East Prussia

Coat of Arms of East PrussiaEast Prussia (Ostpreußen); was the main part of the region of Prussia along the southeastern Baltic Coast from the 13th century to the end of World War II in May 1945.
From 1772–1829 and 1878–1945, the Province of East Prussia was part of the German state of Prussia. The capital city was Königsberg.

East Prussia enclosed the bulk of the ancestral lands of the Baltic Old Prussians. During the 13th century, the native Prussians were conquered by the crusading Teutonic Knights.
The indigenous Balts who survived the conquest were gradually converted to Christianity. Because of Germanization and colonisation over the following centuries, Germans became the dominant ethnic group, while Poles and Lithuanians formed minorities.
From the 13th century, East Prussia was part of the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights. After the Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 it became a fief of the Kingdom of Poland. In 1525, with the Prussian Homage, the province became the Duchy of Prussia. The Old Prussian language had become extinct by the 17th or early 18th century.

Following the death of Hohenzollern Albert of Brandenburg Prussia, Duke of Prussia (1525–1568), Joachim II, the prince-elector Kurfürst of Brandenburg, became co-inheritor of Ducal Prussia. In 1577, House of Hohenzollern co-regents took over administration from Albert’s only son, Albert Friedrich. In 1618 the Duchy of Prussia again passed by inheritance and in personal union with the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg and the territory was called Brandenburg-Prussia. The territories of the House of Hohenzollern were scattered in Franconia, Brandenburg, eastern Prussia and elsewhere.

Lauban March 1945
Lauban, East Prussia, March 1945

Because the duchy was outside of the core Holy Roman Empire (Prussia was under HRE administration by the Teutonic Order grandmasters), the prince-electors of Brandenburg were able to proclaim themselves kings in Prussia beginning in 1701. After the annexation of most of western Royal Prussia in the 1772 First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, East Prussia was connected by land with the rest of the Prussian state and was reorganized as the Province of East Prussia the following year. Between 1829 and 1878, the Province of East Prussia was joined with West Prussia to form the Province of Prussia.

The Kingdom of Prussia became the leading state of the German Empire after its creation in 1871. However, the Treaty of Versailles following World War I granted West Prussia to Poland and made East Prussia an exclave of Weimar Germany (the new Polish Corridor separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany), while the Memel Territory was detached and was annexed by Lithuania in 1923.

Following Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II in 1945, war-torn East Prussia was divided at Joseph Stalin’s insistence between the Soviet Union (the Kaliningrad Oblast in the Russian SFSR and the constituent counties of the Klaipėda Region in the Lithuanian SSR) and the People’s Republic of Poland (the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship).

The capital city Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946. The German population of the province was largely evacuated during the war or expelled shortly thereafter in the expulsion of Germans after World War II. An estimated 300,000 (around one fifth of the population) died either in war time bombings raids or in the battles to defend the province.


German Empire

Wappen Deutsches Reich 1889Along with the rest of the Kingdom of Prussia, East Prussia became part of the German Empire during the unification of Germany in 1871.
From 1885 to 1890 Berlin’s population grew by 20%, Brandenburg and the Rhineland gained 8.5%, Westphalia 10%, while East Prussia lost 0.07% and West Prussia 0.86%.
his stagnancy in population despite a high birth surplus in eastern Germany was because many people from the East Prussian countryside moved westward to seek work in the expanding industrial centres of the Ruhr Area and Berlin (Ostflucht).

The population of the province in 1900 was 1,996,626 people, with a religious makeup of 1,698,465 Protestants, 269,196 Roman Catholics, and 13,877 Jews.
The Low Prussian dialect predominated in East Prussia, although High Prussian was spoken in Warmia. The numbers of Masurians, Kursenieki and Prussian Lithuanians decreased over time due to the process of Germanization.

The Polish-speaking population concentrated in the south of the province (Masuria and Warmia) and all German geographic atlases at the start of 20th century showed the southern part of East Prussia as Polish with the number of Poles estimated at the time to be 300,000.
Kursenieki inhabited the areas around the Curonian lagoon, while Lithuanian-speaking Prussians concentrated in the northeast in (Lithuania Minor). The Old Prussian ethnic group became completely Germanized over time and the Old Prussian language died out in the 18th century.


World War I

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II

At the beginning of World War I, East Prussia became a theatre of war when the Russian Empire invaded the country.
The Russian Army encountered at first little resistance because the bulk of the German Army had been directed towards the Western Front according to the Schlieffen Plan.

Despite early success and the capture of the towns of Rastenburg and Gumbinnen, in the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914 and the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes in 1915, the Russians were decisively defeated and forced to retreat. The Russians were followed by the German Army advancing into Russian territory.

After the Russian army’s first invasion the majority of the civilian population fled westwards, while several thousand remaining civilians were deported to Russia.
Treatment of civilians by both armies was mostly disciplined, although 74 civilians were killed by Russian troops in the Abschwangen massacre. The region had to be rebuilt because of damage caused by the war.


Weimar Republic

With the forced abdication of Emperor William II in 1918, Germany became a republic. Most of West Prussia and the former Prussian Province of Posen, territories annexed by Prussia in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, were ceded to the Second Polish Republic according to the Treaty of Versailles.
East Prussia became an exclave, being separated from mainland Germany. The Seedienst Ostpreußen was established to provide an independent transport service to East Prussia.

On 11 July 1920, amidst the backdrop of the Polish-Soviet War, the East Prussian plebiscite in eastern West Prussia and southern East Prussia was held under Allied supervision to determine if the areas should join the Second Polish Republic or remain in Weimar Germany . 96.7% of the people voted to remain within Germany (97.89% in the East Prussian plebiscite district).
The Klaipėda Territory, a League of Nations mandate since 1920, was occupied by Lithuanian troops in 1923 and was annexed without giving the inhabitants a choice by the ballot.


Third Reich

Adolf Hitler in Königsberg
Adolf Hitler in Königsberg

In 1932 the local paramilitary SA had already started to terrorise their political opponents. On the night of 31 July 1932 there was a bomb attack on the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Königsberg, the Otto-Braun-House. The Communist politician Gustav Sauf was killed, the executive editor of the Social Democrat “Königsberger Volkszeitung”, Otto Wyrgatsch, and the German People’s Party politician Max von Bahrfeldt were severely injured. Members of the Reichsbanner were attacked and the local Reichsbanner Chairman of Lötzen, Kurt Kotzan, was murdered on 6 August 1932.

After the Nazis took power in Germany, opposition politicians were persecuted and newspapers were banned. The Otto-Braun-House was requisitioned and became the headquarters of the SA, that used the house to imprison and torture opponents. Walter Schütz, a communist member of the Reichstag was murdered here.

In 1938 the Nazis altered about one-third of the toponyms of the area, eliminating, Germanizing, or simplifying a number of Old Prussian names, as well as those Polish or Lithuanian names originating from colonists and refugees to Prussia during and after the Protestant Reformation.
More than 1,500 places were ordered to be renamed by 16 July 1938 following a decree issued by Gauleiter and Oberpräsident Erich Koch and initiated by Adolf Hitler.
Many who would not cooperate with the rulers of Nazi Germany were sent to concentration camps and held prisoner there until their death or liberation.


World War II

Defending East Prussia 1945
Defending East Prussia 1945

In 1939 East Prussia had 2.49 million inhabitants, 85% of them ethnic Germans, the others, Poles in the south who, according to Polish estimates numbered in the interwar period around 300,000-350,000, the Latvian speaking Kursenieki, and Lietuvininkai who spoke Lithuanian in the northeast.
Most German East Prussians, Masurians, Kursieniki, and Lietuvininkai were Lutheran, while the population of Ermland was mainly Roman Catholic due to the history of its bishopric.
The East Prussian Jewish Congregation declined from about 9,000 in 1933 to 3,000 in 1939, as most fled from Nazi rule, those who remained were later deported and killed.

In 1939 the Regierungsbezirk Zichenau was annexed by Germany and incorporated into East Prussia. Parts of it were transferred to other regions, e.g. Suwałki to Regierungsbezirk Gumbinnen and Soldau to Regierungsbezirk Allenstein. Despite Nazi propaganda presenting all of the regions annexed as possessing significant German populations that wanted reunification with Germany, the Reich’s statistics of late 1939 show that only 31,000 out of 994,092 people in this territory were ethnic Germans.

East Prussia was only slightly affected by the war until January 1945, when it was devastated during the East Prussian Offensive. Most of its inhabitants became refugees in bitterly cold weather during the Evacuation of East Prussia.


Evacuation of East Prussia

Refugees East Prussia
Refugees East Prussia 1945

The evacuation of East Prussia was the evacuation of the German civilian population and military personnel in East Prussia and the Klaipėda region between 20 January and March 1945 as part of the evacuation of German civilians towards the end of World War II. It is not to be confused with the expulsion after the war had ended, under Soviet occupation.

The evacuation, which had been delayed for months, was initiated due to fear of the Red Army advances during the East Prussian Offensive. Some parts of the evacuation were planned as a military necessity, Operation Hannibal being the most important military operation involved in the evacuation. However, many refugees took to the roads on their own because of reported Soviet atrocities against Germans in the areas under Soviet control.
Both spurious and factual accounts of Soviet atrocities were disseminated through the official news and propaganda outlets of the Third Reich and by rumours that swept through the military and civilian populations.

Despite having detailed evacuation plans for some areas, authorities of the Third Reich, including the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, delayed action until January 20, when it was too late for an orderly evacuation, and the civil services were eventually overwhelmed by the huge number of those wishing to evacuate.

Coupled with the panic caused by the speed of the Soviet advance, civilians caught in the middle of combat, and the bitter winter weather, many thousands of refugees died during the evacuation period. The Soviets took complete control of East Prussia in May 1945.
A large part of the German civil population of about 2.5 million managed to evacuate, though about 25,000–30,000 were killed during the Soviet offensive.
In May 1945 Soviet authorities registered 193,000 Germans in East Prussia though an estimated number of 800,000 managed to return after the end of military actions, most of whom were later forcibly expelled by the Soviet and Polish authorities.
The Polish census of 1950 indicated that 164,000 of the former German population remained in Southern East Prussia, most later emigrated to Germany.

The Red Army initiated an offensive into East Prussia in October 1944, though it was temporarily driven back two weeks later. After that, the German Ministry of Propaganda reported that war crimes had taken place in East Prussian villages, in particular in Nemmersdorf, where inhabitants had been raped and killed by the advancing Soviets.

Refugees East Prussia 1945
Refugees East Prussia 1945

Since the Nazi war effort had largely stripped the civil population of able-bodied men for service in the military, the victims of the atrocity were primarily old men, women, and children. Upon the Soviet withdrawal from the area, German authorities sent in film crews to document what had happened, and invited foreign observers as further witnesses.

A documentary film from the footage obtained during this effort was put together and shown in cinemas in East Prussia, with the intention of hardening civilian and military resolve in resisting the Soviets.
Nazi propaganda about the atrocities at Nemmersdorf, as well as on other crimes committed in East Prussia, convinced the remaining civilians that they should not get caught by the advancing enemy.

The evacuation plans for parts of East Prussia were ready in the second half of 1944. They consisted of both general plans and specific instructions for many towns. The plans encompassed not only civilians, but also industry and livestock.

Initially, Erich Koch, the Gauleiter of East Prussia, forbade evacuation of civilians (until 20 January 1945), and ordered that civilians trying to flee the region without permission should be instantly shot.

Any kind of preparations made by civilians were treated as defeatism and “Wehrkraftzersetzung” (undermining of military morale). Koch and many other Nazi functionaries were among the first to flee during the Soviet advance. Between 12 January and mid-February 1945, almost 8.5 million Germans fled the Eastern provinces of the Reich.

Most of the refugees were women and children heading to western parts of Germany, carrying goods on improvised means of transport, such as wooden wagons and carts, as all the motorized vehicles and fuel had been confiscated by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war. After the Red Army reached the coast of the Vistula Lagoon near Elbing on January 23, 1945, cutting off the overland route between East Prussia and the western territories, the only way to leave was to cross the frozen Vistula Lagoon to reach the harbours of Danzig/Gdańsk or Gdingen/Gdynia to be evacuated by ships taking part in Operation Hannibal.

Mingled with retreating Wehrmacht units, and without any camouflage or shelter, the refugees were attacked by Soviet bombers and fighter aircraft. Many wagons broke through the bomb-riddled ice covering the brackish water. Also horses and caretakers from the Trakehner stud farms were evacuated with the wagon trains. The evacuation was severely hampered by Wehrmacht units, which clogged roads and bridges.


Operation Hannibal, Flucht aus Ostpreußen
Fleeing across the Baltic – Operation Hannibal

Operation Hannibal
Operation Hannibal was a military operation that started on January 21, 1945, on the orders of Admiral Karl Dönitz, withdrawing German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and the Polish Corridor.

The flood of refugees turned the operation into one of the largest emergency evacuations by sea in history — over a period of 15 weeks, somewhere between 494 and 1,080 merchant vessels of all types and numerous naval craft, including Germany’s largest remaining naval units, transported about 800,000 – 900,000 refugees and 350,000 soldiers across the Baltic Sea to Germany and occupied Denmark.
This evacuation was one of the German Navy’s most significant achievements during the war.

The greatest recorded maritime disaster in history occurred during this operation, when the passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea on the night of 30 January 1945. She sank in under 45 minutes; figures for the number of deaths vary from 5,348 to 7,000 or 9,400.

The 949 survivors were rescued by Kriegsmarine vessels led by cruiser Admiral Hipper, although it is claimed that “the big warship could not risk heaving to, with a submarine close by”.
Also, on 10 February, the SS General von Steuben left Pillau with 2,680 refugees aboard; it was hit by torpedoes just after departure, killing almost all aboard.



Wir halten Königsberg
Wir halten Königsberg

On January 24, 1945, the 3rd Belorussian Front led by General Chernyakhovsky, surrounded the capital city of East Prussia, Königsberg. The 3rd Panzer Army and around 200,000 civilians were trapped inside the city.
In response to this, General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, commander of the Army Group Center, warned Hitler of the imminent Soviet threat,  the Führer refused to act.
Due to the rapid approach of the 2nd Belorussian Front led by General Rokossovsky, Nazi authorities in Königsberg decided to send trains full of refugees to Allenstein, without knowing that the town had already been captured by the Soviet 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps.

During the Soviet assault, the Frische Nehrung spit became the last means of escape to the west. However, civilians who tried to escape along the spit were often intercepted and killed by Soviet tanks and patrols.
Two thousand civilians left Königsberg every day and tried to reach the already crowded town of Pillau. The final Soviet assault on Königsberg started on 2 April with a heavy bombardment of the city.
The land route to Pillau was once again severed and those civilians who were still in the city died in their thousands. Eventually, the Nazi garrison surrendered on April 9, and as Beevor wrote, “the rape of women and girls went unchecked in the ruined city”



Murdered Germans in Nemmersdorf, October 1944
Murdered Germans in Nemmersdorf, October 1944

The widely publicised killings and rapes in places like Nemmersdorf by the Soviets led to a severe degree of fear in the entire German population of East Prussia.
Those that could not escape the advancing Soviets were left to their fate. Wealthy civilians of East Prussia were often shot by Soviet soldiers, their goods stolen, and their houses set on fire.
Wrote Zakhar Agranenko, a playwright serving as an officer of marine infantry in East Prussia: “Red Army soldiers don’t believe in ‘individual liaisons’ with German women. Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.” Even Russian women liberated from forced labor camps were raped by Soviet soldiers.

The rear-guard units of the advancing Soviet armies were responsible for a large proportion of the crimes committed by Red Army personnel.
Soviet Officers like Lev Kopelev, who tried to prevent crimes, were accused of pity for the enemy and became Gulag prisoners.

These acts of violence were influenced by a desire for revenge and retribution for crimes committed by the Nazis during their invasion of the Soviet Union, collectively driven by Soviet propaganda.

The propaganda was a purposeful goad to the Soviet soldier and reflected the will of the political authorities in the Soviet Union right up to Stalin.
There is no question that Stalin was aware of what was happening.

Given the strict control of the Communist party over the military hierarchy, the pillage and rape in Prussia was the result of the Soviet command at all levels. Only when Stalin saw that it was in the Soviet Union’s interests to check the behaviour of the Red Army did he take steps to stop it.


The Aftermath

Königsburg 1945
The ruins of Königsburg 1945

The Red Army eliminated all pockets of resistance and took control of East Prussia in May 1945. The exact number of civilian dead has never been determined, but is estimated to be at least 300,000, with most of them dying under miserable conditions. However, most of the German inhabitants, which at that point consisted mainly of children, women, and old men, did escape the Red Army as part of the largest exodus of people in human history.
As Antony Beevor also said:
A population which had stood at 2.2 million in 1940 was reduced to 193,000 at the end of May 1945.
The Schieder commission in 1953 estimated casualties in the 1945 campaign at 30,000 civilian dead in East Prussia and overall civilian losses in entire Oder–Neisse region at 75–100,000.

The West German Statistisches Bundesamt figures from 1958 estimated total civilian losses in East Prussia of 299,200 including 274,200 in the expulsions after May 1945 and 25,000 during the war.
According to West German Statistisches Bundesamt , in total, out of a pre-war population of 2,490,000 about 500,000 died during the war, including 210,000 military dead and 311,000 civilians dying during the wartime flight, postwar expulsion of Germans and forced labor in the Soviet Union; 1,200,000 managed to escape to the western parts of Germany, while about 800,000 pre-war inhabitants remained in East Prussia in summer 1945. The figure of 311,000 civilian deaths is included in the overall estimate of 2.2 million expulsion deaths that is often cited in historical literature.

The West German search service issued its final report in 1965 detailing the losses of the German civilian population due to the flight and expulsions. The West German government authorized its release in 1986 and summary of the findings was published in 1987 by the German scholar de:Gert von Pistohlkors.
According to the West German search service the civilian population of East Prussia (including Memel) before the flight and expulsions was 2,328,947. They put civilian dead and missing at 514,176 persons.

The capitulation of the Germans in Pilau, East Prussia
Capitulation of the German Forces in Pillau

The number of confirmed dead was 123,360(9,434 violent deaths, 736 suicides, 9,864 deportation deaths, 7,841 in internment camps, 31,940 deaths during the wartime flight, 22,308 during the expulsions and 41,237 from unknown causes).
There were an additional 390,816 cases of persons reported missing whose fate could not be clarified. Some historians in Germany maintain that the search service figures of confirmed dead provide a realistic view of the total losses due to the flight and expulsions, they believe that the cases of persons reported missing whose fate could not be clarified are unreliable.
The German historian de:Rüdiger Overmans maintains that the statistical foundations of the West German government search service report to be unreliable, he believes that new research on the number of expulsion deaths is needed.
However the German government and the German Red Cross still maintain that the higher figures which include the persons reported missing whose fate could not be clarified are correct.

The German Federal Archives estimated that about 1% (100–120,000 of the estimated 11–12 million total German civilian population) in the of the Oder–Neisse region lost their lives due military activity in the 1944–45 campaign as well as deliberate killings by Soviet forces.

According to other sources in summer 1945 about 800,000 Germans were still living in East Prussia.
The Red Army’s brutality towards civilians during the East Prussian campaign, coupled with years of Nazi propaganda regarding the Soviet Union, led many German soldiers on the Eastern Front to believe that “there could be no purpose in surviving Soviet victory”. This belief motivated many German soldiers to continue fighting even though they believed that the war was lost, and this contributed to higher Soviet casualties.

Most Germans who were not evacuated during the war were expelled from East Prussia and the other former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line in the years immediately after the end of World War II, as agreed to by the Allies at the Potsdam conference, because in the words of Winston Churchill:
Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made.

After World War II, as also agreed at the Potsdam Conference (which met from 17 July until 2 August 1945), all of the area east of the Oder-Neisse line, whether recognized by the international community as part of Germany before 1933 or occupied by Germany during World War II, was placed under the jurisdiction of other countries.
The relevant paragraph regarding East Prussia in the Potsdam Agreement is:
The Conference examined a proposal by the Soviet Government to the effect that pending the final determination of territorial questions at the peace settlement, the section of the western frontier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which is adjacent to the Baltic Sea should pass from a point on the eastern shore of the Bay of Danzig to the east, north of Braunsberg-Goldap, to the meeting point of the frontiers of Lithuania, the Polish Republic and East Prussia.
The Conference has agreed in principle to the proposal of the Soviet Government concerning the ultimate transfer to the Soviet Union of the City of Königsberg and the area adjacent to it as described above subject to expert examination of the actual frontier.
The President of the United States and the British Prime Minister have declared that they will support the proposal of the Conference at the forthcoming peace settlement.