Picking Through The Pieces – An Archaeology Of Defeat: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part 2)

Alexander Milchhofer was the most famous person to ever come from the tiny East Prussian city of Schirwindt. Milchhofer became well known for his archaeological work on ancient Greece, most notably for discovering that the island of Crete was the epicenter of the Second Bronze Age. He also wrote important books on the topography and history of ancient Greece. Milchhofer’s work took him far away from the frontier town where he grew up on the edge of Eastern Prussia. Munich, Berlin and Gottingen were the places where he taught, thought and wrote his most noteworthy works. Ones that are still read today. Schirwindt was just a starting point for Milchhofer’s life, one his ambitions quickly superseded. Yet if Milchhofer were alive today, he would find Schirwindt of great interest and not just because he was born there.

As an archaeologist, Milchhofer could have spent a lifetime excavating the fields that now cover the area where Schirwindt was once located. He would have been rediscovering the places of his youth, the shops and markets that were so much a part of daily life, the residences of hardworking, earnest and quietly prosperous townspeople. Milchhofer would be amazed and almost certainly saddened to see that the Schirwindt he so intimately knew has all but vanished. Overgrown fields, a few traces of foundations, a cross marking the site where Immanuel Church once stood are all that is left. Here is the nothing of nonexistence that Schirwindt suffered, a place that suffered total destruction in a total war. Milchhofer may have been able to reimagine ancient worlds, but how would he have interpreted the residual ruins of his hometown? The first question he would have likely asked, is what the hell happened to Schirwindt? The answer might be that hell happened in Schirwindt.

Location of Immanuel Church in Schirwindt as it looks today

Location of Immanuel Church in Schirwindt as it looks today (Credit: Martin Kunst)

A Nightmare Dawning  –  Futile Fight For The Fatherland
A town of just over a thousand inhabitants never stood a chance when faced with a Red Army measuring in the millions. An apocalyptic storm rained down on Schirwindt starting in the summer of 1944, months before the main Soviet Offensive into East Prussia. The town, which had stood for centuries as a Teutonic community, ceased its ethnically German existence at exactly 6:00 in the early evening of July 31, 1944. Its citizens were evacuated further to the west due to constant aerial bombardment by the Soviet Air Force. By autumn, Soviet forces were ready to make their first incursion by trying to punch a hole in the German defenses. They would find plenty of resistance in Schirwindt. where German forces were prepared to fight to the death. The Germans were no longer on enemy territory. It was now the Fatherland they were fighting for.

In the early morning hours of October 16th, Schirwindt which had traditionally been the first place where the sun rose over the German Reich, instead saw a Red Army rising. The opening salvo of missiles, mortars and shells set the eastern horizon alight. A tempest of fire and fury descended on the town. This nightmarish dawning of the new day was heralded by two solid hours of Red Army artillery shells exploding along a wide swath of east Prussia’s border. As they closed in on Schirwindt, the Red Army could easily calibrate its shots by siting their guns on the neo-Gothic spires of the Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche). What had been the foremost symbol of Schirwindt’s permanence was now under furious bombardment. The next day Red Army soldiers moved forward into a rubble strewn townscape, a town that was a mere shell of its former self. Furious house to house fighting ensued. Despite fierce resistance, the Red Army took the town. They would never give it back. Then again, by the time they were through, there was nothing to give back.

Schirwindt - The aftermath of battle

Schirwindt – The aftermath of battle

Disappearing Acts – To Never Be Seen Again
Those who had called Schirwindt home were lucky to have been evacuated long before the invasion. They unwittingly avoided the bestial atrocities that Red Army soldiers inflicted on German civilians in cities and towns across East Prussia. The violence was especially ferocious in the first few days that accompanied their initial foray into fascist territory. Rape, summary executions, arson and wholesale theft were the norm. Schirwindt’s citizens may have lost their town, but at least many of them escaped with their lives. Years later, a rough census of the inhabitants that fled Schirwindt came to light. 415 had escaped to West Germany, 191 to the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany), 26 died and hundreds more were missing. Those in the latter category had something uniquely in common with their former hometown, both would vanish and never be seen again.

There are some telling photos of Schirwindt taken after the fight for it was finished. One shows a lone figure in the foreground, bundled up in winter clothing. This person is making their way down a street which once teemed with life, that was obviously no longer the case.  To the right and behind the person several two story houses have collapsed or been blown apart. Nothing is left of their roofs, shattered timbers look like matchsticks and only the outer walls along with a few chimney tops can be discerned. Further down the street a young boy rides a horse while looking at the structural carnage. In the background can be seen one of the two towers of Immanuel Church, the nearer one has been blown half off. The striking thing is how everything in the photo has become temporary. It is just a matter of time before these ruins will be swept away.

A conquest is complete - Red Army soldiers in Schirwindt

The face of victory – Red Army soldiers in Schirwindt

Completing A Conquest – The Face Of Victory
Another photo taken on the same street from a different angle shows two Soviet soldiers in the foreground with machine guns strapped across their chests. They look to be on patrol. Once again the ruined church looms in the background. Damage along its exterior is noticeable, even from a distance. Closer up the physical remnants of Schirwindt lay in pieces, a jigsaw of debris covers the sidewalk and street. A leafless tree has become a signpost for some sort of notice attached to its trunk. The only thing definite in this photo are the Red Army soldiers striding toward the photographer. One looks to have a grin on his face, the other grips his machine gun. This is the face of victory surrounded by the residue of defeat. The conquest, unlike the destruction of Schirwindt, is complete.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s