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.


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.