Reviews Königsberg. The city that withstood destruction
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 47-48, Vol II:II, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 18, 2010
When I first became interested in Königsberg, I looked the place up in the index of an atlas. But it was of course not there. I don’t recall where my thoughts then took me; presumably I concluded that the town was too small to appear on the map. Years later I came to understand that Königsberg had been transformed into the Soviet city of Kaliningrad, and that it was a stone’s throw away on the other side of the Baltic Sea, as seen from southern Sweden. Later, the family’s summer island in the province Blekinge in the south of Sweden would be visited by an uninvited and possibly nuclear-armed submarine from Kaliningrad, and later still I would on several occasions have the chance to visit the now Russian city, located in the Russian exclave.
My first visit commenced one early December morning around six o’clock when the night train from Vilnius came screeching into the platform. The raw morning cold was something I immediately recognized from other Baltic cities in wintertime. But the intense throng of people appeared more overwhelming, likewise the congestion on the streetcar, where the trip only cost a few kopecks. First impressions: broad main streets; Soviet public housing; the infamous half-finished, abandoned construction project, the “Monster”, like a large gray colossus on the spot where the castle once stood, before it was demolished into posterity. In the absolute center of the city, which was bombed by the Allies in August of 1944, it is clear that Kaliningrad is a Soviet city. It was never Russian — not until the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the exception of a few years during Immanuel Kant’s lifetime. It is part of the tragedy of the wars that the vast majority of the inhabitants fled, were driven out, died, or were killed — improbable stories of how masses of people fled on foot over the ice of the Baltic Sea toward certain doom. Hope is the last thing to die. The city was re-populated by Soviet settlers who were offered economic benefits in order to entice them to become farmers.
There is something provocative in the idea underlying Jürgen Manthey’s impressive work. The book has its basis in a view that bears discussing: “750 years ago, Königsberg was founded, and 60 years ago, it disappeared from the map.” The idea is that Königsberg ceased existing when it became Soviet, and then was transformed into something else. Kaliningrad became the city’s name in 1946. According to Manthey, 90 percent of the center of the city and 40 percent of the entire area was in ruins after the air raids in 1944. That was the beginning of the end for the old Hanseatic town, strategically located between East and West, with favorable maritime conditions. Four thousand five hundred lives were lost and half of the 360,000 residents had no roof over their heads after the air raids. Then came a few years when the remnants of the German population put their energy into surviving, first during the siege, then during and after the last phase of the Soviet fighting. When the Soviet authorities discontinued food rations for the Germans in 1947, on the grounds that they were too weak to work, the truly abject starvation broke out. Manthey depicts this in the last chapter of the book.
It is quite rare for cities to disappear. Pompeii and Herculaneum are a couple of examples, so is the mythical, ancient Baltic city of Vineta. And the question is whether Königsberg really has disappeared in that sense. After having read the final chapter, it is tempting to answer such a question in the affirmative. Far too much disappeared because of the World War II. Language is a fundamental prerequisite for life, and language, along with ideology, were quite concretely replaced.
Manthey calls Königsberg a Weltbürgerrepublik, not only because it was the hometown of the (theoretical) cosmopolitan, Kant, but also because it was there that modern German literature had its breakthrough. Manthey seems to have read more or less everything that has been written on Königsberg and its intellectuals.
This voluminous and highly readable work is divided into fifty chronologically arranged chapters. Most of them are constructed around the life history of someone either intellectual or royal. Kant is of course one of those who receives attention, but Theodor Gottfried von Hippel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Agnes Miegel, and Hannah Arendt are also among the more renowned people with a connection to Königsberg. Despite the structure of the book, it is not a history of the lives and times of particular individuals. In the same way that people are, to put it mildly, necessary to the life of a city, Manthey contextualizes those he selects so that they rather constitute a background, or sounding board. One chapter highlights the Jewish community in Königsberg. Manthey believes that the preconditions for the creation of new ideas and the generation of new intellectual climates existed to a greater degree in Königsberg than in many other German cities. In the early 1800s, Frederick William IV of Prussia coined the expression the “Königsberger Oppositionsgeist”.
A form of nostalgia generally hovers over this kind of book, which hardly proves damaging in the case at hand. Not only the bright and exciting sides of the city’s history are included, but also the darker sides. But the basic idea that the city existed for 750 years, along with the dramatic description of its end, contribute to the sense that a heavy curtain comes down in 1946, or possibly slightly later. This is the story of the rise and fall of a city.
On subsequent visits to Kaliningrad, I have found that Königsberg, despite everything, still remains. History cannot be erased. Königsberg is everywhere. A popular activity among Kaliningrad residents is collecting objects from the German period, and they are also exhibited in local museums. The Russian Kant Society is based in Kaliningrad, and every day the chairman honors Kant with a jog around the island formerly known as Kneiphof. In the center of Kaliningrad, as well, it is possible to detect Königsberg — for those who are open to it. It is even more present in the city’s surroundings. But much is run down and in poor condition, extremely poor condition, and in urgent need of restoration. Other remnants seem to be beyond the possibility of restoration. The monster is no longer cement gray, but painted in light blue. But to be able to see Königsberg in Kaliningrad, it is really very helpful to have read Manthey’s book.