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Essays Garrisons Towns. in the Baltic Sea Area

The geopolitical situation shaped life on the islands of Gotland, Rügen, and Saaremaa. They became garrison islands and the presence of the military transformed daily life. After the Cold War, the military left the islands.

Published on balticworlds.com on February 12, 2010

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Islands are symbols of both pleasure and danger. Their function in surveillance and defense has influenced people’s daily lives for decades. The historian John Gillis has illuminated how Alcatraz and Robben Island, two of the best-known examples of historically controversial island landscapes, have been transformed into attractive sites to visit and explore. I, myself, have chosen to focus on some arenas connected with threats and unease in the Baltic Sea area — Gotland, Rügen, and Saaremaa. Large areas of land on these islands were cordoned off for long periods because of military activity, and it was only after the end of the Cold War that they became available for foreign visitors — when the islands’ geographical location in the center of the Baltic Sea no longer represented a military-strategic borderland. Gotland’s role as a Swedish outpost to the east was greatly diminished when the island’s four large regiments were phased out. Because of Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union, the military bases that existed on the island of Saaremaa were dismantled. For Rügen, the structural changes meant that the island was no longer a part of the Eastern Bloc, but now belonged to the reunified Germany.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, Fårösund, on northern Gotland, was a community centered mostly around the lime quarries and ship-piloting operations. In connection with the Crimean War, Fårösund had become a strategically important location as the English and French fleet base that was used against Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Swedish Armed Forces bought up land in the area, and in 1938 a coastal artillery division, KA 3, was set up. In 1941, Estonia’s largest military base was built next to one of Saaremaa’s larger lakes on the northwestern part of the island, on land that would have belonged to the Balto-German Baron von Buxhoevden. Dranske is on the northern part of Rügen, and has a history both as a center of fishing and as a military base. After having been, during the First World War, a fishing village with only a minor military presence, a “garden city” for German military personnel and their families was built between 1936 and 1941. In the 1960s, the garrison town was once again transformed, when the East German Nationale Volksarmee built a large number of homes for both the army families and civilian inhabitants.

Islands are dynamic landscapes. They have mutual interaction with the mainland as well as with other islands, while they also shape and are shaped by the life playing out in people’s everyday existence. The position that islands have as borderland areas in the Baltic Sea has been highlighted by social anthropologist Ina-Maria Greverus. From a mainland perspective, these islands have a peripheral location. But if the perspective is oriented towards the sea, the dual position of the islands emerges: as national outposts, and as central nodes in the Baltic Sea:

Insularity is the synthesis of particular collective experiences which draws from all the domains where humans shape their lives and judge the future, based not only on the present, but also on the past.

I have chosen to call these small communities garrison towns. The military presence has affected all three places both physically and culturally and has given them urban values and ways of life. What, then, is a garrison town, and what kind of infrastructure can be called “military”? According to ethnologist Aida Hachaturyan-Kisilenko, this specific type of town or municipal construction includes guarded border areas around a military base with residential blocks, schools, daycare centers, commercial activities, and some kind of hospital or smaller healthcare center near the base. The Soviet garrison town from between 1950 and 1980, she writes,

constituted a specific urban mode of lifestyle, the task of which was to guarantee the military and their families safe and satisfactory conditions of life.

The importance of the military activity in the communities manifests a clear continuity — in the case of Fårösund, starting with the Crimean War in the 1850s, in the case of Dranske, starting with the First World War. But it is the world-historical events of the 1930s and ’40s that most strongly came to characterize all three communities in matters of urban planning and everyday life, and this occurred in similar ways. After the Nazi takeover in 1933, Rügen was seen as a strategic bridgehead for Baltic Sea domination. Gotland’s position in the middle of the Baltic Sea, equidistant from the Soviet coast and the Swedish mainland, meant that the island came to be in the immediate line of fire, and it thus strengthened its readiness when, in 1941, Germany attacked the USSR on all fronts. In 1939, Saaremaa prepared itself fully with the arrival of Soviet troops, when thousands of soldiers were stationed in newly built garrisons around the island.

The expansion of the Luftwaffe at Bug, a peninsula adjacent to Dranske, began in 1934, and, during the next five years before the start of the war in 1939, resulted in, among other things, five hangars, ten barracks, a large swimming center with 50-meter lanes, an officers’ casino, and housing for unmarried officers. Up to 3,000 soldiers were active on these 500 hectares. Along with the expansion, there were plans for a sweeping physical and cultural change in Dranske. The local population, which for the most part consisted of fishermen and farmers, were informed that the existing buildings (thirteen single-family houses and four detached homes) would be demolished — without any possibility of appeal, and with minimal compensation. In 1936, construction of a garden city that would be inhabited mainly by the dependents of military personnel began. As art historian Bernfried Lichtnau has shown, 31 semi-detached homes in tradition-bound style — including the garden designed to help make self-sufficiency possible — were soon ready for occupation. Up until 1940, Dranske’s town plan, guided by National Socialist ideology, was expanded with an additional nineteen two-family houses, three eight-family houses, and one four-family house.

Town planning was affected both physically and socially by the military hierarchy, and there were clear instructions about who would live where.

Five years later, life in Dranske changed radically yet again with the end of World War II. The military population fled and the military facility at Bug was destroyed or dismantled. Shortly thereafter, a new era in the history of Dranske commenced when around a thousand refugees, mainly from Pomerania, Sudetenland, and Prussia, moved into the vacant homes during the final weeks of the war.

This pioneering spirit, with a military infrastructure of both a physical and social form, arose in roughly the same time period in both Fårösund and Dejevo. Because of a national defense resolution in 1936, the coastal artillery defense on Gotland was enlarged with “permanent defense establishments” in Fårösund. According to the leadership of the Swedish Administration for Naval Equipment (Marinförvaltningen), the number of existing dwellings in Fårösund was sufficient for the military personnel, which the first head of KA 3, Gösta Möller, contested. It was Möller’s firm view that the best placement for the new dwellings was not next to the barracks area, but together with the built-up areas of the community. Negotiations with the Administration for Naval Equipment about building officer housing in Fårösund ended up taking much time and energy, but in the end result was the construction of some 60 houses with 125 apartments in the years 1939–1941, both in the community and next to the regiment area. The architecture was later described as functionalist in a way that fit the period, with a design that possessed a civilian character. In addition to creating flight hangars, airfields, and a swimming center, the establishment of the regiment attracted private investors to the community. Among the major business establishments, a modern cinema center, together with a gathering-place, was opened in 1940. In an article in Gotlands Allehanda, a local newspaper, from the fall of 1940, we find a description of the bustling activities underway in Fårösund at the time:

When it was made known at that time that Fårösund would be the location of an air and coastal artillery, people began to prepare the community to accommodate the new settlements. And it is still not complete, although housing construction almost doubled over the past few years. Most of the residential buildings are finished, but the painting and various installation work remains to be completed. In addition, new construction projects will arise later.

With an area totaling 110 hectares, KA 3 came to be the largest employer in northern Gotland. Ten years after the start of construction of the garrison town of Fårösund, Bunge Parish reached its highest population ever, with over 1,650 inhabitants. An inventory of culturally and historically significant buildings in Fårösund that was conducted in 1986 shows that KA 3 had 360 employees in 1970, while the population statistics of that same year show almost 1,250 inhabitants in the parish. However, the population would gradually shrink to 925 people in 2000, when the regiment was finally phased out completely.

The same year that the town plans for Fårösund began to be implemented, the Baltic German officer Wilhelm Aleksei Joa received a request from Stalin’s government asking whether he would want to take responsibility for the construction of the garrison town and training area for the Red Army at Karujärve Lake, on the island of Saaremaa. In his unpublished notes, Joa describes how he took on this task with some hesitation, since he, like many Baltic Germans in Estonia, had intended to flee to Germany. Construction of “Städtchen Karujärve” commenced in the fall of 1940, and, according to the contract, would be completed nine months later. When Joa arrived at the site, 3,000 people were busy constructing a military base with housing for an estimated 6,000 soldiers in four stone barracks, along with six two-story buildings for 1,000 officers and their wives. The plans included, in addition, canteens, stables, ammunition storage facilities and roads. Electricity, telephone lines, and running water had already been set up — a house in the vicinity of the lake with three beds, a kitchen, and a toilet was already there, presumably put there by the von Buxhoevden family. Whether or not these plans were fully realized cannot be determined. According to information in the Estonian newspaper Meie Maa, almost 240 women and children lived in Dejevo as late as when the rocket base was closed in the 1990s, and in a conversation with Marko Trave at the Estonian Forest Agency, RMK, it was revealed that the total number of soldiers, officers, and dependents of Dejevo should have amounted to around 2,000 at most. Several informants on Saaremaa state that, besides the military operations in Dejevo, there was also a school with three classrooms, a nursery, and two shops. Later, the Marat textile factory was set up in one of the barracks for the manufacture of underwear — the purpose was to address the need for jobs for women in Dejevo. During the 1950s and ’60s, around ten houses for officers and their families, along the road to the base, were also built.

While the garrison towns of Fårösund and Dejevo largely retained the city structure that was established during World War II, and which remained until the closure of the garrisons approximately 60 years later,   Dranske ended up undergoing yet another major transformation, when the NVA appropriated the community and the Bug peninsula for military activities in 1965. The massive expansion of the naval base at Bug meant increased demand for housing. From 1965 to 1969, eight high-rises were built in what at the time were the outskirts of Dranske, a built-up area which, over the years, until 1989, was made into a city district in socialist style, with fifteen modern high-rises, shopping centers, schools, and daycare centers. It was mostly dependents of the military who lived in the high-rises, and for them, the district came to represent the modern East German community, in contrast to the older, traditional garden city, which for the most part was populated by civilian workers and peasants. From having had about 1,500 inhabitants in the 1950s, the population increased continually in the years between 1965 and 1989. At the time of the termination of the military presence, nearly 4,000 people lived in Dranske, a figure that shrank by almost 75 percent during the ten years that followed.

Today, just over 1,300 people live here. Nine of the 15 residential blocks that were built in concrete (Plattenbau) in the 1960s and ’70s have been razed. Among those living here, despair is mixed with the hope that, in the future, Dranske will be able to attract international tourism because of its location on the Baltic Sea, and thus also attract new residents who could support themselves in the district. In the fall of 2007, a planning workshop took place in Dranske. The aim was to gather ideas and suggestions, in cooperation with residents, local politicians and planners, about the sustainable development of Dranske. The result was a vision for the future centered on the restoration of the place as “eine Gartenstadt am Wasser”.

The vision implies, interestingly, an unproblematic look back at the townscape that was formed by the Nazi military hierarchy in the community at the end of the 1930s. The plan is just one in a series of previous proposals for Dranske’s cultural and economic survival. An earlier example is “Bug Baltic Sea Resort”, a holiday resort with luxury hotels and water sports facilities, which was intended to be Germany’s largest tourism project.

In Dejevo, a more or less total dismantling of the military buildings is being planned. Only a few people are still living in the area; the Russian name Dejevo has been changed back to the Estonian Karujärve. No new housing will be built; it is rather the vision of the remains of the rocket base in the landscape, as a hilly terrain in a future recreational area, which has left its mark on the plans for the area. One of the bunkers has been preserved, and can be rented as a space for parties. What will happen to the dilapidated officers’ housing along the main road towards Dejevo is still unclear. Perhaps the location at Lake Karujärve can attract buyers looking to renovate the houses and use them for summer homes.

In Fårösund, the previous KA 3 area, as well as the training area at Bungenäs — like Bug peninsula in Dranske — were bought up by private investors after having been owned and developed by the state housing corporation, Vasallen. The former regiment area was now called Kustparken and the construction of fifty or so coastal row houses and apartments was begun. Here, there are visions of a “vibrant Fårösund, with more people and more business activity than we see today”.

The entire regiment area and several military buildings are protected by historical building legislation, and thus designated as part of the national cultural heritage. In February 2008, the new owners, Diös and Kuylenstierna AB, held a kick-off release for special guests, where the development plan DK2020 for Fårösund and Bungenäs was presented. Nine months later, the plans had been put on ice. According to CEO Joacim Kuylenstierna, this was because of “the unwieldy building permit bureaucracy”. That claim is contradicted by the Housing Committee President, who interprets the shelving of the plans as a sign of the ongoing economic downturn. For the approximately 960 residents of Fårösund, the situation is precarious, with threats of school closures and cuts in social services. Although there is hope for the future, the confidence and trust in the private investors, compared with the previously existing trust in KA 3, is relatively weak. Several informants manifest an awareness that the responsibility of the survival of the area depends, to a much greater degree than before the closure of KA 3, on the residents themselves.

The communities I investigate in my dissertation work can be described as small places with strong memories of major world events. The ways in which the past is highlighted and pushed aside in visions and decisions about the future of these small communities, as parts of the new order of the Baltic Sea Region, is part of the debate about the politics of memory and community planning in the new Europe in which I want to engage. Which stories about the Cold War fit into the history of the Baltic Sea as a sea of reconciliation, a history canonized by the EU? What happens when the position of the islands in a strategic defensive center belongs to the past, and the political and military, and also cultural and social significance of the former garrison towns thus risks being erased from the collective memory of the 21st century? In what way can this come to affect the people whose identity continues to be connected in some way to the previous military presence? Which history can they relate to if the memory of the Cold War is pushed aside, and thus taken away from them? And what consequences would this collective loss of a local heritage from the Cold War have for the ongoing construction of a common
socially and economically tenable Baltic Sea Region? ≈

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