The Thrill of Amber – Germany’s Historical East – A Plea for Humanity
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Escape from Königsberg, Prussia, January 1945
“My dearest father,
…. We were going to go out and, all of a sudden, planes came and – rum, rum – the bombs fell without any alarm. And from then on things became very unsettled and we heard the very loud artillery fire.
…. and wanted to go back to Germany, because it was high time. Sunday afternoon we tried to get on a steamer, but we were always shot at…. That night we took an icebreaker to Pillau, for it was very quiet. In the morning we arrived in Pillau and immediately got on a large freighter, the Göttingen, and after 8 days arrived in Swinemünde and from there we went to Güstrow by train…
Now I want to close and let’s hope that the war will end soon.
(Güstrow, February 10, 1945, excerpt from a letter from my mother Eva-Maria to her father Paul Kuhrau.)
For my Mama
1944, some months before fleeing from Königsberg
The conquest of East Prussia
Immeasurable suffering and misery all over the world. That describes the years 1944/1945, which were certainly among the most terrible times in human history. And in one of the harshest winters in East Prussia, a traumatic chapter of German history began: the conquest of East Prussia by the Red Army. Germany’s east was left to its own fate. Evacuation was repeatedly rejected – “East Prussia will be held, evacuation is out of the question.” For reasons of propaganda, the fortress of Königsberg was not to be abandoned. In the end, the order to evacuate East Prussia came much too late. And so, civilian population there, the majority of them, elderly, women and children were knowingly sacrificed.
The Weeping Soldier and the Baby – On board the freighter Göttingen, January 1945
My maternal relatives – my grandma with her three children – fled on an icebreaker from Königsberg on the evening of January 28, 1945 and arrived in Pillau the next morning. Carrying some 3,000 refugees and 2,500 slightly wounded people, the freighter Göttingen left Pillau the same day about 7 pm. My Mama, her mother and her sisters slept on the floor in the radio cabin. Suddenly, the radio operator was shaking all over and called out that the Gustloff had been hit. That night, 28 survivors were rescued from the freezing water. My Mama saw how two soldiers took a dead woman out of the Baltic Sea who was still holding her baby in her arms, which was crying terribly. When the soldiers were both on board, one took the baby from the dead mother’s grasp and also started crying bitterly. Mama said she would never forget that image: the crying soldier with the baby in his arms.
Everyone disembarked in Swinemünde. And only a few days later the Göttingen was torpedoed and sank on February 23, 1945, off Libau-Reede. Five hundred people died.
Those who were lucky finally arrived in West Germany, traumatized by the terrible experiences of expulsion and fleeing over the backwaters (Curonian Lagoon), the Curonian Spit or the Baltic Sea. From now on, all displaced persons had to rebuild their lives far away from their beloved homeland. They accepted their fate without complaint. There was no time to process the traumas of war. Thus, human suffering and longing for the beloved homeland remained buried in their souls and under the rubble and ruins of Germany.
Uprooting and a lonely death
An estimated 14 million refugees had to leave their homes, losing everything, all their belongings. Approximately 2 million died while in transit. Germany lost a quarter of its territory. Refugees and displaced persons, unlike those in 2015, were not welcomed with applause and teddy bears.
On the contrary, they were not welcomed by the majority of West Germans, who feared having to share their possessions with these “barbarians from the East.” For many, the eastern territories were backward and the people who lived there were only uneducated “Ge socks.” Few recognized that Prussia was in many respects much more advanced than West Germany. Since there was no such welcome as in 2015, the Allies had to organize the forced quartering of the new arrivals.
My maternal family was housed in Barmstedt, Schleswig-Holstein, in a room only 12 square meters in size. That is where my grandparents lived with their three children. All the furniture and carpets were removed in front of them, only a picture with a biblical saying still hung on the wall. My grandmother then asked the lady of the house to please take the picture down as well, because, after all, they were not able to sit on it. Which the woman then did, red-faced.
That’s how it was back then. That’s probably how the majority of Germans treated their own countrymen. West Germans were prejudiced against the newcomers, who were after all “subhuman” – the “refugee horde.” The attitude was widespread, especially in Schleswig-Holstein, because it had taken in the highest percentage of refugees in Germany, with displaced persons comprising about one-third of the state’s total population in 1950. This was another reason why my family had a particularly hard time of it in Barmstedt.
The refugees from Germany’s eastern territories were never integrated into society. Nor was such an integration wanted, since the newcomers were reminders of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi dictatorship and thus also of western Germans’ own guilt during that time. Both sides refused to think or speak about what had happened. It was more of a silent assimilation. Even the numerous associations formed by refugees had a very hard time, were often politically instrumentalized by the political parties and, since the 1970s, branded as revanchist.
In order not to attract further attention, most of the refugees worked quietly building their new lives and tried to forget the horror of their time on the run. Now a second displacement and disappearance began. For with the collective silence, the recollections of Germany’s East were also erased from memory.
This historical East, “the land of dark forests and crystal lakes,” was to be banished forever. Not only had the refugees lost their homeland and all their possessions, now all memory of towns like Königsberg, Tilsit, Insterburg, Cranz, Rauschen was also to be banished.
They endured immeasurable suffering, which became unspoken pain and often ended with a lonely death in an anonymous nursing home many years later, especially during the pandemic in 2020. This is how Germany has thanked this war generation. It is shameful.
Fortunately, this generation of the war grandchildren is more at ease and consciously accepts the legacy of their parents, so that the times and the lives of this generation, who basically suffered the fate representative of all Germans, are kept alive in the “culture of remembrance”.
Even today, there is still a gap between those who lost their homeland and those who did not have to suffer this fate. I, too, as a war granddaughter, always feel different, apart and often alienated in many situations. A stranger in my own country.
What remains even today is an amputated, broken Germany; lost are the wealth, beauty and nature of a vast landscape, the rough wide Baltic Sea, a unique natural and cultural landscape with its elks, Trakehner and precious, golden amber – Germany’s historical East.
They are losses that have never been quantified. In addition, everything Prussian has been erased from Germany’s “culture of remembrance.” What remains is a highly traumatized German population that, with the mantra of “collective guilt,” has had no chance to develop an identity with the fatherland and a healthy sense of patriotism.
“Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Spoken by NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, those words are still valid today.
Victims of war
Have we learned nothing from past wars? It seems as if humanity has not made any progress. As in the conquest of East Prussia, in all wars it is the civilian population, mostly the women, children and elderly, who suffer the most.
It has now been proven that the generation of war children passed on, unaware, the horror, suffering and misery of the war to their own children, to the generation of so-called war grandchildren, my generation. I am thus all the more shocked by the current situation in the world, and especially in Germany. Because given the majority’s clear support for arms deliveries to Ukraine, Germany seems to have learned nothing from the madness of the two world wars and the atrocities that happen when people are displaced from their homes and must flee for their lives.
War is war and is horrible no matter which country has been identified as the instigator by the public. People die, war crimes happen, and the main victims are and always will be the civilian population.
Vietnam, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the 9/11 attacks – to name just a few of the horrific events the world has experienced. In Ukraine, a proxy conflict between two nuclear powers, the US and Russia, is raging in the middle of Europe. Here, too, the civilian population is suffering. Here, too, people are fighting each other, fueled by the hatred and delusion of ideological propaganda. But who is actually fighting each other? Is it not basically a fraternal people? Is it not the “Kievan Rus, the Old East Slavic Great Empire, Old Russia or Kievan Russia, the cradle of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus?”
No one wants war
Fear and hatred towards people from other countries are most effective as propaganda tools to steer the masses in the desired direction. No one wants war – propaganda purposefully leads people into wars. And numerous industries benefit. People are diving deeper and deeper into division and fear. A deep-seated fear where all logic, reason, and sense of proportion, has been eliminated. When emotions take over, reason is turned off, and the propaganda has achieved its goal.
In the German population already traumatized by war, “the German angst” finds particularly fertile ground.
Thus, blindly controlled, humans are robbed of their humanity. People with other opinions on the virus, on the responses to it, on the Ukraine crisis, on the role of the US, on NATO are systematically denigrated and censored; and not only in dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. Democracy, freedom of opinion and a self-determined life seem to be a thing of the past.
“If you can’t do anything, go into politics”
In its current composition, Germany’s government seems to be the manifestation of this sentence. And in Germany, we now probably have a generation in government that is not comprised of war grandchildren – otherwise, they would certainly not be advocating loudly for the arms build-up. Who can seriously believe that arms supplies lead to ceasefire and peace? Division and fear have made any factual dialogue impossible. Our democracy has been replaced by a party state, almost like that in China. Government representatives, or actually representatives of the people, are only interested in securing their sphere of power. For quite some time, it has not been about “the people” or even about people and their needs. The human race is increasingly losing its humanity.
Servants of the US
The guiding principle of the Bundeswehr is WE SERVE GERMANY. But is it really so? If this motto is to be fulfilled, Germany would first have to define its own interests in order to be able to act in the interests of the German people.
The only problem is that, since the end of the Second World War, the mantra of collective guilt has been systematically perpetuated. There is a lack of healthy patriotism. Thus, it is hardly possible to define one’s own national interests and to enter with them into interactions with other states.
Looking at today’s Ukraine-Russia armed conflict, it cannot be in Germany’s interest to have a bad relationship with Russia. Quite the contrary: the Germans and Russians are connected by a great, albeit in part very painful history, as Vladimir Putin noted in his famous speech to the Bundestag in September 2001: “…. I would like to emphasize that history, like oceans, not only divides but also connects. It is important to interpret this history correctly.”
There used to be a peaceful Putin, one who extended his hand to all of us; the German government unfortunately rejected it at the time. Where would we be today if we had taken a step towards Putin? Certainly not virtually on the brink of a third world war.
It is in Germany’s interest to maintain a good political and economic partnership with Russia in order to achieve a geopolitical balance, especially in Eurasia. Germany’s location – in the middle of Europe – obliges it to do just that. But this is not in the interests of the US and the UK. The US’s goal is to continue to secure world leadership and the dominance of the dollar. A strong German-Russian partnership would be a great danger politically and economically, especially since the US would then also lose its geopolitical influence in Eurasia. But also, the current crisis is forcing China and Russia closer together and could in the end endanger the US’s goal of securing world leadership as well.
A strong German-Russian alliance would shift the geopolitical balance to the east and give Germany a leading role on the world stage. But that is precisely what is not wanted. To maintain control in Europe and in Germany, it is important to keep Germany firmly in the NATO alliance. NATO serves only US interests, not European or German interests.
Basically, we Germans should be grateful to Russia and especially to Gorbachev for the reunification of our country. In order to placate the other Western nations, Germany had to ensure that it would become a “European Germany” and that it would join and subordinate itself to the EU and NATO.
The French geographer and geopolitician Jacques Ancel (1879–1943), among others, can be a good source of inspiration and reflection to get through this time of global madness more or less unscathed mentally. Ancel shaped a very human vision of French geopolitics. According to Ancel, man is the creator of the global world order and togetherness. The identity of the heart in which “human groups … achieve a harmonious equilibrium and … finally recognize boundaries derived from a common memory, history, culture, and language.” Thus, “human groups [are what] achieve a harmonious balance, ultimately recognizing borders based on a common memory, history and language.” The result is “a nation of the heart in and of itself, non-rational.” Thus, the way is paved for the emergence of the much-needed nations of the heart.
In fact, history is a strength and not a weakness. According to Ancel’s vision, Germany, Poland and Russia might be at the crossroads of arbitrary borders and of borders of civilization. There are, on the one hand, the so-called arbitrary borders, which are more fraught, more strategic borders that have resulted from military pretensions. The borders of civilization, on the other hand, are more permanent as these borders are based on a common memory, common history and common language arising from a group of humans in equilibrium.
According to Ancel, the boundary is “a political isobar that establishes for a certain time the equilibrium between two pressure areas: the equilibrium of mass and the equilibrium of forces.”] Thus, the real problem is not a question of borders. Because borders will always exist, especially in a globalized world. “There are no problems of borders. There are only problems of nation.” In the same spirit: “A solid nation, one in harmony, exists even without visible borders.”
Jacques Ancel consequently argues for man as creator. “One does not revise borders, except by force; one changes the mind or the attitude.” If you look at today, we are very far away from this change in attitude.
It can also be helpful to remember what Helmut Kohl said in the Bundestag on June 23, 1983 about the state of the nation: “…. there is only one German nation. Its existence is not at the disposal of governments and majority decisions. It has grown historically, a part of Christian, European culture, shaped by its location in the middle of the continent. The German nation thus existed before the nation-state, and it has outlived it; that is important for our future.”
The thrill of amber, or nature answers in German
“Culture has never known borders. Culture has always been our common good and has united peoples.” Vladimir Putin – September 25, 2001
To my great happiness, I have experienced for myself how true this quote is – when I was to travel for the first time to the homeland of my ancestors, to Germany’s historical East, to East Prussia, Könisgberg (today Kaliningrad), and West Prussia, Schneidemühl (today Pila).
From the very first moment, I was overwhelmed by a strong sense of connection to a region I only knew from stories told by my parents and grandparents. And yet I was constantly surrounded by a sense of déjà vu – feeling I know it all, I’ve been here before. I heard Polish or Russian spoken and yet I had a feeling as if someone was “dubbing the film I was going through.”
An inner compass lovingly guided me through the streets of Königsberg and Schneidemühl; I stood in front of my dad’s parents’ house in Gartenstrasse, saw the garden where he played and walked along the little river, just like he did. I stood in front of the gate of the abandoned barracks in Kanonenweg in Königsberg. On the left of the bel étage, the first floor, was the apartment and I saw the kitchen window from which my Mama often climbed out as a child, holding on to the window and shouting “Help me down or I’ll jump.” A soldier was always immediately on hand to help my Mama down. I went down the Kanonenweg, then Cranzer Allee, as my Mama had described to me, to the Oberteich where she had always had an ice cream.
I watched the people, Poles and Russians, listened to the bells of the Könisgberg Cathedral, which we had always heard at Christmas played from a record, and as I recalled my grandparents’ teary eyes, I felt their longing for “the land of dark forests.”
For me, these are still poignant moments that I always remember with great pleasure. Everywhere in West Prussia, in the historic towns such as Osterode, Allenstein, Tannenberg, Elbing, Marienburg and Rastenburg, all the way to Masuria, in East Prussia, in the former Cranz, along the Curonian Spit, to Rossitten, I felt a strong source of strength, my source, which has been omnipresent within me and guided me through my life ever since. The people, Poles and Russians, were all extremely loving and I always felt welcome. As soon as they noticed that I am German and that my family is from here, they responded joyfully in German. Fortunately, all hatred was gone. Landscape, nature and culture are connecting and enveloping us all with love and protection.
In particular, I felt this on the Curonian Spit, on the brisk Baltic Sea shore with its waves. I shouted into the wind, “Grandma, Grandpa, I’ve come back!” And I heard their laughter. And when I walked through the “forest of dancing trees” on the Curonian Split and the strong winds were rustling through the boughs, I looked up at the sky and nature was whispering in German – identity of the heart.
I’ve come back – finally, back to the roots.
Note: This is a republishing. The original essay is published by moderndiplomacy.eu
References and reading tips
Ancel, Jacques (1938): Géographie des frontières, Gallimard.
Banik, Katja (2021): A clear view eastwards: Russia and Germany, www.katjabanik.com
Banik, Katja (2021): Without roots, no future. Decoupling ideologies, www.katjabanik.com
Banik, Katja (2019): Europe and China in a globalized world. The geopolitical impacts of Belt and Road, worldscientific.com
Banik, Katja (2016): Les relations Chine-Europe: à la croisée des chemins, L'Harmattan.
Banik, Katja, Jan Lüdert (2020): Assessing Securization: China's Belt and Road Initiative, E-International Relations, e-ir.info
Bode, Sabine (2009): Kriegsenkel. Die Erben der vergessenen Generation, Klett-Cotta.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1971): Between two ages: America's role in the technotronic era, Greenwood Press.
German Bundestag: Minutes of Vladimir Putin's speech in the German Bundestag on 25.9.2001.
General Lasch (1959): So fiel Königsberg, Gräfe und Unzer Verlag.
Großbongardt, Klußmann, Pötzl (eds., 2020): Die Deutschen im Osten Europas. Eroberer, Siedler, Vertriebene. Bassermann Verlag.
Kossert, Andreas (2009): Kalte Heimat: die Geschichte der deutschen Vertriebenen nach 1945, Pantheon Verlag.
Putin (2021): Being open, despite the past, Die Zeit.
Ratzel, Friedrich (1941): Erdenmacht und Völkerschicksal, Alfred Kröner Verlag.
Teltschik, Horst (2019): Russisches Roulette: vom kalten Krieg zum kalten Frieden, CH Beck.
Schön, Heinz (2004): Die Tragödie der Flüchtlingsschiffe. Gesunken in der Ostsee 1944/45, Motorbuch Verlag.
Wagener, Martin (2021): Der Kulturkampf um das deutsche Volk. Der Verfassungsschutz und die nationale Identität der Deutschen. Lauverlag
Video: Sturm über Ostpreußen – Ostpreußen im Inferno 44-55 Teil 1.
Author, speaker and guest lecturer on current geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, EU and the US
Blog: Katja Banik's blog