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.
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.
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.
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.