The Power of Propaganda – Tannenberg: More Than A Battle

Several years ago while planning a trip to Poland I looked into visiting the site of the famous World War I Battle of Tannenberg. This was a seminal event in the opening months of the war. In what is today northeastern Poland, the Germans surrounded and destroyed an entire Russian Army. It was one of the few tactically decisive battles of the war. Tannenberg has become the only well-known Eastern Front battle among those with even a cursory interest in the war. Surely, I thought for such an important event there would be a battlefield with historical markers or a visitor center to educate the curious. I soon discovered this not to be the case.

Map of the Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought over an area of hundreds of square kilometers

Lost In Space & Time – Finding Tannenberg
The problem with locating the Battle of Tannenberg is mostly one of space and time. The battle was fought across a sprawling expanse of countryside consisting of lakes and forests. It took a total of five days from start to finish. Trying to pin down a specific place and date for the decisive events is all but impossible. On the Russian side, there was more surrender than actual combat. The Russian forces ended up with 92,000 soldiers taken prisoner versus 78,000 killed and wounded. Not exactly the type of activity that gets a history buff’s heart racing. On the German side, tactical brilliance consisted of setting a trap and allowing the Russians to fall into it. There was nothing inherently dramatic about that. This was not a Napoleonic set piece battle, with two armies staring each other down. Instead it was a blundering, confused mess marked by chaos and confusion. In other words, it was mobile warfare distilled to its essence.

Since there was no dedicated visitor center or x marks the spot historic site, I surmised that the battle’s location would be at or near the village it was named for. That idea turned out to be problematic. First of all, the village of Tannenberg no longer exists on maps, since it is now located in Poland. The Polish name for the village is Stębark. Once I knew that, it was easy enough to locate the village on a map, but then it got really tricky. After a bit of research I discovered that the heaviest fighting and focal points of the battle did not take place near the village. Instead, they occurred about 20 miles (30 miles) further to the northwest, in the vicinity of the small city of Olsztyn (Allenstein). So why was the battle named for a town on the periphery of where it actually occurred? The reasons had to do with national and racial identity.

General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

Slaying the demons of Prussia’s past – a naked General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

What’s In A Name: Uses & Abuses
After the battle was won, the German high command sent their victorious dispatch from Tannenberg. It was around this time that it was decided that the battle should be named after the village. This was done to avenge a historic defeat the German’s forebears had suffered in the area over 500 years before. At the Battle of Grunwald (German name Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410 the Teutonic Knights were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian force. It was a critical moment in the history of northeastern Europe, as it stopped the Knights’ expansion. With the rise of nationalism in the decades prior to World War I historic battles between Teuton and Slav were no longer just about the past. They were also used to influence the present. A policy of Germanization throughout Prussia brought about resistance from the Polish population. The Poles did not have the ability to fight the Germans militarily, so they held onto the next best thing, victories from many centuries before. German nationalists certainly noticed this. The victory of the German Army at Tannenberg avenged the Teutonic Knights loss. Even though it came against the Russians, they were also Slavs. No matter what nationality, Slavic peoples were seen as the common enemy of the German people.

Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934

The Power of Propaganda – Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2006-0429-502)

The victory, presented the Germans with a golden opportunity to showcase their superiority. Henceforth, they referred to it as the Second Battle of Tannenberg. Never mind where the battle was actually fought, Tannenberg was close enough. This was just the beginning of the name’s usage for German propaganda purposes. After the First World War ended, a defeated Germany looked to victories in battle for solace. Tannenberg resonated with much of the populace and especially the far right. Thus, one of the two victorious German commanders from the battle, Erich Ludendorff used it as the name for his extreme right wing society, the Tannenbergbund. An even greater propaganda coup was the huge Tannenberg Memorial erected by Germany in 1924 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their glorious victory. Interestingly enough, the Memorial was not located at the village of Tannenberg. Instead it was placed at Olsztynek (in German Hohenstein) 5 kilometers away. It eventually housed the tomb of Paul Von Hindenburg, Ludendorff’s fellow victorious commander from the battle. Like everything else in this once solidly Prussian territory it was transformed by World War II. Hindenburg’s remains were evacuated to western Germany in order to avoid looting by the Red Army. The Nazi’s then set off charges to demolish parts of the memorial. Later the Soviets and Poles finished its destruction.

Monumental Remains – A Hidden Legacy
After several weeks’ worth of research I decided to skip visiting the Tannenberg battlefield. My problem was also one of space and time. It would have taken days to cover the areas where fighting occurred. There was little possibility of finding any tangible evidence of the battle. The only sites I could find were not associated with the battle, but instead the memorial. Its former location can be roughly discerned by rubble strewn about in a vacant field that outlines the site. There is also a bit of the old memorial’s stone and granite standing in the town square of Olsztynek today. It was used in the Soviet World War II memorial, a subliminal, hidden legacy of German militarism.

Descent to the Bottom – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part Three)

As soon as the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck, total chaos broke out aboard the ship. Anarchy reigned as crowds of people tried to climb or run over one another in a largely vain attempt to make their way to safety. From the time when the ship was first struck until it disappeared beneath the roiling, frozen waters of the Baltic took only seventy minutes. Passengers from eight to eighty were at the mercy of the elements. The water temperature that night was a chilling 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).  Even the healthiest could not survive in such an environment for more than a few minutes. While drowning or hypothermia killed the majority of passengers on the Gustloff, hundreds of others had been blown or torn apart by the torpedo explosions. Projectiles of glass and tile had been sent flying into those unlucky enough to be near a point of detonation.

The Lonely Hope Of Survival – Women & Children Last
While the Gustloff was rapidly sinking the Soviet S-13 sub which had launched the deadly torpedo shots was also consumed by panic. Torpedo # 2 named “For Stalin” had been armed and ready to detonate, but jammed in its launch tube. One jolt and the S-13 would be joining the Gustloff in a watery grave. The crew worked frantically to safe the device. They were able to disarm the torpedo before it was too late. The S-13 would survive, but the same could not be said for 90% of those trapped on the Gustloff. Many never even made it onto the deck. The majority of these were women and children. They were trapped inside the creaking, wailing wreck of a ship fast disappearing under the waves.  The only hope for survival was due to the efforts of what had been the Gustloff’s lone torpedo escort boat, the Lowe. As the lone watercraft able to receive the Gustloff’s distress signal, it was then able to re-transmit an SOS which brought two other relief vessels into the area.

A porthole window from Wilhelm Gustloff - salvaged in 1988 (Credit: Darkone)

A porthole window from Wilhelm Gustloff – salvaged in 1988 (Credit: Darkone)

In all, some 1,200 passengers were saved from an almost certain death. Conversely, over 9,600 perished, sinking one-hundred and forty seven meters to the bottom of the Baltic along with the remnants of the Gustloff. The sheer enormity of the disaster in maritime terms can be discerned from the figure of 4,000 children dead. That is two and a half times the entire death toll of the Titanic. Despite the number of deaths, hardly anyone noticed when it happened. This was a sad and tragic commentary on the state of Europe and the world at the end of the war. What were 9,600 more deaths in a worldwide conflagration that ended up taking the lives of an estimated 60 million people?

What Was Never Reported, Was Soon Forgotten
Since the Nazi state had been an aggressor nation and brought about the war, there was a lack of pity for anyone associated with Germany, no matter how innocent. As for the Third Reich, which had lost millions of soldiers and civilians, it was just another calamity on the path to total destruction. The German media, totally propagandized, failed to report the Gustloff’s fate. The nation was already reeling, no use adding to their growing concern. In the coming months, Germany would undergo invasion, conquest and occupation. The population would be more worried about survival than mourning the worst maritime disaster in human history.

The Soviets did not show much interest in publicizing the Gustloff’s fate. It was just one more incident on the long and bloody road to Berlin. In usual wartime conditions the submarine’s commander Alexander Marinesko would have been made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his role in destroying such a symbol of Nazi power. This was not to be. Even though he went on to sink yet another refugee ship, the Steuben, taking 3,000 more lives, his feats would go unnoticed.  The opposite was true when it came to his behavior. After the war ended he was dishonorably discharged from the Soviet Navy. He was given a bureaucratic desk job that did not last for long. Marinesko, like so many Soviet officers in the post-war period, was arrested on trumped up charges and sent to Siberia. Years later, with the Soviet Union in terminal decline and Marinesko long since dead, the rebellious naval commander was finally given the coveted “Hero of the Soviet Union” award. His actions were a reflection of the complex and conflicted final phase of the war, best described as less than heroic.

A distant memory - the Wilhelm Gustloff in pre-war days

A distant memory – the Wilhelm Gustloff in pre-war days

Sinking Into History – The Reemergence of Wilhelm Gustloff
After descending to its final resting place on the Baltic seabed, the Gustloff would not be left in peace. Rumors abounded that the Soviets, in their seemingly endless search for loot, sent divers down to the wreck in search of submerged treasures. What they found, if anything, is still a mystery today. That is, if they even undertook such an expedition at all. Such details may be hidden in sealed archives or lost to history. They may even have been forgotten. One thing is for sure, the Wilhelm Gusloff re-emerged into the historical conscious during the last twenty-five years. The incident is now openly discussed and debated by German society. The last survivors or those who lost loved ones are allowed to publicly mourn. Finally they are able to plumb the depths of shock and sorrow associated with the memory of that bitterly cold Baltic night when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank into history.

Click here for: The Titanic Times Six – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part One)
Click here for: The Anti-Hero – Sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff (Part Two)

The Anti-Hero – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part Two)

As dawn broke on January 30, 1945 the weather was bleak and heavy at the Baltic seaport of Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland). Located on the coast of Prussia, the city was still officially part of the Third Reich, but this would not last much longer. The Red Army was approaching from the east with a ferocity not seen in Europe by a conquering army since the Mongol invasions. Stories from the borderland cities and countryside of East Prussia told of murder without reason, mass rape and even crucifixion. No matter their age or circumstances ethnic Germans were targeted. Terrified citizens from all across Prussia attempted to flee westward. This brought tens of thousands of them to Gotenhafen where they hoped to secure a voyage to safety. Lost on the majority of them, was the tragic irony that the ethnic cleansing they were now being subjected to, had been carried out by their own government at the same port a few years earlier. After the Germans had occupied the port in September of that year, they expelled some 50,000 Poles.  This was done all in the name of a greater German Reich. Now a mere five years later the oppressors had become the oppressed.

Despite a leaden sky spitting sleet and snow, thousands of refugees could hardly wait to board the former passenger cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff. It was slated for a journey to the northwestern German port of Kiel, a reputed safe haven. The ship, which could comfortably fit several thousand, was packed way beyond its maximum capacity. The Gustloff had sat in port for the duration of the war, but it was now going back out to sea as part of Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of East Prussia. This would become one of the largest evacuations by sea in human history. Between five hundred and a thousand ships transported 1.2 million soldiers and civilians to safety in Germany and Denmark. For all of its success, the evacuation was also marked by numerous tragedies, one of which was about to become the worst maritime disaster in human history.

German refugees boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945

German refugees boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945

Anti-Heroes – Prey & Predator on the Baltic
During the morning, thousands crowded onto the ship. The first allowed to board were naval auxiliary troops and officers, followed by a great mass of elderly men, women and children. More children than could possibly be imagined. The flower of Prussian youth was leaving their homeland for parts unknown. By the time the ship was loaded and ready to disembark, there were approximately 10,600 passengers, two-fifths of whom were children. These passengers were the supposed lucky ones. While they made their way onboard, hundreds of others at dockside begged to join them. Much of this fearful throng was left behind. Their only hope, find another evacuation ship or beg for mercy at the hands of the Red Army.

Alexander Marinesko - captain of the Soviet submarine S-13

Alexander Marinesko – captain of the Soviet submarine S-13

At 12:30 p.m. the Gustloff slowly made its way out of the harbor. The officers in charge made a calculated decision to risk the open sea, rather than hug the coastline. They hoped to avoid any minefields. This would be one of several decisions that would ultimately decide the Gustloff’s fate. As the ship swayed back and forth on the turbulent, icy sea, many passengers became sick. Sanitary conditions were less than ideal. Toilets clogged and stopped working. An overpowering stench pervaded the ship’s interior. Unbeknownst to the officers and passengers aboard the Gustloff they were headed for danger. A Soviet submarine, S-13 had improbably made its way out into the Gulf of Danzig, hoping to score a hit on a German ship. The captain of the S-13 was Alexander Marinesko, an anti-hero if there ever was one. Marinseko was known for both brilliance and a penchant for non-conformity, if not outright insubordinate behavior. A month earlier he had missed an assignment to patrol the Baltic because of binge drinking and an illicit, multi-day affair with a prostitute in Finland. He only avoided court martial or much worse because Soviet leader Josef Stalin had called for every naval resource possible to take part in the final destruction of German forces. Despite the troubles he had brought upon himself, Marinesko’s non-conformist behavior continued unabated. Around the time when the Gustloff set sail, Marinesko decided to leave his assigned patrol area around the port of Memel and take the S-13 into the waters of the Gulf of Danzig. He believed that there was a much greater chance of catching a German vessel off guard in this area. His instincts would turn out to be correct.

Infamous Last Words – The Voice of Hitler
A bitterly cold night had descended over the Baltic. Quietly making its way through zero degree weather, the Wilhelm Gustloff looked to be well on its way to safe passage. Then at 8:00 p.m. the ship received a mysterious message that it was being approached by German minesweepers. The possibility of a collision now presented itself. A fatal decision was made to turn on the navigation lights. This made the ship instantly recognizable to the enemy. It was not long before the S-13 had the Gustloff firmly in its sights. About that same time a bizarre paradox occurred. Wafting through the crammed interior of the ship was the voice of Adolf Hitler. This was a broadcast of the Fuehrer’s speech on the 12th anniversary of the Third Reich’s founding. Thousands of refugees listened whether they wanted to or not. It is doubtful that many still believed in the greatness of the Third Reich. After all, here were thousands of its citizens adrift and vulnerable, just hoping to find shelter hundreds of miles from their homes.

Wilhelm Gustloff shipwreck site in the Baltic Sea

Wilhelm Gustloff shipwreck site in the Baltic Sea

After Hitler’s speech ended it was not long before a series of loud explosions tore through the ship. At 9:16 p.m. the Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes. In a bit of horrific justice, each of the three torpedoes had been painted with a phrase. Torpedo 1: “For the Motherland” Torpedo 3: “For the Soviet People” Torpedo 4: “For Leningrad”. The 2nd torpedo with the phrase “For Stalin” got stuck in its launch tube. The S-13 was now in danger of being blown up by its own weapon. While the Gustloff was beginning to sink, the S-13 was on the verge of self-destruction. They seemed to be metaphors and microcosms of the totalitarian societies that had conceived them.

Click here to read: Descent to the Bottom – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part Three)

The Titanic Times Six – Sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Part One)

The Titanic is the most famous ship in history and one of the world’s most famous disasters. The name brings to mind hubris and naivety, shock and drama on an unprecedented scale. The Titanic’s fame has been bolstered by best-selling books and a major motion picture that became the top grossing film of all time. The same cannot be said for the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. It is a name known to very few westerners, except for shipwreck or disaster buffs and World War II scholars of the Eastern Front. The name evokes quizzical stares and glances of befuddlement. This is unfortunate, yet understandable. The ship sank during the final months of the deadliest conflict in human history, World War II. It happened in neither the Atlantic nor Pacific Oceans, but instead on the Baltic Sea. This area of the war belonged to the Eastern Front, much less studied than the Western European and Asian theaters of the war. Yet the sinking acts as a sort of representative example of the tragically monstrous loss of human life in Eastern Europe caused by the war.

The Baltic Sea along the coast of Poland - somewhere the remain of the Wilhelm Gustloff still lie beneath

The Baltic Sea along the coast of Poland

Plumbing the Depths – Prussian Memories
After the fall of the Iron Curtain some of the suppressed German angst over the fate of Prussia at the end of World War II could be released. This led to belated recognition of the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster. In 2008 a German TV movie “Die Gustloff” about the sinking was watched by eight and a half million Germans. The famous author Gunter Grass published the novel “Crabwalk” a fictionalized version of the sinking. The disaster managed to break into the German historical consciousness, but not a European or world one. Publicizing the story to foreigners was problematic due to German war guilt. The question continued to arise, how can the Germans be allowed to grieve? This was at odds with their role as the preeminent aggressor nation during the conflict. Another problem has been the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy on the Eastern Front. The scale of death, destruction and ethnic cleansing in the area was about as close to apocalypse as modern humanity has ever experienced.

On a warfront where millions upon millions of civilians and soldiers were killed, the fact that nine thousand more lives were taken in one short-lived incident – no matter how dramatic – got lost in the sheer enormity of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. That being said, what occurred 19 miles north of Poland’s Baltic coast was an unprecedented human disaster, one that in the total number of deaths dwarfs not only the sinking of the Titanic, but any other shipwreck in history. The loss of life from the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff was six times greater than that of the Titanic. This is a shocking and relatively unknown statistic, an attention getter that acts as an avenue to a story which has lost none of its power to fascinate and horrify even seventy years later.

The Wilhelm Gustloff in September 1939 - (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27992 - Sönnke Hans)

Wilhelm Gustloff in September 1939 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27992 – Sönnke Hans)

The Uses of Martyrdom – Wilhelm Gustloff: The Man
Start with the ship’s name. Wilhelm Gustloff may bring to mind nothing in particular today, but in the late 1930’s the name was well known in Nazi Germany’s political circles. Wilhelm Gustloff was the creator of the Nazi Party’s branch in Switzerland. Then as now, the nation was a hub of wealth and finance, it could act as a critical source of fiscal resources. With a majority ethnic German populace, the Switzerland was targeted by the Nazis for ideological conversion. Gustloff was a key figure in helping boost the party’s prominence, but not its popularity. He led the publication and distribution of the infamous anti-Semitic tome, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These efforts brought him recognition as well as a deadly enemy. David Frankfurter was an ethnic Jew from Croatia who was studying at a university in the Alpine nation. He loathed Gustloff’s zealous Anti-Semitism to the point of hatred. Frankfurter began to keep a close eye on Gustloff’s political activities and behavior. He decided to take matters into his own hands, countering extremism with a bit of extremist action himself.

Wilhelm Gustloff - the Nazi Party leader in Switzerland

Wilhelm Gustloff – the Nazi Party leader in Switzerland

In 1936, Frankfurter went to Gustloff’s home, gaining an audience with the Nazi leader. He waited in the study where he stood for a few minutes while facing a photo of Adolf Hitler. When Gustloff entered the room, Frankfurter pulled out a gun and shot him five times. For the murder, Frankfurter was sentenced to prison (in 1945 he would be pardoned). The assassination was quite a career move for Gustloff. The Nazis sanctified his legacy with martyrdom. At the funeral Hitler sat beside Gustloff’s wife. He promised that her husband would be memorialized. A new, German built state of the art passenger cruise liner would be named after him. Thus, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was given its name under deadly circumstances. It would not be the last tragic affiliation for the ship.

David Frankfurter in 1945 - free from prison

David Frankfurter in 1945 – free from prison

The ways in which Wilhelm Gustloff was used became a reflection of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In the late 1930’s the ship offered cruises and holiday outings a perk for important or loyal public servants of the Nazi regime. It was big, it was impressive, it was successful. A floating monument for the Nazi’s Strength Through Joy program.  Beginning with the outbreak of World War II this began to change. During the invasion of Poland it was converted into a hospital ship where wounded soldiers would convalesce. Its military usage continued with yet another transformation. The ship was turned into accommodations for U-boat personnel who were doing their training nearby. One constant in each of these iterations, was that the ship was at the beck and call of the Nazi German state, whether for pleasure or war. The Wilhelm Gustloff was available for whatever they needed it be.

Setting Sail for The Bottom
After sitting inert at dockside for four years as a sort of floating barracks, the ship was suddenly called back into action. The Russians were on the doorstep of the floundering Third Reich. The fear their presence engendered among ethnic Germans was pervasive. Reports of Red Army atrocities during the first incursion into East Prussia led to a refugee crisis. A massive evacuation known as Operation Hannibal was planned. The Wilhelm Gustloff was ready to sail the Baltic once again. Unknown to the thousands who crowded onto it, this was to be a last, fatal voyage into history.

Click here for: The Anti-Hero – Sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff (Part Two)

Revenge of the Prussians – The House of Soviets In Kaliningrad (Part 2)

In 1968 the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev issued a directive that the ruins of Königsberg Castle were to be blown up and cleared from the center of Kaliningrad. Brezhnev, as a true communist ideologue, stated that the castle represented “a hornet’s nest of militarism and fascism.” Despite the protests of intellectuals and preservationists, it was not long after Brezhnev’s decree that the castle’s ruins were dynamited and bulldozed. Over 600 years of history exploded into dust and then was swept from the surface of the city center. The physical remnants of the castle were gone. Beneath the surface though, the situation was much different. Subterranean chambers of the castle still existed. These would exact a bit of poetic vengeance on the Soviets. For the rest of history, the castle has been more than a memory. It has been a curse upon Soviet efforts to recreate the site in their own image.

The final remains of Königsberg Castle being demolished in 1968

The final remains of Königsberg Castle being demolished in 1968

Sinking Into Dystopia – Model for a Model City
Kaliningrad – formerly Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia – was supposed to become a model communist city where all traces of its ethnic German past would vanish. Instead the newborn city would be transformed into a place where many of its citizens wished for a return to the city’s Germanic past, at least in an architectural sense. Soon after the final destruction of the castle ruins, the Soviets set about recreating the site. They constructed a building that would come to represent them in ways they could not possibly have imagined. The plan was for a 28-story building, created from that all-time favorite Soviet building material, concrete. The building was to act as Communist Party headquarters for Kaliningrad and the surrounding region. It would be called the House of Soviets, a lasting centerpiece for the totally Sovietized city.

The problems started early and often. The site did not have the best foundations, partly due to all the destruction that Soviet demolition efforts had wrought upon it. The building was placed in an area that had been one of the castle’s moats. To make matters worse, originally the castle had been built atop what had once been marshland. Former marshland, on a former moat, turned out to be a good place for one thing, sinking. The extreme weight of the building from tons and tons of concrete served to further destabilize the site. Subsurface chambers from the castle began to collapse adding to the porous quality of the site. The sinking became known as the “Revenge of the Prussians.” The end result was nothing less than a monstrosity. Among innumerable problems were structural deficiencies exacerbated by a flawed design. The construction took longer than expected. Only 21 of the 28 stories were finished, meanwhile the interior was still uninhabitable. When the project dragged on for decades the city administration lost interest. Lack of funding finally brought construction to a halt.

House of Soviets - with a fresh coat of paint

House of Soviets – with a fresh coat of paint

Facing up to the Faceless –Post-Cold War Style
The House of Soviets was never completed as originally designed. The result was more like a house of never ending horrors, from structural to financial to aesthetic. Kaliningrad was left with an eyesore in one of its most prominent public spaces. It could be seen throughout the city, always lurking as a reminder of the failure of centralized state planning.  Utopia could not be created, but dystopia was certainly within reach. Kaliningrad never came close to the grand designs placed upon it. The House of Soviets was a microcosm of the city, impersonal, dehumanizing and unsightly. After the Soviet Union collapsed a conversation started among the city’s leadership on how to improve the look and feel of the city. Not surprisingly their focus turned to the House of Soviets. How could it not, the building never had gone away. Stolid and unyielding the building stood as a testament to waste and stupidity.

In 2005 none other than the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin visited Kaliningrad. In preparation the city decided that something must be done to spruce up the House of Soviets. New windows were installed, quite a feat that the communists had been unable to achieve. A face lift was also in order, but only in a cosmetic sense. The exterior was painted blue and white to help cover up the concrete. A paltry attempt to give the House of Soviets something it never really had: a veneer of aesthetic respectability. Whatever Putin thought of this, if he even noticed, was not forthcoming. His actions on behalf of Kaliningrad spoke louder than any paint job ever would. Putin paid for a new organ to be placed in the reconstructed Königsberg Cathedral, that Gothic symbol of Teutonic creativity and style.  Even for a man who had publicly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, the House of Soviets was not worth Putin’s attention or considerable financial resources. Perhaps that is because the building exposes the failure of Soviet style administration.

For what they dream of - Königsberg before World War II

For what they dream of – Königsberg before World War II

Backwards Into the Future – The House of Königsberg
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse one question keeps arising: What to do with the House of Soviets? A renovation seems beyond the realm of possibility. It would actually cost less to build an entirely new structure than try to modify the existing one. With this idea in mind, some have went a step further, traveling backward into the future where they re-imagine Königsberg Castle once again taking shape, albeit in a new form. There have been plans to rebuild the castle with modern additions that could be used for commercial enterprises. There is precedent for a successful historical reconstruction in the city. One has to look no further than the Cathedral, which was rebuilt with the help of donations from ethnic Germans. Yet the Cathedral’s core still existed when its rebuilding began, a new castle would have to start from scratch. There are also questions concerning foundations at the site. Another problem is that it has long been rumored that the House of Soviets cannot be destroyed because it is owned by a mysterious figure who will not allow that to happen. If that is true then there is only one question that really needs to be asked: Where is Brezhnev when they need him?

Click here to read From Königsberg to Kaliningrad – Burying Prussia’s Past In Concrete (Part One)

From Königsberg to Kaliningrad – Burying Prussia’s Past In Concrete (Part 1)

Kaliningrad is one of Europe’s more bizarre geo-political entities. This Russian exclave, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, was created from German territory. Formerly, it was known as the province of East Prussia, taken by the Soviet Union in the last months of World War II. Today, Kaliningrad is both a city and an oblast. The latter is roughly analogous to a state or province, while the city itself occupies what up until 1946 was the historic capital of Prussia, Königsberg. Prior to World War II it was a prosperous city on the frontier of the far reaches of Eastern Europe, home to no less than thirty four churches, including a stunning cathedral that was a Gothic masterpiece par excellence. The city also included impressive fortress walls replete with bastions, neighborhood upon neighborhood of tidy and colorful homes, plus a beautiful castle at the very heart of the city. The latter structure had been the site of multiple coronations for Prussian kings. The Pregel River acted as a languid, watery thread weaving past gothic, baroque and neo-classical architectural offerings. It is hard to envision just how fantastically ominous a scene the city must have been when set beneath the leaden grey skies of a Baltic winter.

Engraving of historic Königsberg

Engraving of historic Königsberg

On The Border – Between Luck & Fate: The History of Königsberg
Such aesthetics had been preserved as much by luck, as by the hands of man. Königsberg had somehow been lucky enough to escape the ravages of war since its founding in 1255. Historically, the city was something of a safe haven. When Swedes rampaged across Eastern Germany during the Thirty Years War, the powerful Hohenzollern rulers sought refuge in Königsberg. During the Seven Years War’ when Imperial Russian troops gained control of the city, the citizens wisely bowed to their rule and saved Königsberg from the usual excesses committed by an occupying army. As Napoleon extended his might across German lands, Prussian King William III led his court to safety in Königsberg. The city was occupied again in 1807, this time by the French. There followed a time of suffering, but not destruction. The closest Königsberg came to cataclysm was brought about not by guns, but by germs. A plague that visited the city during the early 18th century claimed the lives of roughly a quarter of its population. Other than that sobering incident, Königsberg was one of the few places in Europe that was a consistently safe and prosperous place to live from the Middle Ages all the way up into the modern age. It was always just remote enough to avoid the vicissitudes of war. The military might of the Teutonic Knights, than the Prussians certainly helped safeguard the city. All of this history meant nothing during the latter part of World War II as the city was changed irreparably by the all-consuming vortex of total war.

Königsberg Castle courtyard at the end of the 19th century

Königsberg Castle – courtyard at the end of the 19th century

In late summer 1944, Allied Bombers laid waste to much of the city center and its industry. Several nights of deadly incendiary bombing were an ominous warning of the apocalypse to come. In April 1945, the city was reduced to smoking ruins. A German Army in its final death throes, vainly attempted to stave off the overwhelming might of the Red Army colossus, hell bent on vengeance. The resulting siege devastated the city. Königsberg was singled out for greater suffering than the rest of Germany both at the end of the war and afterward. Prussian militarism was considered a major reason for the two catastrophic invasions of Russia that had occurred in the previous thirty years. An overriding sense that a German invasion must never be allowed to happen again underlay the destructive actions of the Red Army as they reduced Königsberg – which means “King’s Mountain” in German – to a heaping, convulsive mass of smoldering rubble. The old Königsberg ceased to exist, but it could have been rebuilt. The Soviets had another plan in mind, one which would recreate the city in their own image.

From Facelift To Facelessness– The Creation Of Kaliningrad
As the war came to an end the Soviets were really just getting started with the city. Their vengeance extended from days into decades. A plan was hatched to Sovietize the city. It meant that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans would have to be relocated, what would become one of the largest forced migrations in human history. Naively many citizens of Königsberg and East Prussia returned to the region at war’s end. Approximately 800,000 were shipped eastward to far flung points all across the Russian interior. They were now slaves of Stalin’s Empire. In their place came Soviet citizens, Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians who traveled west to repopulate a city and surrounding region that in the summer of 1946 was renamed Kaliningrad. The name was taken from Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin’s cronies. He had been with the dictator from the early days, but over the last decade and a half of his career was largely a faceless bureaucrat. The most notable thing about his life was that Stalin had his wife tortured and exiled to Siberia, the same fate that so many of Königsberg’s citizens experienced.
Kalinin died of cancer in 1946, during the last decade of his life he was little more than an afterthought.

Königsberg Castle in ruins - photo taken in 1950

Königsberg Castle in ruins – photo taken in 1950

Once of supreme importance, Kalinin had slowly been lost to obscurity. The same fate awaited the city which would bear his name.  As an honorific, the Soviets affixed his name to the conquered capital of East Prussia, a faceless bureaucrat for what at the time was a largely faceless city. That facelessness was soon to change for Kaliiningrad as it took on a much harsher appearance. It was not just that the people of the city had changed, but also the urban environment began to undergo an ideologically infused architectural transformation. Concrete block buildings, whether administrative or residential were constructed to house Soviet transplants. These were the physical embodiment of a brutalism just as bleak and unforgiving as Stalinism itself. The very idea of Königsberg was inexorably buried beneath this rapidly rising concrete edifices. This was a new city for a new world that bore the stamp of a mind deadening ideology. No section of the city was to be spared, especially in the center.

A Monument To Ruin – Centrally Planned Decline
At the end of World War II, that monumental symbol of Prussian power and royalty, Königsberg Castle had been reduced to ruins. These ruins lay as a silent and sullen reminder for the destruction of this once great city. In the late 1960’s the Soviet leadership hatched a plan to relegate even these ruins to oblivion. On the site where Königsberg Castle had stood for centuries a plan was conceived that would inadvertently create something unforgettable, a building which would come to symbolize the folly and waste of Soviet style communism.

Click here to read: Revenge of the Prussians – The House of Soviets In Kaliningrad (Part 2)

Nightmares Of Memel –  The Re-creation of Klaipeda, Lithuania & The End Of East Prussia

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.

East Prussia in 1939

East Prussia in 1939 – the area in blue includes Kalipeda and Memelland which was annexed by Germany (Credit: Schwartz und Weiss)

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.

Hitler speaking on the balcony of the opera house in Memel after Germany regained the city

Nazism spreads to the east- Hitler speaking on the balcony of the opera house in Memel after Germany regained the city

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.

Memel before war came to its distant shores

Memel before war came to its distant shores (Credit: Kusurija)

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.


To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.