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.

 

Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle: A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

To get to the essence of the beginning and end of an empire, kingdom or nation it is instructive to look towards the periphery. It is not at the most famous or populated places, such as a capital city or a king’s palace, where the essence of a polity’s early rise and final fall are to be found. Instead, it is in those less obvious places, on forgotten frontiers where the outlines of faded foundations are slowly succumbing to nature and irreparably eroded by time, that the beginnings of greatness or the final, fatal death throes of decrepitude can be detected. And so it is with Prussia, a name that evokes aristocratic Junkers, the resplendent coronation city of Konigsberg, German militarism and crusading Teutonic Knights.

From a Grand Order to a Duchy, then a Royal province turned into a Kingdom until exploding into an Empire, from subjugation to emasculation to complete and total annihilation. The withered remnants of a polity that had such a pronounced and lasting effect on seven centuries of history spread across the canvas of northeastern Europe and the Baltic region is now to be found in overgrown lots, the outskirts of a once great city now encased in concrete and a scattering of ruins barely recognizable that once were fortress Castles. These might have stood the test of time if not for the horrors of war. To discover a lasting essence of the eastern part of Prussia that no longer exists. an armchair historian or off the beaten path adventurer could do a whole lot worse than the ruins of Balga Castle.

Natural Wonder - The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located

Natural Wonder – The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located (Credit: Usadboved)

Conquered By Nature – A Forest Of Foliage Off The Frisches Haff
On the surface, the shattered ruins of the castle seem a strange place to investigate the rise and ultimate fall of what will forever be known as Prussia. The ruins of Balga are found far from modern Germany, amidst a forest of foliage, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Located far from the main roads, near no major towns, accessed on foot and better yet by the imagination. The ruins are as separated from the modern world, as they are from those days when Balga was a Teutonic Knights fortress. The castle has once again been largely overtaken by nature, a constant thread in both its medieval and modern history.

The ruins of Balga occupy a hilltop, but water was just as much a determining factor in its situation.  The castle was about a hundred yards off the shoreline of what was long known to the Germanic Prussians as the Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon), a relatively shallow body of water segregated from the Baltic Sea by a thin barrier of sand and forest known as the Curonian Spit. Not only was it close on the Frisches Haff, the castle also stood on swampy ground that turned it into a morass for many an attacking force.  It was this ground where the Teutonic Knights first set foot in 1237, attempting to subdue the fortress of Honeida, held by a clan of the pagan natives known as the Warmians. The Warmians, along with other clans in the Baltic region, were known as the Prusai (Old Prussians).

Balga Castle - where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme

Balga Castle – where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme (Credit: Christina Golubenko)

Old Prussians – A Northern Crusade
Ironically the name Prussia derives from those indigenous peoples who inhabited the region when the Teutonic Knights first arrived in the area during the first half of the 13th century. They were brought in on a crusade to Christianize the last pagan peoples in Europe. The Prusai were fierce warriors whose livelihood was largely dependent on plundering and raiding their neighbors. The Knights were invited to the area with a mission to bring the Prusai to heel. Following a decade of extremely violent warfare, the Knights were slowly making inroads in their battle with the Prusai. In 1237 their efforts focused on another strategic point of potential conquest, the fortress of Honeida. Taking it would be no easy task. The fortress stood on a veritable island due to the marshy ground which surrounded it. A raiding party first sent against the fortress was slaughtered down to the very last man. In 1239 Dietrich von Bernheim, Grand Marshal of the Knights, led a substantial force to avenge the previous defeat. A first assault on Honeida was violently repulsed. That is not surprising since the wooden walls were reputed to have been twenty-six stories in height. The Knights then decided to try starving out the defenders.

Under a flag of truce, one of the fiercest Warmian warriors, by the name of Kodrume, met with the Knights. Von Bernheim offered safe passage to the defenders if they surrendered and agreed to convert to Christianity. Kodrume returned to his fellow warriors and suggested that surrender was the best option. He was accused of betrayal and murdered. After this, von Bernheim decided another attempt to storm the fortress would be made. This time the Knights were successful, either killing or taking all the defenders prisoner. The Knights then set about transforming Honeida into a much more substantial and permanent base of operations. This roused the fury of the natives who soon revolted. They realized much too late that the Knights were not in the area to raid or plunder, instead they were setting up a continuous presence. Prusai efforts to retake Balga were defeated.

An example to all - Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

An example to all – Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

Order Of The Sword – Conquering Forces
It was through campaigns such as the one which conquered Honeida that the Teutonic Knights methodically expanded their presence in the region. Once their rule was established in an area, immigrants were brought in from Germany. The land was then broken up for cultivation and tied into a thriving trade network.  The military and economic prowess of the Knights was such that by the late 14th century the order had conquered what is today northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The East Baltic Sea became an avenue for their mercantile interests. Balga’s main function under the knights was to control naval traffic on the Frisches Haff. Balga had to be substantially built up, both for defensive purposes and to make an impression, causing those with designs on the region to think twice before attacking it. The Prussians were always good at making impressions. That was until modern times when the Soviet Union made not only an impression, but a deadly imposition. One from which the likes of Balga and Germanic Prussia would never recover.

Click here for Order of the Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia