The Wilderness of Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Seven)

Sunday is supposed to be a day of peace. On Sunday April 30, 2023, my thoughts turned to war. It was exactly 108 years and 8 months since the Battle of Tannenberg’s final day. Time passes statistically, but mentally it is an entirely different matter. We might not be able to repeat the past, but we can reimagine it. While time travel has yet to be invented, imagination and an intimate knowledge of history can bring us as close to the past as we will ever be. In this sense, the past is not only a time and place, but also a feeling. Our minds are the only time machine available to humans. As such, I planned to use mine while making the final journey to the spot where Russian General Alexander Samsonov committed suicide. 

I awoke an hour after dawn from a deep sleep. It was already daylight in Olsztyn (Allenstein). Since it was Sunday, the rest of Olsztyn was still asleep. The sky was blue and cloudless, the air crisp and cold. There was not a hint of wind. Springtime had come to northern Poland. The trees were beginning to bloom and greenery added splashes of colors to the ground. The weather could not have been better.  The sky was also clear and cloudless on August 30, 1914, the final day for the Battle of Tannenberg. The heat was infernal. Bedraggled, lusting for water, and at the point of complete exhaustion, thousands of confused Russian soldiers tried to fight their way out of an ever-tightening German vice. They could not look to their commander for leadership, he was as beaten as the soldiers. General Alexander Samsonov was feeling the fear, heat, and confusion as the German 8th Army rendered the final devastating blows to the Russian 2nd Army.

Narrow corridor – The road to war

Into The Cauldron – Entering The Fringes
I assumed the drive to the Samsonov Monument would be easy, so I planned a few stops along the way. They offered portents of difficulties to come despite cooperation from the weather. The first was a military cemetery supposedly on the edge of Olsztynek. It was right beside the highway coming into town from the north. I thought this would be an easy find, but it proved otherwise. Stopping by the roadside and wandering around in scrub brush did not reveal anything. After a few minutes of staring cluelessly at a spot-on Google Maps where the cemetery was supposedly located, me and my travel companion drove on into Olsztynek. Passing through the town we made our way to where the Tannenberg Memorial stood from 1927 – 1945. There were traces in the area where this once gigantic symbol of uber-German nationalism stood. The visit proved stimulating. (*More on visiting the Tannenberg Memorial site in a later post). 

Now we drove eastward towards Jedwabno. In a field located on the fringes of this small village were what looked like a series of man-made earthworks. A possible defensive position left from the battle. Following the highway southward we were entering what I surmised was the cauldron. A map of battle movements on the final day showed a circle where remnants of the Russian 2nd Army were surrounded by German forces on all sides. There was no way out. Russian forces in this cauldron had only two choices, either surrender or risk being killed or wounded. Most took the first option as statistics show. Of an estimated 150,000 Russian troops, 92,000 ended up prisoners of war. Alexander Samsonov would not be one of them.

The cauldron – Detail of troop position on the final day at Tannenberg

Needles & Haystacks – A Polish Ghost Town
While planning this trip to the Samsonov monument, I spent the night before scrutinizing Google Maps in the cauldron area. I hoped to find any military sites from the battle that I may have overlooked. This needle in a haystack search took in the most rural roads. I soon came across a place called Malga. Translations of some reviews from Polish to English yielded a few details. Malga did not have any connection to Tannenberg, but there was a tangential connection to military history. Malga’s end came in the 1950s when the Polish military decided to use the area for a base and associated exercises. The village was transformed into a ghost town. Now there was nothing left other than the foundations of buildings that had long since vanished except for a lone church tower rising above the surrounding fields. I convinced myself that Malga was worth a detour.

My travel companion found the idea of visiting Malga just as intriguing as I did. His life has been dedicated to marking the Overland Trails in the Great Plain and western states, most prominently in Wyoming and Nebraska. He is no stranger to ghost towns. The opportunity to visit one in northern Poland was too good to pass up. An additional benefit of a side trip to Malga was that we could view the terrain that Samsonov and countless Russian soldiers stumbled through in the heat, smoke and darkness on that fatal, final day of battle.

Lost history – Piece of the Tannenberg Memorial

No Outlet – Dust to Dust
A few kilometers south of Jedwabno, we took a paved road that soon turned to dirt. Dry weather made the road dusty. This provided a very rough approximation of the same conditions in which Tannenberg was fought. Dust and smoke made it difficult for Russian troops to find their way. The Germans had a huge advantage over the Russians because they intercepted Russian orders sent unencrypted. While the Russians stumbled through the area, the Germans were sure of the Russian troop’s locations. They exploited this advantage to a devastating effect.

The woods closed in on the dirt road. Trees grew within a foot or two of one another. I imagined this landscape had not changed much since the battle. It was easy to see how soldiers might get lost along narrow roadways flanked by impenetrable forests. Moving thousands of soldiers around the area on dirt roads would have been a logistical nightmare. We soon found out just how impenetrable parts of this land still are today.

Google Maps showed the road crossing a small stream as we closed in on Malga. The road abruptly came to an end at the stream’s edge. The stream turned out to be much larger than shown on the map. The stream was more like a canal that was too deep to cross on either car or foot. I would later learn this was a branch of the Omulew River. We parked the car and walked beside the stream for a couple hundred meters in either direction. There was nowhere we could cross. Our journey to Malga ended along an anonymous streambank. The end of one journey meant our final one to the Samsonov Monument had finally begun.

Click here for: Admitting Defeat – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Eight)

The Tannenberg Obsession – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Five)

Obsessions can lead to places you would never imagine. The urges that give rise to obsessions are unexplainable and undeniable, they have a magnetic allure that is as seductive as it is sinister. Obsession leads to compulsion and compulsion to uncontrollable impulses. Self-help gurus and life coaches will advise moderation as a necessary antidote to obsession, offering moderation as the key to a happy life filled with contentment. That may well be true, but an obsessive ignores this advice. They must take their passions to the greatest extremes. The journey may be fraught with danger, but the destination is worth the risk. Perhaps that is because the pursuit of an obsession is a portal to another world, one that allows the obsessive to supersede the world in which they have been confined for far too long. Obsessions can lead to the most extraordinary of emotions and the strangest of places. The obsessive may be at a loss to explain why they continue pursuing their passion well beyond the limits of reason, but they will continue that course no matter the cost in time, money, and energy. The obsession overrides all concerns.

On the Eastern Front – Inn at Usdau on fire during the Battle of Tannenberg

Time of Troubles – On the Eastern Front
My obsession with World War I on the Eastern Front began during one of the worst periods of my life. That time period can be summed up in two words, high school. Rather than enjoy it, I endured those three years of frustration and humiliation by seething mostly in silence. High school altered the course of my life to such an extent that I can scarcely think about it without feeling complete contempt for the experience. Much of my life since then has been informed by an urge to overcome people’s preconceived notions and the invisible hierarchies that govern both our personal and professional lives. High school provided me an education in class systems. My high school had its own aristocracy (football players and cheerleaders), the bureaucracy (administrators and teachers), plutocracy (rich kids), autocracy (the bullies), and meritocracy (academic achievers). There was not much for the rest of us to do other than engage in the illicit consumption of booze, absurd acts of delinquency, and mini rebellions against anyone trying to exercise authority.

And yet from that time of troubles came one of the great obsessions of my life, the Eastern Front of World War I and specifically the Battle of Tannenberg. It is not without irony that one of the most catastrophic conflicts in human history came to me in a school library located thousands of kilometers and an ocean away from battlefields seventy-years after the fact. I was sitting safely sequestered among the school library’s modest stacks gaining an intense interest about a front that Winston Churchill deemed “The Unknown War: The Eastern Front.” The future British Prime Minister felt compelled to author an entire volume with that title about the front in his magisterial multi-volume history of the First World War. The Eastern Front may have been forgotten by the west, but that was yet another reason I found it so intriguing.

Into oblivion – Russian soldiers charge forward at the Battle of Tannenberg

Nightmares & Dreams – Battle Lines Are Drawn
I discovered the Eastern Front in the voluminous Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I. In what I still consider to be the greatest reference work ever created, I found thousands of pages on every aspect of the war. This was one of my first true loves and as such I can still recall it with misty eyed nostalgia. Somehow among the unending succession of nightmares found on those pages, I began to formulate a fascination. This fascination then turned into a dream. That dream had a name, Tannenberg. It was a titanic battle, with clear winners and losers. The Somme and Verdun may be more famous, but trying to grasp those seemingly never-ending battles which raged for weeks or months on end is extremely difficult. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded with no decisive result. The futility of war defined those battles and many similar ones on the western front. Tannenberg could not have been more different.   

I first came to understand Tannenberg as a glorious German victory and crushing Russian defeat. This made it easy to grasp. Only later would I learn that the battle did not play a decisive role in the war’s outcome. This realization did not deter my interest. Tannenberg had lodges itself in my memory to such an extent that I have never been able to let it go. Mentally, Tannenberg was my way of escaping from frustration. It had nothing to do with popularity contests or peer pressure. No one else at my school would have found it of interest. Tannenberg became a secret that I only shared with myself.
The battle became an inspiration and aspiration to learn more with the ultimate goal of possibly visiting the battlefield one day. I could always dream. And like the most powerful dreams, this had the potential of becoming reality.

Looking back – Memorial stone at Usdau for fighting during Battle of Tannenberg (Credit; Bauernfreund)

Boots On The Ground – Digging Graves & Saving Grace
Learning about the battle started in that high school library. It continues to this very day and will probably never end. For that I am grateful. My curiosity for Tannenberg has manifested itself to the point that I now feel an overwhelming urge to finally visit the battlefield in person. The circumstances are such that I can find my way there. A strange sort of affinity for the battle has been buried deep within me for decades. From time to time, it comes back as an all-consuming obsession. One that must be satisfied. This idea possesses me, turns my thoughts to the blistering heat and choking dust in the final days of August 1914. The earth transformed into a haze by horses’ hooves and the boots of hundreds of thousands of men taking their first footsteps towards the darkest of destinies. They are headed for a reckoning and so am I. The time has come to visit Tannenberg. To see the place where General Samsonov effectively brought the battle to an end and his life along with it. To see the battle that destroyed so many lives and provided me with an escape during one of the most difficult times of my life. To see the battlefield where two empires began to dig their graves and paradoxically became my saving grace.

To be continued…

Click here for: A Shot In The Dark – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Six)

Return To Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Four)

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the spot of General Samsonov’s suicide was memorialized in the dense woods of the Masurian Lakes region of Poland. Though Samsonov was a Russian general, one that Tsarist Russia soon forgot about among the reoccurring military disasters that consumed the empire after Tannenberg, Samsonov’s suicide was as symbolic of the stunning success of the 8th German Army in that battle, as it was catastrophic for the Russian 2nd Army. It is worth noting that while Tannenberg was only the third battle on the Eastern Front (The Battles of Stalluponen and Gumbinnen were the first two), it would be the German’s most decisive victory of the war, one they could never repeat in the next four years of combat on any front. For this reason, the Germans were eager to commemorate the battle.

A reminder – Monument on the spot where General Samsonov committed suicide at the Battle of Tannenberg

Superiority Complex – Self-Glorification
While the Germans lost the war, the Battle of Tannenberg came to represent the greatness of the German Army. Glorifying the battle and any site associated with it was one way to heal the wounded pride from the terms imposed upon the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans could always look to the Eastern Front with pride. They won that part of the war and imposed their own Versailles on Russia in the form of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. After the German collapse on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, none of that mattered. At least not to anyone other than the Germans. The postwar period was marked by the glorification of Tannenberg by German nationalists. Most famously, this manifested itself in the enormous Tannenberg Memorial which could hold up to 100,000 visitors at a time.
The Tannenberg Memorial’s size and symbolic stature would have made it an easy target for the Red Army’s destruction if the Germans had not blown up the Memorial (located in Hohenstein, present-day Olsztynek, Poland) while retreating through the area in 1945. There were many other memorial plaques, historical markers, and small cemeteries in villages or deep in the woods that were not destroyed. These were too small for anyone to bother defacing or removing them. The obelisk marking the spot where Samsonov was believed to have committed suicide is located on a secondary road in the woods. The obelisk was off the beaten path enough to be overlooked. This makes it one of the most noticeable remnants of the interwar German commemoration of the battle.

Tannenberg was celebrated by German nationalists as a victory over what they believed to be racially inferior Slavs. General Alexander Samsonov’s suicide spot would seem to be a strange spot to glorify, but it spoke volumes about the devastating defeat the Germans inflicted on the Russians. A defeated general blowing his brains out was not off-limits for Germans looking to boost national and racial pride. Placing a prominent marker on the spot ensured Germans would come to see for themselves one of the most meaningful end results of the battle.

Self-Glorification – Tannenberg Memorial

Lost & Found – One Last Shot
General Samsonov’s suicide spot was not only of interest to Germans. Samsonov’s widow, Katarzyna Alexandrovna, enlisted the assistance of the Red Cross during the war to locate his grave. Samsonov had been buried in the same place where he committed suicide. Katarzyna had his remains exhumed and taken back to a village near the city of Kherson (now located in Ukraine) for reburial. Without Samsonov original grave, the suicide spot might have been lost to history. The grave was marked with field stones and a plaque that provided Samsonov’s basic biographical information. It was far enough away from the main road and railway to get overlooked without anything more prominent on the site. The Germans marked the spot with a stone obelisk, the same one that stands today.

From what I have been able to ascertain from photos, the obelisk is located amid a serene setting in the woods. This is a striking contrast from the violent act commemorated there. Those woods were anything but serene during the final days of August as the Battle of Tannenberg unfolded. Shots rang out, artillery thundered in the distance, armies groped their way through choking dust during the day and the depths of darkness during the night. The only illumination was the fire of guns, or the fires set by skirmishes. Then sometime after midnight on August 30th, one of the most significant shots rang out. Tannenberg claimed its most famous victim when Samsonov shot himself. His body was soon discovered. Those events eventually led to the obelisk which stands there today. It is one of the most important monuments on a battlefield that has very few.

Pointing the way – German officer in front of a sign to the Samsonov Monument

Last Legacy – Undertakers & Caretakers
Marking sites associated with Tannenberg was always going to be a challenge since the battle raged over a wide area. The monument at Samsonov’s suicide spot offers a tangible point in which to reflect upon the battle. Monuments and historical markers offer a closer connection to the past. Other sites associated with the battle are not as explicit. Suicide while tragic, is something most people can comprehend. Defensive lines dug into the earth also offer a tangible connection, but the soldiers who fought in them remain anonymous. Their deaths, no matter how heroic or tragic are hard to conceptualize. The average soldier that fought at Tannenberg is anonymous except to those who know their names or may have an ancestral connection. To everyone else they are a blur. This is a sad fact, one that is almost impossible to rectify unless they left diaries or memoirs.

The upshot is that the monument at Samsonov’s suicide spot is the stand in for all the death and destruction that occurred at Tannenberg. It is a singular tragedy which represents a much larger one. The battle has long since passed, but its legacy has reshaped the region in which the monument is located. East Prussia no longer exists, nor does the Russian Empire. Poland has risen again and has become the caretaker for Tannenberg’s legacy. Obscure and remote as the battlefield may be, its relevance is beyond question. All the more reason for a return to Tannenberg.

Coming soon: The Tannenberg Obsession – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Epilogue)

The Final Verdict – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Three)

Another language, another world. For those of us who speak only English, a journey into a foreign land where a different language is spoken presents certain barriers that we find confounding. Basic communication becomes difficult and trying to talk with one’s hands will not suffice. Yet this is not as big a problem as it might seem since so much of the world speaks English. Ever since the Iron Curtain collapsed English has been making great strides across Eastern Europe. This is as true in Poland as anywhere else. In my experience, younger Poles in cities such as Warsaw and Krakow have a command of English as good or better than many native speakers.

In the countryside it is a different matter altogether. The middle aged and pensioners have little reason to learn English. They are wedded to a specific location and surrounded by their fellow Poles. Communicating with them can be difficult since the chance of someone at my age learning anything more than a smattering of Polish is slim. It can make communicating with words close to impossible. This is not going to be an ideal situation when I am in the Polish countryside trying to locate the suicide spot of General Alexander Samsonov, the commander of the Russian 2nd Army in the Battle of Tannenberg.

Marking the spot – General Samsonov Monument (Credit: Mieczysla Kalski)

Speaking In Tongues – A Matter Of Translation
The area in which Samsonov took his own life is now populated exclusively with ethnic Poles. There is nothing left of the multicultural world that existed when Samsonov’s Army invaded the region. The ethnic German population was expelled after the Second World War, the Jewish population murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the current Polish inhabitant’s ancestors were relocated to the area region parts of eastern Poland that were annexed by the Soviet Union and are now located in western Ukraine. Old Europe ceased to exist in the region in which the Battle of Tannenberg was fought. Many of those now rooted to this land only planted their feet here in the late 1940’s. Tannenberg was not their battle, nor will it ever be. The best thing that happened at the battle for Poland was that two of the three powers that had partitioned it in the late 18th century were fighting a war that would eventually lead to their destruction. This allowed an independent Polish state to remerge.

The real victors of Tannenberg were the Polish people who had few soldiers fighting in the battle. For those seeking out sites associated with the battle, such as the spot where Samsonov committed suicide, this makes finding them more difficult. The Poles do not have any reason to preserve these places except for tourism. They might get German visitors whose ancestors once lived in the region or hardcore military history enthusiasts. Because the region had so radically changed hands, finding monuments associated with the battle is not easy. Even with the trove of information that might be found on the internet, language is still a barrier. Google translate is useful, but not a foolproof tool. The language barrier made my search more difficult.

After the battle – Village of Tannenberg (Stebark) in 1915

Worthy of Commemoration – A Soldier’s Death
Once I learned that Samsonov’s suicide spot was located somewhere between Neidenburg and Willenberg I then located those two towns on an online map using their current Polish place names, Nidzica and Wielbark. These were the best clues that my research managed to uncover. Now it was a matter of scouring the map to see if any reference to Samsonov’s suicide might be found. Usually, this type of search turns up very little the first time around. They often require scrutinizing the same area several times. I started by working my way westward from Wielbark on Highway 604. Before long I came across a blue castle icon on the map with the words Pomik Gen. Samsonowa. The icon denoted a historic site and the Polonized name “Samsonowa” was a startling clue. When I clicked on the icon, a photo of a monument in the woods appeared. I then searched Pomik Gen. Samsonowa in my web browser. This brought up multiple sites in Polish. Translating one of the most promising brought me to a nifty tourist website chock full of fascinating information about different sites throughout the Masurian Lakes region in northern Poland where the monument is located.

I was startled that the Samsonov monument still existed and equally startled that a monument had been erected in the first place. It is not often a losing general that commanded a foreign invading army gets a monument dedicated to his memory. I cannot recall another monument to an opposing commander that took his own life. Samsonov died a soldier’s death, but one that few would see fit to memorialize for the sake of posterity. Something so strangely significant was only found worthy of commemoration because the Germans had so few decisive victories to celebrate after the war. In this they were not alone. Tannenberg was one of the few decisive battles of the war. A throwback to earlier battles such as Waterloo or Austerlitz in the Napoleonic Wars. The lines between victory and defeat at Tannenberg were clearly drawn. There was no question who won the battle. The fact that Samsonov felt compelled to shoot himself rendered the final verdict.

Mythmaking – German commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff waging the Battle of Tannenberg (Credit: Hugo Vogel)

Wounded Pride – A Sinister Memory
Tannenberg not only served as the greatest German victory of the war, but also the most decisive victory of the war among any of the combatants. The battles on the western front were months long slogs in the trenches. Those on the Eastern Front after Tannenberg were either inconclusive affairs or victories that occurred outside of German territory. There was little to celebrate from the German’s ultimate defeat of the Russian Tsarist Army. Victories only meant being sucked further into the vast void of the eastern front where the German Army risked being lost in space. Tannenberg was a clearcut victory, one that was easy to grasp and important to commemorate for Germans who felt the sting of losing the war. The fact that the battle occurred on what was German territory during the war and after proved to be of great benefit. The homeland had been defended and the invading force destroyed. This appealed to wounded German pride. Thus, Samsonov’s suicide spot was marked. How that came about is a story worth further exploring.

Click here for: Return To Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Four)

A Critical Mass of Confusion – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Two)

Willenberg is now Wielbark, Ostpreussen is now Poland, and Alexander Samsonov’s suicide during the Battle of Tannenberg is now history. My goal is to find and visit the location where Samsonov spent his final moment. Locating the exact spot means looking for clues in books and digital sources. Whatever results my searches may yield will hopefully allow me to pinpoint the location of the place where a shot rang out in the darkness sometime after midnight on August 30, 1914, amid the thick forests of present day north-central Poland.

Seeking out a suicide spot is diabolical detective work, something that only makes sense as part of criminal investigation, friends or family trying to find closure or in the service of history. The result of this search will be to find and explore one of the darker recesses of the First World War. This is a potential trip down a path pockmarked with the residue of death and despair. One that leads to an obscure spot on a forgotten front. A place to contemplate the moment where fate dealt a decisive blow to the Russian Army, General Samsonov’s life, and set Russia on a wayward course that continues right down to the present day. The case could be made that Russia’s recent unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is along that same trajectory. Tannenberg is not as distant as one might imagine.

Lost in space – Battle of Tannenberg from August 27th – 30th

Switching Sides – A Geopolitical Puzzle
At first, I was not optimistic that the location where General Samsonov took his life could be located. There were complicating factors that would make the search more difficult. While the battle only occurred a little over a century ago, the area in which it took place suffered massive geopolitical upheavals, Tannenberg was the first of these. There was much worse to come. These upheavals led to the collapse of empires and the rise of nations in their place. This made the geography of Tannenberg difficult to mentally navigate. For instance, the land on which the battle took place did not belong to a nation-state in 1914. Instead, it was in the German Empire. During the interwar period, the sprawling battlefield would become part of two nations, Poland and Weimar Germany. During World War II, the area was occupied by the Germans. After the war ended, it became part of Poland.

The battle then existed in a sort of strange historical netherworld. As part of Poland, the battlefield was severed from the two main combatants, the Germans and Russians who spilt so much blood fighting the battle. The area’s German population had been expelled. Monuments to the battle which commemorated it were destroyed. The most prominent of these, the massive Tannenberg Memorial was where the body of Paul von Hindenburg, the German commander glorified for his role in the battle was reburied. Hitler ordered the monument destroyed during the German retreat in 1945. Hindenburg’s body was removed and reburied once again, this time in western Germany. The Soviet Red Army was majority Russian and as such wanted no reminders of any German victory even if it did render a blow to the Tsarist Army.

August 1914 – Russian aircraft shot down in Neidenburg

Survival Instinct – Inheritors of the Earth
Even when monuments to the Battle of Tannenberg were not targeted they could still be caught in the crossfire of the many conflicts that consumed the area. Towns in the region were heavily damaged during the final campaign of World War II. This was the end of a thirty-one-year process that had proved apocalyptic. Tannenberg was the starting gun for decades of destruction, reconstruction and still more destruction over land contested by Germans, Russians, and Poles. The latter ended up being the lone survivors in the area. Ironically, Poles played hardly any role in the 1914 battle. Poland ended up being the inheritor of the territory on which the battle was fought. They were already living in the area, but their role was as detached observers watching everyone else commit suicide. That included Alexander Samsonov.

Poland offers a complicating factor for anyone trying to orient themselves on the battlefield because the names of nearby places to where Samsonov’s suicide might have occurred were changed from German to Polish ones. Fortunately, finding the Polish place names and matching them with German ones would not prove as difficult as I first imagined. Another complicating factor concerns Samsonov’s role as part of an invading army that lost the battle. Though his suicide spot is worth marking for historical interest, that would have taken place under either the Germans or Poles. Commemorating where an enemy general shot himself was probably not high on the priority list for the German regime which occupied the area after the battle. On the other hand, the battle was a great achievement for the Germans both during and after the war. Plenty of commemoration would later take place. For instance, the Germans constructed the Tannenberg Memorial and moved the body of Paul von Hindenburg, one of the commanding generals at Tannenberg there. Of course, Germans extolling the glories of a fellow German made sense. I assumed that marking the spot of Samsonov’s suicide did not fall high on their postwar priority list.

Battle lines – German infantry during the Battle of Tannenberg (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R36715)

Uncharted Territory – Off The Map
My first clue in locating the suicide spot was found online with a short description stating, “in the woods south of Willenberg.” This was nowhere near exact enough, but it did give me a good starting point, I then found another source that mentioned the location as between (Nidizica) and Willenberg (Wielbark). This information was more promising as it gave me an area to focus on. A train line ran between the two locations, which might also mean a road could be running between the two towns. A road was vital because the best-case scenario would be for the location to be near one. I did not relish the thought of walking far off the road and deep into the woods scouring for a marker amid leafy foliage and thick ground cover. 

It is easy to get lost in these woods. That is one of the things that happened to the Russians during the battle. This created a critical mass of confusion which the Germans exploited. The area is known for its lakes, forests, and sandy soil, each of which presents problems for anyone searching for a specific place in the area. Getting lost is nothing new. Samsonov and the staff officers who were with him on the last night of his life were also lost. They tried to reconnect with what was left of the 2nd Army. Realizing that they had little chance of this they stumbled along in the darkness. Then Samsonov separated himself from the rest of the group. At that moment he knew exactly where he was headed. To a place could not be found on any map.

Click here for: The Final Verdict – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Three)

In The Woods South of Willenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part One)

I buy way too many books, books that I will never have the time to read from cover to cover. As I get older and the list of unread books on my shelves grows, I have learned to read specific chapters of a book to find what intrigues me the most. This works rather well, except for the fact that I find myself skipping from one subject to the next without any logical plan. Curiosity often gets the better of me as I bound from the medieval to the modern, from the Balkans to the Black Sea, from eastern Germany to eastern Ukraine, from Byzantium or the Baltic. This is the kind of curiosity that easily goes off-kilter. The power of perusal provides a window into disparate regions, subjects, and time periods. Working my way into books with this method comes at the expense of thoroughness. It is the only way I can manage to keep from being overwhelmed. Surrounding myself with stacks of books means I am something of a bibliophile, an obsession defined by the title of an excellent book about the subject, “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion For Books” by Nicholas Basbanes. It may be gentle, but it is madness all the same.

Dark destiny – In the woods near Willenberg (Credit: Albert Jankowski)

A Single Shot – The Final Moment
I do not own my books as much as they own me. Besieged by books would be an apt description of my current status. Sometimes I will stare at specific books packed on the shelves and wonder when I will finally get around to reading at least a page or two of each one. The best chance for cracking a neglected books is to use it as a reference work. To be completely honest, this was the reason I bought most of these books. I realized this invaluable aspect once again when I went in search of books to answer a specific question about the Battle of Tannenberg on the Eastern Front at the beginning of World War I. The book I grabbed, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires by Dennis Showalter, has a well-deserved reputation for density. It certainly does not disappoint in that regard. There are over 400 pages filled with an infinite number of details that interpret the battle. Showalter does a fine job of explaining the strategy, tactics, and outcome of Tannenberg. The book would prove useful for me since I needed to find out more details concerning the suicide of General Alexander Samsonov, the commander of the Russian 2nd Army which was destroyed in the battle.

Samsonov went to battle with 180,000 men, by the time it was done, over 90% of them had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Only an estimated 10,000 Russian soldiers escaped, Samsonov was not one of them. Showalter provided a succinct description of the suicide. Once Samsonov knew the battle was lost, he along with his other staff officers scrambled through the woods on foot in the darkness. Sometime after midnight on August 30th, “Weight and asthma slowed the general’s movement and further lamed his spirit. Again and again, Samsonov repeated that the disgrace was more than he could bear: ‘The Emperor trusted me.’ Finally, he slipped aside in the dark. Minutes later a single pistol shot crashed out of the underbrush. Samsonov would never be called upon to explain the fate of his army.” I remember this story well. Showalter’s footnote to the narrative shows that he used Major General Sir Alfred Knox, the British Military Attache who was with the Russians during the campaign as his source.

A shocking defeat – Bodies of dead Russian soldiers from the Battle of Tannenberg

Further Misfortune – From Bad To Worse
Samsonov’s suicide story was not really what I was looking for when I referenced Showalter’s book, instead I wanted to find the spot where it occurred. Finding clues to the exact location where Samsonov took his life would be the first step to possibly visiting the place on a trip to Poland I have planned for later this spring. I do not know why the Samsonov suicide fascinates me, but this has been the case for me going all the way back to high school. My fascination with the First World War began in Mr. Johnson’s freshman Western Civilization class in high school. I can still see him madly drawing a diagram of the street layout in Sarajevo as he laid out the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This led me to the school library where I found the ultimate reference work for the war, the Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I. In the encyclopedia I first learned about the Battle of Tannenberg. Then through the years there were further narratives of the battle that lodged in my memory. These included Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and an even more bracing description in one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s least known works, August 1914.

Perhaps Samsonov’s suicide feeds into my obsession with decisive moments in history. Those points of no return where reality can no longer be avoided. It is not often in history that a leader will openly admit they are responsible for a disaster. Of course, there was a lot more to the Russian defeat at Tannenberg than Samsonov’s command decisions. The Germans were better organized, their commanders had a clear plan of action, Russian communications were compromised, and the 1st Russian Army failed to provide the expected support. This does not absolve Samsonov of responsibility, but he took it upon himself to shoulder the blame and it broke him. Tannenberg was the start of an endless succession of disasters for the Russian Army in the war, the cumulative weight of which would lead to the Bolshevik revolution and further misfortune. Russia has never been the same.

On to Tannenberg – Alexander Samsonov at the start of World War I

End Result – A Soldier’s Death
Perhaps Samsonov saw what was coming, for himself and the empire he represented. Perhaps Samsonov could not see beyond himself or beyond the Tsar’s disappointment. Perhaps Samsonov felt just as trapped as his army had been. He saw no other way out except to die a soldier’s death deep in the woods of East Prussia. There was just a single shot and then the blood rushing out of the hole in his head staining the sandy soil in the forest. No one will ever know what Samsonov’s thoughts were just before the suicide. That moment is lost in time. The place is not. You cannot go back in time, but you can go back to the same spot and imagine what it was like. The beginning of that process started for me with books followed by internet searches. The first clue I came across said the suicide happened “in the woods south of Willenberg.”

Coming soon: A Critical Mass of Confusion – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Two)

A Strange Sort Of Resurrection: Unfinished Dreams: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part 3)

After the war, the expulsions and the demolitions, Schirwindt ceased to exist, at least in a physical sense. It was renamed and reclaimed. Befitting the martial nature of its destructive decline, the area was renamed Kutozuvo, after the great Russian General from the Napoleonic Wars. It was reclaimed as part of a large military training ground, a situation that still exists today. The lone structure of any significance still standing was taken over by Soviet and later Russian border guards. With each passing year, Schirwindt was one step closer to oblivion. The former inhabitants, including approximately two hundred that lived in communist East Germany, were not allowed to visit the old town site until a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. Only after the Cold War ended did popular interest about Schirwindt slowly resurface. Just as fast as interest grew, so too did an increasing number of its former inhabitants begin to die off. By the first decade of the 21st century, it was estimated that less than fifty were still alive. It would not be long – the youngest original inhabitant of the town was born in 1944 – before living memory of the town was gone.

A Memory & A Dream - Schirwindt

A Memory & A Dream – Schirwindt

Final Foundations – A Repository of Remembrance
A funny thing happened on the way to total oblivion, a little bit of Schirwindt was salvaged. In the post-war years, Lithuanians who lived in the nearby town of Kudirkas-Namestis collected whatever material they could reuse from the debris of Schirwindt. Many artifacts were to be found among the ruins. They were unwittingly saved by this scavenging. Years later, a man by the name of Antanas Spranajtis took an interest in collecting artifacts from Schirwindt. Spranajtis was retired with a great deal of time on his hands. He was able to use his local connections to collect artifacts from the villagers. These efforts led to the creation of the “Schirwindt Museum” where a collection of artifacts from the town are on display in this small museum. These relics include bricks from the once towering Immanuel Church, along with the accoutrements of daily life that were left behind by the citizens of Schirwindt. The East Prussian frontier city lives on within the walls of this museum. It is not much by the standards of museums, but it manages to honor the memory of Schirwindt. That is more than could be expected considering the circumstances surrounding its violent destruction. Time may never heal the wounds inflicted on Schirwindt, but it can also lead to the preservation of them.

Preservation is more than dusty artifacts in a museum or architectural wonders restored to their former grandeur. The goal of preservation should be to keep historical memory alive. When all physical structures have been destroyed, artifacts shattered and scattered into thousands of pieces, the written word forms the final foundation. The basis for knowing what happened and when comes from copious documentation. In this regard Schirwindt’s afterlife has been blessed with a treasure trove of information concerning its day to day history. This repository was published during the first decade of the 21st century. Over half a century had passed since Schirwindt had been wiped off the face of the earth and now a strange sort of resurrection began. This took place in the one nation people would have least expected for it to happen, Russia.

Calm before the war - Scenes from Schirwindt in 1927

Calm before the war – Scenes from Schirwindt in 1927

Prussia Rather Than Russia – Mental Reconstructions
This latent nostalgia was cultivated not by a historian, but by an actor. His name, Alexander Shirvindt. He was well known for his roles in over forty feature films and voiceover work in another ten. No one had any idea that later in life Shirvindt would turn his attention to history. History of a place in Prussia, rather than Russia. The similarity between his last name and the town of Schirwindt was not a coincidence. Shirvindt’s father, a violinist and music teacher had Prussian blood while his mother was an opera singer from Odessa. The father was forced to hide his ethnicity for fear of reprisal. Prussian blood was a death sentence in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Shirvindt’s surname had been Russified, but it still gave the son a clue as to his true roots. This tangential relationship eventually blossomed into Shirvindt’s interest, some would say obsession, with the town of his ancestry.

In 2007, he published a 200 plus page booklet that provided a withering array of historical detail on East Prussia’s most eastern city.  It became an improbable best seller in Russia. Much of the booklet was based upon a 500 page chronicle of information on Schirwindt that had been collected over several centuries. Everything was there, exhaustive lists of its citizenry, street layouts and city maps, along with the trivial minutia of daily life. There was also a numerical tabulation showing where the refugees of Schirwindt ended up after the war. Such an immense amount of detail allowed for a thorough mental reconstruction of Schirwindt. This was more than anyone might have expected, but Shirvindt wanted more, much more.  His goal was to purchase the former town site, privatize it and rebuild the city to the same exacting specification cataloged in the book. The degree of difficulty in doing this was exponentially greater than anything Shirivindt had attempted up until then. This part of Russia, located in the Kaliningrad Oblast, was in a military zone off-limits to private developers. Here was a situation that proved impossible overcome, at least thus far. Yet such obstacles have never stopped Shirivindt from continuing to dream.

Alexander Shirvindt - The Impossible Dream

Alexander Shirvindt – The Impossible Dream (Credit: Dimitry Rozhkov)

Closing Statements – A Semblance Of Schirwindt
The true value of Antanas Spranajtis and Alexander Shirvindt’s work to remember and resurrect Schirwindt is that they have succeeded in bringing a bit of it back to life, at least in a historical sense. Using fragments from the past they have recreated a semblance of the city. Though it has long since been demolished, Schirwindt still exists in the hearts and minds of those who refuse to let it die. A connection has been forged across time, bringing the present back to the past. No less a personage than the most famous son of Schirwindt, archaeologist Alexander Milchhofer would be proud of their efforts. Pieces of the past have been put back together, the image they form is incomplete and unfinished, much like the history of Schirwindt.




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.

A Place Of Teutonic Pride – Clash Course: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part One)

You can never go home again. That famous sentence was written by Thomas Wolfe in his classic novel Look Homeward Angel. There is a great truth to Wolfe’s words. Those of us who have left home know that though you can return, things are never the same as you remember them. It is not so much that home has changed, as the fact that you have changed. When you experience this sense of loss, there comes a feeling of melancholy that is indescribably sad. Something has been lost that you realize will never return. This is bad, but it could be worse. What if there was no home to return to? No physical structure, no family, friends or familiar faces. Nothing except for memories, fragment of experience that flickered and faded with age. It is hard to imagine this happening, especially to a once thriving place that was marked by prosperity and tradition. A place that no one could have ever imagined would be wiped from the earth, let alone history. A place that existed and then vanished.

This place was a town on the far eastern frontier of the German Reich’s easternmost province. The town was called Schirwindt. Today there is next to nothing left of it. Schirwindt’s absence would make a profound statement on the impact of total war, if only there was something left to comment on. Schirwindt is the only German city badly damaged during World War II that was never rebuilt. There are two reasons for that, it was made a total ruin by war and it no longer was part of German territory. Quite an end to a place that had been for centuries where Germany started the day.

The Way It Used To Be - Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

The Way It Used To Be – Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

Sunrise Over The Reich – Looking To The East
The first place in modern Germany to see the sunrise was Schirwindt. This was where the opening rays of dawn could be detected by watchful Teutonic eyes looking towards the eastern horizon. It would also become the place where the sun began to set over the German Reich near the end of World War II.  Schirwindt was a thoroughly provincial town, small, remote and on the fringes of a sprawling German Reich. For administrative purposes it was listed as a city, though it was by far the smallest one in all of Germany. The population never grew above 1,500. Prior to the 20th century, those who lived in the town made a healthy living through cross border trade with the Russian Empire. Rather than fear their neighbor, Schirwindt’s residents saw Imperial Russia as a market for their merchants, tradesmen and farmer’s to sell their products.

Despite being a border community, the city’s sense of permanence was sealed with the construction of the neo-Gothic Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirchen) in the mid-19th century. For years the town had struggled to raise enough money for a proper church. Schirwindt’s citizens had to make due with a wooden church that needed constant repairs. The situation only changed after a visit by Kaiser Frederick William IV in June 1845. The Kaiser was presented with a petition by the town’s mayor for the construction of a new church. His response was positive. The Kaiser believed that Schirwindt should have just as grand a church as any of the ones he had commissioned in the central and western parts of Germany.

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Crossing The Border – Too Close For Comfort
This set into motion a process of construction that culminated in the completion of Immanuel Church in 1856. The Kaiser returned to the town that September for the church’s dedication. It must have been quite a boost for the town. The Kaiser felt Schirwindt was important enough for him to make what was now his third visit to the tiny city. The Church’s Neo-Gothic spires soared above the surrounding flat landscape. Such was their scale that they were quite visible from Russia. Those spires were as much a boundary marker of the division between German and Russian territory as the Scheshuppe River which formed the actual border between the two empires. That border and the relatively prosperous existence of Schirwindt was first violated in August 1914.  The invaders were Tsarist Russian forces. Their boots clomped along the cobblestone streets and inside the red brick residences of those Germans unlucky enough to be on the frontline of what would become known as the First World War.

The invasion of East Prussia caused an outcry in Imperial Germany. It was an affront to Germans everywhere that the supposedly less civilized Slavs had penetrated the fatherland. And this was just the start for Schirwindt. No less than three times it was invaded and occupied during the war. The inhabitants all fled to safer points further to the west, while Russian troops stole, looted and committed arson. By war’s end only a handful of residential and farm buildings were still standing. These were mere hollow shells of their former selves. Immanuel Church also survived, towering over the tattered townscape. Little did anyone know at the time that this was just a precursor for much worse to come. What could be worse than the comprehensive destruction inflicted on Schirwindt during the Great War? A quarter century later the inhabitants would find out.

World War I damage in Schirwindt

World War I damage in Schirwindt

On The Horizon – A Future Of Worry & Insecurity
Schirwindt could have been abandoned, but the Germans had won the war in the East. Until they were forced to surrender due to their failures on the Western Front in 1918, the Eastern Front was a point of Teutonic Pride. This was an area into which they could possibly expand in the future. As such, frontier cities like Schirwindt had to be rebuilt. It had lost buildings, inhabitants and a sense of security, but it was still located on German Territory. Under the skillful supervision and design of architect Kurt Frick the city rose from the dead. It was not the only place resurrected in the region. An independent Lithuania had been formed from a remnant of Imperial Russia. It seemed to be a much more agreeable neighbor for Schirwindt. Lithuania was also a temptation for German nationalists. The nation was small and weak. On the other side of Lithuania was the menacing Bolshevism of the Soviet Union. This was a threat that might eventually have to be dealt with. Until that day Schirwindt was safe, but not for long.

Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that the Red Army destroyed Konigsberg militarily and then the Soviet Union followed up by destroying it politically. A majority of the damage was done by the Soviets, but the destruction of Konigsberg really did not start with their military or political forces. It began in earnest at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th. That is when a firestorm started by large payloads of incendiaries dropped on the city by British Lancaster bombers conjured up a flaming false dawn. In the darkest hours of night, the city was lit by all-consuming fires that burned a deadly swath across whole parts of the city. The factual tone of the official British military report only provides a hint of the destructive force of the bombing: “Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected…..Bomber Command estimates that 41 percent of all the housing and 20 percent of all the industry in Konigsberg were destroyed.”

British Lancaster bomber - dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2

British Lancaster bomber – dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2 (Credit: Imperial War Museums)

Ground Zero – Total War Delivered By Air
One of those aiming points was likely the Konigsberg Castle. Just as Cologne’s splendid cathedral had provided a large target that could act as a central focus for strategic bombing of that historic city on the Rhine River, so too did the soaring Gothic styled Konigsberg Castle provide an inviting target in another historic German city, this one straddling the Pregel River. The Castle sustained a multitude of hits and was set alight. The heat was so ferocious that civilians who sought relief in the nearby castle pond found that its water was nearly past the boil point. This liquid fire was just as deadly as the blistering heat which raged in a tornadic vortex throughout the city center. Most of the castle burned and was still burning several days later. The only thing left standing were some of the walls and towers in very poor condition, anything wooden had been mere kindling for the napalm laden bombs that fell in, on and around it. The first stone castle on the site had been constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1257. For nearly seven centuries the castle had been the iconic symbol of the city. After the bombing it was still iconic, albeit a very different type of icon. A smoking ruin symbolic of the old Konigsberg, one that would soon cease to exist.

The human toll exacted by the firebombing was just as horrific as the priceless architectural and cultural losses. The innocent, which included a  large proportion of mothers, small children and the elderly were most vulnerable. Some who thought they were safely sequestered in shelters were never able to escape them, burnt alive in what quickly became closed door infernos. Even those who safely fled from them found the medieval streets and alleyways engulfed by a firestorm of hellish proportions. In the Old Town there was nowhere to seek relief from the searing heat that torched nearly everything and everyone. The close quarters only added to the catastrophic damage. Apocalyptic scenes with flaming people running through the streets were a common sight during and after the bombing. In some areas of the Old Town, it would be several days before anyone could walk on the white hot cobblestones such was the ferocity of the firestorm. Eyewitnesses reported that the Pregel River caught on fire. In actuality, it was the wooden pilings in the river which were aflame. Hell could not have burned any brighter.

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Mortal Danger – Chaos & Conflagration
When dawn arrived later that morning, a gruesome cloud of ash, debris and residue mushroomed ominously above the city. Smoke billowed forth from hundreds of burning buildings. The detritus of structures and materials floated through the air falling both on the city and in villages across the East Prussian countryside. Konigsberg had been home to the largest bookstore in Germany, Grafe und Unzer. All those books filled with information and invaluable knowledge, printed to educate and illuminate, now blew through the air as incomprehensible specs of flickering dust. Debris fell from the skies like drizzle. Emergency services were overwhelmed by the human casualties, many of whom were gruesomely burned. This was a dire warning of the horrible atrocities that would befall ethnic Germans in Konigsberg during the coming year.

Much of the industrial infrastructure and war making capacity of the city was still intact after the bombing. This was a telling sign. The fact that twice as much housing was destroyed as industry meant that the Allies were looking to make the population suffer and break their will. The damage to the civilian infrastructure was immense. The British calculated that well over a hundred thousand people had been left homeless. Half of all housing in the city was now uninhabitable. The Old Town was a burnt out shell of its former self. Both the Central and North train stations were in ruins. World class cultural and academic institutions would no longer be operable. Those left in Konigsberg suddenly realized how insecure their situation was. Many either fled or began to make their initial plans to flee the city. The city had been a second home to Germans that were bombed out of cities further west, such as Berlin. Now they realized there was no escaping the war. The war fronts were closing in, Germany was surrounded and even the most far flung cities were in mortal danger.

Where It All Ends - The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945

Where It All Ends – The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945 (Credit: FriedrichTh)

The Face Of Total War – Suffering For The Sin of Nazism
The firebombing of Konigsberg was just the beginning of a very long and drawn out ending. The attack signaled that East Prussia was now within reach of the Reich’s mortal enemies both east and west. That the Allies would be merciless in dealing with a province they considered to be the heart of German militarism. The city’s role as an historic outpost of Germanic learning and culture, the home of Immanuel Kant and the highest intellectual discourse cultivated within the walls of Albertina University for five centuries, the coronation capital of Prussian kings and all of its splendid Gothic architecture meant nothing in the face of total war. Rightly or wrongly, Konigsberg and East Prussia was to suffer gravely for the sins of Nazism. It was to be a place where the Soviets could sate their appetite for revenge. As deadly as the British bombing was, even worse would soon follow.

Click here for: A Lower Level Of Hell: Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)