Monday, March 11, 2013

Gdańsk, or a Brief Confusing History of the Eastern Baltic, Part I

Kaliningraders know Gdańsk as a destination for cheap shopping, convenient airport connections, and easy entry into the European Union, but although today Gdańsk enjoys affluence and tourists alike, it has a long and convoluted history that surpasses even Kaliningrad's. Located directly on the Baltic and a branch of the Vistula delta, Gdańsk -- Danzig, in German -- is Poland's primary seaport, and has a population of around half a million, although the surrounding metropolitan area is much larger. Although the city suffered greatly in World War II, today Gdańsk is beautifully reconstructed and fully deserves its six-hundred year reputation as one of the Baltic's prize capitals.

Founded sometime just before the turn of the millennium, Gdańsk's (then Danzig's) early history, like Memel/Klaipėda's, eventually touches Königsberg's, and then departs again, creating interesting parallels in historical hindsight. Originally part of the Kingdom of Poland, which was recognized as a state by the Pope in the year 1000 (stay with me here, this gets a bit complicated), Danzig was caught in the middle of a messy dynastic struggle in the thirteenth century after invasion by Danes, and was briefly part of an independent Duchy of Pomerelia before being re-integrated into the Kingdom of Poland. This transfer was brief, however, since the Teutonic Order (an independent crusader state based in Prussia) seized and incorporated the the Danzig area (Pomerelia) in 1309. A few decades later, Danzig joined the Hanseatic League, eventually becoming a major shipping hub on the Baltic.

Kingdom of Poland (yellow), Prussia (brown), and Lithuania (olive)
in 1190. Source.
The Baltic in the early 1300s. The Kingdom of Poland (green) has lost
Pomerelia to the Teutonic Order (purple, note it has expanded northward
from Prussia), but not yet joined with Lithuania (orange), which it does
in 1385. Source.

The Teutonic Order, a group of Germanic Christian crusaders that conquered Prussia in the early 1200s (founding Königsberg in 1255), gradually expanded their control along the Baltic, and engaged in a series of wars with Poland over the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Poles eventually won a decisive victory in 1466, returning Pomerelia and Danzig to Polish control. They incorporated this newly re-gained territory into the Kingdom of Poland as a province under the name of Royal Prussia, where it enjoyed a great deal of internal autonomy.

Meanwhile, Albert, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, was losing control of his Catholic Teutonic state as the Protestant Reformation was gaining momentum. From 1519-21, the Teutonic Order fought another war with Poland, culminating in an unstable truce that Albert, under the advice of Martin Luther, solved by converting to Protestantism, resigning as head of the Teutonic Order and making homage to his uncle, the King of Poland, from who he received hereditary rights to the newly renamed and secular Duchy of Prussia. Duke Albert established his new capital in Königsberg in 1525, ending the Teutonic Order for good.

The Duchy of Prussia eventually joined through marriage with the German Electorate of Brandenburg, of which its ruler, the Elector of Brandenburg, was subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire. In exchange for a few good deeds, Elector Frederick in 1701 was granted the right to call himself "King in Prussia," which was outside the borders of the Empire, although within the borders he was still only an elector. The title "King of Prussia" was reserved for the Kings of Poland, who still ruled over Royal Prussia. The Brandenburg-Prussian rulers didn't get to claim this title for themselves until 1772, after they re-annexed Royal Prussia in the First Partition of Poland.

Baltic Tribes around 1200, before the Teutonic conquest,
Western Balts in greens, Eastern Balts in browns. Source
Royal Prussia (light pink), part of the the Kingdom of Poland (yellow),
around 1575. Ducal Prussia (stripes) still retains Memel (Klaipėda). Source.
Brandenburg-Prussia in 1600. The original Brandenburg territory is dark
 red, with the Prussian (and a few other miscellaneous) additions in pink.
Source. 

Danzig, in the meantime, had become a bi-cultural trading hub, with a German-speaking Lutheran majority, but substantial Polish minority. The city was host to a strong printing industry, as well as advances in celestial navigation. Although it suffered during the plague, the population grew steadily, and experienced a period of overall prosperity thanks largely to its prime trading location between the Baltic Sea and the Vistula River.

But the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom had fallen increasingly under the influence of Imperial Russia, which was gaining power and territory as it expanded East and South. This worried the Austrian Habsburgs and Brandenburg-Prussians, and in order to rebalance the changing European powers, they agreed to divide up Poland-Lithuania in the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Prussia, Russia, and Austria then all simultaneously invaded, seizing chunks of Poland for themselves and leaving only a rump. Royal Prussia was taken by Brandenburg-Prussia, leaving only the resistant Danzig as a small island still belonging to Poland. A few years later, Russia and Prussia each took a little more of Poland in the Second Partition, Prussia finally conquering the port of Danzig, which strongly resented its annexation. The Third and final Partition divided the remaining territory between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, completely eliminating Poland and Lithuania as independent territories until their reinstatement following World War I.


Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before partition in 1772. Source.
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the First Partition, 1773. Source.
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Second Partition, 1793. Source.

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