Transforming German Königsberg into Soviet Kaliningrad

Transforming German Königsberg into Soviet Kaliningrad

"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."

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?

There was a strong minority of people who spoke a Polish dialect in East Prussia, but the majority of that territory, the southern two-thirds of East Prussia, went to Poland after the war. In the region that became part of the Soviet Union, there was only a very small number of people with some kind of Lithuanian background. They were mostly assimilated into the German language-speaking population, held German passports, and may or may not have identified themselves as Germans. Interestingly, when German women and Soviet soldiers fell in love or had marriages of convenience, the only way a German woman was allowed to stay during these expulsions was if someone behind the scenes could demonstrate that this person was “actually” Lithuanian, perhaps having lost her passport. People who could speak enough Lithuanian to fake it claimed to be Lithuanian because Lithuanians were collectively redeemed from fascism, since Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union. The Germans in Kaliningrad, meanwhile, were, by late 1947, deemed fascist, permanently contaminated with fascism, and therefore had to be expelled.

So none of the Germans living there were rehabilitated?

The only Germans who remained behind for a longer period were some of the so-called “bourgeois specialists,” the people who were deemed indispensable, and they were also ultimately expelled, too, by the early 1950s. There were only a couple thousand of these people, for example engineers working in the mines.

In this short period, how much interaction was there between the new settlers and the Germans?

In many places in the cities and in the countryside, there was frequent or daily interaction between the remaining German population and new Soviet settlers. Sometimes they lived in the same apartment buildings. There was friendship, love and companionship. However, there were also very unpleasant interactions, as many Soviet soldiers and civilians were still frustrated about the suffering they experienced during the war, and wanted to punish these German civilians for this collective tragedy.

Were the Germans forced laborers?

In the first months after the war, they were not paid except for in food, and not very much food. But later they earned wages. By 1946 work was no longer mandatory, but anyone who did not work did not receive a ration card. They were not imprisoned, but they were not allowed to leave except by expulsion.

When they were expelled, where were they sent?

They were sent to the Soviet occupation zone, just over the border, into what was to become East Germany. Anyone who had a family connection in the Western allied zone tended to go there. Those who didn't remained behind in what became the GDR.

How much support did the first group of settlers get from officials in the sending cities and villages? Did they send specialists to help them run the factories and farms, etc.?

They were expected to rebuild Kaliningrad’s infrastructure, but with very little support. In 1946, Kaliningrad was not included in any post-war budget or in the first postwar Five-Year Plan. It was only a special line item on the budget. Demands were coming from various organizations and agencies, but without the budget or the labor force to fulfill them.

Local decisions drove the expulsion of the German population. Soviet history in the Stalin period is very much characterized by a search for the “enemy within.” These expulsions were very similar to the great purges and the Terror, where the need to explain the failure or delay of building Socialism led to the identification of a pre-packaged enemy. It was very easy to find such an enemy in the Germans who were not working hard (in part because they were starving), and who were suspected never to have been cured from the ‘disease’ of fascism.

How did this play out in making it a Soviet city?

This was a city that previously had much greater amenities than any other Soviet city, but it remained in ruins for years. For the first several years after the end of the war, there was no electricity in most parts of the city, no clean water supply, public transportation was rudimentary, and the city center remained in shambles. How could Socialism prove itself better than what it was replacing, if it could not rebuild this city? In that unspoken frustration and confusion, they began to think of building Socialism in terms of eliminating Germanness. Not only swastikas and other Nazi symbols, but also eliminating the German-looking facades of buildings and trying to broaden the streets, because German streets were ‘medieval.’