This week, the world remembers 75 years since VE day, the end of the Second World War in Europe (May 8th, 1945). That sobering anniversary – which falls in the midst of a quite different kind of global crisis – comes hot on the heels of another grim anniversary marked back in September 2019: the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Whereas the VE day anniversary takes place under lockdown, the 1939-2019 commemorations occurred in what now seems a very different moment in history, at the end of a long, hot summer, amidst tourist crowds and international jet-setting by world leaders. The blog below was written in Gdansk in September 2019, and it is posted now as a postcard, if you will, from a recent-distant past.
In August 2019, international dignitaries flew to Warsaw to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. A parallel gathering of European city leaders, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, was held in the Polish city of Gdansk. They flew to Poland because the opening military clash of this war, which would leave an estimated 70 million people dead, occurred just outside the port-city, on a low-lying Baltic peninsula called Westerplatte. At around 4am on 1st September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military depot at Westerplatte. Both countries had shared an uneasy presence in the Free City of Danzig since the end of World War I, under the eye of the League of Nations. The Polish forces at Westerplatte surrendered seven days later, by which time most of their country had been overrun by invading forces, and Great Britain too was at war.
Twentieth-first century Gdansk is today a dynamic water-side hub, a popular destination for tourists and foreign investment alike, with gourmet restaurants and gleaning hotels springing up along its canals. The easiest way to see Westerplatte is to take a cruise, slightly improbably, on one of the two replica pirate ships which dominate the Gdansk summertime panorama, The Black Pearl (a nod to Hollywood) or The Lion (a nod to a local galleon wrecked in the 17th century). Tickets are sold by bored Polish girls sitting under an umbrella on the quayside, departures are on the hour, and eager crowds push their way aboard, as a string quartet lustily plays the Pirates of the Caribbean theme tune on a pavement nearby. The passengers are mix of holidaying Polish families with toddlers, East Asian tourists, inebriated stag-groups from Germany, and earnest history aficionados. As the ship turns on its engines and pulls away with surprising speed, children explore the forecastle, parents rush for good viewing seats, and many others head straight for the giant bar in the hold.
Czarna Perla – The Black Pearl – takes you past the fourteenth-century red-brick spires and city-gates of Gdansk/Danzig, past the striking new Museum of World War II, jutting out of the ground like a crooked red tooth, and towards the historic shipyards where Solidarity, and perhaps a new Europe, was born in the 1980s. The fully rigged, beer-stocked pirate ship continues through a flat expanse of docks, cargo ships and coal heaps, as it negotiates the last stages of the Vistula delta, a maze of waterways and marshes which eventually ooze out into the Baltic, with its sand spits and storms. The pirate ship, stag party in full swing and playing with the plastic cannons, passes the late medieval brick lighthouse-cum-fort of Wisloujscie, which for centuries guarded the entrance to Gdansk. And then, abruptly, with no sea yet in sight, it reaches Westerplatte – there is a sign, a ruined 1930s brick building, and a tiny quay with an ice-cream van. A wooded park stretches along the shore. That’s it. Nearby a rust-streaked car-ferry is moored, bound for Stockholm. Nobody much disembarks from the pirate booze-cruise, the captain booms over the sound-system that this is the very spot where World War Two began, and a live folk guitarist promptly starts playing to cheer up any melancholy passengers. And then The Black Pearl turns back towards the cafes of Gdansk.
In September 1939, the senior officer in command of the Polish base at Westerplatte was Major Henry Sucharski. On his death-bed in Italy in 1945, Sucharski recounted his experiences to the writer Melchior Wankowicz, who novelised them in his hugely influential 1947 work Westerplatte. Accounts of the battle remain inconsistent and confused. The Polish base suffered aerial bombing, an attempted German landing, and much of the Polish artillery was soon put out of action. On 7th September, after a long battle in the muddy mouth of the Vistula, with some 60 combatants dead, the Polish forces raised a white flag. Aided by Wankowicz’s stirring book, in post-war Poland Westerplatte fast acquired near-mythical status, as a definitive site of 20th-century Polish heroism, resistance and martyrdom. Today, Gdansk’s brand-new World War Two Museum offers special guided boat trips to Westerplatte, ‘the site of the global and Polish tragedy of September 1939’. Roger Moorhouse’s new account of the September campaign, First to Fight:the Polish War of 1939, published in 2019, will likely bring the Westerplatte story afresh to new international readers.
At the Gdansk commemorations in September 2019, wreaths were laid at Westerplatte, followed by a debate between European city mayors entitled ‘Solidarity and Peace: the City as a European Community’. The city’s streets were decked with striking black ‘1939-1989-2019’ flags. Separate events were organised in Warsaw – the seat of the nationalist Law & Justice party (PiS) government – and cosmopolitan Danzig, whose most famous son Lech Walesa openly campaigns against PiS, and where the murder in January 2019 of the city’s long-serving mayor Pawel Adamowicz by an assailant allegedly inspired by far-right hate speech is still a very raw memory. Adamowicz’s desk is on display, behind glass, in the splendid Renaissance state rooms of Gdansk town hall. In the austere 14th-century gothic basilica of St. Mary’s, modern pilgrims come to seek his grave.
In the unseasonably hot Polish September of 2019, the ruins of Westerplatte are not faced by Nazi cruisers, but by mock pirate ships. In 1509, the Swiss scholar Sebastian Brandt published his classic satire, The Ship of Fools, a book no doubt much read in the German-speaking, intellectually fertile and wonderfully wealthy Gdansk/Danzig of the early sixteenth-century. In its own way, Czarna Perla is perhaps a kind of 21st-century Narrenschiff. Its late-summer passengers, with their ice-creams and Budweisers, half-look at Westerplatte and the black hole it signifies in our collective histories, and half look-away. Whether these global passengers are listening to the explicit historical commentary dispensed by the replica ship’s audio system, above the hub-bub of music and chatter, is an open question. For there are many histories, and many Europes, lurking in the heavily dredged and wreck-strewn waters of the Gdansk channel; and a labyrinth of possible European futures.
|The Golden Lion, Gdansk|