Museum of the Second World War

Gdansk, from Versailles to Solidarity

As part of our recent tour of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, we travelled from Russian Kaliningrad across the Polish border to Gdansk, formerly known as Danzig. This city was a target of interest for us because it has held centre stage in European politics on two occasions during the last century.

The first occasion was in 1939. Five minutes after Germany began its attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, at 04h45, the German battleship Schleswig Holstein bombarded Polish positions at Westerplatte in the city of Danzig. Resistance in Poland lasted for five weeks, before Danzig and Western Poland were reunited with Germany.

Danzig had been a bone of contention since the Versailles Treaty of 1919, when it had been confiscated from the German Empire by the victorious allies, even though the population of the Free City of Danzig was roughly 90% German and 10% Polish. The reintegration of Danzig was always on the German agenda.

After eight years of construction and a budget of €115 million, on March 23, 2017 the Museum of the Second World War, close to the historic centre of the city of Gdansk, was opened to the public. It had been commissioned by ex-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now President of the EU Council.

The museum grounds cover a hectare and the magnificent building occupies 26,000sqm. The architectural concept is the connection between the past, present and future, and half of the futuristic building lies buried in the ground.

It is the biggest historical museum in Poland, and the exhibition space covering nearly 5,000sqm is 14m below ground. The aim of its exhibition is to paint a broad picture of the war, giving the views of common civilians. The museum pays tribute to those who were slaughtered, and finds space for the memorabilia of thousands of private citizens and 240 multimedia consoles through which visitors may browse photographs, films, video testimonies and interactive maps.

This controversial museum is intended to present the Second World War by combining the Polish perspective with the experience of other European nations. But the present ultra-conservative government of the Law and Justice Party claims that the exhibition is not patriotic enough and that the “museum is an expensive mess that waters down Polish history and should be closed”. We, on the other hand, consider this museum highly effective because its stories are both moving and personal. By itself, it was worth the trip to Gdansk.

In the past, Gdansk has formed a part of Poland, the State of the Teutonic Order, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, Prussia, the German Empire, the Third Reich and the People’s Republic of Poland and it now forms a part of the Republic of Poland.

Gdansk itself was a major port of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns, sometimes referred to as the First Common Market. It had been a great free city under Polish rule, but formed a part of Prussia since the 1790s and was known as the Amsterdam of the east, with its prosperous trade, rich merchants, elegant buildings and network of canals.

The historic old city suffered large-scale damage during WW2 and the reconstruction which took place in the 1950s and 1960s avoided the previous German style (“Prussian barbarism”) in favour of Flemish, Dutch, Italian and French influences.

The new communist government invested heavily in the development of the port and in rebuilding the major German shipyards, in line with its ambitions in the Baltic region. Gdansk became a major shipping and industrial centre of communist Poland.

Gdansk is often considered different from the rest of Poland because it has always enjoyed trade and interaction with other nations. Because of this outward looking attitude, it is perhaps no surprise that the fight against communist control started in the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk. From the 1950s to the 70s, the Polish economy struggled and as food prices increased, so did the number of illegal strikes, particularly in 1980.

The city’s second centre stage appearance happened on August 31, 1980. In the Gdansk Agreement at the Lenin shipyard, the ruling communist party accepted most of the strikers’ demands, including the rights to organise independent trade unions and to strike. Poland thus took a major step away from communist control.

Born in 1943, Lech Walesa joined the Lenin shipyard as an electrician in 1967, and used his charisma to organise the protests for which he was sacked. He led his former colleagues in a strike and became the leader of the Solidarity Free Trade Union, the champion of democracy in Poland, and was elected President of the new Republic of Poland in 1990. The Lenin shipyard is now a museum (the European Solidarity Centre), where you may see the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 and Walesa’s famous jumper.

For Poland, the end result of the Solidarity movement and Walesa’s leadership was full NATO membership (March 1999) and membership of the EU on May 1, 2004. Walesa himself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

In the recent ballot for the Best Destinations in Europe, with over 400,000 votes, Gdansk was third most popular (after Porto and Milan). It would certainly have received our votes.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Houses of the 1950s and 1960s reconstruction of Gdansk
Lech Walesa wearing his famous sweater – the one he was wearing on August 31, 1980 when he signed the Gdansk Agreement which paved the way for Soldarnosc – the first trade union behind the Iron Curtain to be independent from the communist party.

Wall of suitcases of concentration camp victims
Museum of the Second World War