Seventy years ago this month, the remnants of the German 4th Army were engaged in a fighting retreat across East Prussia as the tide of war turned firmly in favour of the Soviet Red Army. Clearing their remaining concentration camps as they went, the Germans became encircled in the ‘Heligenbeil Pocket’, their final rallying point the historic city of Konigsberg.
By this point Konigsberg lay in ruins. A massive Royal Air Force raid in August 1944 had destroyed a huge percentage of the building stock and caused thousands of fatalities. The subsequent Soviet artillery onslaught that began in January 1945 lay further waste to the great East Prussian capital.
Konigsberg was renowned across Europe as a leading intellectual centre, best personified by its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. It had prestigious universities, extensive libraries and museums, contained the best of Prussian architecture and was an important mercantile centre, home to many Baltic noble families.
On the 9th April 1945, Commandant Otto Lasch surrendered Konigsberg after a devastating three month siege by the Soviets in the hope of preserving the lives of the few remaining citizens of the city. Acting against Hitler’s orders, Lasch was sentenced to death in absentia.
During the Red Army assault, hundreds of thousands of East Prussian civilians made a desperate dash to the West in the hope of survival. Stories of the Soviet brutalities (none of them unfounded) led to a mass population upheaval almost unprecedented in European history.
Those trying to escape by ship often fell prey to the merciless Soviet submarines operating in the Baltic; others seeking an overland route towards the Polish border were shot at by Soviet fighter aircraft. These innocent civilians were offered no support by Stalin’s Western allies and the Potsdam agreement subsequently awarded the entire area of East Prussia surrounding Konigsberg to the Soviet Union.
Renamed Kaliningrad, after Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin, the former Konigsberg was transformed into a typically characterless Soviet city, its heritage and history destroyed in a matter of months. The remaining German population was either executed or forcibly evacuated and the beautiful Konigsberg Cathedral and Castle were allowed to lie in ruins as a macabre testimony to Soviet victory.
The scourge of Nazism brought considerable devastation to the German people and its territory. Some of it was deserved whilst some of it was unnecessarily violent on the part of the Allied powers. The brutal destruction of Konigsberg and the subsequent violent upheaval of the civilian population of East Prussia surely falls into the latter category when, even after the German surrender, the Soviets were allowed to rampage on without censure.
Seventy years on, it is hoped that Konigsberg is remembered for its extensive contribution to European cultural and intellectual history, and also for the sacrifice it was forced to make because of Nazi and Soviet excesses.