juliusz Slowacki.

Polish revolutionaries also drew reference to the old Poland and focused on its allegedly superior living conditions. In fact, the motif became a popular theme in Polish school texts. Taking things a step further, the Polish socialists argued that the old Poland had made steps towards eliminating social inequality and, once the Russian yoke was gone, progressive reforms would continue. They theorized that, after liberation, Poland would establish an example which would spread to the rest of the world.

While the Polish independence movement alluded to a supposedly glorious past in Poland and promised an even better future, comparatively few accounts mentioned the devastating poverty, disintegrating leadership and corrupt nobility which had characterized Poland prior to the Partitions. This created a situation in which the Partitions could be viewed as not a consequence of the Polish state’s decline, but as the sole reason for the decline. Therefore, whereas English historian Thomas Carlyle described Poland prior to the Partitions as a “beautifully phosphorescent rot-heap”, 19th century Polish historian Tadeusz Korzon claimed that, at that time, the Commonwealth had been running fine. Kazimierz Klemens Waliszewski, another 19th century historian, asserted that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had simply “needed to be left alone” to have continued success. An additional Polish source claimed that Poland’s greatest flaw was being “peaceful”, while another argued that the Commonwealth’s flaw was being the junction point of neighboring “barbarians.” Waleryan Kalinka, a Catholic priest and staunch Polish patriot, settled on the latter interpretation. These views became a part of the socialization in Poland and ultimately led one 20th century Polish political analyst to conclude that the Partitions had been “the greatest crime in history.” Ironically, the analysis came amidst the crisis over the Free City of Danzig, during which time the author was using sentiments about the Partitions to defend his view that Danzig’s “rightful” place was with Poland.

As Polish intellectuals stirred up hatred towards the Partitions and popularized the movement to create a new Polish state, the “rightful” borders of the new Polish state became a divisive topic. During the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland had been the master of much of Eastern Europe and had had the luxury of utilizing most the Baltic as it saw fit. Critically, the Polish state had maintained access to the sea and done so in combination with maintaining possession of Danzig. Even after the First Partition of Poland, which led to Prussia being connected all along the length of the Baltic, Danzig had remained within the Polish realm as an isolated port serving Poland, completely surrounded by Prussia and open waters. These facts were a testament to the city’s value to Poland, as well as the potential of an independent Polish state that had expanded to the Baltic Sea. Incidentally, those same facts gave the Germans a reason to be just as concerned about the Polish revolutionaries as the Russians already were.

While some revolutionaries accepted the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as the natural limits of a “rightful” “Polish state”, others noted that the Commonwealth had been a patchwork of various subjugated people including not only descendants of the Pomeranians, Masurians and other Slavs west of Russia, but also Russians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Livonians, ethnic Germans and a large assortment of Jewish immigrants from Western Asia. Thus, some revolutionaries pressed for the creation of a different state which included namely people of ethnic Polish origin. Others saw ethnic identities as fluid and considered the liberal ideas of the Commonwealth as a leitmotif that defined the people from Poland. For example, Polish military general and seasoned rebel Ludwik Mierosławski argued that, just as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had, in his opinion, gone under as a martyr for humanity and the civilized West, the people of this state had given up their ethnic privileges as Polans or Slavs to become “Polish”. Publicist and activist Feliks Perl believed that the “Polish nation” should decide its own borders. Using the idea of individual property rights to decide the borders of a “rightful” Polish state, others questioned the status of the land across Europe once held by nobles from Poland. Stanisław Zdzitowiecki, a Polish Catholic priest, offered another view: he declared that Poland’s “rightful” borders could be determined by the extent of Catholicism to the east. In the meantime, Polish politician and publicist Władysław Studnicki decreed that, unless the Polish nation soon found its way back into state form, it was destined to fade into a demographic minority in some other state.

Thus, the movement to create a liberal state free from Russian absolutism mutated into an irredentist struggle to resurrect a “just Poland” and “write Poland’s unfinished history” before it was too late. What this meant became clear when Polish poet and military figure Jozef Wybicki sat down and penned his thoughts on the movement:
“Poland has not yet died, so long as we still live. What the alien power has seized from us, we shall recapture by sword. Like Czarniecki to Poznań. Returned across the sea. To save his homeland. After the Swedish partition. March, march... We'll cross the Vistula and the Warta, we shall be Polish.”
It was a call to arms that the Poles would later transform into their national anthem; incidentally, the same call was at the heart of the Polish uprisings in Russian-held Poland in 1830 and 1831. Although the uprisings had failed, various speeches from the period and pieces of highly-emotive commemorative literature in the years which followed helped to keep the spirit of the rebellion alive. Subsequently, the “urge to break the chains” became a concrete part of the Polish national conscious. Fearing the worst, Prussian officials concluded that the protection of Polish identity in Prussia preserved a separatist energy that constituted a threat to Prussian state security. In Prussian schools and at different levels of civil administration, the use of the German language became mandatory. Additionally, Prussian authorities encouraged German settlers to mix into areas with large ethnic Polish populations. The Polish revolutionary movement responded with intensified hostility towards Prussia but, after a decade, Prussia’s leaders relaxed their Germanization policies. Under these conditions, in 1845, the long-time revolutionary Mierosławski declared:
“It would have been naive to form an alliance with Prussia, a land traditionally linked to so much of the evil that has been done to Poland, but the German power is two-faced, like a Janus-head; if one concentrates sinisterly on the past and sees the tomb of Poland, one must also look at the future at the unavoidable imprint to be made by Germanic politics. Sooner or later, one must befriend the only power capable of stemming the old threatening monster of Pan-Slavicism.”
A few years later, the entire situation in Central Europe was turned on its head; the catalyst was the great European proletarian uprisings of 1848, which sent tremors across the European aristocratic order. Afterwards, even the more-liberal establishment in Prussia began to support the suppression of ethnic freedoms to crush separatist and socialist revolutionary undercurrents. In turn, the Poles became greatly antagonistic towards the Germans. This gave rise to a new generation of Polish revolutionaries, the neo-Slavists, who supported Pan-Slavic cooperation against “German imperialism.” “Swój do swego” became the rallying cry of the new movement – each Slav for his own and for all. At the 1848 “Pan-Slavic” Congress in Prague, the following song was sung, which embodied the spirit of the new movement:
“Brothers, take up your scythes! Let us hurry to war! Poland's oppression is over, we shall tarry no more. Gather hordes about yourselves. Our enemy, the German, shall fall! Loot and rob and burn! Let the enemies die a painful death. He that hangs the German dogs will gain God's reward. I, the provost, promise you shall attain Heaven for it. Every sin will be forgiven, even well-planned murder, If it promotes Polish freedom everywhere. But curses on the evil one who dares speak well of Germany to us. Poland shall and must survive. The Pope and God have promised it.”
Erazm Stablewski, an ethnic Pole in the Prussian Parliament, urged the Polish-speaking peoples to remember that they were Slavs and, “as Germans”, they would have “no future.” Polish poets, artists, and other cultural figures also lent their support to the new direction of the independence movement. In various works, the Germans were compared to the German Knights who were, for example, likened to a pack of kennel dogs. The slight had first appeared in Polish literature as early as 1569; however, over the course of the 19th century, it had become a reoccurring theme in Polish works. Renowned Polish literary figures Adam Mickiewicz, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Bolesław Prus and Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer all joined the hate parade. The influence of their works should not be underestimated; for example, Mickiewicz’s Grażyna supposedly inspired female Polish revolutionary Emilia Plater. The title had been published in an anthology that included the work Konrad Wallenrod, which is said to have helped spark the 1830 revolutions. A marble statue stands in Kraków’s Planty Park to commemorate Grażyna, and some Polish families have since named their daughters after the book; today, Grazyna is still one of the “most popular” girl names in Poland. In the story Grażyna, Mickiewicz refers to the “scamps” in the “kennels of the Teutonic Order” and claims that the “Prussians lap up daily blood.”

Another one of Mickiewicz’s works, the poem Pan Tadeusz, refers to “taking back” Danzig; it also calls the Germans “dumb and silent” and advocates their slaughter. The text was once on the required reading list in schools across Poland. Another famous text in which the Germans knights are referred to as dogs is Krzyżacy, a piece by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Krzyżacy is about a predictably pious Polish noble’s struggle to overcome the peril of the dark and corrupt German Knights, seize victory in the Battle of Tannenberg and save his true love. In the story, the Germans invade, impose, kidnap and kill their way across Poland. The story still enjoys widespread popularity to this day and has been translated into many languages. It has also been adapted into a major film.

By the 1860s, a Polish-speaking, traditionally Protestant ethnic group in Prussia, the Masurians, had become the ball in an increasingly aggressive tennis match between Prussian conservatives and Polish nationalists. While the revolutionaries fighting for a free Poland pressed for the Masurians to embrace their “Polishness” and separate from German Prussia, Prussian-feeling Masurians pulled back, stressing the ideals of German Protestantism and the German spirit of conservative monarchism. Under the circumstances, Prussian state police feared that Masuria would join the Polish revolution. Consequently, the surveillance of Masurian communities increased and the Masurian people were forced to adapt the German language. Prussian authorities also introduced a program to settle the Masurian lands with German-speaking immigrants. The goal of the program was to keep Polish nationalist influence in Masuria to a minimum, especially after news came that people from Poland had begun buying up land in the region. Eventually, Prussian officials banned all non-citizens of Polish descent from Prussia, except those who were working in industrial production due to labor shortages.

Prussia’s Germanization efforts were largely unsuccessful and led to a great deal of resistance from the Masurians. Still, the Polish nationalists had no better luck recruiting for their cause; Protestant Masuria viewed the Polish Catholic nationalists as uncivilized rabble-rousers. On the other hand, elsewhere in Prussia, the Polish nationalist movement managed to awaken national feeling amongst the Poles and stir up discontent. For these reasons, after Otto von Bismarck became the Prussian Minister President in 1862, he labeled the Poles “enemies of the state.” Tolerating Polish culture, he believed, would leave the Poles in Prussia susceptible to Polish nationalist propaganda. Bismarck claimed that the Polish revolutionaries “would only stop calculating Prussia as their enemy” if he let them take the regions where Polish-speaking people could be found, including those “Prussia required to exist”, such as along the “mouth of the Vistula.” At the time, the “mouth of the Visula” was still administered by Prussia. The major city along the mouth of the Vistula, Danzig, had been the home to a prosperous ethnic German community since the 13th century and had housed a German majority since the 16th century. Prussia, a predominantly ethnic German-populated and ethnic German-controlled entity, had obtained Danzig in 1793 and grown to extend along the greater length of the Baltic seacoast. By 1866, Prussia had also expanded to incorporate much of German-speaking Europe under its power and, in 1871, it became the cornerstone of a united German state “from the Maas to the Memel” – from an area just beyond the western banks of the famous Rhine River to Prussia’s distant coastal city in the east, which bordered Lithuania. Inevitably, a partial dissection of this German colossus had to occur if a Polish state were to be resurrected and again granted an outlet to the sea as the Polish people had intended. However, the leaders of Germany were interested in maintaining the power of their state, if not expanding it. They certainly did not want the contiguous German Empire to be torn apart. Therefore, the stage was set for a potential conflict between Poland and Germany.

Just as the rise of the Prussian German state drew breath from the collapse of the Polish Commonwealth, the rise of a new Poland took place in direct correlation with united Germany’s decline. Incidentally, Germany “went under” in a war that had little to do with the conflicting German-Polish state-building projects or conflicting German-Polish claims in the eastern Baltic just beyond Danzig; however, the war was ironically spawned by the circumstances which had given way to the German-Polish conflict: the gradual resettlement of those from the Germanic stock back east, the subjugation of the Slavs by German administrators and the rise of revolutionary feeling amongst Slav commoners. More specifically, the German-led monarchy of Austria, which extended into Serbia, implemented measures to crush the Slav separatist movement there and this triggered a German-Slav conflict. After the German monarchists announced their supported of Austria, the Russians reached out to the Serbian rebels, ostensibly to advance the interests of the Russian Empire under the guise of Pan-Slavism. Russia mobilized for war with Austria and Germany declared war on Russia. France then began to mobilize against Germany, and Germany invaded France through Belgium, triggering the United Kingdom’s entry into the war against Germany. The conflict continued to spread, culminating in the bloodbath known as the First World War.

As events unfolded, Russia invaded Germany only to be thrown back and sent into full retreat. Thus, by 1915, much of Russian-controlled Eastern Europe, including the heart of Poland, came under German control. The Germans had promised to recreate an independent Polish state and hoped that the Polish people would unite with them against the Russians. The promise inspired the Act of November 5th, in which the governments of Germany and Austria signed. But the Polish people did not trust the Germans and considered them to be little more than a second wave of occupiers who were taking the place of the Russians. As evidence of this fact, only approximately five thousand troops in Poland could be recruited to help the German war effort and the pro-German, Polish volunteer army failed to win the support of the rest of occupied Poland. Concomitantly, it is unknown how many of these recruits from the Polish heartland had partially ethnic German backgrounds and can even be counted as Polish people who supported the German side. By comparison, under the command of Polish General Józef Haller, at least as many people from occupied Poland had volunteered to fight for Germany’s enemies in the war.

Polish politician Wojciech Trąmpczyński had predicted that, if Poland would break free from the Russian absolutists, Germany would “catch the brunt” of Poland’s revolutionary furor. Unfortunately for the Germans, he had been correct. On the one hand, the bulk of the German army had made a clean pass through Poland in pursuit of the Russian army. On the other, with Russia out of the picture, Polish revolutionaries began to focus solely on the German threat to Polish independence rather than the Russian one. Additionally, the situation on the field of battle allowed the Germans to be seen as expansionist aggressors in the war. Neo-Slavists such as Roman Dmowski, the co-founder of the National Democrat political party in Poland and one of the most foremost politicians of the 20th century, claimed that the war had been caused by “the Germans” and their imperialism across Europe. The German army’s presence in Poland only seemed to confirm this. Moreover, as the war had brought Polish industrial production to a standstill and put the welfare of the Polish people in jeopardy, the rumored “German imperial war” came to be seen as the root of the problem. All in all, none of this helped to improve German-Polish relations. Then again, neither did Germany’s war-time policies.

During the war, Germany attempted to take control of Poland’s resources and use them to aid the German war economy. To achieve this, the Germans had invited up to 180,000 workers from formerly Russian-controlled Eastern Europe to integrate into western Poland’s industrial scene; around thirty percent of the imported workers were Eastern Europeans of ethnic German descent. At the same time, to compensate for the fact that many factory workers in Germany had left for the war front, the Germans rounded up the people in occupied Poland who they considered “Arbeitsscheu” (“shying from work”) and shipped them off to Germany to receive compulsory labor assignments. By 1918, up to 300,000 Polish people, including the “Arbeitsscheu”, had been deported from the Polish heartland and put in German factories; all were forbidden from returning to the Polish lands until the end of the war, and those who did not comply with the German regulations were threatened with imprisonment. In 1916, Hans Hartwig von Beseler, the leader of the temporary, German-installed government in the Polish city of Warsaw, spoke of the importance of program:
“In the interests of the German fatherland, our most important task is to support the transfer of Polish workers to Germany. The leaders of this Warsaw government must understand that the interests of the territory they govern are only secondary to this goal.”
For a brief period in 1916, not just the “Arbeitsscheu”, but all working-age people in Poland had been subject to the program and public criticism of the program had been illegal. Finally, due to Polish strikes and mass protests, as well as pressures from socialists in the German parliament, the policy was abandoned. Nonetheless, the damage had been done; when the war came to an end in 1918, 65,633 people from Poland signed a petition for the German government to pay seventy-five million marks for damages incurred due to forced deportations and faulty payments, as well as injuries and illnesses due to adverse work conditions under Germany’s war-time compulsory labor program. The German government refused to make these payments and argued that Germany had brought organization to Poland by finding employment for more than half a million residents. The German government also contended that its measures had fired up Poland’s factories and also improved the economic situation by setting up a civil worker battalion to build roads and improve Polish infrastructure.

From Berlin’s perspective, the Germans had become the caretakers of the Polish people. The Poles were plagued by hunger and disease due to the war, as well as past mismanagement and neglect under the control of imperial Russia. Oddly enough, the governments of the United Kingdom and France could vouch for the destitution in Poland since they had purposely ignored it in the hopes that the Poles would rebel against their German administrators, triggering a German-Polish conflict, which would be devastating to the German war effort. Thus, Germany had little choice but to invest its own men, material and time into stabilizing Poland, which ate into the German war effort just the same.

Meanwhile, for German troops and officials stationed in Poland, their experiences led to opinions about the Poles not unlike those which had become common among the German conservative military elite centuries earlier for political reasons. Poland came to be seen as an “unorganized”, “degenerate”, “uncultured” and “primitive” place. At the same time, as the definition of “Arbeitsscheu” had been manipulated so that most Poles would be eligible for conscription into Germany’s labor program, hundreds of thousands of Polish “Arbeitsscheu” were imported to Germany. With their arrival came the impression that the people of Poland were generally an “arbeitsscheues Volk” – a lazy and unproductive people. Furthermore, as most of the imported Polish workers were commoners, language and competence issues surfaced in the workplace, which also contributed to negative views of Poland’s people.

From the Polish perspective, Poland had been plundered by German imperialists in the war and used like a colony. Julius Berger, the head of the Jewish division of compulsory laborers and a friend of the anti-war movement, proclaimed that the compulsory labor program “had brought disgrace to the German name” and was the most “insane and disgraceful thing imaginable.” At the very least, Germany’s war time policy in occupied Poland was extremely unpopular among the Polish people. Here too was a reason why Germany had to take men and material away from the war front: to prevent sabotage and safeguard supply lines stretching from Germany to Poland and into Russia.

In March 1918, Russia signed a peace agreement with Germany; in theory, the agreement enabled the Germans to leave the Eastern Front and concentrate on winning the war against the United Kingdom and France in the West; in practice, because of the threat of a Polish revolution, Germany was forced to leave a significant number of military forces in formerly Russian-occupied Poland and the rest of Polish Europe. In the fall of 1918, the final German offensive in the West came to a halt. The German home front collapsed and, on November 9, 1918, the German Emperor abdicated the throne. Illustrating how Germany’s decline coincided with Poland’s resurrection hand-in-glove, November 9th was later pronounced Poland’s “national day.”

On November 11th, Germany signed an armistice and the First World War came to an end. Instead of waiting to see what the international elite would do next, the Poles revolted. For the ethnic Germans caught in the thick of the rebellion, the ramifications were tremendous. Where Polish forces took over, the German language was abolished; street signs were changed to Polish and those who sympathized with the German army were killed. Many ethnic German inhabitants fled. In 1919, National Democrat Stanisław Grabski, Poland’s future Minister of Culture, warned that the “foreign element” within the new Polish state “should look around to see if a better situation can be found elsewhere.” In the coming years, the Poles made good of his warning; educators, legal associates and other officials of German ethnicity did not have their contracts renewed and saw little choice but to flee. Others, facing the prospect of becoming a part of a new country with a weaker economy and lower wages, left on their own accord. Those who refused to leave their homes were stripped of their German state citizenship and pressured to learn Polish. Some even lost their homes to government authorities; for example, the new Polish government seized property which had previously been issued on behalf of the Prussian Settlement Commission, on the grounds that the plots had once been bought from, or taken from, ethnic Poles and distributed to settlers of German descent. Thus, people of German origin were increasingly isolated and repressed. Amidst the turmoil, a number of these Germans joined paramilitary units and began fighting the Poles in a mini civil war that would last as late as mid-1921.

While the Germans and the Poles were fighting over cities and towns in Central and Eastern Europe, representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as France and several smaller nations, met at the Paris Peace Conference to discuss the future. Since Germany had been defeated in the First World War, the conference attendees essentially had free reign to carve up the map of Europe without consulting Germany or Europe’s German-speaking masses. Naturally, this was bad news for the German people; the conferring powers at the Paris Peace Conference had a consensus to create a fully independent Polish state, and it was expected that this state would be grafted from part of Germany. Indeed, the conference attendees decided that the regions seized by the Polish rebels should go to the new Polish state. However, guest delegates representing the Polish people had also been invited to the conference to present their territorial requests. When asked what they wanted, the Polish representatives proposed that their state should include East Prussia – part of the unquestionably ethnic German region along the Baltic, the core of the old Order State. According to the Polish delegation’s plan, this entire region was to be absorbed by Poland, save the large industrial city of Königsberg, which was to be put into a customs union to serve Poland. With this request, the Polish delegation was asking for quite a lot – and quite a large-sized chunk of German territory at that. Nevertheless, the French government, which wanted Germany to be stripped of as much territory as possible, approved of the plan.

The victorious powers meet to discuss Germany's
fate at the Paris Peace Conference
Luckily for Germany, representatives from the United Kingdom spoke out against the idea and warned France not to create “a second Alsace-Lorraine” – a disputed border territory like the one between Germany and France, which had become a source of tension due to ethno-national politics, population transfers and ownership changes. Presumably, the British were aware that, with the plan, either the ethnic Germans in East Prussia would have to be put in service to Poland or, alternatively, East Prussia’s ethnic German population would have to be uprooted and moved somewhere else; if the latter, Germany’s total population at the time, more than twice the size of Europe’s ethnic Polish population, would be crowded into a country reduced to nearly the same size that the Polish elite wanted their Poland to be.

Needless to say, the representatives at the Paris Peace Conference did not allow Poland to take East Prussia. Instead, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it was decided that, for the most part, the Polish State would be formed from the territory south of East Prussia stretching down to the Polish heartland, as well as a region further east, which was mainly inhabited by ethnic Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Jewish immigrants and people of ethnic Polish origin. For nearly a century and a half, up to the First World War, both targeted regions had been mainly controlled by the Russian Empire which, in 1920, was locked in a civil war and, at least on paper, defunct; thus, the transfers of both of these regions to Poland went into effect without strong resistance. However, the new Polish State was also slated to receive the areas to the west and southwest of East Prussia which, before the First World War, had been a part of Germany, had housed large and small German minorities and, in some major cities like Thorn, German majorities.

The planned territory transfers of 1920 were in direct contradiction to the idea of self-determination, a concept considered by many democratic ideologues to be the foundation for a lasting peace in Europe. However, if Europe's ethnic German communities had been allowed to choose which state they wished to call their home, the Polish State could have come out with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Moreover, if the ethnic Germans had had their say, the ethnic German communities in South Tirol, as well as those living in Austria and the present-day Czech Republic, would have had the option of becoming part of the German State, too. This would have never been permitted by the Paris Peace Conference attendees; the main powers at the meeting, United Kingdom and France, wanted to redraw the map of Europe in order to limit the strength of the already-existing German State, not increase it; what is more, the fixing of the Polish-German border that the conferring powers went with addressed the problem of putting ethnic Germans under foreign rule much like “self-determination” would have, and did so without increasing Germany’s strength.

In 1920, the area from Danzig to the old Polish border with Brandenburg had a large Polish and otherwise eastern Slavic population. This region, popularly known as the Polish Corridor, sat between Germany and East Prussia and had the thickest concentration of ethnic Poles to be found along the entire Baltic coast; giving it to Poland split Germany in two, thereby debilitating the German Empire according to the wishes of the government of France in particular. The transfer also put Poland’s borders right up next to a large Baltic port city – Danzig. Thus, the city could be utilized by the Polish people through the Corridor, as well as from the south, since Danzig is inextricably linked to the Vistula River, which runs throughout most of Poland. What is more, directly in line with theories about the importance of “self-rule”, the unquestionably German city of Danzig did not go to Poland; instead, it became a semi-autonomous "free city" in a customs union with Poland, and the “need” for large-scale population transfers to give Poland access to a major port ceased to be an issue.

In theory, after the arrangement was put into effect, the Polish people were able to do business with Danzig much as they had when the city had been a part of the feudal patchwork of medieval Poland. For centuries, Danzig had been a largely independent hub of trade and a prime exporter of grain and lumber, both of which had come from the eastern-lying provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This “positive interplay of German Danziger and Polish state interests”, namely economic interests, had brought wealth and prosperity to merchants in Poland and Danzig, as well as to the Polish state and the city of Danzig itself. Still, the main question was not whether the city could survive economically as a semi-independent state in service to Poland, but whether nationalistic fervor and political pressures would interfere with the Free City’s ability to function as the Paris Peace Conference attendees had hoped. In order for the Free City arrangement to work in the long-term, Danzig had to disengage from German ethno-nationalist instruction and neutralize itself in regards to German-Polish political relations. Just as importantly, Germany had to let Danzig revert to this state and refrain from instigation or resistant action. Yet the Free City arrangement was part of the Treaty of Versailles, the “Harlot’s peace” which included a number of controversial territory transfers; both the German nation and its leaders saw these transfers in conjunction with the hard economic times after the war, the collapse of German power and the forced resettlement of ethnic Germans following the partisan application of self-determination. They were not alone. Several prominent sources expressed reservations about the Treaty of Versailles and predicted its effects; United States Foreign Minister Robert Lansing warned that no treaty so incongruous with Germany’s interests could possibly establish a lasting peace. A Dutch diplomat even warned of a state of permanent war. Italian Minister President Francesco Nitti argued that treaties “based on plunder and cruelty” never silence large, conquered peoples, and the Versailles Treaty would be no different. In 1920, J.W. Kneeshaw, a member of the British Labour Party, cautioned that the treaty would lead to a war of revenge that the British people would also have begun preparing for had Britain been forced to accept terms similar to those dictated to the Germans. United States President Woodrow Wilson lamented that the treaty, which he was asked to travel three thousand miles to sign, would not establish world peace, and he could not tell his people it would last. Wilson called the treaty “undoubtedly very severe indeed.” Herbert Hoover, the future U.S. president, as well as British economist John Maynard Keynes and leading Paris Peace Conference attendee Jan Smuts, had all shared the view that the consequences of the treaty would be so severe, they could only “bring about destruction.” Smuts had favored a “drastic revision” of the final terms dictated to Germany, citing in particular the clauses dealing with the reassignment of German territory and the implementation of reparation payments and military restrictions for the German state in particular. His proposal was ignored.

April 1919: Danzigers protest their fate, which was sealed during the Paris Peace Conference

Apart from the Treaty of Versailles, Poland’s attempt to snake East Prussia and behaviors at the end of the First World War put a serious dent in German-Polish cross-cultural relations. But the Free City arrangement, which required immediate cooperation on behalf of Danzig and Poland, attempted to turn these feuding German and Polish communities into instant compliments. Writing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, political analyst Reinhard Haferkorn compared this to trying to "square the circle."

1919: mass demonstrations in Berlin against the Paris Peace Conference

Just weeks after the formation of the Free City of Danzig, the first controversy between the city’s residents and Poland began. More specifically, the city’s dockworkers went on strike and refused to unload military aid destined for Poland. At the time, Poland was at war with the Soviet Union, the de facto successor of the Russian Empire, over Poland’s eastern boundaries, so this was a major decision. In fact, the fighting would come as close to the Free City as Poland’s capital, Warsaw. However, the threat of a Soviet takeover did not change the position of the Free City’s dockworkers. The strike continued until the League of Nations, the international assembly responsible for protecting the Free City, sent British soldiers into the city to unload the military cargo and do the work that the Danzigers had refused to do. To streamline the flow of military supplies into the city and prevent German sabotage, the League even considered placing the Free City under temporary military occupation and declaring a state of lock down.

In the meantime, the Danziger boycott became a hotly-contested issue in the media; some sources argued that the strike had been arranged by opponents of the Free City who sought to sabotage the new arrangement before it could even begin. However, Dr. Hans Adolf Harder, a political analyst, had a completely different view. Harder argued that what little authority the Free City had had over its own affairs had disappeared due to the League’s decision that unloading supplies was more important than the city’s independent will. Dr. Harder concluded that, as long as the League approved of Poland's actions, Danzig’s opinion about whatever the Poles were doing would have little impact on the state of affairs.

It was not long until the Danzigers discovered a new surprise: Poland had begun stockpiling weaponry in the Free City and had moved troops into the area. Additionally, Polish warships had sailed within range of the city. The League of Nations had not permitted these actions, nor had the city of Danzig. The maneuvers did not seem to pertain to Poland’s economic allowances towards the Free City, either. Nonetheless, when Danzig's ethnic Germans petitioned the League of Nations to attend to the situation, the League took Poland’s side and ruled that Poland’s actions were excusable due to the circumstances surrounding the ongoing Polish-Soviet war. As part of the decision, Poland was also given permission to utilize the Westerplatte Peninsula just beyond the harbor to store munitions and other military supplies. The area became the site of the Polish Military Transit Depot, which stayed in Polish hands even after the Polish-Soviet War. Coincidentally, nearly two decades later, the first salvos in the war between the Germans and the Poles were fired at the Polish Military Transit Depot. In this manner, the Free City had begun just as it would end in 1939: as a center of conflict and controversy.

Although Poland’s influence over Danzig was supposed to be limited to matters of trade, customs inspection and foreign representation, the limits to these restrictions became a source of tension with far-reaching consequences. Poland argued that its economic rights prevented the city from fulfilling the necessary delegation requirements to send representatives to the International Labour Organization, a council dedicated to protecting global labor and trade union rights. As a result, Danzig’s merchants had less lobbying power against Polish state-subsidized and state-controlled businesses than merchants in other cities. Another issue was the Danzigers' lack of control over matters of "welfare and upkeep", which the Poles had been put in charge of vis-à-vis their "economic rights" in the Free City. According to one Danzig report, rail-line maintenance had become a critical point of controversy. In addition, the report claimed that Polish authorities were harassing the city's ethnic Germans and had failed to perform maintenance on the city's dikes. The latter charge, if true, was quite serious; as the difference between “the Vistula river delta and its arms” was upwards to six meters, flooding on account of melting ice and snow along the Vistula was a major concern in the Free City. Without the correct preparations, Danzig could find itself underwater, which was one of the reasons why, along with their economic rights towards Danzig, the Poles had received control over operations all along the length of the Vistula.

Of course, it is difficult to assess how many complaints of negligence and abuse by Polish officials were authentic. After all, complaints about Polish behavior were a priceless propaganda tool for those who wanted to show that the Free City arrangement was not working so the international elites would consider reform. By the same token, it is unclear how thoroughly the opponents of the Free City were able to influence attitudes in Danzig and how discontent Danzig’s population really was. Nevertheless, in just thirteen years, nearly 10,000 complaints were filed and sixty-six cases of dispute between Danzig and Poland were examined by the League of Nations at the League of Nations' Permanent Court of International Justice in Hague. The government of Germany played an active role in the process by encouraging ethnic Germans in Poland and the Free City to report civil rights abuses by the Polish state. There was a very clear reason for Germany's involvement. To begin, if for whatever reason the Free City arrangement were to fail, the Free City’s incorporation into the Polish State would be unlikely to follow if the League Court believed that tensions between the Free City and Poland had created a constant headache. Instead, the more logical conclusion would be for the League to consider allowing the German state to annex German-populated Danzig, which was precisely what Germany’s political and military elite were gunning for.

Reflecting Germany’s bitterness towards Poland due to the post-war war changes, in 1922, German Chancellor Josef Wirth declared that he would not support any agreement that could make Poland stronger. Needless to say, recognizing and guaranteeing Poland’s territorial claims was not at the top of Wirth’s to-do list. However, Wirth was not alone in his sentiments. In 1925, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gustav Stresemann, also wrote that he “could not accept Germany’s eastern borders” and “no German government would ever accept the changes that had come into effect after the Treaty of Versailles.” Interestingly enough, while Germany had signed the Treaty of Versailles authorizing the creation of the Free City of Danzig, Germany’s western borders had been finalized through the Locarno agreements; regarding Germany’s borders in the east, the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union had signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, in which both countries settled their territorial claims towards one another. However, no bilateral agreement between Germany and Poland settling the status of the German-Polish borderlands had ever been produced. The reason was simple: Germany did not want to renounce what it had lost to Poland in the east.

To keep the possibility of territorial revision alive and prevent the ethnic German frontier outside of Germany’s borders from being spiritually integrated into Poland, German sources also spread fear and mistrust of the Polish government. In the winter of 1918-1919, pamphlets were handed out proclaiming that the Polish volunteers under Polish General Józef Haller, returning from fighting the Germans in the First World War, would attempt to seize Danzig and East Prussia. A similar campaign followed the Polish military buildup in lieu of the Polish-Soviet War. Germany's Ministry of Propaganda was probably responsible for both efforts. But the German rabble-rousers got plenty of help from chauvinistic Poles who, following the failed Paris Peace Conference proposal for the incorporation of East Prussia, continued to make loud and provocative statements. Roman Dmowski and the National Democrats remained at the forefront, but there were other key sources. For example, on October 9, 1925, one of Danzig’s three most-circulated, Polish-language newspapers, Gazeta Gdańska, printed an article which called for further territorial revision:
“Poland must insist that, without Königsberg and all of East Prussia, it cannot exist. We must demand that East Prussia be liquidated. It can retain its autonomy under Polish magistracy. Then certainly no more Corridor will exist. If this doesn’t happen through peaceful methods, then it’s time for [another] Tannenberg.”
Another publication, Polska Zbreina was printed under the authority of the Polish chief of state, Józef Pilsudski; in 1926, it declared that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair to Poland since the Poland partitioned in the 18th century had been larger and included, among other cities, Danzig. Incidentally, during the First World War, Pilsudski had been jailed in Germany for provoking a Polish revolution. According to proto-European historian Bolko von Richthofen, Poland’s largest newspaper, Ilustrowany Kurjer Codzienny, was another source of boisterous anti-German agitation; on April 20, 1929, the newspaper ran an article to remind the Poles that the Pomeranian lands were Polish “before the German onslaught.” Suggesting what Poland should do with its German minority, one article declared that the Poles should “get rid of them behind the Oder River.” On November 5, 1930, the Polish nationalist monthly publication, Mocarstwowiec, made another proposal: war.
“[…] The present generation will see that a new victory at Tannenberg will be inscribed in the pages of history. But we shall fight this Tannenberg in the suburbs of Berlin. Our ideal is to round Poland off with frontiers on the Oder in the West and the Neisse in Lausatia, and to reincorporate Prussia, from the Pregel to the Spree. In this war no prisoners will be taken, there will be no room for humanitarian feelings. We shall surprise the whole world in our war with Germany.”
Declarations such as these made it easy for German irredentists to exacerbate tensions between the Germans and the Polish people and keep tensions between the two parties high which, in turn, kept the territorial revision question open. Incidentally, these circumstances gave credence to the Germans who, for propagandistic or sincere purposes, argued that the Poles would try to challenge the city’s independence and control the city as they saw fit, if not try to take it by force someday.

Then again, Poland was not about to march into Danzig and take over the city; in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, the Free City was protected by the League of Nations and the member nations which were a part of the League were obligated to defend the Free City’s sovereignty. The Treaty stated that “all property situated within the territory of the Free City of Danzig” would be distributed between the Free City of Danzig and the Polish State “as the Principal Allied and Associated Powers consider[ed] equitable.” This meant that the League stood between Poland and Danzig. Even if the Danzigers had no control over how much influence Poland could exert in the Free City, the Danzigers were, at the very least, protected from being overrun by Poland or any foreign power for that matter.

On the other hand, Poland was in a much better position than Germany to seize control of Danzig in the midst of a so-called “emergency situation” - not just through a quick military action due to Danzig's immediate proximity to Poland, but also by legal action. As the Treaty of Versailles had made it clear that “all property situated within the territory of the Free City of Danzig” would be distributed between the Free City of Danzig and the Polish State, the Polish state was next in line for the site if the Free City of Danzig failed. Just as importantly, whereas Germany wanted Danzig back because the Free City arrangement was an inconvenience to Germany, the arrangement had spared Poland’s population, roughly the size of Spain’s population, the misfortune of being devoid of a modern port and nearly landlocked. Likewise, even if Danzig had been an entirely German city with an entire population opposed to the Free City arrangement, the city’s ethnography and attitude was likely to change before Poland’s economic and geographic position ever would; consequently, unless Danzig and Poland were on the verge of war, a League decision to reincorporate Danzig into Germany was bound to create more problems than it would solve. Given these circumstances, Germany’s small hope for regaining Danzig depended entirely on two factors: first, the League had to be convinced that the Free City could not be a permanent solution - the Free City arrangement had to fail on its own or be made to fail; secondly, the League had to be shown that Danzig could not be integrated into the Polish State as an alternative to the Free City arrangement. Fanning the flames of German-Polish controversy, which has already been discussed in detail, was a momentous step towards both goals. However, it was just as important for Danzig to remain ethnically and spiritually German, as a German Danzig was far more likely to become Germany’s Danzig if and when the Free City arrangement failed. Not surprisingly, the preservation of the city’s ethnic spirit and ethnic consciousness also became an enormous factor in the movement to secure Danzig’s return to Germany.

In the 1920s, Germany’s government hardly concealed its agenda to foster Danzig’s ethnic German cultural identity and preserve Danzig’s connection to Germany. Even though post-war turmoil and war reparations had depleted Germany's finances, Danziger officials still received gifts from Berlin. Likewise, the German Foreign Office padded the salary of Danzig’s first bishop, Edward O’Rourke, presumably to show an appreciation of the bishop’s efforts to stop the spread of Polish nationalism into the Free City. Although O’Rourke later became a friend of the Poles in Danzig, early on, he opposed the Polish community’s plan to establish an independent, Polish-speaking parish in the Free City. Like others, O’Rourke may have been aware that the parish could become an instrument for Polish separatists to reinforce Polish identity in a closed environment, thus driving a spike in between the German and Polish communities in the city and keeping the Polish community there closely linked to Poland so Poland could extend its interests into the city. Even without Germany’s hand-outs, many elites in the city supported Germany’s request for the Danzig region’s reincorporation into Germany. For instance, Danzig’s conservative council was behind the idea and most of the high ranking officials in the Danzig bureaucracy, former civil servants in Germany, were good friends of the anti-Free City German nationalist movement.

Thus, the ongoing effort to affirm Danzig's German identity and prevent Polish penetration was hardly an uphill battle. In fact, the official language in the Free City was German and, in 1923, ninety-five percent of the Free City's population identified itself as ethnic German. The strongest political party in the Danzig parliament in the early 1920s was the German-National Party, which was endorsed by Germany's revanchist, expansionist and anti-Polish Pan-German League. Signs and symbols of the old German Empire were well-received by the Free City’s inhabitants. For example, congresses held in Danzig for important visitors from Germany received a great deal of press, and the sounding of the German national hymn in Danzig’s Artus Court to honor each visit by a German state representative was said to have a typically powerful effect on the Free City’s ethnic Germans. Additionally, a 1924 visit by the German First World War hero Paul von Hindenburg to the Free City attracted tens of thousands of spectators. This was all good news for those who wanted to keep Danzig’s spirit German and eventually put the city back in Germany’s pocket.

Meanwhile, the Danzig Senate decided to subsidize the churches in order to concentrate on supporting the "ethnic German character" of the institutions. Some nationalist-minded, ethnic German Lutherans reached out to their congregations in Danzig and used the common thread of religion to build feeling for Germany, the birthplace of Lutheranism, and unfeeling for Catholic-dominated Poland. The Reformation and spread of anti-Catholicism had been an early force in the polarization of “German” and “Polish” attitudes and had been used to direct the loyalties of the people within each state and build nation-states. While “Polish” and “German” attitudes did not correspond to the historic Catholic and Lutheran battle lines, on average, the confessions of the Polish and Baltic German people did, and this made the efforts to reinforce Danzig’s ethnic German identity in order to polarize the Polish opposition much easier. According to Polish Professor Tomasz Kizwalter, before the recreation of a Polish state, Catholicism and other dimensions of culture were the only thing that the people of Poland had had to remind them of their autonomy, so the fight for an independent Polish state had, for centuries, drawn lifeblood from the perpetuation of these aspects of identity. In much the same way, German nationalists in Germany and abroad tried to influence how ordinary Germans in the Free City thought of themselves ethnically, religiously and, ultimately, politically to win them to their irredentist cause.

Some of the League of Nations’ decisions actually worked to the advantage of the German identity preservation movement and, therefore, Germany’s ambitions to one day reclaim the city. For example, the League Court approved an agreement between the Free City and Poland, signed at a convention in Warsaw in 1921, which determined that the citizens of Poland living in Danzig would only be eligible for the protections reserved for Danzig's citizens in matters concerning manufacture, trade and taxation. As a result, when Polish nationals were mistreated by Free City officials, they could not file a claim against the city like citizens of the Free City could, even though the mistreatment of and discrimination towards Polish nationals was itself illegal. Furthermore, the League Court decided that Danzig was not obligated to give its ethnic Polish minority more rights than Poland was willing to give its ethnic German minority, which meant that, for the time being, Poles could be denied citizenship in the Free City simply because they were citizens of Poland. Later, the League of Nations explicitly forbade Polish nationals from obtaining citizenship in the Free City and ruled that citizens of Poland would “have only the right of being treated on the same level with other foreigners.”

Though a boon to the movement to preserve Danzig’s connection to Germany, the League’s decisions were not made to undermine the Free City arrangement; rather, the League was interested in limiting the number of ethnic Poles in the Free City. The primary reason was to prevent Polish state supporters from extending their interests into the city from within. Even though over ninety-five percent of the Free City's population considered itself ethnically German at the time of the Free City’s founding, the Free City had a population of just 366,730; in the event of a rapid increase in immigration from Poland, the ratio of Germans to Poles in the city could be expected to change quite abruptly. In order to understand why this would be a reason for concern, it is necessary to understand a few basic facts about multicultural societies and how they function. To begin, if a majority is willing to make certain political and cultural concessions on its own behalf in a democracy, that is the majority’s imperative; however, as the majority and minority populations of a state or city begin to level out and conflict interests emerge, tensions can arise. As minority and majority become indistinguishable, the expected and accepted roles and attitudes of both groups become unclear and tensions erupt. In summary, if the Poles who favored the Free City's incorporation into Poland began to take up residence in the Free City, problems could emerge; if this demographic were to expand, things could get even worse. Thus, the ultimate protection from Poland’s “peaceful penetration” into Danzig’s affairs was for Polish nationals and the Polish state to be kept out.

Pamphlet calling for Danzig's
reincorporation into Germany
The representatives from the international court had another, more sobering concern: if Danzig's ethnic German population came to feel threatened by Poland or the presence of a growing, ethnically Polish contingent in the city, there was a chance that ultra-nationalists in Danzig would take action and turn violent against the demographic they felt threatened by. If that happened, Poland would surely react and Germany could be expected to enter the fray next; after all, Germany was already anxious to reclaim the Danzig region and, as the German state had a population that was more than twice the size of Poland's, it was unlikely that Germany was going to turn down an opportunity to seize it, especially if the act could be portrayed before the world as a justifiable act of liberation. If Germany resorted to hostilities, the member nations of the League of Nations, led by Britain and France, would have to decide whether to stop Germany. More than likely, Europe would once again be embroiled in a major war just like the one that had just ended.

Within the years of the Free City's operation, the population of Danzig did, in fact, change; population registers from the city indicate that, between the 1920s and 1930s, the ethnic Polish population in the Free City increased from five to roughly ten percent. Taking into consideration the civil servants in the Free City who came from Poland, as well as other Polish citizens in the Free City who could not vote, Danzig statistician Dr. Henryk Stepniak placed the number of ethnic Poles in the Free City at the end of this period slightly higher, at eleven percent. Either way, the change was not drastic enough to shake up Danzig’s affairs. Still, through an analysis of the Free City election results over the course of this ten year period, one can begin to understand the potential for an ethnic meltdown. For example, during the Free City’s first major election in 1920, around 11,000 Poles lived in the city and the Polish Party received 9,321 votes. Conclusively, as many as eighty-five percent of the Poles in the Free City may have voted along ethnic lines. Had the Polish demographic constituted a larger percentage of the city’s demographic, the Poles’ voting tendencies would clearly have become a problem. Instead, because the Poles were only a small minority in the city, only seven of the Free City’s one hundred twenty parliamentary seats went to the Polish Party. In the forthcoming elections, ethnic Poles increasingly voted for the Centre Party which, to them, was at least pro-Catholic and a decisive swing vote in the Free City’s ethno-religious affairs. Meanwhile, the rest of the city continually elected German nationalist political parties into the Free City government – a government that, incidentally, would not pardon measures to increase Polonization or Poland’s peaceful penetration. In a political sense, the intricate wiring of the Free City arrangement was enough to prevent an ethnic meltdown.

On the other hand, by allowing German nationalists to lead the Free City government, the League had done Germany's anti-Free City movement another favor. German nationalist parties were interested in preserving an ethnically German Danzig, in both demographic and character, as an ethnically German Danzig was more likely to become Germany’s Danzig if the Free City arrangement failed. However, the Free City arrangement included provisions to prevent a meltdown in German-Polish social relations and thus, prevent the Free City arrangement from failing in the first place. For one, Danzig’s ethnic German civil servants were not allowed to be affiliated with German nationalist organizations; for these positions, learning Polish and Polish cultural awareness were encouraged. Other tolerance programs were endorsed and went a long way towards preventing the rise of ethnic tensions in the Free City, where the goal was to keep the spirit of the Free City international even if its demographics were not. In fact, in some respects, the Free City arrangement embraced Poland's citizens, as well as ethnic Poles and their descendants; for example, under Danzig law, "discrimination within the Free City of Danzig to the detriment of the citizens of Poland and other persons of Polish origin and speech" was specifically prohibited. Polish traditions were also protected in the Free City by law, as was the use of the Polish language in the classroom and the courts. All foreigners, including citizens of Poland, were permitted to visit the Free City with just a passport – no visa was required. All the same, historian Christian Höltje described the Free City as “a state of permanent conflict.” Whereas Polish sources complained that the German Danzigers were non-cooperative and accused the Germans of pursuing "every conceivable hindrance to the free flow of trade", Polish Commissioner-General in Danzig, Marian Chodacki, bitterly declared that fifteen thousand-page volumes would be required to describe the disputes between Danzig and Poland. Incidentally, “ongoing tensions” in the Free City were one of the reasons that the Poles found an alternative and started building a new seaport just eleven miles away, at Gdynia. There was only one problem: construction on the site had already begun as early as 1920, just months after the Free City’s creation.

The decision to turn to Gdynia into a major port was a legal course of action, but the Danzigers viewed it as a repudiation of the understanding as to why Danzig had been transferred to Poland in the first place. For one, Poland had been given the right to develop Danzig’s port, operate the city's railways for economic purposes and utilize the city’s communications, docks and channels. Poland’s rights included extensive control over Danzig’s facilities, as well as the opportunity to invest in the port’s further expansion. Those who sympathized with the Free City argued that, if Poland was not going to use Danzig to its full potential and instead going to direct business elsewhere, it was no longer making use of the city as the Free City agreement had implied Poland would.

To justify the decision to start building a new seaport at Gdynia, one Polish political analyst claimed Danzig was not enough to satisfy Poland’s economic needs. However, as construction in Gdynia began in 1920, the same year that Danzig was turned into the Free City, it is hard to believe that enough time had passed to confirm that access to just one major port city would not suffice. The analyst also claimed that the Poles needed a new port city for a naval base, since the League of Nations had decided that Danzig's port could not be used for such purposes. Still, it was Gdynia that ended up competing with Danzig for ocean-bound freight business and, within a few short years, ended up seizing most of Danzig’s business. The Poles also claimed that Gdynia was more geographically sound than Danzig because it was situated along the coastline, whereas Danzig was situated along a bay. Yet of these two sites, only Danzig lies along the Vistula River, Poland's main waterway and commercial artery.

Stressing the importance of the river, Frederick the Great, a leader of the old Prussian state, once wrote: “whoever holds the course of the Vistula and Danzig is more fully master of [Poland] than the king who reigns over it.” Of course, Danzig’s success in connection with the Vistula had been a matter of time and circumstance. After the advent of the Second Industrial Revolution in the 1880s and the emergence of the booming steel industry, most freighters were too large to travel the length of the Vistula and the port city was said to be too small to evolve into a first-class ship-building site as many European ports had. Still, on Germany’s watch, improvements had been made to keep Danzig’s port up with the times; silting had been dealt with, areas had been dredged, new drainage channels had been built and new locking systems had been implemented. Due to these improvements, by 1914, Danzig again had one of the deepest harbors in Europe – nine and a half meters – and sufficient room for outwards expansion. More importantly, Danzig insisted that it was capable of handling not only its current volume of trade, but Gdynia’s too, plus any foreseeable increases in the future. At the present, the Vistula river delta city is the largest and most important port city in Poland, not Gdynia. Yet during the Free City years, the Poles snubbed the city for Gdynia which, in 1920, was nothing more than an inconsequential fishing village with a population of a few hundred people. This spoke volumes about Poland’s relationship with the Free City.

Critics of Poland’s Free City-era foreign policy had their own theories to explain Poland's decision to invest in Gdynia. One argument was that the Poles had started building a new seaport there to establish permanent residency and, in this manner, chip away at the possibility for German territorial revision. Indeed, moving west to east along the Baltic coast, in the area adjacent to the Polish realm in 1920, there were three major ports: Stettin, Danzig and Königsberg; all three sites had ethnic German majorities and had belonged to Germany before the First World War. After the war, the new Polish state had received the Polish Corridor in between Stettin and Danzig and Danzig had been removed from Germany; in effect, Germany's chain of control along the Baltic had been broken. However, since Stettin, Danzig and Königsberg had all retained their predominantly ethnic German populations, in reality, Poland’s stakes in the Baltic had grown no larger than Poland’s newly-acquired economic rights towards Danzig and the undeveloped Polish Corridor. Thanks to Poland’s decision to invest in Gdynia, however, a major ethnic Polish-populated site had appeared between Stettin and Danzig, which changed the entire situation in the Baltic. Incidentally, both the German and Polish governments were well aware of the consequences.

After analyzing the situation, political analyst Reinhard Haferkorn was of the opinion that Poland was taking advantage of the fall of one Great Power, Germany, to take over the Baltic and become a Great Power itself. Swedish correspondent Ivar Högbom shared the same view and stated that, through its actions, “Poland had become a Baltic state in a higher degree than is justified by her geographic condition and position alone.” But becoming a major Baltic power had been Poland’s goal since the effort to ressurect a Polish state had first gained legs. Pilsudski, the Polish chief of state, had hoped to create a federation called the “Międzymorze” which, under the “aegis of Poland”, would extend from the Balkans to the northern Baltic and, from east to west, span across Eastern and Central Europe. On this matter, Pilsudski had proclaimed that what Poland could “gain in the west” depended on how much the Paris Peace Conference attendees’ wanted to “squeeze Germany”; in regards to the east, Pilsudski said “there are doors that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how far.” Incidentally, during the Polish-Soviet War, Polish forces under Pilsudski had invaded Lithuania to either build “Międzymorze” or resurrect the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. According to recent Finnish scholarship, after the effort had failed, Pilsudski tried to form a pact with Finland and carve the upper Baltic into Polish and Finnish spheres of influence. The Warsaw Accord between the two powers may have been a step in this direction, too.

The Poles were aware of their government’s actions in the Baltic, including the buildup of Gdynia, which had cut into the Free City’s business. For instance, the Polish press alluded to Danzig being cut down to size by the “sword from Gdynia.” Additionally, on June 13, 1926, the Polish-language Danzig newspaper Gazeta Gdańska, enthusiastically proclaimed that Poland should “wrest free” what the ethnic Germans still dominated along the Baltic coast by sending a million Polish immigrants there. German historian Rüdiger Ruhnau postulated that Poland’s long-term goal was to put Danzig out of business and bring the city to its knees. Propaganda or not, Poland’s actions played right into the hands of the German anti-Free City Pan-German movement. The movement had claimed that Poland would try to ruin the Free City and force Free City officials to appeal to Poland for help, thereby giving Poland further influence in the Free City’s affairs and help Poland establish permanent residency in the Baltic. By no coincidence, Polish sources had protested every time the “League’s prerogatives” were strengthened in the Free City and Poland’s had been undermined.

At first, the people of the Free City were less concerned about a Polish takeover than the German government was; after the initial tensions of 1920 and 1921, Danzig’s business had increased rapidly. In fact, following the UK coal strike of 1926, which left British industries reliant on Eastern Europe for coal imports, Danzig had experienced a surge in outbound coal shipments. This led to a drastic shift in Danzig's market shares. The increase in outbound trade brought Danzig some of the most prosperous times it had seen in years. But it was the calm before the storm; as the era of economic trouble set in and wreaked havoc on the European market, the good times in the Free City came to an end. Orders were cut and claims of bankruptcy doubled.

By 1927, only forty-five percent of the Free City’s factories were in business. That year, due to the economic situation, the city rebelled against its own “safety net” to prevent Polish penetration and, instead of voting for the city’s German nationalist parties, gave the Poland-friendly left control of the parliament. Social welfare increased. Meanwhile, the League of Nations had grown tired of mediating arguments between the Free City and Poland and opted to let the two parties discuss issues on their own. There was plenty for Poland and the Free City to talk about. To begin, Poland's project of turning Gdynia into a major seaport was reaching full completion; by May 1932, Gdynia's port was functioning at full capacity and its total exports and imports had surpassed Danzig’s, creating a disparity that would remain consistent for the duration of the Free City's existence. Even more importantly, the Free City's economic well-being had come under the influence of what the press coined a high-tension “tariff war” between Germany and Poland.

The German-Polish “tariff war” had grown from Poland’s initiative in 1925 to make German goods more expensive in Poland and help Polish industry amidst hard economic times. Poland, still a predominantly agrarian-based society, had been Germany’s biggest trading partner up to that point. After the German government had retaliated with its own tariffs on Polish-imported goods, the Polish government had upped the ante with a series of ethnic repressions against Poland’s ethnic German population, as well as an all-out ban on goods produced in Germany. Against regulations, the Free City had continued to introduce German-produced goods to the Polish market. Thus, in 1931, the Polish government decided to punish the Free City. The boycott on German goods was extended to include goods manufactured in the Free City, too. This was bad news for the Free City; by 1930, the financial situation in Danzig had become so dire that, to cut state expenditures, the Free City government even had reduced the size of its parliament from 120 to 72 representatives.

By continuing to do business with Germany throughout the boycott, Danzig had cost Poland the equivalent of 1.5 million British pounds sterling. Still, the manner in which Poland had responded, disciplining Danzig as if it were Poland's own disobedient child, was particularly interesting, considering the city did not belong to Poland. The Danzigers were powerless against the decision. According to international law, Poland was "not entitled to impose a policy on the Free City or take any step in connection with the foreign relations of the city against its will.” But Poland was not imposing a policy on the Free City; it was creating its own foreign policy, which involved freezing economic relations with Danzig. Needless to say, the embargo did little to help Danzig recover from hard economic times or the damage done due to the tariff war and the rise of Gdynia as a competitive business partner. All Danzig could do was protest, which it did. In the 1930 elections, the German nationalist parties retook the majority of seats in the Free City parliament; the victory was led by the rise of Danzig’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a German ethno-nationalist populist front piloted by Adolf Hitler in Germany, who was dedicated to undoing the Treaty of Versailles and securing Danzig’s return to the Reich.

By 1932, approximately thirty-five thousand Free City residents - nearly one out of every nine people - were unemployed. The following year, nearly an additional six thousand people entered the unemployment line, pushing the number of jobless in the city up to 40,726. It was the highest figure to date. Interestingly, in the midst of the economic turmoil, Poland had appointed ethnic Poles, just eleven percent of the Free City’s population, to roughly fifty percent of the positions Poland controlled in the Free City’s railroad, postal and port-related industries. Over six hundred ethnic Polish individuals were working in the Polish-controlled railroad industry alone. This did little to quell the Germans’ suspicions of the Poles intentions vis-à-vis the Free City.

It had taken several years to test the limits of the Free City’s relationship to Poland, but one thing had become clear: Poland's power and influence over Danzig's affairs clearly meant more in practice than it did in theory. If Poland chose to favor ethnic Poles in the industries it controlled in the Free City, the Germans had to accept this discrimination; if Polish industries chose Gdynia as a primary import and export partner, Danzig had to bear the consequences; if Poland chose to ban certain imports and suffer by its own choice, Danzig was essentially chained to Poland and had to endure the damage. Those who felt sympathetic towards the Free City's plight during Poland’s boycott of goods produced in the Free City and Germany argued that, because the Danzig region had been attached to the German realm for over a century and its livelihood had depended on contact with German manufacturers, it was unfair for the Poles to expect Danzig to sever the ties it had established simply because the Poles did not want German goods. The Poles countered that Danzig had been a Free City for over ten years and that had been plenty of time to adjust to a new market. In any case, the boycott continued for over a year. The Gazeta Gdańska even encouraged it. Finally, in August 1932, the Polish government agreed to attempt to stop endorsing the action. Naturally, as nationalistic fervor had spilled over into the spirit of trade, behind the scenes, the boycott continued. So did the Depression and the antagonisms between the German Danzigers and the Poles.

Just shy of the November 1932 German federal elections in which Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party won control over most of Germany’s government, international reporters had actually “grown bored” with the “steady re-occurrences of disputes between Danzig and Poland.” In September 1932, a reporter for The Spectator, a popular weekly British magazine, declared:
“Germany intends to have Danzig and the Corridor; I have no brief for her. I deplore the fact that several million Germans would shed their blood for this cause, but since it is a fact and since the Poles certainly cannot be talked out of their territory, how will the matter be settled except by arms? I believe there must be a war in Europe; the best we can hope for is that it will soon be over, and that it will not spread.”
Indeed, the success of the ultra-nationalists in Germany’s political scene had an immediate effect on like-minded nationalists in Danzig and the German-Polish borderlands. Paramilitary activity increased and demonstrations were held against Polish power. War seemed imminent. In February 1933, Danzig police reported that the Poles had reinforced the Westerplatte with artillery cannon and nearly twice as many soldiers as permitted by an agreement between Danzig and Poland in 1925. The Polish government maintained that it was responding to multiple threats to set the Polish munitions depot there on fire. However, some sources claim that, in connection with the feelers sent out to France for a joint war against Germany and its new regime, the decision to reinforce the Westerplatte was an aggressive action to prepare for war. Either way, the Polish press jumped right on the war horse and called for the military occupation of Danzig. As the situation in the Free City deteriorated further, the President of the Danzig Senate, Ernst Ziehm, was flown to Geneva for an emergency meeting with League of Nations officials. There he was asked if he could guarantee security and order in the Free City – not just because of the Polish military developments, but because the Danzigers’ frustrations had translated into increased support for Danzig’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party, which was all for the city’s reincorporation into Germany. Clashes between communist and National Socialist paramilitaries were also becoming increasingly common on Danzig’s streets. Just before the emergency League of Nations meeting, a National Socialist supporter, Horst Hoffmann, had been stabbed to death in Kahlbude, a suburb within Free City jurisdiction. Meanwhile, reflecting the deterioration of German-Polish relations, the organization Polski Związek Zachodni, which wanted to “polonize” Poland by deporting ethnic Germans and Jews, experienced a surge in popularity in Poland. By the year’s end, the organization, which had attracted only 2,610 new members between 1932 and 1933, attracted 12,443 more, raising the membership total to 50,346 persons.

In spite of the early spike in German-Polish tensions in 1933, during the first few years of National Socialist rule, German-Polish relations became increasingly better. In 1933, Józef Beck, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked for a promise from Hitler that he was “against any action directed against Polish rights and legal interests in the Free City of Danzig.” Hitler met Beck’s demands and, in the following months, both figures got their respective governments to curb negative press propaganda. The Polish government also distanced itself from protests against National Socialist activity in Danzig. Then came the Polish-German Agreement of January 1934, which brought an end to the nine-year tariff war between Poland and Germany. The settlement guaranteed that “problems of political economic and social kinds” would be resolved through a “just and fair adjustment of interests for both parties.” Tensions over economic issues were temporarily blunted and both sides agreed to settle their future differences diplomatically.

In the midst of the positive developments in German-Polish relations, there was a sharp decline in the reported number of abuses, crimes and other atrocities involving ethnic Poles and Germans. Some historians see this as a consequence of improved relations between Germany and Poland, while others claim that, as amiable relations were more conducive to Germany's goals at the time, abuses and crimes had simply tapered off. The latter view suggests that many of the so-called abuses, crimes and other atrocities committed previously had been covert operations or even German nationalist propaganda to convince the world that territorial revisionism was needed. Accordingly, it remains difficult to assess how serious the situation in the Baltic was after the National Socialist revolution. The same goes for detecting how the people of Danzig and Poland really felt about the Free City.

In any case, as the National Socialists continued to transform Germany, the German government continued to adjust its policy with Poland. The next step was to solidify a mutual defense agreement. On this point, the Polish government wavered and ultimately turned down Germany’s offer. In 1936, Poland also turned down the German government’s invitation to join the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union. In both cases, Poland’s leaders expressed concern that the Germans were setting the stage for Poland to become a German satellite state through political and economic subversion. As a result, the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 was seen by Polish elites as a "propaganda pact" aimed more towards gaining public approval rather than repairing German-Polish relations for good and making peace over control of the Baltic.

Just as critically, the Polish government did not trust Hitler. Suspicions about his connection to “the Stahlhelm”, an organization which published German nationalist material calling for a revision of Germany’s 1914 borders, were at the top of the complaint list. Moreover, Hitler had written in his own political manifesto, Mein Kampf , that he “would not waste the blood of a single German soldier on the former boundaries of the Reich.” This comment suggested that Hitler either intended to expand Germany beyond the borders of the old empire, since the old empire's boundaries were not enough to justify fighting for, or he did not intend to expand Germany's borders at all and risk war and unnecessary bloodshed. By 1936, Hitler’s Germany had grown to include the Saarland, one of the territories that Germany had surrendered to French and British occupational forces following the First World War; it was returned to Germany through a plebiscite approved by the League of Nations, after which Hitler declared that Germany “had no further territorial demands to make of France.” Still, Hitler had made it clear that he wished to incorporate the ethnic German people of Europe into one expansive state. The lingering question, then, was whether Hitler's ambitions would also threaten Poland's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Polish government would have none of it, nor were its people willing to risk playing along after experiencing over a century of occupation. Polish academic, media and political sources issued warnings derived from the “lessons of the past”, and countless narratives about the Partitions and the events of 1308 and 1410, not to mention tales of Prussia's turncoat opportunism or the events during the First World War, appeared in print. In Polish public schools, the heroes who had fallen defending Polish interests in the Polish-Soviet war were honored. During national holidays, Poland’s struggles against the Germans and the Russians were also memorialized and used to “harden hearts like steel.” The view that the Poles had fought for and earned their independence became a standard theme in Polish classrooms; Poland, it was claimed, was everything but a gift from Versailles. Correspondingly, gym class was viewed in Poland as an opportunity to strengthen Poland’s youth and build a nation of “Spartans” who could defend the country. Much like in prior centuries, the Church continued to play an important role hardening Polish spirit. On all fronts, the Poles were careful not to allow their state to be penetrated and subordinated to German interests.

Unbeknownst to most people, Hitler actually expressed that Poland should have access to oceangoing trade. In one speech before the German parliament in the Reichstag, he had even called it “unreasonable and impossible” to deny the Polish population an outlet to the sea. Nonetheless, his government’s proposals to revise the Free City arrangement while honoring Poland's newly-rediscovered access to the sea failed to gain Poland’s endorsement. Incidentally, one proposal had called for Danzig’s return to Germany and included provisions that would have kept the city in a customs union with Poland. As part of the plan, the Germans had proposed the construction of a one-mile-wide highway and rail route across the Corridor to be administered by Germany. Poland declined the offer. Another proposal came in October of 1938, and yet another during the New Year’s holiday, as 1939 began. The latter proposal included a plan to deliver Memel, a port city along the East Prussian frontier, into Polish hands in exchange for Danzig's reincorporation into Germany, thus avoiding the smallest possible dismemberment of the German State while giving the Poles access to a sizeable seaport along the Baltic. Polish politician and publicist Władysław Studnicki was among those who supported the plan.

Nevertheless, the Polish government refused to entertain the offer. Although Memel had a population that was half-Lithuanian and half-German, it had been one of the sites that the Polish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference had tried to secure for Poland by demanding control of East Prussia. Interestingly, roughly seventy-percent of the city had favored becoming a free city like Danzig. However, neither side got its wish, and the city had been incorporated into a Lithuanian state. Thus, in 1939, Germany was bartering with something it no longer had possession of. Furthermore, the Germans’ Danzig-for-Memel port-for-port trade offer came after Germany had engaged in numerous other attempts of re-expansion and expansion: the reacquisition of the Saarland in 1935, the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 and, after agreeing to end all re-expansion plans, the seizure of Czech lands and the creation of a protectorate there in 1939. In trying to get the Poles to agree to a new plan in the Baltic, Hitler’s government had its hands full trying to overcome the culture of mistrust which was firmly entrenched in Polish society. However, in lieu of Germany’s latest actions, Hitler’s government was not making much headway towards creating a new impression for the Poles see.

Nevertheless, Germany made yet another attempt to reach a new territorial understanding with Poland in March 1939; the offer again stressed the return of Danzig and the establishment of a major transportation route across the Corridor to link Danzig to Germany proper. Also, since rumors of a British-Soviet pact were in the air and Poland’s leaders were apprehensive that their state would be steamrolled by the Soviets in the event of a British war with Germany, the Germans declared that they “would guarantee Poland’s borders”. The joint offer was met with a stern rebuff from Poland’s leaders, who warned Germany’s leaders that “further provocation” would result in armed conflict. Poland began partial military mobilization. In the streets, radicals hung banners with the message “Idziemy do Berlina” – off to Berlin! Studnicki, who had sent a brief entitled “Memoriale przeciwko wojnie z Niemcami” (a memorial against war with Germany) to each Polish parliamentary representative one year earlier, described the new atmosphere in Poland as “war psychosis.” Perhaps one explanation for the mood in Poland was that, according to historian Bernard Wasserstein, Poland “held an inflated opinion of their country’s importance and military prowess,” which may have been the culmination of aggressive romantic nationalist sentiments from the 19th century. In any case, reflecting on the changing political climate, on March 27, 1939, German Ambassador Ernst von Weizsäcker wrote the following in his private journal:
It will no longer be possible to solve the Danzig problem, now that we have used up foreign political goodwill over [the Czech situation] and Memel. A German-Polish conflict now would trigger an avalanche against us. For the time being the only way we can deal with the Poles’ insolent attitude and their high-handed rebuff to the offer we have made to them is by breaking the Polish spirit.
It is unclear just how Weizsäcker expected to “break the Polish spirit.” Nevertheless, three days later, Poland received a vague guarantee from Britain that, “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, the British government would feel “bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.” France also pledged its support. Interestingly, an exchange between diplomats from France and Poland suggests that the Polish government hesitated before accepting the offer, as its leaders were concerned that the guarantee “would jeopardize Poland’s relations with a strong neighbor like Germany and hurl a catastrophe on the world, such as war.” It was a wise observation. To begin, with both the UK and France behind Poland to some degree, Germany had lost its diplomatic edge as the biggest fish in the pond; that meant the Poles were not likely to accept a proposal for territorial revision from Germany that was any less favorable to Poland than the ones the Polish government had already turned down. At the same time, because the Poles only had a vague guarantee about preserving sovereignty, it was not certain to what extent or under which conditions the UK or France would support Poland in battle. Thus, it seemed highly probable that Germany would draw first blood and attack before the vague British and French guarantee to protect Poland became an official alliance with Poland. But Germany did not attack. In fact, for the next five months, there was no diplomatic communication from Berlin. Germany was toying with a plan to invade Poland and trying to figure out how to keep the UK and France out of the conflict.

Ideally, Germany was looking for a scenario where, if war were to come, it would appear to be Poland’s fault, not Germany’s. Thus, the government-regulated press in Germany began working towards fulfilling the narrative. For example, it milked the fact that, during a parade in the Polish capital on the 3rd of May to celebrate the signing of the Commonwealth’s constitution in 1791, shouts of “to Danzig, to Berlin!” had been overheard. Furthermore, the latest outbursts from Michał Grażyński, Woiwode von Oberschlesien, the newly-appointed head of the Polish Ministry of Information, received a great deal of German media attention. Already well-known for his anti-German rhetoric, Grażyński had claimed that he would “burn out the eyes and tear out the tongues of the ethnic Germans and hunt them over the border.” Meanwhile, the Polish press arrogantly declared that, just as the Baltic had once been German, Berlin had once been a Slavic settlement and Poland’s final border should be the Elbe River. Then, a number of controversies began. In May, a skirmish between ethnic Germans and Polish customs officials just outside of Danzig ended in the murder of a young National Socialist supporter named Max Grübnau. The governments of Germany and Poland each had their own version of the story, and the Danziger Senate accused the Polish official of fleeing into Poland to avoid justice in Danzig.

It was not long until there was a new skirmish along the Danzig frontier at another Polish customs post; a third incident followed, involving gunshots and a German freight transporter. The German press called it a "fresh attempt at murder by Poles on Danzig territory." Léon Nöel, the French Ambassador in the Polish capital, was suspicious of the “frequency” of the reports and the way the German press was “obviously seeking to make use of them”. Regardless, Poland was doing little to curb the trouble; in response to deteriorating German-Polish relations, three hundred schools for German-speaking minorities were closed in Poland. Strict tariffs were reintroduced against German goods from Danzig and, in an alleged act of defiance, a margarine shipment from the Free City’s “Amada” plant, to be delivered to Poland, was left at the border to spoil. On August 6, according to an article in the New York Times, Polish military marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, arguably the de-facto leader of Poland, gave a speech to “cheering crowds” in Krakow where he spoke favorably of opening an artillery barrage on Danzig. Finally, on August 20, the Polish capital city newspaper, Depesza, allegedly declared that, “in the coming war, German blood would run like history has never before seen.”

As the period of non-communication between Germany and Poland continued, it appeared that, as Hitler later claimed, “all peaceful options between Germany and Poland had been exhausted.” Indeed, the Poles had rejected the German government’s last attempt at diplomacy. However, on the 25th of August, the Polish government announced to Germany that it was ready to return to the negotiating table. The Poles had just finalized a pact with Britain and France and knew they had nothing to fear if, during negotiations with the Germans, the German government made an ultimatum and tried to use the threat of war to get what it wanted. But the Germans had a surprise, too; as quickly as the Poles had gained the diplomatic advantage, the Germans had found something to take it back. More specifically, Germany had concluded a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union which contained a secret protocol to carve Europe into two spheres of influence. As per the agreement, Germany was guaranteed Soviet military and economic support in the event of a German-Polish conflict; all Germany had to do was let the Soviet Union take half of Poland and agree not to interfere with the Soviets' plans to take Finland, Latvia and Estonia. Consequently, Hitler could initiate a war with Poland knowing that the Soviets would be in his corner and the UK and France would surely think long and hard about what they were getting into before entering the fray. Furthermore, it was unlikely that the UK or France would have much time to react before the joint German-Soviet attack had flattened Poland. Just nine days before Poland was attacked, in a speech before the German military brass, Hitler confidently declared:
“[British] military intervention is out of the question. No one is counting on a long war. If [Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief] Herr von Brauchitsch had told me that I would need four years to conquer Poland, I would have replied: ‘Then it cannot be done’[.]”
Hitler had given a similar report of the situation to the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, on August 12. Convinced of a winning hand, the German leader had clearly chosen war; as far as he was concerned, there was only one thing left to do: fool the world and give it further reason to stay out of the conflict. To achieve this goal, the National Socialists tried to sell the illusion of a necessary war – not just by drawing attention to the deteriorating situation in and around Danzig and making reports of Polish atrocities and cross-border raids to form a casus belli, but also by arranging an ultimatum for Poland right before the invasion so Hitler would appear as the one who had offered the hand of peace and been rejected. The ultimatum included the following ideas: Danzig would be returned to Germany and the local population in the Corridor would be asked if it also favored reunification. The final owner of the Corridor would be determined through a plebiscite and population transfers would occur as needed after the referendum. The entire process would be supervised by the British and would begin only after a full year of preparations. All Poland had to do was sign, possibly resolving the lingering issue of ill-defined borders forever.

Although the proposal was Germany's most-reasonable offer to date, there were signs that the entire proposition was designed so it would fail. Two days before the planned German invasion of Poland, Hitler ordered the Polish Plenipotentiary to arrive in Berlin within twenty-four hours and sign the agreement without further questions or negotiations. Not only were the Poles unaware of what they were being asked to sign, they were also completely taken by surprise after months of non-correspondence. Thus, after receiving the ultimatum, the Polish elites argued over what to do. After consulting the British, they finally agreed to send an envoy to Berlin. When a Polish representative finally arrived in Berlin, the Germans interrogated him, discovered that he did not have the power to sign anything and declared that Poland had chosen war. The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, had been relatively supportive of the German government's view on the German-Polish crisis. This time, upon hearing the news, even he was critical:
“There was, in fact, for Herr Hitler only one conceivable alternative to brute force, and that was that a Polish Plenipotentiary should humbly come to him, after the manner of Dr. Schuschnigg [of Austria] or President Hacha [of Czecho-Slovakia] and sign on the dotted line to the greater glory of Adolf Hitler […] and even that must happen at once.”
Back in April 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had written: “in cold blood I cannot see Hitler starting a world war for Danzig.” According to a document submitted during the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of an alleged German war conspiracy, Chamberlain had been right. It declared that Danzig was “not the subject of the dispute at all,” the issue was “obtaining living space for Germans in the East.” The document continues: “A mass of 80 million people has solved the problems of ideals, so too, must the economic problems be solved.” As the document is only a copy of a typewritten, unsigned letter containing statements allegedly made by Hitler during a private briefing, its authenticity has been called into question on numerous occasions. Historians still cannot agree on its significance. Still, the war was clearly not just about Danzig; it was a port city that Germany had no exceptional use for. In fact, without control over the Polish Corridor, it was merely an appendage to the already isolated German exclave of East Prussia. Yet Danzig was the focal point of Germany’s revisionist efforts because the city represented the key to opening up the question of territorial revisionism; here was a city that beckoned for reform due to the agitation of German nationalists, fears of Polish penetration, economic woes and the failings of the Free City arrangement. Furthermore, Germany’s claims of “rightful” possession, based on past ownership and ethnography, were stronger in that city than anywhere in the Corridor.

Thus, from the first days of the Free City arrangement to the last, the controversy over the city was much less about its control than a greater struggle between two states at odds over drawing up boundaries; each side was looking to increase or, at the very least, maintain its power by extending itself into the eastern Baltic. Further complicating matters, the nations that these two states encompassed were motivated by the messages of state-supporting patriots who, amidst times of national disaster and partitioning, had dug up over five hundred years of dispute and controversy regarding the Danzig region. Their goal was to stir up patriotic and humanitarian sentiments, thus generating populist support and world sympathies for their revanchist causes. For the Germans, territorial revisionism was about mending psychological wounds as much as it was about mending together the nation for the sake of German welfare and prosperity. Thanks to state-supporting patriots, the vast German Empire had become a romanticized symbol of power and promise long since lost much in the same way that, during hard times for the Polish people under foreign control, the defunct Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been romanticized. Each model was a vision that reflected the hopes and wishes of each state, but the two states could not exist simultaneously in this form, as their geopolitical and economic ideals conflicted with one another. Therein lay the problem.

"Rescue the East" - a German election poster predating National Socialist Germany. In it, a Teutonic Knight is attacked by a Brit and Pole.

It has been said that the escalation of an ethnic conflict can best be understood by measuring “willingness” and “opportunity.” In regards to Danzig, the Corridor and the German-Polish frontier, all of the factors that could increase willingness and help push the situation towards conflict were present: “historical conditioning, racial milieu, religious combustibles, political jostles, and economic needs and objectives.” Moreover, the social conditioning in Germany had certainly created an atmosphere that contributed to the “willingness” to pursue territorial revisionism once the opportunity arose. At the same time, thanks to the socialization experience in Poland, all the elements were there to strengthen the Poles’ “willingness” to resist Germany's attempt at negotiations, which pushed things in the direction of war. The Poles had their entire history of interaction with the Germans to reflect upon; they also had little to gain from renegotiating the Baltic except the comfort of going to bed at night knowing the Germans would be not attacking in the morning.

Then again, according to Winston Churchill, the leader of the United Kingdom in 1939, “willingness” to fight was lacking at the beginning of the war. In his memoirs, Churchill wrote that, on the eve of the German Army's invasion of Poland, no German civilian was thinking of war but everyone in Britain feared it. In fact, once the war began, the German population displayed a bewildered and depressed reaction. This was likely due to memories of the First World War and the trauma which followed. Thus, whether the Germans were actually willing to go to war over territorial revision is suspect. Still, Germany's “willingness” to fight for territorial revision must be assessed in an entirely unique perspective, because the “opportunity” for the Germans to pursue territorial revisionism manifested itself in the shape of the National Socialist German Workers Party. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Party, had vowed to restore Germany's power and dispose of the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles so oder so - "one way another," as he often said. At a time when Germany was in economic and social disarray, Hitler’s promises became the symbol of hope. The German nation put its absolute faith in Hitler and, repeatedly, he delivered. For this reason, David Lloyd George, the United Kingdom's Prime Minister during the First World War, wrote in the mid 1930s that Hitler had become the “George Washington of Germany.”

Since the mid-1930s, on several occasions, Hitler’s ambitions had brought the German Nation dangerously close to war. Nevertheless, each time, Hitler emerged triumphantly, and Germany’s borders had changed without bloodshed or trade-off. Finally, in 1939, Hitler set his sights on the return of Danzig and an agreement over the Corridor. When the Poles refused to come to terms over the area, Hitler had three options: revise his proposal, back down or go to war; these were the same three options that Hitler had had at every step towards his vision of a Greater Germany. Yet for the first time since Hitler's rise to power in Germany, it appeared that the first option, a new diplomatic proposal, had been overplayed and was unlikely to yield results. He could certainly follow option two and back down but, in early 1939, it became clear that the Soviets would support the Germans with men and material in a potential war against Poland. Consequently, option three started to look increasingly favorable; Poland, a state sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, had a population slightly more than one-third of Germany’s and slightly less than one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s. In attacking Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union would also have the element of surprise, and could attack in all directions except from the south. It appeared that the only danger was whether Germany had to risk war with France and the United Kingdom in order to get what it wanted. As Germany’s fate rested on Hitler’s shoulders, the German public’s “willingness” to take this chance ceased to be an issue; the German public had put its faith in one man, and this man, Hitler, saw “opportunity”. He played the hand – and rolled the dice.


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