Westerplatte Museum and the War of 1939 - why is this place so important for Poles and not only?
Updated: Nov 8
Westerplatte is a peninsula in Gdańsk, which witnessed one of the most important events in the history of Poland and the world. It was here that on September 1, 1939, World War II began, and Polish soldiers defended themselves against overwhelming German forces for a week. Westerplatte is a symbol of Polish heroism, resistance and patriotism that deserves to be remembered and respected.
The Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 is a new museum facility whose task is to disseminate knowledge about this heroic fight and about the course of the entire September campaign. The Museum of the Defensive War is not only a place of education and reflection, but also of inspiration and culture. The museum is being built on the site of the battlefield, preserving the authenticity and atmosphere of the place.
The museum established on the site of the former historical path is also to offer a modern and interactive exhibition that will present the history of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 in a broad context.
In this article, we will tell you more about what awaits you at the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939. You will learn how to visit the museum and what to see on the peninsula. You will also learn the history and importance of this unique place for Poles and others. We invite you to read!
Poland on the verge of war. The political situation on the eve of the outbreak of World War II
At the outset, it is necessary to present what the Polish political and social situation looked like on the eve of the outbreak of the conflict.
Poland in the 1930s was a young and weak country, surrounded by two aggressive and growing in strength dictatorships: Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union. Poland tried to maintain its independence and sovereignty by pursuing a policy of balance between the two neighbours. However, the international situation became increasingly tense and dangerous.
Polish foreign policy after the death of Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1935 was continued by his successor, Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck.
Beck tried to avoid getting involved in any deals against one of his neighbors, even though there was no shortage of offers.
In 1935, Germany proposed to Poland the conclusion of a secret agreement on the division of spheres of influence in the east and accession to the anti-communist pact directed against the USSR. Poland rejected both proposals, but tried to settle current problems, such as the issue of national minorities or the use of the port in Gdańsk.
In 1936, there was a warming of relations with France, which was Poland's main ally in the West. France was concerned about the rise of Germany's power, which remilitarized the Rhineland and introduced universal military service. France wanted to tighten military cooperation with Poland and granted it a loan to arm the army.
However, the Franco-Polish alliance was weak and ineffective because France did not want to risk a conflict with Germany and did not guarantee assistance to Poland in the event of an attack.
In 1938, the political situation in Europe deteriorated dramatically. Germany annexed Austria (the so-called Anschluss) and demanded the incorporation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Faced with the threat of war, the Western powers (France and Great Britain) agreed to make concessions to Hitler and signed the so-called the Munich Agreement, which deprived Czechoslovakia of its most fortified territories and weakened its defenses.
Poland, under pressure from Germany, demanded that Czechoslovakia give back Zaolzie - a disputed area inhabited by Polish people. Czechoslovakia had to agree, which worsened Polish-Czechoslovak relations.
In 1939, Germany broke the non-aggression pact with Poland and demanded permission to build an extra-territorial motorway and railway line through Pomerania and hand over Gdańsk to them.
Poland firmly rejected these demands, considering them a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the Germans did not intend to give in and began to prepare for the invasion of Poland. For this purpose, they established an alliance with the USSR, which ensured their security in the east and the division of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
On August 23, 1939, they signed the so-called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which contained a secret protocol on the division of spheres of influence between the two countries. According to this protocol, Poland was to be divided between Germany and the USSR along the lines of the Narew, Vistula and San rivers.
Poland found itself in a dramatic situation. It could not count on effective help from its Western allies, who were not ready to take military action against Germany. Nor could it count on support from the League of Nations, which turned out to be powerless against German aggression.
Poland was alone and helplessly exposed to the attack of two powerful dictatorships. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland without declaring war, thus starting World War II.
On September 17, 1939, the USSR entered Poland from the east, implementing the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland was betrayed and destroyed by its neighbors.
Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 - what is worth knowing before visiting?
Pomerania was one of the first regions of Poland to be invaded by Germany on September 1, 1939. The German operational plan assumed a quick breakthrough of the Polish defense in Pomerania and the capture of Gdynia, Gdańsk and the Pomeranian Corridor.
For this purpose, the Germans sent two armies to Pomerania: the "Pomorze" Army under the command of General Walther von Reichenau and the "North" Army under the command of General Fedor von Bock. In total, they had about 600,000 soldiers, 1,200 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.
The Polish defense in Pomerania was organized as part of the "Pomorze" Army under the command of General Władysław Bortnowski. It had about 200,000 soldiers, 350 tanks and 200 aircraft. The "Pomerania" Army consisted of four armies: the "Modlin" Army, the "Poznań" Army, the "Toruń" Army and the "Pomorze" Army. The main line of defense ran along the Brda River and the Bydgoszcz Canal.
One of the most important points of defense in Pomerania was the Military Transit Depot on the Westerplatte peninsula in the Free City of Danzig. It was a Polish military outpost whose task was to provide supplies for the Polish navy.
About 200 Polish soldiers under the command of Major Henryk Sucharski were stationed at Westerplatte. Westerplatte was the first target of the German attack on Poland.
At 4:45 the German battleship "Schleswig-Holstein" opened fire on the Polish depot. At the same time, German marines and SS troops attacked Westerplatte from the land side.
The Polish defenders, using previously prepared fortifications and shelters, put up fierce resistance. For seven days they repulsed successive German attacks, inflicting heavy losses on them.
Finally, Westerplatte capitulated on September 7 at 10:15, after the Germans threatened to use heavy artillery and bombers. Polish defenders were recognized as national heroes and received many military decorations.
The defense of Westerplatte became a symbol of Polish heroism and resistance in the face of an overwhelming enemy.
Military operations in Pomerania lasted until the end of September 1939. The German attack broke through the Polish defenses on the Brda River and the Bydgoszcz Canal and forced the "Pomorze" Army to retreat towards Warsaw.
However, the Polish troops put up stubborn resistance and engaged in offensive and delaying battles along the entire length of the front.
The battles of Mława, Wizna, Kutno and Tomaszów Lubelski were especially distinguished. Some Polish units managed to break through the encirclement ring and reach Warsaw or the Romanian border.
Others continued to fight as part of the resistance movement or made attempts to get to the West. Despite the defeat of the September campaign, Polish soldiers in Pomerania, Hel and Westerplatte showed great courage and dedication in defending their homeland.
According to many analyses, the Polish army at that time had no chance against the enemy. Despite the fighting on two fronts, thanks to the bravery of soldiers and often outstanding command, the Polish army put up fierce resistance.
There are many opinions about the lack of sense of a prolonged defensive war, but it must be borne in mind that at that time Poland had binding agreements on military assistance with the military powers of that time.
In September, Polish soldiers shed their blood believing that help from their friends from the west would come soon, all you had to do was hold on as long as possible.
Today we know that the west at that time did not fulfill the contract, the blood of Polish soldiers did not defend Poland but France from an even more severe defeat.
Westerplatte - how to visit the museum and the battlefield?
The Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 is a branch of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. Its aim is to disseminate knowledge about the heroic defense of Westerplatte in September 1939 and to protect and revalorize historic military facilities on the peninsula.
The museum is currently undergoing a transformation and is in the process of building a new building and exhibition.
The Westerplatte Museum can be visited in two ways: by visiting the battlefield on the peninsula or by visiting the temporary exhibition in the building of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk.
The Westerplatte battlefield is open to visitors all year round. Here you can see e.g. Monument to the Defenders of the Coast, a cemetery of Polish Army soldiers, combat and guard shelters, an observation tower. The Westerplatte Tourist Route has been marked out on the peninsula, which leads to the most important places related to the defense of the depot. The trail can be explored on your own or with a guide.
The temporary exhibition at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk is entitled "Westerplatte - a symbol". It presents the history and importance of Westerplatte as a place of national memory and identity. The exhibition consists of three parts: "Westerplatte - history", "Westerplatte - myth" and "Westerplatte - heritage".
At the exhibition you can see e.g. original items belonging to the defenders of Westerplatte, documents, photographs, films and multimedia installations. The exhibition is open until December 31, 2021.
In the future, the Westerplatte Museum will have its new building on the peninsula. It will be designed to fit harmoniously into the landscape and not disturb the authenticity of the battlefield.
The new museum will have approximately 5,000 m2 of exhibition space and will present a modern and interactive exhibition dedicated to the history and importance of Westerplatte. The planned opening date of the new museum is 2024.
The Westerplatte Museum is a place worth visiting while in Gdańsk. It is not only a tourist attraction, but also a history lesson and a tribute to Polish heroes.
The Monument at Westerplatte is an impressive sculpture made of granite blocks that commemorates the Polish defenders of the coast in September 1939. The monument was unveiled in 1966 and is part of a larger monument complex, which also includes the battlefield on the peninsula.
The idea of creating a monument on Westerplatte was born in the 1960s, when modernization works began at the Port of Gdansk. It was considered worth distinguishing this place, which became a symbol of Polish heroism and resistance in the face of German aggression.
In 1963, a competition for the design of the monument was announced, which was won by the architect Adam Haupt and the sculptor Franciszek Duszeńko.
The monument consists of two main elements: the mound and the monument. The mound with a diameter of 20 meters and a height of 22 meters was made of earth obtained during the widening of the port canal.
On its top there is a monument with a height of 25 meters, composed of 236 granite blocks with a total weight of 1150 tons. The monument is shaped like a jagged bayonet stuck in the ground.
On its surface there are inscriptions and bas-reliefs referring to the history of Westerplatte and Polish participation in World War II. Seven candles at the base of the monument symbolize the seven days of defending Westerplatte.
The Westerplatte monument is surrounded by military facilities that have survived to this day, such as shelters, guardhouses, ammunition warehouses and an observation tower. The Westerplatte Tourist Route has been marked out on the peninsula, which leads to the most important places related to the defense of the depot.
The monument at Westerplatte is a place of national and cultural remembrance that attracts many tourists and visitors. It is also a place of historical and patriotic education, which reminds of the heroism and sacrifice of Polish soldiers in defense of their homeland.
How to get to Westerplatte
The Westerplatte Museum is located at the Obroncow Westerplatte Quay. There are various ways to get there, depending on your preferences and budget. Here are some options:
Public transport: the easiest and cheapest way is to use the bus line 106, which runs from the Main Railway Station in Gdańsk every 20 minutes.
Ship from Gdańsk: for those who like cruises on water, we recommend using a passenger ship, which departs from the Motława River near the Crane or from Długi Targ near the Neptune Fountain. The cruise lasts about 40 minutes and costs PLN 20 per person both ways. Boats run from April to October every hour or half an hour.
Taxi: for those who value comfort and speed, we recommend ordering a taxi. This can be done by phone, app or at a standstill. The cost of a trip from the center of Gdańsk to Westerplatte is about PLN 45-60. The journey takes approximately 15 minutes.
Car: for those traveling by car, we recommend the parking lot at the Obroncow Westerplatte Quay. Parking is paid and costs PLN 5 per hour.
The Westerplatte Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 18:00. Admission is free. In the museum, you can visit the Guardhouse No. 1, the Chamber of Remembrance, the cemetery of Polish soldiers, the Monument to the Defenders of the Coast and other objects related to the defense of the peninsula.