Here's What You Need to Know: The fate of the famed Amber Room remains one of World War II's greatest mysteries.
It was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” a golden-hued, jewel-encrusted chamber that was made of several tons of gemstones, gold and amber. The opulent “Amber Room” disappeared during the Second World War and was considered a casualty of the conflict, but now divers off the coast of Poland believe they may have found the lost Tsarist-era treasure.
The room was part of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg (Leningrad during the war), and it was last seen in the Baltic port city of Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad) in East Prussia. After that point its location was lost to time, and it was long assumed the panels that once graced the walls of the palace were destroyed.
However, it has been suggested that instead the Amber Room may have been loaded onto a ship, and now divers believe it could be on the steamer Karlsruhe, which set sail from Königsberg in early 1945 laden with cargo and subsequently sunk after being attacked by Soviet airplanes.
Divers from Baltictech Group found the wreck in late 2020 after more than a year of searching.
“We have been looking for the wreckage since last year when we realized there could be the most interesting, undiscovered story lying at the bottom of the Baltic Sea,” said Tomasz Stachura, one of the team divers, according to the UK Guardian newspaper. “It is practically intact. In its holds, we discovered military vehicles, porcelain and many crates with contents still unknown.”
The steamer had been taking part in Operation Hannibal, which was one of the largest sea evacuations in history. The operation helped more than a million German troops and civilians escape from East Prussia as the Soviet’s Red Army advanced in the closing months of the war.
According to documentation the vessel left the port with a large cargo and 1,083 people on board.
“All this, put together, stimulates the human imagination,” added Tomasz Zwara, another of the divers on the team. “Finding the German steamer and the crates with contents as yet unknown resting on the bottom of the Baltic Sea may be significant for the whole story.”
Origin of the Amber Room
While the Amber Room has been closely associated with Imperial Russia, it was truly an international effort. It was first designed in the early 18th century by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram for the Prussian Monarchy in 1701. It was first housed at Charlottenburg Palace, home to the first king in Prussia, Friedrich I.
Czar Peter the Great of Russia admired the room so much during a visit that in 1716, the Prussian ruler presented it as a gift to his Russian counterpart and it cemented a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.
The Amber Room was shipped to Russia in some eighteen large boxes and installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg as part of a larger European art collection. However, in 1755 Czarina Elizabeth had the room moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, then named Tsarskoye Selo (Czar’s Village). Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli was called upon to redesign the room to fit into its new, larger space and this included the installation of additional amber that was shipped from Berlin.
A Wonder of the World
When the room was expanded in the Catherine Palace it came to total more than 180 square feet, and it consisted of six tons of amber panels, backed with semi-precious stones and gold leaf. It was valued at approximately $176 million dollars in today’s money.
It was not a room for the Russian people in any way.
While only few lucky visitors to court ever saw the room, its reputation spread across Europe. It even became associated with the decadence of Imperial Russia. Yet, the room survived the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War, and unlike with the later Chinese Cultural Revolution, which would have destroyed such a wonder, the new Soviet rulers saw the beauty in the room and apparently never considered destroying it.
The Amber Room and World War II
During the Second World War, with the German Army approaching the village, officials and curators of the Catherine Palace tried unsuccessfully to disassemble and hide the Amber Room, but the dry amber was too fragile and began to crumble. Instead an attempt was made to hide the room behind thin wallpaper.
However, the Germans who occupied the palace saw through the crude camouflage.
Under a pair of experts, once again the Amber Room was disassembled. The amber panels, mirrors, cherubs and nymphs were all carefully packed up. On October 14, 1941, Rittmeister Graf Solms-Laubach, who was in charge of the disassembly and packing, ordered the twenty-seven crates shipped to Königsberg and reinstalled in the castle museum on the Baltic Coast.
The museum’s director, Alfred Rohde, was also an amber aficionado of sorts, studied the room’s panel history while it was on display for the next two years.
When the tide of the war turned, Rohde was ordered to dismantle the Amber Room yet again, and he successfully had the contents crated up before the city and castle were bombed in August 1944. That is where the trail has ended, apart from one small panel that was found in western Germany in 1997 after an attempted sale. The Italian stone mosaic was known to have been part of the room. It had been owned by the family of a soldier who had helped pack the Amber Room at Königsberg in January 1945, and this “soldier’s souvenir” sheds some light on the fate of the Amber Room, confirming that it was packed up.
However, it has been suggested that the contents never actually left the castle courtyard and were destroyed during the bombing, while others suggested it was buried in a mine. The most common theory is that it was loaded onto a ship, and perhaps it will be found on the sunken steamer Karlsruhe.
A Modern Replica
A full reconstruction of the Amber Room was created at Tsarskyoye Selo based on eight-six black and white photographs taken of various fragments of the room. The construction process, which began in 1979, was finally completed in 2003 at a cost of $11 million. The new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to mark the 300-year anniversary of St. Petersburg in a unifying ceremony that echoed the peaceful sentiment behind the original Amber Room.
It is on display to the public at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article first appeared in October 2020.