I am not entirely sure where my fascination with the suicide of General Alexander Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg started, but what I am sure of is where it led. That was to a wooded area beside a dirt road west of Wielbark (Willenberg), Poland. The area is not the Poland of popular imagination or tourist literature. Warsaw or Wroclaw, Krakow or Gdansk have nothing in common with the place. Only a few fanatics of the Eastern Front during World War I would give much thought to such a spot, especially considering it is where Samsonov committed suicide. For reasons that will likely always remain elusive to me, I was obsessed with visiting the place. Obsession has little regard for space or time. Traveling thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean and into a relatively obscure region of Eastern Europe was no barrier. Neither were the fifteen years that elapsed from the time I first read about Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg and the moment I stood before the place where he took his last breath.
Date of death – Plaque on the Samsonov Monument
Taking Account – Firing The Imagination
The journey to get there was quite an adventure, one that started after I read several accounts of Samsonov’s suicide in three different books. The first account I read was in Barbara Tuchman’s famous book about the beginning of World War I, The Guns of August. Another one was from British Major-General Sir Alfred Knox’s book, With The Russian Army 1914 – 1917. Knox was the British military attache to the Tsarist Army. The most vivid account I read and one that that embedded itself in my memory was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized retelling of Samsonov’s final moments in perhaps his least known work, August 1914. That account lit a fire in my imagination. I read it a decade and a half ago with no idea that one day I would find my way to that sinister spot. This made the actual moment when I finally found my way there nothing less than sublime.
Samsonov prepared to end his life on August 30, 1914, the region in which he died was a much different place than the one that exists today. The area was part of East Prussia (German Empire) rather than Poland. The latter had not existed as an independent state since 1775 and would not be resurrected until the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires that ruled over different parts of it were destroyed by the First World War. In August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II led the German Empire, Adolf Hitler was a corporal, and communism a fringe ideal of radical revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin. The Romanov Dynasty’s rule over Russia had just surpassed its three hundredth year. No one could imagine the upheaval to come.
Before the fall – General Alexander Samsonov
Monumental Task – Teutonic Strength
Tsarist Russia had invaded East Prussia on August 15th and their initial success sent the German Empire into panic. This would not last. By the time a bullet passed through Samsonov’s brain, the train wreck that was the Russian Imperial Army had been exposed. While Tsarist forces would fight on for three more years, the defeat at Tannenberg was an ominous sign of further losses to come. Like Samsonov, most Russian leaders on and off the battlefield would not survive the war. The suicide of Samsonov – commanding general of the Russian 2nd Army – was a unique event amid a devastating defeat. His suicide symbolized the decisiveness of Germany’s victory, one they would never repeat. German pride during the interwar period demanded some sort of satisfaction. That is why they must have felt compelled to mark the spot where Samsonov shot himself.
The monument that still stands there today was a place of pilgrimage for German battlefield buffs, tourists and nationalists looking for signs of Teutonic victory in a war they lost. If not for this singular act of understated monumentalism I would never have been able to find the place where Samsonov killed himself. By going there, I was not only following Samsonov’s final steps, but also the path trod by interwar German nationalists. Strangely enough, the Samsonov monument commemorates Russia’s first catastrophic loss in World War I and Germany’s spiral into nationalism that led to the rise of Nazism. There are few obscure monuments so fraught with history.
The destination – Signboard at the Samsonov Monument
Getting There – Out of the Way
Getting to the Samsonov Monument was not easy. Public transport in rural Poland is reliable, but infrequent. Travel arrangements in this part of Poland require careful planning. Train travel to the site was impossible unless I wanted to spend an entire day walking to and from the monument along a roadside. A train did run near the place when the Battle of Tannenberg occurred. I was over a hundred years too late. Grass now covers parts of the derelict tracks. Buses do travel between Wielbark and Nidzica (Niedenburg). There was only one problem. Walking to the monument from the nearest bus stop would have still required an hours-long walk to and from the monument. In addition, I would have probably spent an inordinate amount of time standing at a forlorn rural bus stop. These are little more than a wooden shelter where a couple people can sit. That was if I could locate one. I did not intend to find out.
The only option was to rent a car. This is what me and my travel companion decided to do. My friend did not have an obsessive interest in Samsonov, but he was curious about what happened at Tannenberg. That was good enough for me. Thus, the two of us stationed ourselves in Olsztyn (Allenstein), the nearest major city to the monument. This being the Masurian Lakes region of Poland, Olsztyn is a prosperous provincial city with 150,000 people. It has a small, elegant Old Town, a clutch of magnificent churches, the look of prosperity, and a peacefulness that is far removed from its wartime past. The Samsonov Monument would give an approximation of that past. That was as close as I could get to Samsonov, the battle, and the First World War on the Eastern Front.
Click here for: The Wilderness of Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Seven)