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Germans in Gdansk over the ages

Germans played a special role in the history of Gdansk. Starting from the second half of the 14th century and all the way to 1946, they constituted the majority of the city’s residents. A description from 1659 reads: “The number of Germans is greater than the remaining nations, followed by Poles, thus, the two languages, German and Polish, are in use here”.

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Out of the 1000 years of its existence, the city belonged to the Teutonic Order for 146 years, to Prussia and the German Reich for 126, and was formally a free city for 26. In total, this adds up to 298 years. For the remaining 700, the city had close ties to Poland. Gdansk Germans were regular citizens of pre-partition Poland. Coming of age, they would swear an oath of loyalty to the Polish King – in German – and would keep their vows in times of danger – one could say they would do this the German way: diligently and fairly. Examples of this include Poland’s wars against Sweden and the year 1734, when they fought bravely to protect King Stanislaw Leszczynski from the Russian army laying siege to the city.

In the 15th century, young residents of Gdansk would most often go to study in Krakow, and later on to German universities in Leipzig and Rostock. When the Reformation took over Gdansk, the Dutch city of Leiden became a more popular destination.

In 1635, Gdansk became home to Martin Opitz (1597-1639), a brilliant German Baroque poet and, eventually (from 1637) the secretary and chronicler of King Wladyslaw IV, author of Latin panegyrics honouring his name and many masterful poems, translations and other works written in German. After his death, he was buried in the Saint Mary Church. In the 19th century, his grave was renovated by “his kinsmen from the Silesian town of Boleslawiec”, where he was born.

Despite the fact that the diplomatic relations between the two cities were not always good, Gdansk and Berlin would often come into contact with each other. Residents of Berlin who visited Gdansk include brilliant astronomer Johann Bernoulli. One of his visits took place in 1777, and he left a very detailed description of several of them. Gdansk was the place where Alexander von Humboldt celebrated his 71st birthday in 1840 (the scholar considered Oliwa to be the third most beautiful place in the world), and the local Naturalist Society awarded him with the title of Honorary Member. The descendants of French Huguenots would also come and settle in Gdansk from Berlin and its surroundings. Watchmaker Francis Bellair, who came to Gdansk from Potsdam in 1759, is an example of this. He was the creator of a famous clock which played the Polish national anthem.

Residents of Gdansk settling in Berlin were much more numerous than Berliners coming to Gdansk, however. Many such immigrants from Gdansk left their mark on history. Berlin was located along the route taken by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, who visited the city before making his way to Amsterdam. Andreas Schulter (Jr.) also had very strong ties to Berlin. After Gdansk (the Royal Chapel) and Warsaw (Wilanow and the Krasinski Palace), he helped extend the Berlin Castle, embellished the Arsenal with sculptures, as well as creating the monument to the “Great” Elector and many other sculptures. He was also the designer of the Amber Room. In his later years, he moved to Petersburg, where he passed away in 1714. Berlin was also where brilliant graphic designer and illustrator Daniel Chodowiecki (1726-1801) settled and achieved great success. Famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) also studied and lectured at the University of Berlin. Another known Gdansk-Berliner was prominent banker Karl Furstenberg (1850-1933), who was married to Aniela Natanson from Warsaw. From 1910, the German capital was home to Gdansk pioneer of ecology and author of foundational works on amber, Hugo Conwentz (1855-1922).

Three Gdansk band leaders, who led the famous City Council Band (not the “councillors’ band”), came from Thuringen: Johann Walenty Meder (1687-1699, author of e.g. the suite “Polish Musician”), Maximilian Dietrich Freislich (1699-1731) and his foster brother Johann Balthasar Christian Freislich (1731-1764, author of e.g. patriotic cantatas celebrating the 300th anniversary of Gdansk returning under Polish rule and the completion of the monument to King Augustus III in the House of Artus).

An article by prof. Andrzej Januszajtis