Lying on the Baltic coast at the mouth of the Vistula, millennial Gdańsk has been a major Baltic seaport since the Middle Ages. For several centuries it was also the largest and wealthiest city in the Kingdom of Poland. Its residents grew rich on administering the commercial exchange between Poland and Western Europe that passed through its port.
In the twentieth century Gdańsk made world history on two occasions:
- with the attack on the Polish garrison in Westerplatte, Gdańsk, on 1 September 1939, the German army started World War II,
- in August 1980, on the wave of workers’ strikes, the Solidarity trade union was born in Gdańsk, the first mass anti-Communist organisation in the whole communist bloc (with almost 10 million members) operating in opposition to existing power structures. It was Solidarity that set in motion the chain of events that toppled the Communist system in Eastern Europe; it was also a significant impulse in the implementation of perestroika in the USSR. The workers’ revolution was waged under the sign of the cross, with workers openly manifesting their Catholic faith.
Gdańsk was almost completely razed to the ground during World War II. The postwar reconstruction campaign recreated the beauty of this vast North European Hanseatic city. Nowadays it is one of Poland’s most attractive cities for tourists. One of its foremost historic monuments is the Basilica of Our Lady, Europe’s largest brick Gothic church, which dominates the city’s skyline.
Gdańsk is the world capital of amber, which occurs naturally on the Baltic coast. Also worth visiting are the European Solidarity Centre and the World War II Museum. In the nearby spa town of Sopot there is a beautiful beach, and the Baltic’s longest pier.
A major role in the colonisation and Christianisation of the Baltic coast was played by holy orders, in particular the chivalric Order of Brothers of the German House of St Mary (the Teutonic Order), which established its own monastic state in this region.
The Teutonic Order made a vast contribution to grafting the achievements of Western civilisation onto Prussian territory. At the same time, the knights of the order were characterised by their cruel treatment of the pagans, despotism towards their subjects, and expansiveness with regard to their neighbours. The centre of authority of the monastic state was Malbork (Marienburg), 65 km east of Gdańsk, where the grand master of the order had his castle. Malbork Castle is one of the largest complexes of Gothic architecture, and the biggest medieval castle in Europe. The castle and museum are inscribed on the UNESCO heritage list.
At the opposite end of the monastic continuum was the Cistercian Order, which was noted for its asceticism, simplicity and diligence. The Cistercians played a crucial role in developing agriculture, industry and education. Their largest monastery was in Pelplin, 55 km south of Gdańsk.