A Place Of Teutonic Pride – Clash Course: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part One)

You can never go home again. That famous sentence was written by Thomas Wolfe in his classic novel Look Homeward Angel. There is a great truth to Wolfe’s words. Those of us who have left home know that though you can return, things are never the same as you remember them. It is not so much that home has changed, as the fact that you have changed. When you experience this sense of loss, there comes a feeling of melancholy that is indescribably sad. Something has been lost that you realize will never return. This is bad, but it could be worse. What if there was no home to return to? No physical structure, no family, friends or familiar faces. Nothing except for memories, fragment of experience that flickered and faded with age. It is hard to imagine this happening, especially to a once thriving place that was marked by prosperity and tradition. A place that no one could have ever imagined would be wiped from the earth, let alone history. A place that existed and then vanished.

This place was a town on the far eastern frontier of the German Reich’s easternmost province. The town was called Schirwindt. Today there is next to nothing left of it. Schirwindt’s absence would make a profound statement on the impact of total war, if only there was something left to comment on. Schirwindt is the only German city badly damaged during World War II that was never rebuilt. There are two reasons for that, it was made a total ruin by war and it no longer was part of German territory. Quite an end to a place that had been for centuries where Germany started the day.

The Way It Used To Be - Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

The Way It Used To Be – Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

Sunrise Over The Reich – Looking To The East
The first place in modern Germany to see the sunrise was Schirwindt. This was where the opening rays of dawn could be detected by watchful Teutonic eyes looking towards the eastern horizon. It would also become the place where the sun began to set over the German Reich near the end of World War II.  Schirwindt was a thoroughly provincial town, small, remote and on the fringes of a sprawling German Reich. For administrative purposes it was listed as a city, though it was by far the smallest one in all of Germany. The population never grew above 1,500. Prior to the 20th century, those who lived in the town made a healthy living through cross border trade with the Russian Empire. Rather than fear their neighbor, Schirwindt’s residents saw Imperial Russia as a market for their merchants, tradesmen and farmer’s to sell their products.

Despite being a border community, the city’s sense of permanence was sealed with the construction of the neo-Gothic Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirchen) in the mid-19th century. For years the town had struggled to raise enough money for a proper church. Schirwindt’s citizens had to make due with a wooden church that needed constant repairs. The situation only changed after a visit by Kaiser Frederick William IV in June 1845. The Kaiser was presented with a petition by the town’s mayor for the construction of a new church. His response was positive. The Kaiser believed that Schirwindt should have just as grand a church as any of the ones he had commissioned in the central and western parts of Germany.

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Crossing The Border – Too Close For Comfort
This set into motion a process of construction that culminated in the completion of Immanuel Church in 1856. The Kaiser returned to the town that September for the church’s dedication. It must have been quite a boost for the town. The Kaiser felt Schirwindt was important enough for him to make what was now his third visit to the tiny city. The Church’s Neo-Gothic spires soared above the surrounding flat landscape. Such was their scale that they were quite visible from Russia. Those spires were as much a boundary marker of the division between German and Russian territory as the Scheshuppe River which formed the actual border between the two empires. That border and the relatively prosperous existence of Schirwindt was first violated in August 1914.  The invaders were Tsarist Russian forces. Their boots clomped along the cobblestone streets and inside the red brick residences of those Germans unlucky enough to be on the frontline of what would become known as the First World War.

The invasion of East Prussia caused an outcry in Imperial Germany. It was an affront to Germans everywhere that the supposedly less civilized Slavs had penetrated the fatherland. And this was just the start for Schirwindt. No less than three times it was invaded and occupied during the war. The inhabitants all fled to safer points further to the west, while Russian troops stole, looted and committed arson. By war’s end only a handful of residential and farm buildings were still standing. These were mere hollow shells of their former selves. Immanuel Church also survived, towering over the tattered townscape. Little did anyone know at the time that this was just a precursor for much worse to come. What could be worse than the comprehensive destruction inflicted on Schirwindt during the Great War? A quarter century later the inhabitants would find out.

World War I damage in Schirwindt

World War I damage in Schirwindt

On The Horizon – A Future Of Worry & Insecurity
Schirwindt could have been abandoned, but the Germans had won the war in the East. Until they were forced to surrender due to their failures on the Western Front in 1918, the Eastern Front was a point of Teutonic Pride. This was an area into which they could possibly expand in the future. As such, frontier cities like Schirwindt had to be rebuilt. It had lost buildings, inhabitants and a sense of security, but it was still located on German Territory. Under the skillful supervision and design of architect Kurt Frick the city rose from the dead. It was not the only place resurrected in the region. An independent Lithuania had been formed from a remnant of Imperial Russia. It seemed to be a much more agreeable neighbor for Schirwindt. Lithuania was also a temptation for German nationalists. The nation was small and weak. On the other side of Lithuania was the menacing Bolshevism of the Soviet Union. This was a threat that might eventually have to be dealt with. Until that day Schirwindt was safe, but not for long.