The Buzz

Transforming German Königsberg into Soviet Kaliningrad

In continuation of our [Kennan Institute] alumni interview series, we talked with Title VIII-supported Research Scholar Nicole Eaton to hear her reflections on her fellowship. Dr. Eaton, Assistant Professor of History at Boston College, is writing a book on politics, everyday life, and the German-Soviet encounter in Königsberg-Kaliningrad. See the discussion below on the broader context of German and Soviet occupations, postwar urban rebuilding, nationalities policies, and forced migrations.

Malinkin: Can you talk about some of the ways the Kaliningrad occupation was different from some other Eastern European occupations. What was different about Kaliningrad?

Eaton: What is peculiar about Kaliningrad is that it became part of the Soviet Union—part of the Russian Socialist Republic—but had never been in the Soviet Union before. What is even more peculiar about this place is that when it became Soviet, it did so in a decision-making vacuum; in complete isolation, where it wasn't clear exactly what the future of this place would be. It was only understood from Stalin's conversations during the Conference in Potsdam in 1945 that this territory wouldn't be a German state, and it was later determined that it would be part of Russia. However, neither the military nor Moscow knew what to do with it. What’s interesting to me is how people on the ground had to become self-sufficient, rebuild the city, and make it socialist.

You mentioned that this was the only instance in which two regimes, the Nazis and the Soviet Union, governed the same city, but not as occupiers. Can you explain this?

Kaliningrad is not the analog of a Nazi-occupied Kyiv, Vilnius, or Warsaw. When the Soviets came to Konigsberg to make it Kaliningrad, the idea was that after this brief interim period, by 1946, it would be part of the Soviet Union, a Soviet territory, and that Soviet rules would apply there. If you think in terms of the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, it was understood as a military occupation. Kyiv would never become another Berlin, Stuttgart, or Munich. Kyiv was going to be specifically a city that was in a hierarchy below German cities.

What was the Nazis’ plan for Konigsberg? Did they view it as a second-tier city as well?

Konigsberg had been a German city for seven hundred years, and it was proclaimed after the First World War that its territory, East Prussia, was to be cut off from Germany. But it was absolutely, fundamentally a part of Germany, the same way that Anchorage, Alaska, is cut off geographically, but is an integral part of the United States. This was one of the great frustrations after the Versailles treaty, since this region had been separated, but was still a part of Germany. The Nazis promised to fix that mistake and this made them the most popular party by 1933 (they had the highest number of votes in East Prussia). And they did fix it, when they invaded Poland. They imagined Konigsberg as a template for a Nazi dream of agrarian settlement, of Germany’s small farmers working the land.

When Soviet citizens were sent to Konigsberg, how were they chosen and how much support were they given to rebuild the city? As I understand, there was a "grey period," when the Red Army was on the ground and there was a conscious decision to make this a Soviet city.

Germans remained there for two and a half years before they were all expelled. In October 1945 there were only about 5,000 Soviet civilians, plus the Red Army administrators and half-mobilized troops, who remained behind. The Germans were by far the majority for the first year and a half. Then a large settlement campaign was organized by Moscow with people from central Russia, and, to a lesser degree, from Belarus and Ukraine. They sent mostly ethnic Russians to Kaliningrad to work the land and rebuild the former German factories.

About 400,000 arrived by 1948. They came in a massive wave; some voluntarily, because they were promised tax break incentives, a free cow, free housing, and lots of grain to take with them. They were also given travel passports, which were very rare for collective farmers to receive at that time. When they came to Kaliningrad, many of them left the collective farms immediately, either migrating to the cities, which they were unable to do before, or they went back to their homes and other cities in Russia. Some came hungry, without shoes or food, and found few of the things they had been promised... no houses, only ruins.

Joyous letters were written back home to the collective farms to encourage more people to come, but it was hard to convince people, so the local collective farm boards were given quotas of how many they needed to send to Kaliningrad and other places. They often sent people who were perceived as less useful for the farm – pregnant women, alcoholics, and the less educated, for example.

Besides the Germans, were there also Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles in this area at the time?