The Free City of Danzig

The Free City of Danzig, also known as the "Free City of Gdańsk", was a semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939. It was located on the Baltic coast of Poland and was created as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War.

Map showing location of Gdańsk (Danzig).

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Danzig was made a "free city" meaning it was independent from any country, but under the protection of the League of Nations. The population of the city was predominantly German-speaking, with a minority of Poles.

The city, which had previously been part of the Kingdom of Prussia and later the German Empire, was given a unique status separate from Germany and Poland as a result of the Treaty of Versailles.

Passport of the Free City of Danzig.

Public domain


The decision to create Danzig as a Free City was part of the broader attempts by the Allied powers to limit the power of Germany and prevent it from becoming a dominant force in Europe again.

The treaty also mandated the construction of a new road and railway through the Polish Corridor which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, which would give Poland access to the Baltic Sea.

Danzig Fishmarket in the 1930s. The Free City of Danzig developed into a busy and thriving city.

Additionally, the Treaty of Versailles sought to address the question of the ethnic and national identity of the people in the region. Danzig had a predominantly German-speaking population but also had a significant Polish minority. The Free City status aimed to ensure that the rights and interests of both groups were protected and that the city would be governed in an impartial manner.

Danzig was a politically and economically important city. It had a large port and was a significant centre of trade and industry. The city's economy was mainly based on shipbuilding, fishing, and agriculture. The city was also a cultural centre and had a rich history and architecture.

However, the creation of Danzig as a Free City was not without controversy, and tensions between Germany and Poland over the city's status increased in the 1920s and 1930s. These tensions ultimately played a role in the outbreak of the Second World War, as Hitler's government sought to bring Danzig back under German control and used it as a pretext for the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Population density of Poland and the Free City of Danzig in 1930.

Public domain

Hitler's target

The German invasion of Danzig in September 1939 was one of the events that marked the beginning of the Second World War in Europe. Tensions between the two countries over the status of Danzig had been escalating for years, as Hitler's government sought to bring the city back under German control.

In the late 1930s, Hitler began to make demands for the return of Danzig to the German Reich and the construction of a new road and railway through the Polish Corridor which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

The Polish government rejected these demands, leading to a diplomatic crisis. On 23rd August 1939, Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which included a secret protocol dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

Danzig Police stand ready for inspection in 1937, a full two years before WWII began. Wearing WWI German helmets and field gray uniforms, they could be easily confused with the German Army.

The Helmet with the Grinning Skull. A Short History of the Danzig Police Helmet - Alexander and Sons German Helmet Restoration (

Danzig was an important city for Hitler for several reasons.

  • First, Danzig was a majority German-speaking city that had been separated from Germany after World War I and placed under League of Nations control. Hitler saw the reincorporation of Danzig into Germany as a way to rectify this perceived injustice and to expand Germany's territory.
  • Second, Danzig was an important port city that would give Germany access to the Baltic Sea. This would allow Germany to bypass the Polish Corridor, which had been created as part of the Versailles Treaty and separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.
  • Third, Hitler saw the Free City of Danzig as a first step towards his ultimate goal of Lebensraum, or "living space," for the German people. He believed that the German people needed more territory to sustain their population, and that Poland and the territories to the east would provide this space.
  • Finally, Danzig was important for Hitler as a propaganda issue, as it allowed him to mobilize public opinion and create a sense of national unity around the idea of reclaiming the city and the territories that had been lost in the Treaty of Versailles.

A propaganda picture shows a woman handing food to members of the Danzig Police - who fought on the side of the invading German forces - shorty after the city fell to the Nazis. The distinct skull decals are clearly visible on their M18 helmets. These Totenkopf symbols (which were similar to those worn by some Waffen SS units) were worn as a commemoration of the old Imperial German 1st and 2nd Guard Hussar Regiment both of whom were garrisoned at Danzig until the start of World War I.

The Helmet with the Grinning Skull. A Short History of the Danzig Police Helmet - Alexander and Sons German Helmet Restoration (


On 1st September 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, and German forces quickly advanced towards Danzig. The city was heavily bombed, and the Polish garrison was quickly defeated. On 9th September, Hitler announced the annexation of Danzig to the German Reich.

The Polish government and the Allied powers, France and the United Kingdom, declared war on Germany in response to the invasion. The German invasion of Danzig was the catalyst for the outbreak of World War II.

This picture was faked by the Nazi propaganda to visualise the (supposedly) triumphal advance of Wehrmacht in Poland on the 1st September 1939. The photograph was actually taken 2 weeks after the attack, on the 14th September at the border crossing between Poland and The Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk), in Kolibki, Old photos In color


The German occupation of Danzig was brutal, and the city was used as a centre for the persecution of Jews, Poles and other minority groups.

Thousands of people were killed, arrested, or sent to concentration camps. Danzig's Jewish population, which had numbered around 12,000 in 1939, was almost completely annihilated. Eventually, Danzig was liberated by the Red Army in 1945

After the war, Danzig was placed under the Polish administration and was renamed Gdańsk.

Further reading




Old Photos in Color

Norman Davies, "God's Playground: A History of Poland"

Ian Kershaw, "Hitler: A Biography"

Richard J. Evans, "The Third Reich in Power"