Identity in the Free City of Danzig


The Principal Allied and Associated Powers undertake to establish the town of Danzig, together with the rest of the territory described in Article 100, as a Free City. It will be placed under the protection of the League of Nations.
Treaty of Versailles, Part III, Section XI, Article 102


Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, June 28, 1919. (National Archives)

by Caitlin Hartnett

On November 11th, 1918, what would come to be known as the First World War ended. The armistice had called to an end one of the most devastating military conflicts the world had seen up to that point. After six months of negotiation, the Paris Peace Conference would result in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, one of many peace treaties that concluded the war and one of the most infamous. This treaty would have many impacts on Germany, the Allies and the world at large, but one that is often overlooked is the establishment of a Free City on the coast of the Baltic Sea.

As decreed and outlined in Part III, Section XI, Article 102 of the Treaty of Versailles, the Free City of Danzig emerged as one of the many great political experiments put together in an attempt to reinstate peace following a war that had uprooted everything. In the subsequent articles, the treaty outlines the governance of the Free City under the watchful eye of the League of Nations, the delineation of its trade and the status of its citizenry. In physical terms, the treaty cut off German East Prussia from the rest of Germany and created the Polish Corridor and the Free City, as seen on the map below. However, with changes to the map came many other changes for the average eastern Europeans living in this area. Of the many regulations instituted by Treaty of Versailles, Section XI dictated changes to the identity and status of those living in what had previously been German territory for more than a century. The treaty provided protection against discrimination for those of Polish citizenry or origin yet forced all former German citizens to either renounce their citizenship in favor of becoming nationals of the Free City or move to Germany in twelve months’ time.


“Germany’s Eastern Borders ~ 1919-1939” The light gray dotted area represents the Free City of Danzig; the dark gray portion is the as labelled Polish Corridor. (Kimmich)

This narrative bibliography seeks answer a singular question: How did the people of the Free City of Danzig, nestled between the Polish Corridor and German East Prussia, experience the new political identity that was ascribed to them? To do so, it is organized as follows. In the first section, my project explores the political origins of the Free City of Danzig on the international level and how a decision made in faraway France came into being in eastern Europe. In the second section, my project briefly examines the relationship the Free City of Danzig had with its neighboring states, Poland and Germany, and how the tenuous relationship between these two after the war affected the Free City. Finally, the remainder of my project is dedicated to the experience of the individual and how eastern Europeans experienced this territorial adjustment.


A Political Experiment:
The International Origins of the Free City


The Big Four: Lloyd George (Britain), Orlando (Italy), Clemenceau (France) and Wilson (USA). (National Archives)

The political boundaries of the Free City of Danzig were imposed following the First World War on the basis of international political concerns. First, the newly rehabilitated Polish state required control of the Vistula and access to the Baltic Sea for trade. Second, the recently upset balance of power needed to be reset once more and Germany’s immense influence reduced and controlled. In the wave of states created in the name of self-determination and rising nationalism, the Free City of Danzig is an odd creation. Its borders do not reflect its population, consisting of majority Germans with a significant Polish minority.

The first stop in examining the international political origins of the Free City of Danzig is logically the document that created it: The Treaty of Versailles. The entire document is available online thanks to the Avalon Project on documents in law, history and diplomacy, run by the Yale Law School and the Lillian Goldman Law Library. The relevant section (Part III, Section XI), including Article 102 quoted at the top of the page, are easily accessible and allow the reader to analyze the blueprint laid out by the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty details the physical territory of the Free City in exacting detail, the governance structure, the supervisory status of the League of Nations and the status of the Free City’s citizens. This document reveals the intention to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea explicitly in Article 104, but it also reveals the Allies’ need to control German hegemony, implied especially when combined with the other measures taken by the treaty against the German state.

A second source of note is Roger Moorhouse’s chapter, “‘The Sore that Would Never Heal’: The Genesis of the Polish Corridor”, in After the Versailles Treaty: Enforcement, Compliance, Contested Identities, edited by Conan Fischer and Alan Sharp. Though this chapter focuses on the Polish Corridor, it gives a great insight into the historical background of the region as well as the nitty gritty of the politics at the Paris Peace Conference. Moorhouse explains how the impetus for the Polish Corridor came from the Polish delegation, backed up by a France fearful of Germany, and that the Free City was thought up in an attempt to compromise with the displeased British and American delegations. The chapter is detailed, but concise and a definite ‘must’ for those studying the origins of the Free City or the Polish Corridor. It can be found in Swem Library at this address.

Now that we have established a background in the international law of the treaty and the political negotiations that led to its creation, how did these decisions play out in reality? The answer to this question lies in John Brown Mason’s The Danzig Dilemma: A Study in Peacemaking by Compromise. This book expands on the articles of Part III, Section XI of the Treaty of Versailles by examining how each of its decisions came into effect in the Free City. The topics Mason covers include government structure, the role of the international League of Nations and the exact details of Poland’s rights over various aspects of the Free City. On top of this detailed analysis, Mason’s work also includes an appendix that contains the relevant passages from many official documents, giving this work even greater depth. It can be found in Swem Library at this address.


A Tenuous Affair:
Relations with Germany and Poland


Headline from The Argus. April 9th, 1919. (Free City Sourcebook)

The Free City of Danzig created a unique diplomatic situation on the state level between the Free City and its two neighbors, a crippled Germany and a newly established Poland. The tensions that emerged during the Paris Peace Conference negotiations over the issue of the Polish Corridor and the Free City did not simply disappear once the treaty was signed, but were instead transferred to interstate diplomacy and tension between German and Polish national groups.

Headline from Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. March 26th, 1919. (Free City Sourcebook)

Headline from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. March 26th, 1919. (Free City Sourcebook)

In Germany, foreign policy shifted slowly from resentment and anger over the punitive treaty to a drive for the reacquisition of its former territory. Immediately following the war, as Christoph Kimmich notes in The Free City: Danzig and German Foreign Policy, 1919-1934, Germany had “been bent solely on proclaiming that the Treaty was outrageous” (p. 70), but as time passed, German foreign policy slowly began to evolve into revisionist policy. The chapter on the diplomacy of Gustav Stresemann between 1925 and 1929 is of particular note in Kimmich’s work. In it, he not only discusses the foreign policy of the Foreign Minister but also propagandistic measures, such as organized trips to the Free City for ordinary Germans to spread the sentiment that Danzig’s situation was unnatural and that it should return to Germany’s possession (p. 80-1). It can be found in Swem Library at this address.

For Poland, controlling trade along the Vistula and out of the Danzig port was of as much importance as was retaining the Polish Corridor, which the Poles considered rightfully theirs. The Free City become a main trade hub under Polish influence. “In 1913 Danzig occupied thirteenth place among all the Baltic ports in the movement of shipping tonnage,” writes Jean Ciechanowski in “German-Polish Relations”. “To-day, it has risen to third place, standing after Copenhagen and Stockholm.” (p. 351) Ciechanowski’s article, written in 1933, gives an in-depth look into the domestic political ramifications of the Free City and the Polish Corridor in relation to German and Polish administrative business, such as trade, postal services and transportation. It also explores how this area was important strategically as well as symbolically to the new Polish nation-state. For those with JSTOR access, it can be found online here.


A Place called Home:
The Experience of the Free City’s Citizens

Postcard featuring the town hall. (Free City Sourcebook)

Postcard featuring the town hall. (Free City Sourcebook)

Living within a political entity created predominantly on international political concerns and between the diplomatic stances of the Free City’s more powerful neighbors, the citizens of the Free City themselves are easy to overlook. However, the Free City was experienced differently for different groups. Forced to choice between their homes and their national identities, Germans viewed this area as a borderland. For others, it was an attempt at creating a truly ‘international’ state with a heterogenous population that would ultimately be too susceptible to the influence of its powerful neighbors. For all, it was a controversy that called into question the individual’s identity.

In her article, “The Free City of Danzig: Borderland, Hansestadt or Social Democracy?”, Elizabeth Clark asks a seemingly simple question: “Often called an ‘experiment,’ more often termed a ‘failed experiment,’ the Free City’s separation from Germany presented a conundrum to its inhabitants. Who were they?” (p. 260) In her exploration of this question, Clark explains three perceptions of the Free City that were felt by eastern Europeans at the time. Danzig was a borderland for the German nationalists who wished to reclaim it for Germany, a Hansestadt created by the hopeful Paris Peace Conference politicians and a failed social democracy, as it never achieved the reality of true separation from either Germany or Poland. For those with JSTOR access, it can be found online here.

The Free City was not only an addition to the map, but also an experience that resounded with its inhabitants. Germans were forced to choose whether to give up their German identity or to leave the city for German territory. The Polish minority’s rights were protected, but they were separated from the rest of their national group as they experienced the rebirth of the Polish state. Joshua Hagen explores these changes in cartography and the ramifications they had for the people living them in “Mapping the Polish Corridor: Ethnicity, Economics and Geopolitics.” In this article, he discusses the public debate in the 1920s sparked by the establishment of the Polish Corridor and the Free City and how cartography was used in this debate. The article can be read online here.

Readers of this narrative bibliography may have noticed by now that a fair number of the images accompanying this text come from the same source. I strongly encourage the intrepid Free City scholar to check out the Free City Sourcebook, an online collection of primary sources on the Free City of Danzig. This collection ranges from photographs, maps and newspaper clippings as one can see a sampling of on this page to government documents, videos, pamphlets, tourist brochures and more. This source is invaluable in bringing such a vast and vibrant collection of primary documents together and making them accessible to everyone over the internet. As we discuss the effects of the establishment of the Free City on the average eastern European, it is possible to grasp even more about the reality of these individual’s daily lives through the sources available on this website.


In the end, what was the Free City of Danzig? Was it a experiment of international law produced to give Poland access to the port’s trade and to minimize Germany’s hegemony? Was it a sphere of influence caught between one neighbor that wished to see it returned and another that had great economic and symbolic reasons to retain it? Was it a political identity ascribed to its inhabitants, individuals forced to make a decision in regards to their nationality? In truth, it was all of these things. It was a compromise between delegates at the Paris Peace Conference; it was a borderland between Germany and Poland; and it was a framework within which many average eastern Europeans lived in the years following the First World War.



Map at top of page: 1922 Map of the Baltic Sea from the David Rumsey Map Collection (Free City Sourcebook)

Image at bottom of page: 500 Danzig gulden bill, 1924 issue. (Wikipedia)

For additional sources, please explore the Free City Sourcebook mentioned above or the annotated bibliography compiled by Barbara Paul, The Polish-German Borderlands, an Annotated Bibliography, found at Swem here.



Avalon Project.  “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919: Part III.” Accessed November 16, 2014.

Ciechanowski, Jean. “German-Polish Relations.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1931-1939), Vol. 12, No. 3 (May, 1933): 344-366.

Clark, Elizabeth Morrow. “The Free City of Danzig: Borderland, Hansestadt or Social Democracy?” The Polish Review, Vol. 42, No. 3 (1997): 259-276.

“The Free City Sourcebook.”  Last modified October 17, 2014.

Fischer, Conan and Alan Sharp. After the Versailles Treaty: Enforcement, Compliance, Contested Identities. London: Routledge, 2008.

Hagen, Joshua. “Mapping the Polish Corridor: Ethnicity, Economics and Geopolitics.” Imago Mundi, Vol. 62, No. 1 (2010): 63-82.

Kimmich, Alexander. The Free City: Danzig and German Foreign Policy, 1919-1934. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Mason, John Brown. The Danzig Dilemma: A Study in Peacemaking by Compromise. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1946.