Königsberg was a city in the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights, the Duchy of Prussia, the Kingdom of Prussia and Germany until 1946. After being largely destroyed in World War II and annexed by the Soviet Union thereafter, the former city was renamed Kaliningrad, and few traces of the former Königsberg remain today.
The literal meaning of Königsberg is ‘King’s Mountain’. In the local Low German dialect, spoken by many of its former German inhabitants, the name was Königsbarg. Further names included Russian “Кёнигсберг” Old Prussian: Kunnegsgarbs, Knigsberg, Lithuanian: Karaliaučius, Polish: Królewiec, and the modern Russian and current official name, Kaliningrad.
Königsberg was founded in 1255 on the site of the ancient Old Prussian settlement Twangste by the Teutonic Knights during the Northern Crusades, and was named in honour of King Ottokar II of Bohemia. A Baltic port, the city successively became the capital of their monastic state, the Duchy of Prussia (1525-1701) and East Prussia (until 1945). Königsberg remained the coronation city of the Prussian monarchy though the capital was moved to Berlin in 1701. It was the easternmost large city in Germany until it was captured by the Soviet Union on 9 April 1945, near the end of World War II.
A university city, home of the Albertina University (founded in 1544), Königsberg developed into an important German intellectual and cultural centre, being the residence of Simon Dach, Immanuel Kant, Käthe Kollwitz, E. T. A. Hoffmann, David Hilbert, Agnes Miegel, Hannah Arendt, Michael Wieck and others.
Between the thirteenth and the twentieth centuries, the inhabitants spoke predominantly German, though the multicultural city also had a profound influence on the Lithuanian and Polish cultures. The city was a publishing centre of Lutheran literature, including the first Polish translation of the New Testament, printed in the city in 1551, the first book in Lithuanian language and the first Lutheran catechism, both printed in Königsberg in 1547. Under Nazi rule, the Polish and Jewish minorities were classified as Untermensch and persecuted by the authorities. The city housed thousands of interned people of the Jewish faith who were forced to undertake tasks under the most deplorable conditions during the Second World War.
By the end of the war, Königsberg was heavily damaged by Allied bombing in 1944 and during its siege in 1945. The city was captured and annexed by the Soviet Union. Its German population was expelled, and the city was repopulated with Russians and others from the Soviet Union. Briefly Russified as Kyonigsberg (Кёнигсберг), it was renamed “Kaliningrad” in 1946 in honour of Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin. It is now the capital of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast, an area completely cut off by land from the rest of Russia.
History of Königsberg
Königsberg was preceded by a Sambian, or Old Prussian, fort known as Twangste (Tuwangste, Tvankste), meaning Oak Forest, as well as several Old Prussian settlements, including the fishing village and port Lipnick, and the farming villages Sakkeim and Trakkeim.
The Sambians were one of the Prussian tribes. They inhabited the Sambia Peninsula (Samland) north of the city of Königsberg.
Sambians were located in a coastal territory rich in amber and engaged in trade early on. Therefore, they established contacts with foreign nations before any other Prussians. However, as all other Prussians, they were conquered by the Teutonic Knights, and, exposed to assimilation and Germanization, became extinct sometime in the 17th century.
Engaged in the amber trade, Sambia was the richest and most densely populated region of Prussia. It provides a wealth of artifacts from the Bronze Age, including imported goods from the Roman Empire. Sambians, unlike other Prussians, did not cremate their dead. They built earth barrows above graves and surrounded them with stone circles.
The name of the clan was first mentioned in 1073 by Adam of Bremen, who calls them “most humane people”.
Warfare with Danes continued from the mid-9th century to beginning of the 13th century. It is known that there was Wiskiauten, a Viking settlement in Sambia, that flourished for about 300 years. Swedes maintained more peaceful relations and fostered trade.
The 13th century saw the rise of another enemy, the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order from the Holy Roman Empire.
Its goal was to conquer all pagans and convert them to Roman Catholicism. The conquest of Sambia during the Prussian Crusade was delayed by the First Prussian Uprising that broke out in 1242.
The uprising technically ended in 1249 by signing the Treaty of Christburg, though skirmishes lasted for four more years.
Only in 1254–1255 could the Knights arrange a large campaign against the Sambians. King Ottokar II of Bohemia participated in the expedition and as a tribute the Knights named the newly founded Königsberg Castle in his honor.
The Sambians rose against the Knights during the Great Prussian Uprising (1260–1274), but were the first ones to surrender. When other clans tried to resurrect the uprising in 1276 Theodoric, vogt of Sambia convinced the Sambians not to join the insurrection; Natangians and Warmians followed the Sambian lead and the uprising was crushed within a year.
The Bishopric of Samland became one of four Prussian dioceses, the other three dioceses being Pomesania, Ermland, and Culm as arranged by the papal legate William of Modena. At the end of the 13th century, Sambians numbered only about 22,000. They gave in to Germanization later than western tribes that were conquered earlier.
According to Peter von Dusburg, Sambia was subdivided in 15 territorial units. Their German names (from east to west) are: Germau, Medenau, Rinau, Pobeten, Wargen, Rudau, Laptau, Quedenau, Schaaken, Waldau, Caimen, Tapiau, Labiau, Laukischken, and Wehlau.
During the conquest of the Prussian Sambians by the Teutonic Knights in 1255, Twangste was destroyed and replaced with a new fortress known as Conigsberg. This name meant “King’s Mountain” (Latin: castrum Koningsberg, Mons Regius, Regiomontium), honouring King Ottokar II of Bohemia, who paid for the erection of the first fortress there during the Prussian Crusade.
Northwest of this new Königsberg Castle arose an initial settlement, later known as Steindamm, roughly 4.5 miles (7 km) from the Vistula Lagoon.
The Teutonic Order used Königsberg to fortify their conquests in Samland and as a base for campaigns against pagan Lithuania. Under siege during the Prussian uprisings in 1262–63, Königsberg Castle was relieved by the Master of the Livonian Order.
Because the initial northwestern settlement was destroyed by the Prussians during the rebellion, rebuilding occurred in the southern valley between the castle hill and the Pregel River. This new settlement, Altstadt, received Culm rights in 1286. Löbenicht, a new town directly east of Altstadt between the Pregel and the Schlossteich, received its own rights in 1300. Medieval Königsberg’s third town was Kneiphof, which received town rights in 1327 and was located on an island of the same name in the Pregel south of Altstadt.
Within the state of the Teutonic Order, Königsberg was the residence of the marshal, one of the chief administrators of the military order.
The city was also the seat of the Bishopric of Samland, one of the four dioceses into which Prussia had been divided in 1243 by the papal legate, William of Modena. Adalbert of Prague became the main patron saint of Königsberg Cathedral, a landmark of the city located in Kneiphof.
Königsberg joined the Hanseatic League in 1340 and developed into an important port for the south-eastern Baltic region, trading goods throughout Prussia, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The chronicler Peter of Dusburg probably wrote his Chronicon terrae Prussiae in Königsberg from 1324–1330.
After the Teutonic Order’s victory over pagan Lithuanians in the 1348 Battle of Strawen, Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode established a Cistercian nunnery in the city.
Aspiring students were educated in Königsberg before continuing on to higher education elsewhere, such as Prague or Leipzig.
Although the knights suffered a crippling defeat in the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg), Königsberg remained under the control of the Teutonic Knights throughout the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Livonian knights replaced the Prussian branch’s garrison at Königsberg, allowing them to participate in the recovery of towns occupied by Jogaila’s troops.
The Prussian Confederation rebelled against the Teutonic Knights in 1454 and sought the assistance of Poland. While Königsberg’s three towns initially joined the rebellion, Altstadt and Löbenicht soon rejoined the Teutonic Knights and defeated Kneiphof in 1455.
Grand Master Ludwig von Erlichshausen fled from the crusaders’ capital at Castle Marienburg to Königsberg in 1457; the city’s magistrate presented Erlichshausen with a barrel of beer out of compassion.
When western Prussia was transferred to victorious Poland in the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), which ended the Thirteen Years’ War, Königsberg became the new capital of the reduced monastic state, which became a fief of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom.
The grand masters took over the quarters of the marshal. During the Polish-Teutonic War (1519–1521), Königsberg was unsuccessfully besieged by Polish forces led by Grand Crown Hetman Mikołaj Firlej.
Duchy of Prussia
Through the preachings of the Bishop of Samland, Georg von Polenz, Königsberg became predominantly Lutheran during the Protestant Reformation. After summoning a quorum of the Knights to Königsberg, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg (a member of the House of Hohenzollern) secularised the Teutonic Knights’ remaining territories in Prussia in 1525 and converted to Lutheranism.
By paying feudal homage to his uncle, King Sigismund I of Poland, Albert became the first duke of the new Duchy of Prussia, a fief of Poland. While the Prussian estates quickly allied with the duke, the Prussian peasantry would only swear allegiance to Albert in person at Königsberg, seeking the duke’s support against oppressive nobility. After convincing the rebels to lay down their arms, Albert had several of their leaders executed.
Königsberg, the capital, became one of the biggest cities and ports of ducal Prussia, having considerable autonomy, a separate parliament and currency, and with German as its dominant language. The city flourished through the export of wheat, timber, hemp, and furs, as well as pitch, tar, and ash.
Königsberg was one of the few Baltic ports regularly visited by more than one hundred ships annually in the latter 16th century, along with Danzig and Riga.
The University of Königsberg, founded by Albert in 1544, became a centre of Protestant teaching.
The capable Duke Albert was succeeded by his feeble minded son, Albert Frederick. Anna, daughter of Albert Frederick, married Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg, who was granted the right of succession to Prussia on Albert Frederick’s death in 1618. From this time the Electors of Brandenburg, the rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia, governed the Duchy of Prussia and Königsberg.
Brandenburg – Prussia
When Imperial and then Swedish armies overran Brandenburg during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, the Hohenzollern court fled to Königsberg. On 1 November 1641, Elector Frederick William persuaded the Prussian diet to accept an excise tax.
In the Treaty of Königsberg of January 1656, the elector recognized his Duchy of Prussia as a fief of Sweden. In the Treaty of Wehlau in 1657, however, he negotiated the release of Prussia from Polish sovereignty in return for an alliance with Poland. The 1660 Treaty of Oliva confirmed Prussian independence from both Poland and Sweden.
In 1661 Frederick William informed the Prussian diet that he possessed jus supremi et absoluti domini, and that the Prussian Landtag could convene with his permission.
The Königsberg burghers, led by Hieronymus Roth of Kneiphof, opposed “the Great Elector’s” absolutist claims, and actively rejected the Treaties of Wehlau and Oliva, seeing Prussia as “indisputably contained within the territory of the Polish Crown”.
Delegations from the city’s burghers went to the Polish king, Jan Kazimierz, who initially promised aid, though then failed to follow through.
The townspeople attacked the elector’s troops while local Lutheran priests held masses for the Polish king and for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
However, Frederick William succeeded in imposing his authority after arriving with 3,000 troops in October 1662 and training his artillery on the town. Refusing to request mercy, Roth went to prison in Peitz until his death in 1678.
The Prussian estates which swore fealty to Frederick William in Königsberg on October 18, 1663 refused the elector’s requests for military funding, and Colonel Christian Ludwig von Kalckstein sought assistance from neighboring Poland.
After the elector’s agents had abducted Kalckstein, he was executed in 1672. The Prussian estates’ submission to Frederick William followed; in 1673 and 1674 the elector received taxes not granted by the estates and Königsberg received a garrison without the estates’ consent.
The economic and political weakening of Königsberg strengthened the power of the Junker nobility within Prussia.
Königsberg long remained a centre of Lutheran resistance to Calvinism within Brandenburg-Prussia; Frederick William forced the city to accept Calvinist citizens and property-holders in 1668.
By the act of coronation in Königsberg Castle on January 18, 1701, Frederick William’s son, Elector Frederick III, became Frederick I, King in Prussia. The elevation of the Duchy of Prussia to the Kingdom of Prussia was possible because the Hohenzollerns’ authority in Prussia was independent of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire. Since “Kingdom of Prussia” was increasingly used to designate all of the Hohenzollern lands, former ducal Prussia became known as the Province of Prussia (1701–1773), with Königsberg as its capital. However, Berlin and Potsdam in Brandenburg were the main residences of the Prussian kings.
The city was wracked by plague and other illnesses from September 1709 to April 1710, losing 9,368 people, or roughly a quarter of its populace.
On June 13, 1724, Altstadt, Kneiphof, and Löbenicht amalgamated to formally create the larger city Königsberg. Suburbs that subsequently were annexed to Königsberg include Sackheim, Rossgarten, and Tragheim.
During the Seven Years’ War Imperial Russian troops occupied eastern Prussia at the beginning of 1758 . On December 31, 1757, Empress Elizabeth I of Russia issued an ukase about the incorporation of Königsberg into Russia.
On January 24, 1758, the leading burghers of Königsberg submitted to Elizabeth. Five Imperial Russian general-governors administered the city during the war from 1758–62; they included William Fermor and Nikolaus Friedrich von Korff. With the end of the Seven Years’ War the Russian army abandoned the town in 1763.
Kingdom of Prussia
After the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Königsberg became the capital of the province of East Prussia in 1773, which replaced the Province of Prussia in 1773.
By 1800 the city was approximately five miles (8.0 km) in circumference and had 60,000 inhabitants, including a military garrison of 7,000, making it one of the most populous German cities of the time.
After Prussia’s defeat at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 during the War of the Fourth Coalition, King Frederick William III of Prussia fled with his court from Berlin to Königsberg.
The city was a centre for political resistance to Napoleon. In order to foster liberalism and nationalism among the Prussian middle class, the “League of Virtue” was founded in Königsberg in April 1808.
The French forced its dissolution in December 1809, though its ideals were continued by the Turnbewegung of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in Berlin. Königsberg officials, such as Johann Gottfried Frey, formulated much of Stein’s 1808 Städteordnung, or new order for urban communities, which emphasized self-administration for Prussian towns. The East Prussian Landwehr was organized from the city after the Convention of Tauroggen.
In 1819 Königsberg had a population of 63,800. It served as the capital of the united Province of Prussia from 1824–1878, when East Prussia was merged with West Prussia. It was also the seat of the Regierungsbezirk Königsberg, an administrative subdivision.
Led by the provincial president Theodor von Schön and the Königsberger Volkszeitung newspaper, Königsberg was a stronghold of liberalism against the conservative government of King Frederick William IV.
During the revolution of 1848, there were 21 episodes of public unrest in the city; major demonstrations were suppressed.
Königsberg became part of the German Empire in 1871 during the Prussian-led unification of Germany.
A sophisticated for its time series of fortifications around the city that included fifteen forts was completed in 1888.
The extensive Prussian Eastern Railway linked the city to Breslau, Thorn, Insterburg, Eydtkuhnen, Tilsit, and Pillau. In 1860 the railway connecting Berlin with St. Petersburg was completed and increased Königsberg’s commerce.
Extensive electric tramways were in operation by 1900; and regular steamers plied to Memel, Tapiau and Labiau, Cranz, Tilsit, and Danzig.
The completion of a canal to Pillau in 1901 increased the trade of Russian grain in Königsberg, though like much of eastern Germany, the city’s economy was generally in decline.
By 1900 the city’s population had grown to 188,000, with a 9,000-strong military garrison. By 1914 Königsberg had a population of 246,000; Jews flourished in the culturally pluralistic city.
Following the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I, Imperial Germany was replaced with the democratic Weimar Republic.
The Kingdom of Prussia ended with the abdication of the Hohenzollern monarch, William, and the kingdom was succeeded by the Free State of Prussia. Königsberg and East Prussia, however, were separated from the rest of Weimar Germany by the creation of the Polish Corridor.
In 1930 Nazis demolished Jewish shops and, like all over Germany, a public book burning was organized accompanied by anti-Semitic speeches in May 1933 at the Trommelplatz square. Street names and monuments of Jewish origin were removed, and signs like “Jews are not welcomed in hotels” started appearing. As part of the statewide “aryanization” of the civil service Jewish academics were thrown out of the university.
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.
On July 1934 Adolf Hitler made a speech in the city, gathering 25,000 supporters In 1933 NSDAP alone received 54% of votes in the city
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.
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.
In 1935, the Wehrmacht designated Königsberg as the Headquarters for Wehrkreis I (under the command of General der Artillerie Albert Wodrig), which took in all of East Prussia. According to the census of May 1939, Königsberg had a population of 372,164.
Prior to the Nazi era, Königsberg was home to a third of East Prussia’s 13,000 Jews. The city’s Jewish population shrank from 3,200 in 1933 to 2,100 in October 1938. The New Synagogue of Königsberg, constructed in 1896, was destroyed during Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938); 500 Jews soon fled the city.
After the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, Königsberg’s Jews began to be deported to camps such as Maly Trostenets, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz.During the war corpses of prisoners from Königsberg’s prison were used for experimental production of human soap by Nazis at the Stutthof concentration camp.
Destruction in World War II
In September 1939 with the German invasion against Poland ongoing, the Polish consulate in Königsberg was attacked (which constituted a violation of international law), its workers arrested and sent to concentration camps where several of them died.
Polish students from local university were captured, tortured and finally executed. Other victims included local Polish civilians guillotined for petty violations of Nazi law and regulations such as buying and selling meat.
In September 1944 there were 69,000 slave labourers registered in the city (not counting prisoners of war), with most of them working on the outskirts; within the city itself 15,000 slave labourers were located.
All of them were denied freedom of movement, forced to wear “P” sign if Poles, or “Ost” sign if they were from Soviet Union and were watched by special units of Gestapo and Wehrmacht.
They were denied basic spiritual and physical needs and food, and suffered from famine and exhaustion. The conditions of the forced labour were described as “tragic”, especially Poles and Russians were treated especially harshly by their German overseers.
Ordered to paint German ships with toxic paints and chemicals they were not given out gas-masks nor was there any ventilation in facilities where they worked in order to speed up the construction of the ships, while the substances evaporated in temperatures as low as 40 Celsius;as a result there were cases of sudden death during the work or illness.
In 1944 Königsberg suffered heavy damage from British bombing attacks and burned for several days. The historic city centre, especially the original quarters Altstadt, Löbenicht, and Kneiphof, was destroyed, including the cathedral, the castle, all churches of the old city, the old and the new universities, and the old shipping quarters.
Many people fled Königsberg ahead of the Red Army’s advance after October 1944, particularly after word spread of the Soviet atrocities at Nemmersdorf.
In early 1945 Soviet forces under the command of the Polish-born Soviet Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky besieged the city that Hitler had envisaged as the home for a museum holding all the Germans had ‘found in Russia’.
In Operation Samland, General Baghramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, now known as the Samland Group, captured Königsberg in April.
Although Hitler had declared Königsberg an “invincible bastion of German spirit”, the Soviets captured the city after three-month-long siege.
A temporary German breakout had allowed some of the remaining civilians to escape via train and naval evacuation from the nearby port of Pillau. Königsberg, which had been declared a “fortress” (Festung) by the Germans, was fanatically defended.
On 21 January during the Red Army’s East Prussian Offensive, mostly Polish and Hungarian Jews from Seerappen, Jesau, Heiligenbeil, Schippenbeil, and Gerdauen (subcamps of Stutthof concentration camp) were gathered in Königsberg. Up to 7,000 of them were forced on a death march to Sambia; those that survived were subsequently executed at Palmnicken.
On April 9 — one month before the end of the war in Europe — the German military commander of Königsberg, General Otto Lasch, surrendered the remnants of his forces following the three-month-long siege by the Red Army.
For this act, Lasch was condemned to death in absentia by Hitler.
At the time of the surrender, military and civilian dead in the city were estimated at 42,000, with the Red Army claiming over 90,000 prisoners.
Lasch’s subterranean command bunker was preserved as a museum in today’s Kaliningrad.
About 120,000 survivors remained in the ruins of the devastated city. These survivors, mainly women, children and the elderly, plus a few others who had returned immediately after the fighting ended, were held as slave labourers until 1949. The vast majority of the German civilians left in Königsberg after 1945 died from disease or starvation, or in revenge-driven ethnic cleansing. The remaining 20,000 German residents were expelled in 1949–50.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, when the city was captured by the Soviet Union, it became part of the Russian SFSR as agreed to by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference. In 1946 the city’s name was changed to Kaliningrad.