Along the southern Baltic Sea coast are a number of port cities that were members of the Hanseatic League, a coalition of German-speaking ports located at the mouths of major rivers draining into the sea. From the time of the Teutonic Knights’ conquest of the city in 1308 until the surrender of Germany in 1945, Gdansk appeared on maps as the German name Danzig. Its main waterway is the Motlawa and as the city grew, its network of waterways included canals and defensive moats.
The most prominent of the city’s moats is the Opływ Motławy, seen in a 1931 aerial photo above and largely unchanged since then.
Where it is
The moat flows on the south an east side of Gdansk’s Old City, a semicircle on the map with spikes in it marking old fortresses overgrown with enough vegetation that they resemble mounds. During the imperial German period, each fortification had a name, a source of pride for the West Prussian capital city. At the same time, the moat was an impediment to the city’s expansion. On the 1904 map above, we see the Motlawa (Motlau) flowing through the city’s center, with the Opływ Motławy flanking the city on the east. On the western side if the city is a truly hidden waterway, Radunia Canal, passing through the old city.
The moat and its embankments were constructed between 1623 and 1638 by Prussian authorities but they became obsolete in the mid-19th century and as the city expanded, the western half of the moat was filled. On the 1694 plan above, we see the moat in its entirety. The map is upside-down, with the north on the bottom. The Radunia Canal is even older, constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1638.
What’s there today
Between the World Wars, Danzig was separated from Germany by the victorious allied powers and given the status of a semi-independent city-state. The majority German population of the city sought to reunite with Germany and backed the Nazis. The cost of their support was high as the city was cleansed of its Jewish and Polish populations. In March 1945, these embankments saw their last war as stubborn Nazi defenders attempted to hold against a Soviet siege.
The war transformed the city into ruins, ended the historical Prussian state, resulted in the expulsion of its ethnic Germans and brought in an influx of Polish settlers. Danzig became Gdansk again. The silent embankments hide centuries of military history, as does the moat circling the old city. It is one of nearly two dozen waterways flowing through this Polish former city-state.
As many Baltic coastal cities once had fortresses, Gdansk reminds me of my childhood visit to Klaipeda and Palanga in Lithuania. Prior to 1945, the forest between these towns was the easternmost border of the Prussian state. When one searches carefully, one may find trenches, barbed wire, rusted weapons, and markers of a border eliminated long ago.