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.

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

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

Engraving of historic Königsberg

Engraving of historic Königsberg

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

Königsberg Castle courtyard at the end of the 19th century

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

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

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

Königsberg Castle in ruins - photo taken in 1950

Königsberg Castle in ruins – photo taken in 1950

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

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

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

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

In the dead of winter on January 28, 1945 the Red Army captured a dead city. As the East Prussia Offensive moved forward into what the famous Soviet journalist and author Vasily Grossman called “the lair of the fascist beast” the civilian population in the city of Memel (Klaipeda, Lithuania) had all but vanished. The once bustling port city was eerily quiet. Nearly the entire population of 45,000 had fled westward towards the heart of Germany and supposed safety. Soviet forces found only fifty civilians left in Memel. As the Red Army advanced into the city, the streets were silent. The soaring St. Johanniskirche (St. John’s Church), a landmark since the mid-13th century, stood alone and austere awaiting an uncertain fate. The eclectic Art Nouveau Central Post Office was left to impress no one. Its carillon of 48 bells did not even toll on this mournful day.  In the beautiful old town, a square fronting the opera house where the all-powerful Fuhrer had thundered in triumphant oratory only five years before in front of hundreds was totally vacant. What had been the sixth largest city in the German province of East Prussia was left with a population smaller than that of even the tiniest village. This vanishing of the ethnic German populace was not a temporary state of affairs. It was the start of something new and horrible. Memel that morning was relatively calm despite an advancing, inexorable storm that would consume and transform it, along with all of East Prussia.

East Prussia in 1939

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

Beyond The Borders – Greater Germany, Lesser Lithuania
The German national anthem, Deutschlandlied, contains a first verse that is no longer sung today. The verse, Von der Maas bis an die Memel, delineates the western (Meuse River) and eastern borders (Nemen River) of German speaking Europe. The city of Memel was beyond even that easternmost frontier, though Memel was used as a name for the lower reaches of the Nemen River. It lay just off the Baltic Sea, sixty kilometers north of the anthem’s eastern boundary. It may have been on the periphery, but it was still well within reach of the Third Reich’s voracious territorial ambitions. In the late 1930’s it seemed that nothing could stop German expansion. While it is sufficiently well known that the Nazi’s annexed both Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, lost to history is the fact that Memel was the Third Reich’s final territorial gain before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Inter-war Lithuania was a pint sized nation with few allies and a multitude of enemies. Among its neighbors was East Prussia, a province of the German colossus firmly in the grip of Nazi rule. A Polish state that it had fallen out and then fought with over the historic city of Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania). Directly to the east was Stalin’s malevolent and deadly Soviet Union. These were not so much neighbors as they were predators. In March 1939, the Germans gave the Lithuanians an ultimatum to surrender Memel and the surrounding region or else. The Lithuanians knew what awaited them if they refused. Likely invasion, followed by occupation and perhaps much worse. Less than a week after the Lithuanian government handed over Memel, none other than Adolf Hitler traveled to the city, where he gave a rousing pro-German speech. Greater Germany was proceeding apace.

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

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

The War Comes Home – East Prussia & Soviet Vengence
KönigsbergThey did not realize the dire situation until it was much too late. Memel’s population was insulated by luck and naivety, since the war bypassed them until the very end. After the Germans took over the city, their resulting war on the Eastern Front had left the city untouched.  At the beginning of 1945 Memel was the same city physically, but the populace had been transformed emotionally by an overriding sense of fear.

Approaching from the east was a surging Red Army, fortified by the idea of vengeance. East Prussia was directly in their line of fury. Here would be the first place in Germany that the Red Army could repay the German people for the pain and horror they had inflicted on the Soviet Union over the past three cataclysmic years. The fear grew in late 1944 when the Soviets took and held the border town of Nemmersdorf for a couple of days. This was the first time they had set foot on German soil. Though the details have been muddled by propaganda and counterclaims, innocent civilians were shot, gang raped and possibly even crucified. The Third Reich disseminated the details of this massacre all across East Prussia in order to stiffen resistance. It worked to a certain extent, but many more civilians heard the macabre details and decided to flee towards Germany. Tens of thousands of Memel citizens joined millions of their fellow citizens westward. Thus, an empty city would greet the Soviets. Memel’s citizens were lucky to escape. Those in East Prussia who did not suffered murder and mayhem on an unprecedented scale. Germany’s frontiers would never be the same.

Memel before war came to its distant shores

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

Cutting The Heart Out of German Militarism
After the war many Germans returned to Memel, but not for long. The overriding majority of these civilians were innocent, but the Soviets were not fans of ambiguity or nuance. Their vengeance lasted well beyond the war and how could it not. Civilian deaths in the Soviet Union during the war have been estimated at 17 million. That was seven times East Prussia’s wartime population. In addition, Prussia was seen as the heart and soul of German militarism, it was to be eradicated. In the latter half of the 1940’s the German population of East Prussia was either deported to Siberia or if lucky, forcibly relocated to a new Germany. The Germans who returned to Memel after the war did not last long. A city that been nine-tenths German before the war was ethnically cleansed. It became dominated by Lithuanians and Russians. Today it is known just the same as it was before the war, Klaipeda, Lithuania. “The Lair of the Fascist Beast” ceased to exist.

 

A Shot In the Woods – Solzhenitsyn, Knox & Tuchman on the Suicide of General Samsonov

“His sense of ease grew and grew. He had lived out a long life of army service in which danger and the risk of death were inevitable; now that he had reached the moment of death and was ready for it, he realized as never before how easy, how much of a relief it would be. The only problem was suicide was counted a sin…He began now with the set prayers, then none at all: he simply knelt, breathing and looking up into the sky. Then casting aside restraint, he groaned aloud, like any dying creature of the forest: ‘O Lord, if Thou canst, forgive me and receive me. Thou seest – I could do no other, and can do no other now.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, August 1914

All the night of the 29th-3Oth they stumbled through the woods that fringe the north of the railway from Neidenburg to Willenberg, moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all are convinced that he shot himself. – Sir Alfred Knox, With the Russian Army: 1914 – 1917 

Riding through the woods that fringed the railroad, he and his companions reached Willenberg, only seven miles from the Russian frontier, but the Germans had arrived there before them. The General and his group waited in the forest until before nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his chief of staff: “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew exactly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide, but Potovsky though had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.” – Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

The three excerpts given above are separate accounts of the same event: the suicide of Russian general Aleksandr Samsonov in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Russian Second Army which he commanded at the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle was the first major clash on the Eastern Front during World War I. In the space of just five days, Samsonov’s army lost 140,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Of his original force, a mere 10,000 escaped. Samsonov was also killed, not by an enemy bullet, but by his own hand. The difference between the excerpts offers a concise study of how history is shaped and interpreted.

Aleksandr Samsonov - ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

Aleksandr Samsonov – ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

History Being Made & History Being Made Up
The first of the three excerpts, comes from one of the least known works of famed Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his novel August 1914. It is a fictionalized account in which Solzhenitsyn took creative liberties with what he had read about the suicide. One of Solzhenitsyn’s main sources was Sir Alfred Knox’s With the Russian Army 1914 – 1917 who provides the second excerpt. Knox actually appears as a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel. That being said, there is a vast difference between the two. Knox’s account is seemingly factual, while Solzhenitsyn’s is very loosely connected to the facts. This is the difference between how history is made (or written) and how it is made up.

That is not to suggest there is anything wrong with what Solzhenitsyn has done. If anything, his psychoanalytical approach gives the reader a window into the mindset of Samsonov in the moments just before he committed the ultimate act. Even for those who last saw Samsonov, they could not possibly know exactly what was going through his mind while under such shocking distress. It is rather obvious from what transpired that Samsonov was deeply disturbed and not thinking straight in the wake of the battle. He must have felt that his life’s work as a soldier and leader had all been a terrible failure. There was only one way out for this career soldier – by taking a bullet. In Solzhenitsyn’s retelling, death was the best option left to Samsonov. The key words in the excerpt are: “how much of a relief it would be.” Death offered not only an escape, but also redemption. It was the only thing left that could alleviate his suffering.

August 1914 - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

August 1914 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

After Such a Disaster – Tragic Loyalty
Knox’s account is the most reputable English language source on the event. At a glance, it comes across as a first-hand observation and is seemingly factual. It is actually based on what Knox heard, not what he exeprienced. He was not actually there. He had heard from people who had intimate knowledge (or said they did) of what occurred. From Knox, we get an idea of the chaotic effort to escape by Samsonov and his staff. Crucially from a purely historical standpoint, he gives us the telling quote “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” Those words followed Samsonov to the grave and would provide the most intimate part of the incident. The way in which Samsonov is viewed historically has much to do with this quote. It shows him as a tragic, loyal figure rather than an inept and overwhelmed commander. Which was he? Most likely a little bit of both. He was in over his head, probably should have never been appointed to such a high command and though loyal, had little idea of how to lead an army. In sum, Knox presents us with a confused and lost man, whose shame will not allow him to face the light of another day.

Sir Alfred Knox - gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov's suicide

Sir Alfred Knox – gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov’s suicide

Swallowed By Darkness – The Moment & the Man
The final excerpt is from perhaps the most famous work on the beginning of World War One, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book deals very little with events on the Eastern Front, but it does cover the Battle of Tannenberg. She does a fabulous job of setting the scene for Samsonov’s final act. Whereas Solzhenitsyn is concerned with the psyche of Samsonov, Tuchman sets up the suicide with a foreboding description of the natural surroundings which the ill-fated Samsonov and his staff find themselves lost within. A cloistered world of darkness and nightfall, covered with woods, swampy ground and pines. It is a world that closes in on Samsonov. He ends up both literally and figuratively swallowed by the darkness.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman's classic work on the beginning of World War One

The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the beginning of World War One

Each of the excerpts lends a different perspective to the suicide of General Aleksandr Samsonov. Solzhenitsyn is psychoanalytical and spiritual. Knox is tragically descriptive. Tuchman’s piece is filled with a deep and ambient darkness. From these unique passages we have the same event cast in radically different forms. Through these writings we see history being created, molded and reimagined. Solzhenitsyn, Knox and Tuchman may have been distant in space and time from Samsonov, but through their writing they managed to resurrect both the moment and the man.

The Triumph of Tragedy: Russia’s Role in Saving France During the Great War

“I will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives.” Those were the words of French President Francois Hollande in late May as he referenced the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. What Hollande was basically stating in so many words was that the Soviets were a major force in freeing France from German occupation during the war. This happened not by design, but by accident. That is an understatement of historic proportions. Eighty percent of German casualties during World War II occurred on the Eastern front while fighting the Soviet Army. If the Soviet’s had not provided the manpower or in a more cynical sense, the human material, the Nazis still might occupy France.

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive - heading toward victory and tragedy

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive – heading toward victory and tragedy

The Russian Army – A Miracle in Defeat
On June 6th, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Hollande will host Russian President Vladimir Putin at a state dinner in Paris. Surely, Hollande will use this occasion to once again remark on the great sacrifice of the Russian people during the war. A topic Hollande will most likely overlook though, is the Russian sacrifice for the Allied cause – namely France – during the First World War. The Russian army helped save France on at least two occasions during that conflict. The first was at the beginning of the war, when the Russians supported their French ally by mobilizing at what was for them, breathtaking speed. They quickly invaded East Prussia, which caused an outcry among German civilians. The fatherland was under threat from the eastern menace. This led the Germans to draw off forces from their attack on France in order to deal with the Russian threat from the east. The German forces sent to the Eastern Front arrived too late in order to make any real difference in the fighting. Nevertheless, an entire Russian army was destroyed at the Battle of Tannenberg.

Despite the ineptitude of their high command, the Russian forces in the east were still enough to keep tens of thousands of German forces tied down there. These same forces were of no use to the German Army as it attempted to sweep across northern France and destroy the French Army. The German juggernaut soon ground to a halt as its forces became overextended and exhausted. At the same time, the French won possibly their most crucial victory of the war, what has come to be known as the Miracle of the Marne. There would have been no miracle without support from their Russian ally. President Hollande will almost certainly fail to mention the Russian role in saving France during those late summer days in 1914.

Today, the First World War is still a controversial subject in Russia. The twelve million troops of the Russian Imperial Army fought with valor and courage on one of the most expansive war fronts in human history. From the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Black Sea the fearless Russian peasant was cannon fodder for a Tsarist Army that bled mother Russia white. In the process, the Russian Empire slid into dissolution and cataclysm while their Allies emerged victorious at the end of the war. World War One brought Russia two revolutions that then led to an ultraviolent Civil War, followed by the tyranny of Bolshevism. Hollande will almost certainly avoid reference to Russia in the Great War and Putin will be glad he did.

Alexei Brusilov - the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

Alexei Brusilov – the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

The Shock of Success – Brusilov’s Moment
A lesser known, but no less notable Russian sacrifice during the war that assisted the French cause immeasurably was the Brusilov Offensive which occurred in the middle of 1916. During the winter and spring of 1916, the French were stretched to the limit by the battle of Verdun. The army was literally hanging by a thread as it neared the limit of its manpower. The French high command, both political and military, literally begged their allies to engage Germany in battle so as lessen the pressure on the French forces holding on at Verdun. The British would not answer the call until they were completely prepared for what would become their disastrous campaign on the Somme in July. The Russians, despite their mass retreat in 1915, as well as the horrific debacle at Lake Naroch in March 1916, answered the French call for help. On June 4, 1916 a Russian Army on the southwestern portion of the Eastern Front began what would become one of the most shockingly successful campaigns of the entire war.

General Aleksei Brusilov, the ablest Russian field commander of the war, used innovative tactics to confound the Austro-Hungarian Army. Rather than carry out the usual, prolonged artillery barrage, followed by a massive human wave attack on a narrowly confined sector, Brusilov instead had his army attack all along the front after a short, precise artillery barrage. Since attacks were occurring in multiple areas it was very difficult for the Austro-Hungarians to know where to place their reserves to halt a breakthrough. Russian assault troops punched through, widened and exploited gaps that had been created in the enemy lines. Brusilov’s tactics turned out to be successful beyond even his wildest imagination. The Russians opened gaping holes and then quickly poured in reserves to further exploit them. Suddenly, their forces which had been stuck in a quagmire for months on end broke out into the open and were highly mobile. The Austro-Hungarians barely had time to react. Soon they were in a retreat, which was only exacerbated by panic. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian forces were captured as well as two entire armies rendered unfit for combat.

Graves at Verdun - tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Graves at Verdun – tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Saving the French – Losing the War
The German high command’s focus turned away from Verdun. They had little choice but to transfer divisions away from the western front to the east in order to save the Austro-Hungarians from complete collapse. German forces soon came to the rescue, but it was a close run operation. Unfortunately, for Brusilov his troop’s incredible success meant they also outran their supply lines. He then reverted back to the same old deadly tactics of endless artillery barrages followed by narrow, suicidal attacks. The Brusilov Offensive, the greatest Russian triumph of the war, was a pyrrhic victory. By the end of the offensive, the Russians had gained hundreds of square miles of territory, but in the process lost upwards of 1.4 million men. Success was almost indistinguishable from defeat.

The victory that the Russians had gained helped their French ally much more than it ever would themselves. For the rest of the war, the Austro-Hungarians were never capable of independently carrying out an attack on the Eastern Front. Yet this meant that now the Russians would face more of their formidable German foe. Meanwhile in the west, the French gained the most from Russian efforts. The Germans had to give up the fighting at Verdun. The plan had been to defeat the French through a colossal battle of attrition. If the Germans had just been fighting the French or only on the Western Front this might have worked. Fighting the Russians as well made the German Army’s task almost impossible. The Russians had hundreds of thousands of men to battle Germany and its allies. These men might as well have been fighting and dying for France. The greatest Russian success of the war in retrospect was saving the French.

The Triumph of Tragedy
As France prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both its victorious and tragic effort during the Great War, it will certainly focus on the eventual triumph of its forces during that defining conflict. Meanwhile in Russia, if the war is remembered at all, it will commemorate the tragic waste of the common Russian soldier’s life. The Tsarist Empire they fought for was ultimately lost. The war then led to a revolution that brought even greater suffering. As for any success, it ended up benefiting an ally who would soon forget Russia’s sacrifice and suffering. In France today, few remember, let alone know of the critical role Russia played in helping save it during the war. That is truly tragic.