German tragedy of destiny

East Prussia







At the end of the war 2,307,000 people were driven out of East Prussia, of which 295,000 lost their lives on the way.


In this province once lived 2,719,000 Germans in 4778 settlements.


Major cities:

Königsberg, Allenstein, Braunsberg, Elbing, Goldap, Gumbinnen, Heilsberg, Insterburg,

Marienburg, Memel, Neidenburg, Osterode, Rosenberg, Tilsit and Treuburg




East Prussia during peace time



East Prussia in a nutshell


Province capital: Königsberg

Area: 36,993 km²

Population: 2,025,741 (1905)

Previously: Duchy of Prussia


With Königsberg and the Memel country the province of East Prussia was larger than the Netherlands.


The narrow strip of the Memel country always belonged to the province of East Prussia. In 1923 the Memel country was annexed by Lithuania and in 1939 was returned to the German Reich.


The larger southern part of East Prussia is now Polish territory, the northern portion around Königsberg came to Russia. Such way the former Soviet Union has secured an access to the Baltic Sea, together with the adherent port.


However, this area has become an exclave since Lithuania came away from Russia and turned to the West.


 Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia)


 History of East Prussia


around 16000 B.C.

First traces of settlement after the end of the Ice Age on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.


98 A.D.

Mention by Tacitus in his work Germania.


Settlement by Germanic tribes from the 10th century.


Attempt by the Teutonic Order of Knights and the Polish princes to take this area of the Baltic tribes for themselves.



Emperor Frederick II confirmed in the Golden Bull of Rimini that the land rights of this region belong to the Teutonic Order of Knights.



Pope Gregory IX formally confirmed this right again in the Golden Bull of Rieti.



After the defeat of Tannenberg the Teutonic Order of Knights lost West Prussia and had to recognize the Polish suzerainty over East Prussia.



At the Diet of Augsburg the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order of Knights obtained the fiefdom of Prussia.



The Prussian Duchy of Brandenburg went to the Brandenburg line of the House of Hohenzollern.



The Brandenburg Elector Friedrich III was crowned in Königsberg as King of Prussia.



After the western parts of Poland have fallen to Prussia, Frederick II of Prussia named the new territories West Prussia and the former Duchy of Prussia East Prussia.



As part of the Versailles dictate parts of East Prussia were transferred to Poland. The land connection between the German Reich and East Prussia was separated by a Polish corridor.



By flight and expulsion more than 2,000,000 Germans lost their East Prussian homeland.


Königsberg, the then German city (now Kaliningrad, Russia)


The advance of the Red Army


Between 12 and 14 January 1945 the Red Army launched the most powerful offensive of the Second World War. The German lines in the province of East Prussia were broken by the 2. and 3. Belorussian Fronts. The Soviet armored at a rate of 70 km per day. Because of this pace no closed line of defence could be organized. On 27 January 1945 the red attack formations reached the Baltic Sea at Elbing from the south and on 31 January the Oder at Küstrin. This way East Prussia was completely cut off by land from the German Reich. But with fierce resistance the towns Königsberg, Heiligenbeil and Danzig could be held. As a result, thousands of refugees could reach the ports of the Baltic Sea through the River Haff.





The small village of Nemmersdorf on the border of East Prussia, between Insterburg and Gumbinnen gained tragic notoriety.


On 21 October 1944 Soviet troops entered there first time on German soil.


The Soviet tanks rolled over the fleeing families with horses and carts, human and animal bodies crushed to a pulp.


The next day German troops recaptured the village. They found about 20 bodies of women, children and the elderly. The victims were raped, mutiliated, slain.



Witnesses of the event said that people were even nailed naked to a barn door by the Soviets.


In many settlements south of Gumbinnen bodies of civilians lay en masse on the roadside and in the ports who had been murdered methodically.


Killed children and women in the village of Metgethen



Escape to the west


On 12 January 1945 the Soviet army marched into East Prussia opening a broad front.


The attack began with a massive artillery fire on the German positions. With a tenfold superiority the Red Army broke through the relatively sparse positions of the German Wehrmacht.


There were no natural obstacles and the Russian tanks moved with a high pace, followed by motorized infantry.


People fled in panic to the west. The trains that left from Königsberg were totally overcrowded.


Front page of U.S. newspaper on the fall of Königsberg


They were mostly women and children who fled. All able-bodied men served as soldiers or as members of the Volkssturm.


The people had to leave everything they owned. The animals froze to death in the cold stables, died of thirst because the water was frozen, starved or perished in frenzied pain because there was no one who to milk them.


Icy death on the roads


Within a few days, all roads to the bridges over the Vistula leading to Marienburg and Dirschau were hopelessly clogged with refugees.


The roads were full of snow and ice. The horses slipped out in front of the overloaded carts and could not be passed by because beside the road they immediately sank up to their bellies in the snow.


The old people froze to death in the first few nights. The wet diapers of the infants froze rock-hard and they had no chance of survival.


The dead could not be buried in the stone-hard earth. They had to be placed on the roadside. Many remains were dragged away and eaten by wild animals.



Escape over the Haff


On 26 January 1945 the Soviet army pressed forward at Elbing, near Danzig, as far as the Baltic Sea. By this, most of East Prussia was cut off from the rest of the German Reich.


The flight on the country roads to the west became impossible. What remained was the way across the Baltic Sea. In order to achieve a saving port the refugees had to reach Pillau through Königsberg or the Frische Haff through the frozen Frische Haff.


At Heiligenbeil the German troops defended a cauldron open to the sea as well as the Haff. Out of this cauldron that was compressed more and more by the Soviets, thousands of refugees started a dangerous escape over the ice.


The 20-kilometer trek on the ice was marked with small trees by German soldiers so that the refugees not lost the direction on the huge sheet of ice. Soon, this marker was no longer necessary: frozen bodies, frozen animal carcasses, destroyed carts and lost belongings marked the path. In the afternoon, the bodies were recovered and buried in the cemetery of Heiligenbeil. Each day there were about 50 victims who were put in paper bags because coffins were no longer there.




Frosty death on the ice


The flight over the ice of the Haff was a race with death. The endless white surface offered an ideal target for the Allied war planes to machine-gun the refugees.


Often, the ice was dyed red with the blood of the wounded and dying.

The thickness of the ice was irregular and through fire and bombs also brittle and cracked. Many wagons sank with all families in the icy water, with horses and carts.


The refugees were easy target for the low-flying Soviet planes. The dark bodies stood out sharply from the white ground. On the giant ice there was no cover and no escape. In the spring, after the melting, thousands of shattered bodies were drifted to the shore.


At night, the journey was no less dangerous. Although there was no more low-flying aircraft, it lurked the danger of coming off the road and the thinner ice broke under many refugees.


Who finally reached the ships lulled themselves into a false sense of security. Many died by bombs and torpedo attacks.


295,000 dead





Important personalities of

East Prussia


Famous names; who knows their East Prussian roots?


 Rudolf Borchardt - Königsberg, 1877-1945, writer


 Simon Dach - Memel, 1605-1659, poet, professor


 Countess Marion von Dönhoff - Castle Friedrichstein, 1909-2002, journalist


 Johann Christoph Gottsched - Juditten, 1700-1766, scientist, writer


 Johann Georg Hamann - Königsberg, 1730-1788, philosopher


 Johann Gottfried Herder - Mohrungen, 1744-1803, poet


E.T.A. Hoffmann - Königsberg, 1776-1822, jurist, poet, conductor 


 Immanuel Kant - Königsberg, 1724-1804, philosopher


 Käthe Kollwitz - Königsberg, 1867-1945, painter and sculptor


Siegfried Lenz - Lyck, 1929-, writer


Albert Lieven - Hohenstein,

1906-1971, actor


Agnes Miegel - Königsberg,

1879-1964, poet


Max von Schenkendorf - Tilsit,

1783-1817, poet


 Hermann Sudermann - Matzicken (Heidekrug), 1857-1928, writer


Ernst Wichert - Insterburg,

1831-1902, jurist, writer



East Prussia and its capital, Königsberg, emitted for centuries significant spiritual and cultural impulses.