Slavic 158: Gdansk/Danzig/Gedanum: A City Shaped – Histories and Cultures

TuTh 3:30-5, 206 Dwinelle. Instructor: David Frick.

Units: 4 Satisfies L&S Historical Studies breadth requirement.

Cross-listed with History 100B.

In this course we will examine the fascinating, competing histories and cultures of the Baltic coast city known variously as Danzig and Gdańsk (among other spellings and forms).  First a medieval Slavic (Polish/Kashubian) fishing village, then a growing port city under the rule of the Teutonic Knights of the Cross (XIV century), then the largest city of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (XV century to 1795).  Freed from the hated overlordship of the Teutonic Order and, as the chief city of Royal Prussia (a semi-autonomous district of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), Gdańsk (still largely German speaking and a Hanseatic city) was Poland’s main access to the wider world through export and import.  Except for a brief period of intendant status as, once again, a “Free City” in Napoleonic times (1807–1814), from 1795 (the Third Partition of Poland) to 1918 (end of WWI), Danzig  was a city of diminished significance in the Kingdom of Prussia and later the German Empire.  In the twentieth century, it became a focal point of German-Polish tensions.  The Treaty of Versailles (1918) did many things:  among them it created a “Free State (not “City”) of Gdańsk,” governed (loosely) by the League of Nations; it also resurrected a free and independent Second Polish Republic, still a multi-ethnic federation, but with much changed borders, and with a promise of “free and secure access to the sea.”

The city had long been somewhat mixed; it had an overwhelming German-speaking majority since the XIV century at least, with a small Slavic minority.  The hinterland, also mixed, was predominantly Slavic speaking (Polish and Kashubian).  The “free access to the sea” as envisaged by the Treaty of Versailles became known as “the Polish Corridor.”  It was a thing neck of land separating East Prussia (with its seat in Königsberg) from the rest of the German Empire.  Danzig bordered on the Polish Corridor to the West and South, on East Prussia to the East.  The Second Polish Republic quickly turned Gdynia/Gdingen, a sleepy fishing village just up the Baltic Coast, into a major shipbuilding and port city in competition with its ancient neighbor.  Versailles had also given the Poles certain rights in Danzig:  a Polish Post Office, control of the railway system, a binding customs union with Poland, and a limited use of the port.  All of these things—the Polish Corridor separating parts of the Reich, the Polish presence in Danzig, the fact that Danzig was not technically a part of the Reich—were points of considerable friction between the Polish and German states, and a strong Nazi movement would grow up in Danzig, taking power in 1933, and calling for incorporation into the Reich.  WWII began with just that:  the attack on the Polish Post Office and the Polish port (Westerplatte) in Danzig on 31 August 1939.

By the end of the War in 1945, Danzig, now Gdańsk, had been allotted to a newly formed (once again, with much changed borders) Polish People’s Republic.  The surviving Germans were deported to the new Germanies; Poles from all over—including the Lithuanian, Belarusan, and Ukrainian territories that Poland would have to cede to the Soviet Republics of those names—moved in to take their places in a destroyed city requiring major restoration.  Strikes in the shipyards of Gdańsk—first in 1970 (mostly disastrous), then 1980 (with some significant success, leading to the formation of Solidarity)—would help bring about the end of the East Bloc (and the fall of the Berlin Wall) in 1989.  The leader of the strikes in 1980, Lech Wałęsa (Nobel Peace Prize, 1983), the out-of-work electrician turned trade unionist, would be elected the first President of a non-Communist Poland in 1990.

Course materials will include close examination of maps of the city throughout its existence, coupled with lectures (with a few short readings) on the city’s history.  These will accompany us throughout the course.  The main body of reading material for students will be from novels (1959–2001), both German and Polish (in English translation), produced by citizens of the city; these works deal directly with the city’s topography, social, political, and religious divides, historical memory; and in the Polish case, the problem of inhabiting and making Polish, a city that, for centuries, had not been “ours” in any direct sense.  On the German side, we will read four of the novels of Danziger and Noble Prize winner for literature (1999), Günter Grass.  On the Polish side we will read three novels by writers of the next generation, sons of those who took up residence in the abandoned houses of post-war Danzig/Gdańsk:  Paweł Huelle and Stefan Chwin.  Both Polish writers, in different ways, could be said to be involved in a dialogue in their works with those of Günter Grass.

Class time will be spent with a series of maps covering the entire history of the city (of special interest will be the renaming of streets under the Nazis, in Communist Poland, and in post-Communist Poland), a few small texts plus lectures on the history of the city, and—the bulk of student reading—the twentieth century novels (Grass, Huelle, Chwin).

We will watch and discuss Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 adaptation of the first two-thirds of The Tin Drum, as well as some documentary footage of the strikes against the Communist government in the then Polish shipyards in 1970 and 1980.

Requirements:  Reading, class attendance, participation in discussion, and three writing assignments:  1) a mapping project (one possibility would be an essay-tour of Grass’s and Huelle’s native suburb Langfuhr/Wrzeszcz, using the maps, the history we have talked about, and the literature, which is quite specific in its topography); 2) an in-class short essay test on dates and topics from the history of the city; 3) an final essay project.  All texts in English.

Prerequisites: None.


Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (transl. Breon Mitchell), New York, 2010, ISBN-10: 0547339100; ISBN-13: 978-0547339108.

Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse, New York, 1991, ISBN-10: 0156155516; ISBN-13: 978-0156155519.

Günter Grass, The Call of the Toad, New York, 1993, ISBN-10: 0156153408; ISBN-13: 978-0156153409.

Günter Grass, Crabwalk, New York, 2004, ISBN-10: 0156029707; ISBN-13: 978-0156029704.

Paweł Huelle, Who Was David Weiser?, New York, 1994, ISBN-10: 0156001276; ISBN-13: 978-0156001274.

Paweł Huelle, Mercedes-Benz, London, 2006, ISBN-10: 1852428694; ISBN-13: 978-1852428693.

Stefan Chwin, Death in Danzig, New York, 2004, ISBN-10: 0151008051; ISBN-13: 978-0151008056.

Scanned shorter readings.