The Free City Sourcebook: Primary sources on the Free City of Danzig
April 12, 2014 2:44 PM   Subscribe

The Free City Sourcebook: Primary sources on the Free City of Danzig This website brings together all available primary sources (eg, government documents, newspaper articles, photos, etc) relating to the Free City of Danzig (1920-1939). [via mefi projects]

My German is not too great but "Free City" is a translation of Freistadt. In this case, it might make more sense to translate it as city-state (which is not a criticism of the author or a suggestion that the name of the site be changed -- but perhaps some explanation might benefit readers). I suspect a lot of people are unaware that the city that is now known as Gdansk, Poland was once a non-sovereign German city-state.

This is a rich little piece of European history. I am glad to see it get its own little spotlight.
posted by Michele in California (11 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The "Sourcebook" title makes me think of the Free City of Greyhawk, and makes me want to run a Danzig campaign. These materials would make awesome handouts.
posted by howfar at 4:19 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

My German is not too great but "Free City" is a translation of Freistadt. In this case, it might make more sense to translate it as city-state (which is not a criticism of the author or a suggestion that the name of the site be changed -- but perhaps some explanation might benefit readers).
"Free City" is the official name used in the English version of the Treaty of Versailles which created Danzig as a semi-autonomous area under the protection of the League of Nations. It's not a translation issue.

This is analogous to the Free State of Fiume and the Free Territory of Trieste. "Free" in this context means free from the suzerainty of the neighboring countries.
posted by brokkr at 4:46 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Günter Grass' stock may be way down as a human being, but I devoured both the Tin Drum and Dog Years as a youth before his SS history was revealed, (I won't apologize for the man or the hypocrisy, but I stand by them as distinctly powerful works of literature) and those books loom large in my psyche to this day, and the Free City of Danzig has always interested me as a result. It's an odd historical anomaly, and this provides a wonderful diversion & enrichment on an old interest. Grass' descriptions of pre-war Danzig from the point of view of a children seem especially vivid amongst literature, and I've always had a detailed imaginary map of Danzig & the surrounding lowlands in my head as a result, but am shy on actual history, so this is neat stuff.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:15 PM on April 12, 2014

Cool pic, Purportedly from 1925
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:24 PM on April 12, 2014

Devils Rancher, how odd that that image required me to OK seeing adult content on Flickr. In any event, I like to imagine that one of the ships there is my grandfather's, as he served in the Swedish merchant marine, all of it to my knowledge in the Baltic.

Free City is historically correct. It was an expedient compromise that resolved, for a time at least, the territorial dispute with the Solomonic solution that "nobody" owned it. The historical problem was that, partly as a result of the Medieval Hanseatic League, German settlement was extensive along the Baltic seacoast, especially in the area once known as East Prussia. The end of the First World War left Poland with only a sliver of seacoast, and the port of Danzig was removed from East Prussia and given, but only in this fashion, to Poland, as otherwise that country would have had no access to sea trade. A substantial territory of Pomerania which was termed the Polish Corridor was granted to Poland with full sovereignty. [map] Basically, it was a solution that fully pleased nobody, although it's unknown to me what all the ethnic groups in the Pomeranian vicinity thought of having lines drawn on a map around them, certainly the ethnic Germans were party to a broad German identity that had been built at least since the consolidation of the German empire in the mid-19th century. I've known a Kashubian-American, for instance, whose parents were war refugees and didn't consider herself Polish either.

Only as the Second World War ended was there a significant -- indeed, nearly complete -- migration of ethnic Germans out of East Prussia, both voluntary and involuntary. "A population which had stood at 2.2 million in 1940 was reduced to 193,000 at the end of May 1945." (Anthony Beevor.) Most of the able-bodied men had been drafted into the military, so this was a rump populace of the old, ill, and women and children. Some of them died as evacuation ships combining military and civilian passengers were sunk.

Needless to say, there is some concern over a similar (territorial) scenario playing out with Ukraine -- at least there seems to be a deliberate campaign to make Ukrainians think they might lose their southern as well as eastern provinces. This echoes more clearly than I ever would have imagined when reading it in dusty history books, and to some extent underlines why NATO and the EU view things as they do today. No derail intended.
posted by dhartung at 10:00 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thansk from Gdansk.
posted by pracowity at 11:29 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wasn't at all suggesting it was incorrectly translated.

For me, this is not just a bit of European history. It is also a bit of family history: My mother is from Danzig and I knew from her that it was a "Freistadt" or, in English, city-state. I was somewhat surprised at how difficult it was to verity this on the Internet. When I tried googling "Freistadt," it asked if I meant "freistaat" (and also linked me to a city named Freistadt, that is not Danzig), even though the Wikipedia page (linked above) uses the term "Freistadt" (notes that it is redirected from Freistadt Danzig). So apparently most Free Cities are not called "Freistadt." It seems to be a somewhat uncommon usage. Thus, I felt it might be helpful to other people to comment on it. I felt that explaining that it was a city-state would make more sense to many people who might otherwise have no idea what a "free city" is.
posted by Michele in California at 1:25 PM on April 13, 2014

Well, Danzig really had very little to do with a city-state in the traditional European sense. For one thing, they weren't actually sovereign - the Poles ran the railroads and the foreign diplomacy. Danzig was also in a forced customs union with Poland and there was a Polish post office in the city. The Second World War started with the Nazis shelling a Polish military depot ... in the Free City of Danzig.

And anyway, the German word for city-state is Stadtstaat, not Freistadt.
posted by brokkr at 12:57 AM on April 14, 2014

Sorry, Michele, didn't mean to appear to talk down to you. I will say your googling worked out the way it did at least in part because "Freistadt" is not perfectly correct -- the actual orthography in German was Freie Stadt Danzig. The term "Freistadt" was not itself used on the linked site; I have no idea how much contemporaries may have used it as a shorthand.

And the thing is, it was its own animal. The name "Free City" was derived historically from the Holy Roman Empire Freie und Reichsstädte (Free and Imperial City), denoting municipal areas that were autonomous and had no authority (such as a bishopric or a duchy, etc.) in between them and the Emperor. The term was perhaps then doubly inappropriate for Danzig because not only was it no longer German, there no longer was a German Empire. But the treaty-drafters must have thought it important to communicate the autonomous nature, and possibly felt that giving it a name evoking German tradition would mollify the Prussian population.

But I'm with brokkr in that calling it something else only muddies the issue further. It wasn't sovereign like a city-state, it was a weird, essentially unique situation and from the standpoint of writing about it now only a brief era in history. So call it what it was, and explain what that was, in the context of the international legal regime and political climate that created it.
posted by dhartung at 3:49 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of the very informative comments here by people who clearly know way more than I do about political history are from people who were not really the intended audience for my links to Wikipedia and my comments that it is a form of city-state.

It is not that I think the distinction between Danzig and "real" city-states does not matter. It is that for basically a lay person like myself, those fine distinctions are not the best starting place for approaching the topic. I hoped to make the sourcebook site I was linking to more readily understandable and approachable for a more general audience. I had hoped to say, in essence, "This weird thing that may make no sense to you might make more sense if you think of it this way."

I appreciate the very well informed remarks by people who know a lot more about this than I do.
posted by Michele in California at 4:05 PM on April 14, 2014

Hi everyone! This is my website, and I'm very flattered that Michele in California made an FPP about it.

As for the "Free City" title: as someone mentioned above, that was the official name given by the League of Nations (Ville Libre in French). It has a certain historical continuity inasmuch as Danzig was a Free City in the Napoleonic period (which was a complete disaster--I'm not sure whether anyone read up on it in 1919). That said, the 20th c. Free City was a political orphan with no good examples to follow. The populace, which had been culturally and politically German for centuries, was furious. The Germans were enraged by losing part of their territory, and by being cut off from East Prussia by the Polish Corridor. And Poland didn't get the city outright and resented the Danzigers' intransigence.

It was a not-great solution, which is not to say that the Free City was doomed from the outset. With greater goodwill on all sides, and firmer leadership from a more-authoritative League of Nations, the situation may have been salvaged. By 1933, though (it seems to me), the handwriting was on the wall.

Anyway, I could witter on about this for hours so I'll stop there. I will just add that making this site has been great fun--like an Easter egg hunt all over the web. It's a great challenge for my librarian skills (and my patience in wading through references to Glenn Danzig). I hope everyone else enjoys it as much as I do!
posted by orrnyereg at 9:34 PM on April 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

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