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)


Scarred With The Same Memory – Fleeing East Prussia:  Arrival Of A Red Army

One of the most disturbing photos I have seen from World War II did not show any battlefield scenes, it was not of any wounded, sick or dying, fire bombed cities or death camps and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. It did not show anyone being humiliated or executed, for that matter it did not show any kind of damage whatsoever. All the photo showed was four people who had not yet been harmed. They were hurriedly making their way through the dark forests of East Prussia. The photo looks as though it was taken at night. It shows these people on the move, likely a family. Their image blurred, but not deliberately so. A man is in the lead, carrying a suitcase in each hand and a pack on his back with whatever belongings he had hastily gathered. Behind him is a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head, she also has a suitcase in hand. Further back, can be seen a woman with a small child in tow.

These are people running for their lives, trying to make a last-minute escape from an apocalyptic storm. One that had been creeping ever closer on the eastern horizon throughout the latter half of 1944. Warnings of what fate might befall them had been broadcast loud and clear by German propaganda. In a bid to get East Prussians to fight for every inch of this frontier Fatherland, Nazi propaganda had spewed forth in both words and pictures information on a massacre of German civilians by Red Army soldiers in the town of Nemmersdorf on August 20, 1944. Women, young girls and even the elderly were raped, other stories told of naked women crucified on barn doors. The propaganda was effective in putting fear into the East Prussian populace, not to fight, but to flee.

A photo that does the fear proper justice - Civilians flee through the dark forests of East Prussia

A photo that does the fear proper justice – Civilians flee through the dark forests of East Prussia

Hell On The Horizon – A Symbol Of Merciless Vengeance
As one of the bitterest winters in memory descended on East Prussia the dull roar of artillery fire had grown louder. Soon the night horizon was lit by the ghoulish glow of infernal fires. The population grew increasingly fearful, what horrors lay just a few kilometers away were not hard to imagine. The hellish horizon blazed brighter by the hour, a symbol of merciless vengeance. One can only imagine the fear and foreboding in those final weeks of 1944. Meanwhile Nazi administrators and party officials downplayed the threat, while threatening to shoot anyone who tried to evacuate and making plans for their own getaways. Thus, they left hundreds of thousands of defenseless ethnic Germans in the path of the bloodthirsty Red Army.

In January 1945, the storm finally broke, a hail of fire and steel, anger and vengeance fell upon East Prussia. This was the first piece of German territory the Red Army set foot on. All the pent-up rage from three years of apocalyptic suffering on Soviet territory – where German troops had plundered and torched thousands of villages, murdered innocent civilians and committed bestial atrocities – was now to be unleashed on anyone and anything unfortunate enough to get in their way. Soviet soldiers would fish in ponds with grenades, mass rapes occurred, family members who protested would be shot or even worse. No ethnic German was to be spared and most realized that. Thus, the hurried flights through dark forests, along snowy roads, across icy lagoons and wading into frigid waters. The scene in the photo was repeated hundreds of thousands of times, with varying degrees of success. There were those who wanted to stay and did. Witness to the final moment of a way of life that was about to become history.

East Prussian refugees on the move

Flight over fight – East Prussian refugees on the move

The Last Supper – A Countess & The Coming Chaos
The last supper must have been a hard one to swallow. Three women sat at a dinner table together for the last time. One was Countess Marion Grafin Donhoff, a scion of Prussian aristocracy and future publisher of the German news weekly Die Zeit. The other two were secretaries. It was a frigid Friday night in late January. The dinner took place at the Donhoff estate in Quittainen (now the Polish village of Kwitajny). Exactly two hundred and two years before, Philipp Otto Graf Donhoff had come into possession of the estate. Various improvements over the ensuing years had created an immaculately kept landscape. The castle house was a hub of refinement and culture in the heart of East Prussia. All that was about to come to an end. The word had been given by the local authorities that everyone should evacuate by midnight.

Countess Donhoff and her closest confidants could only imagine the dreadful fate which awaited them if they did not leave. When they finished their meal the women did not clean the table, but left the place settings just as they were. None of the women  locked the door as they walked out of the castle for the last time. Soon they were riding horses westward across a countryside covered with snow and consumed by bitter cold.  In a matter of minutes, Countess Donhoff went from a life of wealth and comfort to having next to nothing. We know about the last supper from Countess Donhoff’s memoirs, what we do not know is exactly what occurred when the first Red Army soldiers set foot inside that dining room. They would have entered with snow on their boots and blood on their hands. Almost immediately, the looting of valuables and the smashing of furniture would have begun.

Ruined rent house at the former Donhoff estate

After the fall – Ruined rent house at the former Donhoff estate (Credit: mef ellingen)

Staying Behind – Everything That Had Been Lost
The landowners and villagers in the immediate area who chose to stay behind and take their chances with the Soviet soldiers were subject to extremely harsh treatment. Out of thirty people, sixteen were executed, some of which included children. The other fourteen were deported to the Soviet Union for hard labor duty.  The scene at Quittainen was repeated all over East Prussia. The Junker (Prussian landowning aristocrats) estates were picked clean of any valuables, farmsteads put to the torch, summary executions and deportations carried out on those unfortunate enough to meet Soviet soldiers. As for Countess Donhoff, she eventually made it to safety and the west, but she never forgot her last supper in Quittainen or everything that had been lost in the immediate aftermath. She was one of many scarred with that same memory.


A Wild Picture Of Destruction – The Creation Of Kaliningrad: Expulsion Of All Things Germans 

In early May of 1945, about the same time that Berlin fell to the Red Army, a German prisoner of war by the name of Walter Tolkmitt was brought to the grounds of Balga Castle on the western edge of East Prussia. Tolkmitt, along with 600 others, helped bury hundreds of dead horses now festering in the spring warmth. He later recalled that, “The castle ruin has also lost half the turn and the new castle pitcher is totally burned down. All Kahlholz’s fields were full of debris from vehicles, guns, field kitchens and all kinds of equipment. A wild picture of destruction! Flour, legumes, bread, and even bacon lay around in the fields, so that the villagers did not need to starve for the first time.” The unsettling scene of destruction Tolkmitt witnessed, was the end result of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s monstrous ambitions in the East. In a modern crusade for Lebensraum (living space), the Germans had brought the wrath and fury of the Red Army down upon their countrymen and women. The Soviets aimed to annihilate the German presence in the area and keep the region as a prize of war. In the case of Germanic East Prussia annihilation was to precede occupation. This occurred as much after the war as during it.

A Wild Picture Of Destruction - East Prussia in 1945

A Wild Picture Of Destruction – East Prussia in 1945

The Merciless Conquest – A Clean Sweep Will Be Made
While Balga Castle was surrounded by dead animals, the fragmented remains of burned out vehicles, spent artillery shells and the flotsam of discarded belongings, the ground was soaked with the blood of German soldiers. In this marsh ridden, swampy soil the bones of some of the Reich’s finest soldiers were forever preserved as grisly artifacts of an apocalyptic fight they had no chance of winning and little of surviving. German soldiers had been outnumbered twenty to one when the campaign in East Prussia began. By the time of those final furious engagements around Balga in late March, the odds against the defenders were exponentially greater. Many fought to the death because the Germans knew what awaited them at the hands of the Soviets, namely a fate just as bad or worse than death. They might be shot or starved, deported and enslaved. The same fate awaited the German civilians who lived in what was about to become the former German province of East Prussia.

The land in which the still smoldering ruins of Balga stood would become part of the new Russian oblast (province) of Kaliningrad, named after one of Josef Stalin’s henchmen, a Communist Party grandee who somehow survived the numerous purges of the Soviet dictator.  Kalinin died in 1946 and received the bizarre honor of having a place he never came close to visiting named after him. One of Stalin’s worst purges was yet to come, but this one would have nothing to do with the Communist Party hierarchy. Instead it would ensnare the Germans of East Prussia. Four years earlier, after Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, Stalin said that East Prussia would eventually be “returned back to Slavdom, where it belongs.” He could not have been more correct. The moment had now arrived when that return was to be affected. Concerning the expulsions, Winston Churchill said, “There will be no mixture of population to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made.”

East Prussian refugees - fleeing the Red Army in 1945

East Prussian refugees – fleeing the Red Army in 1945

Orderly And Humane – A Matter Of Interpretation
The Potsdam Conference between the victorious Allies called for population transfers of Germans to be done in an “orderly and humane manner”. Those words meant something very different to the Soviet leadership. The Germans were enemies who had been totally defeated, they and anything Germanic in origin would be dealt with on that basis. In the case of East Prussia, part of it was given to Poland, while a strategic wedge was to become Soviet territory. The latter included a swath of shoreline and the adjacent inland territory. The East Prussian capital and culturally rich German city of Konigsberg was part of this arrangement. Other lesser known remnants of the Teutonic legacy such as Balga fell within what Kaliningrad Oblast, a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The dreadful irony of this outcome could not have been lost on the ethnic Germans left in East Prussia. The war in the east had been a bid to expand the frontiers of Germany at the expense of the Soviet Union. Now the opposite was going to happen. The Soviets were going to put an end to Germans in the east. Meanwhile, far away from the high politics and fine print of peace treaties were those stuck on the ground within the old borders. Their fate was sealed.

Germans prisoners such as Tolkmitt were focused on one thing, survival. It is doubtful that he or the hundreds of others forced to work beside him spent much time pondering the ruins of Balga. They did not have time to contemplate history, because they were becoming part of it. A little over seven centuries earlier, the ethnic German Teutonic Knights had taken the wooden fortress of Balga from the Warmians, one of the pagan Prusai tribes (Old Prussians) that had inhabited the area. The Teutonic Knights also took the native Prusai’s land, livelihood and eventually their name. The Prusai were methodically eradicated or assimilated into the newly dominant culture. They did not stand a chance. The conquerors created a new and more permanent culture. Now it was the ancestors of those conquerors who had finally been conquered themselves.

The Way It Used To Be - Konigsberg

The Way It Used To Be – Konigsberg

Fragments Of A Former World – Vanishing Remains
The nearby village of Balga ceased to exist, the war had all but destroyed it. The ruined walls of the castle had long been uninhabitable and for a time during the prewar era they held a museum. Now those ruins were little more than a lost legacy of an alien culture. The few Germans in this area would soon vanish. Their existence was just as novel as what the little that was left of Balga Castle and even less permanent. The only traces of Teutonic culture on the shores of the East Baltic Sea were ruins such as the ones Tolkmitt noticed on that fateful day. Those ruins were symbolic, not just of a castle or the Teutonic Knights, but of a Germanic presence that was about to be banished forever.


The Spoils Of Victory & Defeat – From Kaliningrad To Konigsberg: Letting Them In, Only So Far

The Roman historian Tacitus recorded for posterity a speech that the Caledonian (present-day northern Scotland) chieftain Calgacus made to rally his forces. In it Calgacus said the Romans “make a desert and call it peace”. And they certainly did that time and again. The most notable instance of which was the Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC), where they wiped Carthage off the face of North Africa. In modern times, the closest historical parallel to that Roman aphorism was the Soviet Union’s transformation of Germanic East Prussia into a thoroughly Russified territory at the end of World War Two and its immediate aftermath. 80% of the old capital of Konigsberg was destroyed in an apocalyptic siege at the end of the war. The German population was deported and Russian speakers were resettled in the area. Eastern Prussia, which had once been the seat of power for the crusading Teutonic Knights and had provided the German Reich with many of its greatest generals, was totally transformed into a constituent part of Russia.  The Soviets made a desert and called it Kaliningrad.

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

From Teutonism To Putinism – Russia Moves West
Once known for its fairy tale Gothic architecture and serpentine medieval streets, also as the home of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and where every Prussian King had been crowned since 1701, the former capital of Eastern Prussia was rebuilt in a planned Soviet style. With only a few notable exceptions, gone were any hints of the Teutonic. It was replaced by a concrete encased, brutalist architecture with all the imagination that totalitarian ideology would allow. In other words, not much.  Kaliningrad suffered mightily in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Much of its prosperity was built on military spending which dived during the 1990’s.

The Russian Baltic Fleet became little more than a rust bucket, bobbing in the half empty harbor of Baltiysk. Officers and sailors were reduced to penury, many forced to live with their families aboard rusting ships. Meanwhile, the citizenry suffered from crime, drug and alcohol abuse on an unheard of scale. Only with the rise of Vladimir Putin did the situation improve. Today, Kaliningrad is one of the most strategically fraught points in Europe, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, it provides Russia with a year round ice free port in the East Baltic Sea and a staging ground for nuclear weapons aimed at the heart of Europe. Kaliningrad is also a barrier for travelers, as I discovered while studying the map on my way back to Poland from Lithuania.

I have always been attracted to places that are difficult to access. Show me somewhere that entry is not freely granted and I am interested. It is hard to explain the allure, but I feel a magnetic pull to places that do not allow easy admission. I did not have time to try and get a visa to Kaliningrad, as I had to be in Warsaw for a flight back home the next day, but that did not stop me from lamenting the fact that I should have tried to go there earlier in my trip. After crossing the border from Lithuania into Poland, I got as close to Russian territory as I have ever been. I was less than 20 kilometers as the crow flies from Kaliningrad Oblast. If I had been able to take a sharp detour to the north, what would I have found?

Kaliningrad - Russian strategic wedge

Kaliningrad – Russian strategic wedge

Separation Anxiety – Parting of The Ways

In my mind, I envisioned shadowy forests, crumbling aristocratic mansions and shimmering lakes teeming with wildlife. This image was idyllic. Later after my trip was over I did some research. I discovered that Kaliningrad was a pale reflection of what it had once been. The reality is much different today. The culture of rural aristocracy in the countryside and brilliant intellectual life in the capital had died or was deported along with hundreds of thousands of Germans at the end of the war. Kaliningrad could not look back at its Germanic past with pride, only disdain for where that had eventually led.  It was a troubled territory suffering something of an identity crisis. This was to be expected since it was the Soviets who gave the oblast (similar to a province) its contemporary reason for being. Kaliningrad was part of Russia, but not of it. The neighboring countries close on its borders had now become members of the European Union. Where did this leave the place? With a massive bout of separation anxiety.

Mother Russia was hundreds of kilometers away, while Poland and Lithuania were just as distant politically and economically. Kaliningrad was a Cold War anachronism, but proved to be quite useful for Putin. Russia’s window on the west was no longer St. Petersburg, it had shifted southwestward to Kaliningrad and looked to stay that way. Russia had long since lost control of the Baltic States, most of Ukraine and the entire Eastern Bloc. Kaliningrad was the last thing left from the spoils of the Red Army’s ultimate victory on the Eastern Front in 1945.

Rising from the ruins - Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral

Rising from the ruins – Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral (Credit: Gumerov Ildar)

An Open Secret – Not To be Ignored
I knew that even if I had the time, inclination and most importantly, a visa to enter Kaliningrad, I would not be visiting Russia proper. Only a place that had been pacified and then Russified. Everyone might speak Russian and live like Russians, but this was a product of imposition, an unnatural ordering. There was a part of me that longed to see Kaliningrad, but only because of its Prussian past. The Soviet legacy hung over it like death, The Russian past and future offered some hope, albeit limited. To get beyond this, one would first have to get beyond a border which was still controlled. Kaliningrad had been a secret city when it was part of the Soviet Union, off limits to foreigners and most Soviet citizens. Now it was an open secret, that the world could not afford to ignore. It was always there, in the way. A reminder of what once was and never will be again. A reminder of the cost of conquest. A reminder of a place that only lets someone in so far. A reminder of a place I could only go in the imagination. And that would never be far enough.

Solving The Unsolvable – The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg: Euler’s Path To Genius

Math was never my strong suit. Basic Algebra was the limit of my arithmetical competence. Everything beyond that was a struggle. In geometry I struggled to a grade of C, Algebra II a grade of D and I dropped Trigonometry after one week. I knew getting through any university level math courses would be a struggle. Imagine my surprise then, after I got to college and found a course called Infinite Math. It was not nearly as daunting as its name. The course consisted of Maths that could be applied to the real world. My favorite of these was something called Euler Circuits, which meant finding the most efficient route for a journey. There was also the less rigorous Euler Path. Trying to figure out the most efficient Euler Circuit or Path became one of my favorite mathematical exercises.  As for the name Euler, it never meant much to me until I recognized it again after many years while reading about Konigsberg, the old capital of Prussia and today the city of Kaliningrad, in the Russian oblast of the same name.

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

A Problem Without A Solution – Explaining The Impossible
The Old Town of Konigsberg stood on both sides of the Pregel River. Uniquely, as the river flowed through the city it wove its way around two islands. The more famous of the two was the Kneipfhof which had five bridges going across arms of the river. Another two bridges crossed branches of the river from another island, Lomse. These seven bridges were the genesis of a puzzle that many in the town tried to solve. As one resident of Konigsberg related in a letter to Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, couples in the town liked to try and figure out a route to cross every bridge once without ever having to re-cross any of the same bridges again. An even tougher problem would be to do this while ending up back in the same place they began. In 1736 Euler set himself the task of proving that a solution to this problem was impossible. He did this by focusing only on the land masses and bridges. He made each land mass a “point” or in modern parlance a “node”. Each connecting bridge was an “arc”. This abstraction could then be drawn as a graph. Euler’s proof was published in 1741, six years after he first began to study the bridges problem.

The essence of the problem was how to draw this upon a sheet of paper without retracing any line or lifting a pencil off the paper. This laid the basis for the first ever theorem of graph theory. Euler’s name was given to among other things, Euler Paths which is a continuous route that passes every edge once and only once. His name was also given to Euler Circuits, a path beginning and ending at the same starting point without retracing any part of the route. Many people in Konigsberg understood from experience that there was no route that could be followed to cross all Seven Bridges of Konigsberg once and only once without retracing some part of the route. Euler’s innovation was that he could explain the impossibility of a solution and used it to develop the basis for graphs, networks and topology. Euler’s mathematical genius extended to the counter-intuitive. With the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg he proved the rationale, reasoning and intellectual uses of a problem that could never be solved.

The Wooden Bridge - in 1930's Konigsberg

The Wooden Bridge – in 1930’s Konigsberg (Credit: Eigenes Werk)

Bridging A Divide – From Konigsberg To Kaliningrad
Crossing the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg as Euler knew them is impossible today, but not because of any mathematical problems. The difficulty arises from the fact that, like almost all of old Konigsberg, most of the bridges no longer exist in their original form. Two of the bridges – Blacksmith’s Bridge and Giblet’s Bridge – were destroyed in the British bombing of the city. Both of those bridges led to and from Kant Island. The bombing which took place on two nights in late August of 1944, also leveled much of the castle and cathedral, though the latter has been rebuilt. Two other bridges – the Shopkeeper and Green Bridge – disappeared after the war to make way for Leninsky Prospekt in what had suddenly become Kaliningrad, a closed Soviet city. Thus, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg were now three bridges in Kaliningrad. The most popular of the three that still exists today is also the only one that goes to Kneiphof, the aptly named Honey Bridge. Like many other famous bridges in European metropolises it sports hundreds of padlocks which are symbols of those romantic couples hoping these symbols will secure their love forever.

The Honey Bridge leads between the reconstructed Cathedral and the Fishing Village, two of the most famous spots in the Old Town which only adds to the foot traffic. Another bridge which is original, the Wooden Bridge, was lucky enough to escape destruction by either bombs or Bolsheviks. For historical harmony, it would be nice if all the bridges were rebuilt, only one holds that honor and it was rebuilt before the war by Germans, not afterwards by the Soviets. It is known simply as the High Bridge. The upshot of all this bridge building, crossing and destruction is that only two of the seven bridges that existed during Euler’s time can still be found in their original form today. It is easy enough to cross those two bridges without having to retrace one’s footsteps. Yet there were and still are many more bridges in Konigsberg to cross, perhaps not as famous, but just as important in their own way.

Leonhard Euler - mathematical genius

Leonhard Euler – mathematical genius (Credit: Jakob Emanuel Handmann)

Fits Of Mathematical Imagination – The Seven Bridges Of Kaliningrad
One can only speculate as to all the different problems and solutions Euler could have concocted by adding or subtracting these bridges in his theoretical fits of mathematical imagination. Today Euler would have the option of adding the newly built or refurbished Flyover and Jubilee Bridges to his equation. This has brought the total of bridges in the city back up to seven. Many things have changed in Kaliningrad and Konigsberg is no more, but the Seven Bridges problem still exists, albeit in extremely modified form.


Order Of The Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia (Part Two)

There was a castle on a distant European shoreline that once towered atop a hill overlooking the placid, icy waters of the Vistula Lagoon (Frisches Haff in German). Ships plying trade routes along the eastern Baltic Sea could sight it from several kilometers away. It was as much fortress as castle, helping guard the sea lanes that brought the Teutonic Knights trade, wealth and power. Today the castle cannot be seen from the lagoon, as it only exists in ruined form. To view it, one must approach from the landward side. The dilapidated walls in a thicket of forest only becoming visible at very close range. It takes a bit of imagination to sense that this was once a place of great importance. It takes less imagination to understand that the ruins of this castle did not come to their present state by natural processes.

Today what is left of Balga Castle is located within Kaliningrad Oblast. Oblast is the Russian equivalent of a province and Kaliningrad is the smallest one in Russia. This is quite a downgrade for a castle that was an integral building block of a political and military entity that eventually became Prussia, a Great Power that reshaped the geopolitics of Europe on multiple occasions.  Balga Castle’s history may be long and storied, but like the Prussian state it became a part of, that history belongs to the past. The future of the site looks likely to continue as a remote and largely forgotten ruin, that will either slowly degrade or at best be shored up against the elements. They betray only traces of what happened here in the distant and not so distant past. Whether it was seven centuries or seventy years before, Balga saw both success and defeat on a grand scale.

Balga Castle - Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

Balga Castle – Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

A Permanent Presence – The Impregnable Fortress
In 1250 the Teutonic Knights converted Balga from a wooden fortress into a bricks, stone and mortar castle/fortress. The complex was laid out on a hexagonal plan with three wings that included bedrooms, a chapel and refectory, which was a larger room where the Knights took communal meals. The grounds of the outer ward contained warehouses and additional living quarters for clerks who were involved in a growing trade. A high tower was also raised in this area.  Several Grand Marshals of the Order made Balga their home. The complex would prove to be impregnable against martial foes. In other areas the Knights were not so fortunate. Following their defeat against a Polish-Lithuanian force at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 their power began to wane. Over time, changes in the geopolitical situation in northern Europe forced the lands under the Order’s control to evolve.

Those lands eventually became the Duchy of Prussia in 1525.  Around this time, the castle still enjoyed great prestige as a home for George of Polentz, the first Lutheran bishop in the region and the man who launched the Reformation in Prussia. George shared an enduring trait with the Teutonic Knights, namely the suppression of pagan worship practices. For instance, he would not allow worship of the pagan god of thunder, Perkunas. George’s methods of suppression were less cruel, but no less effective than the ultraviolence that had been used by the Knights in their initial conquest of the area. When George died at Balga in 1550, its glory days ended with his life. By the 17th century, it was being scavenged for material to help construct a fortress at the port of Pilau (present-day Baltiysk) out beyond the lagoon on the Curonian Spit. The castle went from disrepair to disuse, largely neglected until one of its still existing wings was used to house a museum during the 19th century. Balga looked as though it would become the preserve of proud Prussian patriots and bored schoolchildren in the province of East Prussia. This sleepy existence would end along with everything else Germanic in the region at the end of World War II.

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 - before the war came to East Prussia

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 – before the war came to East Prussia

The Last Redoubt – On Distant & Deadly Shores
In early January of 1945, villagers in and around the Balga area began to hear rumors that the Red Army had entered eastern Prussia. By the mid-point of that same month the first German refugees arrived telling of horrific atrocities by Soviet troops. It was not long before a trickle became a torrent. Soldiers soon arrived. They were quartered in any vacant room that could be found. In February, the evacuation of all civilians was ordered. Many resisted, but a forcible evacuation was carried out when the Red Army closed in on the area. Evacuees first crossed the frozen Vistula Lagoon on ice. Later during the spring thaw, they were ferried across in whatever watercrafts could be found. The Red Army was on the verge of overrunning the entire province of East Prussia by mid-March. By this point, German military efforts in the Balga area focused on trying to evacuate the last soldiers and civilians.

German soldiers fought with total desperation because they knew surrender meant death or deportation at the hands of the Soviets. The fighting was fiercest in the Heligenbeil Pocket, also known by the more apt descriptive as the Heligenbeil Cauldron. This was where the remnants of the German 4th Army were destroyed in a maelstrom of viciously violent warfare. Many holdouts made their way to the Kahlholzer Haaken Peninsula where they setup a defensive perimeter that incorporated the ruins of Balga Castle. In the shadow of the Teutonic Knights once impregnable castle, the remaining German troops, consisting of those from the  Panzerkorps “Großdeutschland” and the 28th Jäger Division, held out to this marshy, fat finger of land. They sank vehicles in the Vistula Lagoon to try and defend themselves from the overwhelming forces of the Red Army.

The misery of war - Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

The misery of war – Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

At The Mercy Of Conquest – Apocalyptic Contortions
The forest, roads and ruins were strewn with the detritus of military activity. Trenches and temporary military camps were everywhere. The day of final judgment approached. The defenders had no good options. Either try to escape, fight to the death or risk capture. The last soldiers to be evacuated left the shoreline just below Balga on March 29th. With them went 706 years of German occupation and ownership of the castle and its surroundings. What had begun in 1239 at Balga as the result of Teutonic martial might, was lost in 1945 due to Teutonic military failure. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The modern Teutonic warriors, German soldiers, died in droves attempting to fend off a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions. East Prussia now lay at the mercy of the Soviet Union. It would never be the same again.

Click here for Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle:A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)



Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle: A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

To get to the essence of the beginning and end of an empire, kingdom or nation it is instructive to look towards the periphery. It is not at the most famous or populated places, such as a capital city or a king’s palace, where the essence of a polity’s early rise and final fall are to be found. Instead, it is in those less obvious places, on forgotten frontiers where the outlines of faded foundations are slowly succumbing to nature and irreparably eroded by time, that the beginnings of greatness or the final, fatal death throes of decrepitude can be detected. And so it is with Prussia, a name that evokes aristocratic Junkers, the resplendent coronation city of Konigsberg, German militarism and crusading Teutonic Knights.

From a Grand Order to a Duchy, then a Royal province turned into a Kingdom until exploding into an Empire, from subjugation to emasculation to complete and total annihilation. The withered remnants of a polity that had such a pronounced and lasting effect on seven centuries of history spread across the canvas of northeastern Europe and the Baltic region is now to be found in overgrown lots, the outskirts of a once great city now encased in concrete and a scattering of ruins barely recognizable that once were fortress Castles. These might have stood the test of time if not for the horrors of war. To discover a lasting essence of the eastern part of Prussia that no longer exists. an armchair historian or off the beaten path adventurer could do a whole lot worse than the ruins of Balga Castle.

Natural Wonder - The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located

Natural Wonder – The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located (Credit: Usadboved)

Conquered By Nature – A Forest Of Foliage Off The Frisches Haff
On the surface, the shattered ruins of the castle seem a strange place to investigate the rise and ultimate fall of what will forever be known as Prussia. The ruins of Balga are found far from modern Germany, amidst a forest of foliage, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Located far from the main roads, near no major towns, accessed on foot and better yet by the imagination. The ruins are as separated from the modern world, as they are from those days when Balga was a Teutonic Knights fortress. The castle has once again been largely overtaken by nature, a constant thread in both its medieval and modern history.

The ruins of Balga occupy a hilltop, but water was just as much a determining factor in its situation.  The castle was about a hundred yards off the shoreline of what was long known to the Germanic Prussians as the Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon), a relatively shallow body of water segregated from the Baltic Sea by a thin barrier of sand and forest known as the Curonian Spit. Not only was it close on the Frisches Haff, the castle also stood on swampy ground that turned it into a morass for many an attacking force.  It was this ground where the Teutonic Knights first set foot in 1237, attempting to subdue the fortress of Honeida, held by a clan of the pagan natives known as the Warmians. The Warmians, along with other clans in the Baltic region, were known as the Prusai (Old Prussians).

Balga Castle - where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme

Balga Castle – where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme (Credit: Christina Golubenko)

Old Prussians – A Northern Crusade
Ironically the name Prussia derives from those indigenous peoples who inhabited the region when the Teutonic Knights first arrived in the area during the first half of the 13th century. They were brought in on a crusade to Christianize the last pagan peoples in Europe. The Prusai were fierce warriors whose livelihood was largely dependent on plundering and raiding their neighbors. The Knights were invited to the area with a mission to bring the Prusai to heel. Following a decade of extremely violent warfare, the Knights were slowly making inroads in their battle with the Prusai. In 1237 their efforts focused on another strategic point of potential conquest, the fortress of Honeida. Taking it would be no easy task. The fortress stood on a veritable island due to the marshy ground which surrounded it. A raiding party first sent against the fortress was slaughtered down to the very last man. In 1239 Dietrich von Bernheim, Grand Marshal of the Knights, led a substantial force to avenge the previous defeat. A first assault on Honeida was violently repulsed. That is not surprising since the wooden walls were reputed to have been twenty-six stories in height. The Knights then decided to try starving out the defenders.

Under a flag of truce, one of the fiercest Warmian warriors, by the name of Kodrume, met with the Knights. Von Bernheim offered safe passage to the defenders if they surrendered and agreed to convert to Christianity. Kodrume returned to his fellow warriors and suggested that surrender was the best option. He was accused of betrayal and murdered. After this, von Bernheim decided another attempt to storm the fortress would be made. This time the Knights were successful, either killing or taking all the defenders prisoner. The Knights then set about transforming Honeida into a much more substantial and permanent base of operations. This roused the fury of the natives who soon revolted. They realized much too late that the Knights were not in the area to raid or plunder, instead they were setting up a continuous presence. Prusai efforts to retake Balga were defeated.

An example to all - Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

An example to all – Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

Order Of The Sword – Conquering Forces
It was through campaigns such as the one which conquered Honeida that the Teutonic Knights methodically expanded their presence in the region. Once their rule was established in an area, immigrants were brought in from Germany. The land was then broken up for cultivation and tied into a thriving trade network.  The military and economic prowess of the Knights was such that by the late 14th century the order had conquered what is today northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The East Baltic Sea became an avenue for their mercantile interests. Balga’s main function under the knights was to control naval traffic on the Frisches Haff. Balga had to be substantially built up, both for defensive purposes and to make an impression, causing those with designs on the region to think twice before attacking it. The Prussians were always good at making impressions. That was until modern times when the Soviet Union made not only an impression, but a deadly imposition. One from which the likes of Balga and Germanic Prussia would never recover.

Click here for Order of the Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia