Oct 26, 2015
Most people don't think of East Prussia when they think of Germany, but at one point in History, Germany owned a good chunk of what is today Poland's Baltic coast; including Gdańsk and Königsburg. Like other parts of Germany, East Prussia was ravaged and despoiled by the Soviet Red Army juggernaut which swept across the Eastern European plain during the waning years of the Second World War. Although the end is tragic, I felt that this was a story that needed to be dug up. It does, after all, involve the largest evacuation of modern times.
There are lots of places we can start, but I'm going to start from October 1944. On the Western Front, the British are still recovering from General Montgomery's failed Market-Garden gamble and the Americans are slugging through the murderous Hürtgen forest and trying to seal up the pernicious Colmar Pocket. In the East, the Red Army begins pushing into East Prussia, capturing several towns including the town of Nemmersdorf. After two weeks of fighting, the Soviets were finally driven out of East Prussia. As the Germans recouped their lost territory, they discovered the deranged level of atrocities committed by the Soviets: murder and rape of old men, women, & children and the destruction of anything resembling civilization.
Almost as soon as the fighting had ceased, German film crews rolled in to document the carnage. Western officials were invited to see the desolation that the Soviets had brought upon civilians. The West was unsympathetic.
The war crimes committed by the advancing Red Army convinced East Prussian civilians that they needed to get themselves into Greater Germany ASAP. At first, however, Erich Koch, the Nazi governor of East Prussia, wouldn't allow civilians to leave; going so far as to even execute potential refugees.
It wasn't until the end of January 1945 that Koch began to let people escape through what was known as the 'Polish Corridor,' starting with himself and his staff. Over the next month alone, almost nine million civilians tried to escape any way that they could. By the end of January, the last refugee train left Königsburg, and East Prussia was cut off by the Red Army. The only way out was by sea at the ports of Gdańsk and Gdynia.
Operation Hannibal began on 21 January 1945. Admiral Karl Dönitz, chief of the Reich's navy, disregarded Hitler's orders to 'never yield an inch' and ordered the German Navy, the Kreigsmarine, to evacuate every German possible. Hannibal became the largest refugee evacuation in history. Dönitz ordered over 1,000 merchant vessels and all of the large warships that Germany had left to ferry every German they could from East Prussia to Greater German and Occupied Denmark.
One of the worst maritime tragedies of all time happened during Hannibal. Captain Alexander Marinesko was commander of the Soviet submarine S-13. On New Year's Eve 1944, Marinesko got himself drunk as a skunk. His crew had to carry him back to the sub when they found him three days later, and S-13 sailed into the Baltic to carry out its orders: to destroy as many fascists as possible.
Meanwhile, the Willhem Gustloff, a luxurious passenger liner, was one of the many civilian ships pressed into service. As she steamed out of Gdynia on her way for Kiel with more than 10,000 civilians on board, three torpedoes from S-13 slammed into Willhem Gustloff. With a little less than half of the lifeboats missing, over 9,500 people drowned in the frigid waters of the Baltic. A little more than a week later, another 4,000 people died when the liner SS General von Stuben was also sunk by S-13. By the end of Hannibal, over 150 merchant vessels were lost to the Soviet Navy.
By April, the Soviets began their final push into Königburg, the capital of East Prussia. The city was surrounded, and when the Red Army's artillery bombardment began on 2 April, thousands of civilians died. The Germans surrendered the city a week later, and the Soviets had their way with Königsburg, along with everyone & everything in it.
When the Soviets took possession of East Prussia in May of 1945, the population had dropped by two million. Germans living in the occupied zone were usually executed, their possessions looted, and their homes & businesses burned. Red Army troops who voiced their concern against the atrocities committed were often sent to the gulags for harbouring, 'bourgeois sympathy' and 'pity for the enemy.' Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of hard labour for criticizing Soviet war crimes.
When the war ended, East Prussia was given to the Soviet Union and Königsburg was renamed Kalingrad. Today it is still an exclave of Russia with no land connection to the rest of that country.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers