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Changes of the Guard in a Nutshell

Even for Poland, Gdansk has a particularly twisted past, with convoluted shifts of power. The city rose to prominence in the 16th and 17th centuries as one of the most vital towns of the Hanseatic League, a grouping of prosperous river and seaport cities that controlled much of the trade in the North and Baltic seas. Due to its wealth, Gdansk was hotly contested between German and Polish interests, though it managed to retain its status as a semi-autonomous city-state. After the Polish partition at the end of the 18th century, the city fell under Prussian rule and became firmly identified as "Danzig," its German moniker. Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the city's status became one of the thorniest issues facing the drafters of the Treaty of Versailles. They opted to create what they called the "Free City of Danzig" -- neither German nor Polish -- alongside a Polish-ruled strip of land that would effectively cut off mainland Germany from its East Prussian hinterland. Hitler was able to exploit very effectively the existence of this Polish "corridor" as part of his argument that the Treaty of Versailles was highly unfair to Germany. He even chose the port of Gdansk to launch his war on Poland on September 1, 1939, when German gunboats fired on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte.

During the Communist period, Gdansk was in the public's eye as the home of the Lenin Shipyards and the Solidarity Trade Union. It was here, now known as the Gdansk shipyards, where intense negotiations in August 1980 between Solidarity, led by a youngish Lech Waesa, and the government resulted in the August Treaty, an official recognition of the first independent trade union in Communist Central and Eastern Europe. The government later reneged on the agreement and imposed martial law, but Gdansk continued as a hotbed of labor unrest and strikes. Roundtable talks in the late 1980s saw the government agreeing to a power-sharing arrangement that in 1989 led to the first semi-free election and a nationwide political triumph for Solidarity. The events here eventually triggered the toppling of Communist regimes in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe.

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