Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that the Red Army destroyed Konigsberg militarily and then the Soviet Union followed up by destroying it politically. A majority of the damage was done by the Soviets, but the destruction of Konigsberg really did not start with their military or political forces. It began in earnest at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th. That is when a firestorm started by large payloads of incendiaries dropped on the city by British Lancaster bombers conjured up a flaming false dawn. In the darkest hours of night, the city was lit by all-consuming fires that burned a deadly swath across whole parts of the city. The factual tone of the official British military report only provides a hint of the destructive force of the bombing: “Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected…..Bomber Command estimates that 41 percent of all the housing and 20 percent of all the industry in Konigsberg were destroyed.”

British Lancaster bomber - dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2

British Lancaster bomber – dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2 (Credit: Imperial War Museums)

Ground Zero – Total War Delivered By Air
One of those aiming points was likely the Konigsberg Castle. Just as Cologne’s splendid cathedral had provided a large target that could act as a central focus for strategic bombing of that historic city on the Rhine River, so too did the soaring Gothic styled Konigsberg Castle provide an inviting target in another historic German city, this one straddling the Pregel River. The Castle sustained a multitude of hits and was set alight. The heat was so ferocious that civilians who sought relief in the nearby castle pond found that its water was nearly past the boil point. This liquid fire was just as deadly as the blistering heat which raged in a tornadic vortex throughout the city center. Most of the castle burned and was still burning several days later. The only thing left standing were some of the walls and towers in very poor condition, anything wooden had been mere kindling for the napalm laden bombs that fell in, on and around it. The first stone castle on the site had been constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1257. For nearly seven centuries the castle had been the iconic symbol of the city. After the bombing it was still iconic, albeit a very different type of icon. A smoking ruin symbolic of the old Konigsberg, one that would soon cease to exist.

The human toll exacted by the firebombing was just as horrific as the priceless architectural and cultural losses. The innocent, which included a  large proportion of mothers, small children and the elderly were most vulnerable. Some who thought they were safely sequestered in shelters were never able to escape them, burnt alive in what quickly became closed door infernos. Even those who safely fled from them found the medieval streets and alleyways engulfed by a firestorm of hellish proportions. In the Old Town there was nowhere to seek relief from the searing heat that torched nearly everything and everyone. The close quarters only added to the catastrophic damage. Apocalyptic scenes with flaming people running through the streets were a common sight during and after the bombing. In some areas of the Old Town, it would be several days before anyone could walk on the white hot cobblestones such was the ferocity of the firestorm. Eyewitnesses reported that the Pregel River caught on fire. In actuality, it was the wooden pilings in the river which were aflame. Hell could not have burned any brighter.

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Mortal Danger – Chaos & Conflagration
When dawn arrived later that morning, a gruesome cloud of ash, debris and residue mushroomed ominously above the city. Smoke billowed forth from hundreds of burning buildings. The detritus of structures and materials floated through the air falling both on the city and in villages across the East Prussian countryside. Konigsberg had been home to the largest bookstore in Germany, Grafe und Unzer. All those books filled with information and invaluable knowledge, printed to educate and illuminate, now blew through the air as incomprehensible specs of flickering dust. Debris fell from the skies like drizzle. Emergency services were overwhelmed by the human casualties, many of whom were gruesomely burned. This was a dire warning of the horrible atrocities that would befall ethnic Germans in Konigsberg during the coming year.

Much of the industrial infrastructure and war making capacity of the city was still intact after the bombing. This was a telling sign. The fact that twice as much housing was destroyed as industry meant that the Allies were looking to make the population suffer and break their will. The damage to the civilian infrastructure was immense. The British calculated that well over a hundred thousand people had been left homeless. Half of all housing in the city was now uninhabitable. The Old Town was a burnt out shell of its former self. Both the Central and North train stations were in ruins. World class cultural and academic institutions would no longer be operable. Those left in Konigsberg suddenly realized how insecure their situation was. Many either fled or began to make their initial plans to flee the city. The city had been a second home to Germans that were bombed out of cities further west, such as Berlin. Now they realized there was no escaping the war. The war fronts were closing in, Germany was surrounded and even the most far flung cities were in mortal danger.

Where It All Ends - The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945

Where It All Ends – The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945 (Credit: FriedrichTh)

The Face Of Total War – Suffering For The Sin of Nazism
The firebombing of Konigsberg was just the beginning of a very long and drawn out ending. The attack signaled that East Prussia was now within reach of the Reich’s mortal enemies both east and west. That the Allies would be merciless in dealing with a province they considered to be the heart of German militarism. The city’s role as an historic outpost of Germanic learning and culture, the home of Immanuel Kant and the highest intellectual discourse cultivated within the walls of Albertina University for five centuries, the coronation capital of Prussian kings and all of its splendid Gothic architecture meant nothing in the face of total war. Rightly or wrongly, Konigsberg and East Prussia was to suffer gravely for the sins of Nazism. It was to be a place where the Soviets could sate their appetite for revenge. As deadly as the British bombing was, even worse would soon follow.

Click here for: A Lower Level Of Hell: Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)


Solving The Unsolvable – The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg: Euler’s Path To Genius

Math was never my strong suit. Basic Algebra was the limit of my arithmetical competence. Everything beyond that was a struggle. In geometry I struggled to a grade of C, Algebra II a grade of D and I dropped Trigonometry after one week. I knew getting through any university level math courses would be a struggle. Imagine my surprise then, after I got to college and found a course called Infinite Math. It was not nearly as daunting as its name. The course consisted of Maths that could be applied to the real world. My favorite of these was something called Euler Circuits, which meant finding the most efficient route for a journey. There was also the less rigorous Euler Path. Trying to figure out the most efficient Euler Circuit or Path became one of my favorite mathematical exercises.  As for the name Euler, it never meant much to me until I recognized it again after many years while reading about Konigsberg, the old capital of Prussia and today the city of Kaliningrad, in the Russian oblast of the same name.

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

A Problem Without A Solution – Explaining The Impossible
The Old Town of Konigsberg stood on both sides of the Pregel River. Uniquely, as the river flowed through the city it wove its way around two islands. The more famous of the two was the Kneipfhof which had five bridges going across arms of the river. Another two bridges crossed branches of the river from another island, Lomse. These seven bridges were the genesis of a puzzle that many in the town tried to solve. As one resident of Konigsberg related in a letter to Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, couples in the town liked to try and figure out a route to cross every bridge once without ever having to re-cross any of the same bridges again. An even tougher problem would be to do this while ending up back in the same place they began. In 1736 Euler set himself the task of proving that a solution to this problem was impossible. He did this by focusing only on the land masses and bridges. He made each land mass a “point” or in modern parlance a “node”. Each connecting bridge was an “arc”. This abstraction could then be drawn as a graph. Euler’s proof was published in 1741, six years after he first began to study the bridges problem.

The essence of the problem was how to draw this upon a sheet of paper without retracing any line or lifting a pencil off the paper. This laid the basis for the first ever theorem of graph theory. Euler’s name was given to among other things, Euler Paths which is a continuous route that passes every edge once and only once. His name was also given to Euler Circuits, a path beginning and ending at the same starting point without retracing any part of the route. Many people in Konigsberg understood from experience that there was no route that could be followed to cross all Seven Bridges of Konigsberg once and only once without retracing some part of the route. Euler’s innovation was that he could explain the impossibility of a solution and used it to develop the basis for graphs, networks and topology. Euler’s mathematical genius extended to the counter-intuitive. With the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg he proved the rationale, reasoning and intellectual uses of a problem that could never be solved.

The Wooden Bridge - in 1930's Konigsberg

The Wooden Bridge – in 1930’s Konigsberg (Credit: Eigenes Werk)

Bridging A Divide – From Konigsberg To Kaliningrad
Crossing the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg as Euler knew them is impossible today, but not because of any mathematical problems. The difficulty arises from the fact that, like almost all of old Konigsberg, most of the bridges no longer exist in their original form. Two of the bridges – Blacksmith’s Bridge and Giblet’s Bridge – were destroyed in the British bombing of the city. Both of those bridges led to and from Kant Island. The bombing which took place on two nights in late August of 1944, also leveled much of the castle and cathedral, though the latter has been rebuilt. Two other bridges – the Shopkeeper and Green Bridge – disappeared after the war to make way for Leninsky Prospekt in what had suddenly become Kaliningrad, a closed Soviet city. Thus, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg were now three bridges in Kaliningrad. The most popular of the three that still exists today is also the only one that goes to Kneiphof, the aptly named Honey Bridge. Like many other famous bridges in European metropolises it sports hundreds of padlocks which are symbols of those romantic couples hoping these symbols will secure their love forever.

The Honey Bridge leads between the reconstructed Cathedral and the Fishing Village, two of the most famous spots in the Old Town which only adds to the foot traffic. Another bridge which is original, the Wooden Bridge, was lucky enough to escape destruction by either bombs or Bolsheviks. For historical harmony, it would be nice if all the bridges were rebuilt, only one holds that honor and it was rebuilt before the war by Germans, not afterwards by the Soviets. It is known simply as the High Bridge. The upshot of all this bridge building, crossing and destruction is that only two of the seven bridges that existed during Euler’s time can still be found in their original form today. It is easy enough to cross those two bridges without having to retrace one’s footsteps. Yet there were and still are many more bridges in Konigsberg to cross, perhaps not as famous, but just as important in their own way.

Leonhard Euler - mathematical genius

Leonhard Euler – mathematical genius (Credit: Jakob Emanuel Handmann)

Fits Of Mathematical Imagination – The Seven Bridges Of Kaliningrad
One can only speculate as to all the different problems and solutions Euler could have concocted by adding or subtracting these bridges in his theoretical fits of mathematical imagination. Today Euler would have the option of adding the newly built or refurbished Flyover and Jubilee Bridges to his equation. This has brought the total of bridges in the city back up to seven. Many things have changed in Kaliningrad and Konigsberg is no more, but the Seven Bridges problem still exists, albeit in extremely modified form.