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.


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)



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

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

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

German refugees boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945

German refugees boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945

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

Alexander Marinesko - captain of the Soviet submarine S-13

Alexander Marinesko – captain of the Soviet submarine S-13

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

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

Wilhelm Gustloff shipwreck site in the Baltic Sea

Wilhelm Gustloff shipwreck site in the Baltic Sea

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

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