In the Lost World of East Prussia

NGS Image Collection/Art Archive/Art Resource
Marienburg Castle, the former headquarters of the Teutonic Order, Marienburg, East Prussia, 1928. The castle, in what is now Poland, was damaged significantly during World War II, but has since been mostly reconstructed.

German history has a Stunde Null, a zero hour. It applies to the capitulation at midnight on May 8, 1945, or more generally to the end of World War II. Germans experienced the unconditional surrender of the National Socialist state amid unprecedented destruction of the existing built environment, political system, and cultural order, mass mental trauma, and social and economic dislocation. In fact, much soon returned to relative normality, helped by the thorny process of denazification, which was always more thorough for institutions and ideas than for personnel. Whether in the western and southern regions, soon to be reconstituted as the Federal Republic, or in the zone of Soviet occupation, soon to become the Democratic Republic, the future would still, like the past, be a German one.

The real Stunde Null occurred hundreds of kilometers further east. There, the future parted company with the past. East Prussia had always been a bastion, a far-flung realm of Germandom, ever since its foundation on distant shores of the Baltic (the Ostsee, or eastern sea, as Germans call it) by the Teutonic Knights seven centuries earlier (see map on page 56). Its name of “Prussia,” originally derived from an indigenous tribe, was then descriptive of terrain standing under the Polish crown. The word came by stages to be applied loosely to the whole Germanic kingdom of the Hohenzollern dynasty, as promulgated by a first coronation—of Frederick I—in Königsberg, Prussia’s chief city, in 1701.1

For all its later extension to the Rhineland and much of middle Germany, the old heartlands of Prussia in the East continued to furnish the country’s stereotypes.2 Noble landowners (“Junkers”) and great estates supplied a vital part of its ethos—and liability; so did a Lutheran church much given to pietistic forms of devotion. Such values were sustained into the twentieth century by tariff concessions for landowners and subsidies for Protestant organizations.

Historic Prussia also embodied, psychologically and culturally, German claims to dominance. For what Nazi ideologues came to prize as “blood and soil,” Blut und Boden, the organic linkage of race with territory, East Prussia was crucial, even if plenty of Germans also shared Frederick the Great’s view of a remote and primitive province more suited to bears than humans. So it was symbolic, as well as strategic, that Hitler relocated to East Prussia (however much he allegedly preferred the Alps), and spent two thirds of his time there in the years after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Near Rastenburg he had his “wolf’s lair,” the Wolfsschanze,3 built to his own designs. That is where, on July 20, 1944, the most celebrated and promising…

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