Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Königsberg

Most English guidebooks claim that there are very few German buildings from Königsberg which still remain. It would be more accurate to say that very little survived in the center of the city where the bombing was heaviest, and which is now mostly open space -- wooded park on Kant's Island, greenish swaths along the river, grass and concrete around the House of Soviets. The foundations of the cathedral, the old stock exchange, and several Prussian brick gates are the most commonly cited German buildings still in existence, and indeed they are impressive. But it is also true that a remarkable amount of peripheral Königsberg did survive both the war and the later Soviet iconoclasm of German culture, and has quietly continued to function as apartments, warehouses, and stores to this day.

I find it problematic to discuss "the destruction of Königsberg" as though it were a single tragic event, or as if it occurred in an easily definable place. Cities change all the time, even without such drastic interludes as a world war and complete change of population. It is natural for buildings to be renovated, torn down, or replaced according to local pressures, and for cities' infrastructures to transform along with the people who live there. Of course the Second World War falls far outside the scope of everyday urban evolution, and the number of buildings that were destroyed as a direct result of military bombing and the city's capture account for the majority of pre-war structures that no longer exist today. The Royal Air Force conducted a series of aerial raids in August 1944, and estimated that they had destroyed twenty percent of the city's industry and around forty percent of its residential buildings. When the Red Army finally took the city in '45 after a long siege, heavy bombardment, and a violent four day battle, somewhere around eighty percent of the existing buildings were no longer completely standing.

Königsberg Castle from the air, ca. 1925

Ruins of Königsberg Castle in the 1950s

However, when people speak about the destruction of old Königsberg, they refer to more than the devastation directly attributable to the war. The Old and New Synagogues, for example, built in the early and late nineteenth century respectively, were both destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in 1938. On the other hand, Königsberg Castle and many less-notable buildings sustained some damage from the bombings and could have been restored, but instead were demolished by the Soviets in the 1960s. Other structures, such as the Albertina University's main building and the city hall, experienced extreme Soviet renovations and are now almost completely unrecognizable as their former selves. Yet despite meeting their fates in very different eras, the synagogues and the Castle are mourned today in the same breath as the architectural casualties of the war itself, if they are mourned at all.

Main university building, ca. 1900

University building today

Hansaplatz/Adolf-Hitler-Platz, ca. 1942

Victory Square today -- city hall is on the left, and the former
Nordbahnhof is visible on the right. Both have been heavily renovated.

I speak of physical divisions between Königsberg and Kaliningrad in the sense that some houses and squares were built before 1945, and some were built after. There are a few streets in this city that survived almost undamaged from German times, and in those places it is easily possible to imagine yourself still in East Prussia. Similarly, there are neighborhoods that are entirely Soviet, indistinguishable from identical streets in every major Russian city. Most areas fall somewhere in between, populated with some clearly Soviet buildings, the occasional German one, and new Russian constructions filling the gaps between. With a certain amount of doublethink, it is possible to see one city and unsee others, to walk down many streets in a single step.

Ул. Майора Козенкова, original apartment buildings and
church, which is now Orthodox

Cities are never just physical spaces. They are ideas and identities, shared experiences as well as shared terrain. Königsberg and Kaliningrad exist perhaps more distinctly in the mind than in the landscape. In the immediate post-war years, the new Soviet proprietors expelled all remaining Germans from the territory and imported (sometimes forcibly) Russians from deeper within the Soviet Union. Königsberg ceased to exist as a physical city, and remained only in the minds and memories of its scattered inhabitants. The new Russians, on the other hand, inherited a pile of ruins, but no cohesive idea of what this new city might be.

The official identity of new Kaliningrad would be antithetical to the city's past. As much as Königsberg had been the center of Prussian militarism and National Socialist fascism, so Kaliningrad would be a symbol of Soviet victory and a bastion against the capitalist West. Every street, square, and landmark was renamed with what I can only imagine was gleeful abandon, Adolf-Hitler-Platz becoming Плошадь Победы (Victory Square) in a heavy-handed reconception of the city's new identity. Victory Day, the anniversary of Germany's defeat (May 9th) is apparently still celebrated here every year with a reenactment of the Storming of Königsberg, complete with the simulated deaths of actors in Nazi costumes.

There are few people still alive who actually remember pre-war Königsberg, and I would be surprised if any of them live in Kaliningrad now. Germans may have a nostalgic memory of East Prussia based on the stories of those who once lived here, but present-day Russians have a myth of Königsberg of their own. No one who lives here today remembers this place before it spoke Russian, and they are left to fill in the past with different stories, to lump the loss of Königsberg's notable buildings together with Germany's loss of the city.

The Soviet Union also no longer exists, and Kaliningrad now struggles to find a new place between Russia and Europe. With that transition has come a rediscovery of old Königsberg. Recently constructed buildings, especially residential ones, tend to be modeled more or less on the German style, the most obvious example of which is the modern "fishing village" just opposite Kant's Island. The region's German past is something of a Russian novelty, and in era of tourism from both Europe and Russia, I suppose it makes sense to capitalize on the city's unique background. But Russians didn't live through that history, and the majority of them probably don't care about the details of it. The myth of Königsberg is not based on personal memories of a real city, but consists of a strange imagined past, extrapolated backwards from where Kaliningrad begins. It comes across in the new architecture as a stylized, sanitized, commercialized version of the city's history, plucked from mute photos of Königsberg and transported into 2012, leaving all context behind. If a city can appropriate itself, then Kaliningrad is doing so.

Fishing Village (aka fancy hotels), ул. Октябрьская

Construction of new homes on the city outskirts

New Russian houses imitating old -- the two
long buildings on the far right are original

I am not sure if this is one city, or two, or many. Are Königsberg and Kaliningrad distinct places despite their shared terrain, or are they two halves of a whole; one a city without a future, and the other a city without a past? Do they really have anything in common besides the war? The destruction of so many beautiful buildings is certainly an aesthetic and an intellectual loss, but apportioning blame seems as futile as definitively pinpointing the origins of the Second World War. Artists, authors, and philosophers have been trying to make sense of the twentieth century ever since the nineteenth. If any place encompasses both humanity's philosophical aspirations and the incomprehensibility of the last hundred years, then it is this bastard city of Kant's. Everyone who has ever lived here or tried to invade has shaped this city according to their own requisites, and perhaps that is only natural, after all. Cities are not static things, they are abstract amalgamations of the people who live in them -- and people are good at many things, but perhaps my favorite is change.


  1. fascinating - what's in store for the city in the next 100 years. what a unique place. Great post Ella.

  2. Hi Ella! I just came across this great post while searching the net for some info I need for my work ;o) Great job. Nikola


Hi there! Leave me a message after the beep.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.