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.

Revenge of the Prussians – The House of Soviets In Kaliningrad (Part 2)

In 1968 the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev issued a directive that the ruins of Königsberg Castle were to be blown up and cleared from the center of Kaliningrad. Brezhnev, as a true communist ideologue, stated that the castle represented “a hornet’s nest of militarism and fascism.” Despite the protests of intellectuals and preservationists, it was not long after Brezhnev’s decree that the castle’s ruins were dynamited and bulldozed. Over 600 years of history exploded into dust and then was swept from the surface of the city center. The physical remnants of the castle were gone. Beneath the surface though, the situation was much different. Subterranean chambers of the castle still existed. These would exact a bit of poetic vengeance on the Soviets. For the rest of history, the castle has been more than a memory. It has been a curse upon Soviet efforts to recreate the site in their own image.

The final remains of Königsberg Castle being demolished in 1968

The final remains of Königsberg Castle being demolished in 1968

Sinking Into Dystopia – Model for a Model City
Kaliningrad – formerly Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia – was supposed to become a model communist city where all traces of its ethnic German past would vanish. Instead the newborn city would be transformed into a place where many of its citizens wished for a return to the city’s Germanic past, at least in an architectural sense. Soon after the final destruction of the castle ruins, the Soviets set about recreating the site. They constructed a building that would come to represent them in ways they could not possibly have imagined. The plan was for a 28-story building, created from that all-time favorite Soviet building material, concrete. The building was to act as Communist Party headquarters for Kaliningrad and the surrounding region. It would be called the House of Soviets, a lasting centerpiece for the totally Sovietized city.

The problems started early and often. The site did not have the best foundations, partly due to all the destruction that Soviet demolition efforts had wrought upon it. The building was placed in an area that had been one of the castle’s moats. To make matters worse, originally the castle had been built atop what had once been marshland. Former marshland, on a former moat, turned out to be a good place for one thing, sinking. The extreme weight of the building from tons and tons of concrete served to further destabilize the site. Subsurface chambers from the castle began to collapse adding to the porous quality of the site. The sinking became known as the “Revenge of the Prussians.” The end result was nothing less than a monstrosity. Among innumerable problems were structural deficiencies exacerbated by a flawed design. The construction took longer than expected. Only 21 of the 28 stories were finished, meanwhile the interior was still uninhabitable. When the project dragged on for decades the city administration lost interest. Lack of funding finally brought construction to a halt.

House of Soviets - with a fresh coat of paint

House of Soviets – with a fresh coat of paint

Facing up to the Faceless –Post-Cold War Style
The House of Soviets was never completed as originally designed. The result was more like a house of never ending horrors, from structural to financial to aesthetic. Kaliningrad was left with an eyesore in one of its most prominent public spaces. It could be seen throughout the city, always lurking as a reminder of the failure of centralized state planning.  Utopia could not be created, but dystopia was certainly within reach. Kaliningrad never came close to the grand designs placed upon it. The House of Soviets was a microcosm of the city, impersonal, dehumanizing and unsightly. After the Soviet Union collapsed a conversation started among the city’s leadership on how to improve the look and feel of the city. Not surprisingly their focus turned to the House of Soviets. How could it not, the building never had gone away. Stolid and unyielding the building stood as a testament to waste and stupidity.

In 2005 none other than the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin visited Kaliningrad. In preparation the city decided that something must be done to spruce up the House of Soviets. New windows were installed, quite a feat that the communists had been unable to achieve. A face lift was also in order, but only in a cosmetic sense. The exterior was painted blue and white to help cover up the concrete. A paltry attempt to give the House of Soviets something it never really had: a veneer of aesthetic respectability. Whatever Putin thought of this, if he even noticed, was not forthcoming. His actions on behalf of Kaliningrad spoke louder than any paint job ever would. Putin paid for a new organ to be placed in the reconstructed Königsberg Cathedral, that Gothic symbol of Teutonic creativity and style.  Even for a man who had publicly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, the House of Soviets was not worth Putin’s attention or considerable financial resources. Perhaps that is because the building exposes the failure of Soviet style administration.

For what they dream of - Königsberg before World War II

For what they dream of – Königsberg before World War II

Backwards Into the Future – The House of Königsberg
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse one question keeps arising: What to do with the House of Soviets? A renovation seems beyond the realm of possibility. It would actually cost less to build an entirely new structure than try to modify the existing one. With this idea in mind, some have went a step further, traveling backward into the future where they re-imagine Königsberg Castle once again taking shape, albeit in a new form. There have been plans to rebuild the castle with modern additions that could be used for commercial enterprises. There is precedent for a successful historical reconstruction in the city. One has to look no further than the Cathedral, which was rebuilt with the help of donations from ethnic Germans. Yet the Cathedral’s core still existed when its rebuilding began, a new castle would have to start from scratch. There are also questions concerning foundations at the site. Another problem is that it has long been rumored that the House of Soviets cannot be destroyed because it is owned by a mysterious figure who will not allow that to happen. If that is true then there is only one question that really needs to be asked: Where is Brezhnev when they need him?

Click here to read From Königsberg to Kaliningrad – Burying Prussia’s Past In Concrete (Part One)

To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.