In the dead of winter on January 28, 1945 the Red Army captured a dead city. As the East Prussia Offensive moved forward into what the famous Soviet journalist and author Vasily Grossman called “the lair of the fascist beast” the civilian population in the city of Memel (Klaipeda, Lithuania) had all but vanished. The once bustling port city was eerily quiet. Nearly the entire population of 45,000 had fled westward towards the heart of Germany and supposed safety. Soviet forces found only fifty civilians left in Memel. As the Red Army advanced into the city, the streets were silent. The soaring St. Johanniskirche (St. John’s Church), a landmark since the mid-13th century, stood alone and austere awaiting an uncertain fate. The eclectic Art Nouveau Central Post Office was left to impress no one. Its carillon of 48 bells did not even toll on this mournful day. In the beautiful old town, a square fronting the opera house where the all-powerful Fuhrer had thundered in triumphant oratory only five years before in front of hundreds was totally vacant. What had been the sixth largest city in the German province of East Prussia was left with a population smaller than that of even the tiniest village. This vanishing of the ethnic German populace was not a temporary state of affairs. It was the start of something new and horrible. Memel that morning was relatively calm despite an advancing, inexorable storm that would consume and transform it, along with all of East Prussia.
Beyond The Borders – Greater Germany, Lesser Lithuania
The German national anthem, Deutschlandlied, contains a first verse that is no longer sung today. The verse, Von der Maas bis an die Memel, delineates the western (Meuse River) and eastern borders (Nemen River) of German speaking Europe. The city of Memel was beyond even that easternmost frontier, though Memel was used as a name for the lower reaches of the Nemen River. It lay just off the Baltic Sea, sixty kilometers north of the anthem’s eastern boundary. It may have been on the periphery, but it was still well within reach of the Third Reich’s voracious territorial ambitions. In the late 1930’s it seemed that nothing could stop German expansion. While it is sufficiently well known that the Nazi’s annexed both Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, lost to history is the fact that Memel was the Third Reich’s final territorial gain before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Inter-war Lithuania was a pint sized nation with few allies and a multitude of enemies. Among its neighbors was East Prussia, a province of the German colossus firmly in the grip of Nazi rule. A Polish state that it had fallen out and then fought with over the historic city of Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania). Directly to the east was Stalin’s malevolent and deadly Soviet Union. These were not so much neighbors as they were predators. In March 1939, the Germans gave the Lithuanians an ultimatum to surrender Memel and the surrounding region or else. The Lithuanians knew what awaited them if they refused. Likely invasion, followed by occupation and perhaps much worse. Less than a week after the Lithuanian government handed over Memel, none other than Adolf Hitler traveled to the city, where he gave a rousing pro-German speech. Greater Germany was proceeding apace.
The War Comes Home – East Prussia & Soviet Vengence
KönigsbergThey did not realize the dire situation until it was much too late. Memel’s population was insulated by luck and naivety, since the war bypassed them until the very end. After the Germans took over the city, their resulting war on the Eastern Front had left the city untouched. At the beginning of 1945 Memel was the same city physically, but the populace had been transformed emotionally by an overriding sense of fear.
Approaching from the east was a surging Red Army, fortified by the idea of vengeance. East Prussia was directly in their line of fury. Here would be the first place in Germany that the Red Army could repay the German people for the pain and horror they had inflicted on the Soviet Union over the past three cataclysmic years. The fear grew in late 1944 when the Soviets took and held the border town of Nemmersdorf for a couple of days. This was the first time they had set foot on German soil. Though the details have been muddled by propaganda and counterclaims, innocent civilians were shot, gang raped and possibly even crucified. The Third Reich disseminated the details of this massacre all across East Prussia in order to stiffen resistance. It worked to a certain extent, but many more civilians heard the macabre details and decided to flee towards Germany. Tens of thousands of Memel citizens joined millions of their fellow citizens westward. Thus, an empty city would greet the Soviets. Memel’s citizens were lucky to escape. Those in East Prussia who did not suffered murder and mayhem on an unprecedented scale. Germany’s frontiers would never be the same.
Cutting The Heart Out of German Militarism
After the war many Germans returned to Memel, but not for long. The overriding majority of these civilians were innocent, but the Soviets were not fans of ambiguity or nuance. Their vengeance lasted well beyond the war and how could it not. Civilian deaths in the Soviet Union during the war have been estimated at 17 million. That was seven times East Prussia’s wartime population. In addition, Prussia was seen as the heart and soul of German militarism, it was to be eradicated. In the latter half of the 1940’s the German population of East Prussia was either deported to Siberia or if lucky, forcibly relocated to a new Germany. The Germans who returned to Memel after the war did not last long. A city that been nine-tenths German before the war was ethnically cleansed. It became dominated by Lithuanians and Russians. Today it is known just the same as it was before the war, Klaipeda, Lithuania. “The Lair of the Fascist Beast” ceased to exist.