East Prussia

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East Prussia (German: Ostpreußen; Lithuanian: Rytų Prūsija; Polish: Prusy Wschodnie; Russian: Восточная Пруссия — Vostochnaya Prussiya) was a province of the Kingdom of Prussia and of the German Empire, situated on the territory of former Ducal Prussia. Today the northern part of East Prussia, with the exception of the "Memelland" which is now part of Lithuania, corresponds to Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast (Königsberg); the southern parts form Poland's Warminsko-Mazurskie Voivodship. East Prussia enclosed the bulk of the ancient ancestral lands of the Baltic Prussians.

East Prussia was located along the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Its capital was Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 by the Soviet Union).


1 The Kingdom of Prussia
2 German Empire

3 Weimar Republic
4 Nazi reign
5 World War II
6 Further reading

From Knights to Vassals

During the 15th century, the Teutonic Knights ruled over the land of Prussia through their monastic state. The Knights' rivalry with the Kingdom of Poland embroiled them in several wars, including the Thirteen Years War. Its end at the Second Treaty of Thorn in 1466 left western Prussia under Polish control as the province "Royal Prussia" and eastern Prussia remaining under the knights, but as a Polish fief.

This remaining eastern Prussia was lost to the Order in 1525 when Grand Master Albert Hohenzollern secularized the Prussian branch of the Teutonic Order, establishing himself as the Duke of Prussia as a vassal of the Polish crown. Albert's line died out in 1618, and Ducal Prussia passed to the electors of Brandenburg, forming Brandenburg-Prussia. The elector-dukes freed themselves of their Polish vassaldom in the Treaty of Wehlau in 1660.

The Kingdom of Prussia

Although Brandenburg remained theoretically subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Prussian lands were not within the Holy Roman Empire and were outside the jurisdiction of the Emperor. This independence allowed Elector Frederick III to crown himself King Frederick I in Prussia in 1701. The new kingdom ruled by the Hohenzollern dynasty became known as the Kingdom of Prussia.

After the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Warmia (Ermland in German), part of the former Polish Royal Prussia, was merged with the eastern Duchy of Prussia. On January 31, 1773 King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) announced that the newly annexed lands were to be known as "Westpreußen" (West Prussia) and the old Duchy of Prussia was to be known as "Ostpreußen" (East Prussia).

German Empire

Along with the rest of Prussia, East Prussia became part of the German Empire at its creation in 1871. In 1875 the ethnic make-up of East Prussia was 73.48% German, 18.39% Polish, and 8.11% Lithuanian (according to "Slownik geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego"). The population of the province in 1900 was 1,996,626 people, with a religious make up of 1,698,465 Protestants, 269,196 Roman Catholics, and 13,877 Jews.

Population of the East Prussia in 1890

Inhabitantsnon-German inhabitants*
East Prussia1,958,6632,189

The number for "non-German inhabitants" represents only people who were not German citizens, but excludes German citizens of non-German descent, since German law differentiates between inhabitants (Einwohner), i.e. all the people living in the territory, and citizens (Bürger), i.e. that portion of the population who got the German citizenship.

From 1885 to 1890 Berlin's population grew by 20%, Brandenburg and the Rhineland gained 8.5%, Westphalia 10%, while East Prussia lost 0.07% and West Prussia 0.86%.

The following counties in the province had a large number of Mazurs and Warmiaks, accordingly Protestant and Catholic Polish ethnic groups, speaking a dialect akin to Polish from Masovia. Percentage according to a German census of 1900:

Johannisburg (Provinz Ostpreußen) 70,2 %
Ortelsburg (Provinz Ostpreußen) 74,5 %
Lyck (Provinz Ostpreußen) 53,2 %
Neidenburg (Provinz Ostpreußen) 69,3 %
Sensburg (Provinz Ostpreußen) 50,5 %
Lötzen (Provinz Ostpreußen) 38,1 %
Oletzko County Oletzko (Provinz Ostpreußen) 33,5 %
Osterode (Provinz Ostpreußen) 43,9 %
Allenstein (Provinz Ostpreußen) 47,1 % (34,5 % votes for Polish lists in elections 1912)
Rössel (Provinz Ostpreußen) 14,0 %

Weimar Republic

With the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II in 1918, Germany became a republic. From World War I until World War II, East Prussia and parts of West Prussia were exclaves of Germany, created as a result of the Treaty of Versailles when parts of West Prussia and the former Prussian Province of Posen were ceded to Poland to create the so-called Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig. A plebiscite was to be held in the eastern parts of West Prussia as well as in the southern parts of East Prussia. In 1920 local inhabitants had to decide whether these areas should be ceded to Poland or remain German. 96.7 % of the people voted for remaining within Germany. The choice on the ballot was in fact between "East Prussia/West Prussia" and "Poland", not "Germany" and "Poland", as is widely believed.

Nazi reign

Map of East Prussia in 1939
Map of East Prussia in 1939

The Nazis altered about 1/3 of the toponymy of the area, eliminating all names of Polish or Lithuanian origin in 1938. Activist members of minorities with Polish roots (see Mazurs) who did not co-operate with the new rulers were sent to concentration camps.

World War II

During World War II, the province was extended (see Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany). In 1939, East Prussia had 2.49 million inhabitants. Many were killed in the war, most of them young people conscripted to the German army and killed in action.

The Red Army had entered the eastern-most tip of Prussia by August 29 1944. The news about massacres and rape of civilians committed by the Soviet troops spread panic in the province and caused a mass flight westward. More than 2 million people were evacuated, many of them via the Baltic Sea. Over 15,000 of these refugees drowned when the ships Wilhelm Gustloff, Steuben and Goya were torpedoed by Russian submarines in three of the worst sea disasters in terms of lives lost.

After the war, some ethnic Germans who had fled in early 1945 tried to return to their homes in East Prussia. The remaining German population of East Prussia was brutally oppressed and expelled by the Communist regimes. During the war and shortly thereafter, many people were also deported as slave labourers to eastern parts of the Soviet Union. Many of those sent to the Soviet Union ended up in the Gulag camp system. The use of the German language was forbidden, and all German place names were changed to Russian or Polish names.

In April 1946, northern East Prussia became an official province of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. In July of that year, the capital city Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad and the area renamed the Kaliningrad Oblast. After the expulsion of the German population beginning in late 1947 from the Russian territory, ethnic Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians were settled in the northern part, and Polish expatriates from eastern parts of Poland taken over by the Soviet Union were settled in the southern part of East Prussia, now the Polish Warminsko-Mazurskie Voivodship.

Further reading

Publications in German

  • B. Schumacher: Geschichte Ost- und Westpreussens, Wurzburg 1959
  • Buxa, Werner and Hans-Ulrich Stamm: Bilder aus Ostpreußen
  • Dönhoff, Marion Gräfin v. :Namen die keiner mehr nennt - Ostpreußen, Menschen und Geschichte
  • Dönhoff, Marion Gräfin v.: Kindheit in Ostpreussen
  • Falk, Lucy: Ich Blieb in Königsberg. Tagebuchblätter aus dunklen Nachkriegsjahren
  • Kibelka, Ruth: Ostpreußens Schicksaljahre, 1945-1948

Publications in Polish

  • K. Piwarski, Dzieje Prus Wschodnich w czasach nowożytnych, Gdańsk 1946
  • Gerard Labuda (ed.), Historia Pomorza, vol. I–IV, Poznań 1969–2003 (also covers East Prussia)
  • collective work, Szkice z dziejów Pomorza, vol. 1–3, Warszawa 1958–61

External links

See also

de:Ostpreußen eo:Orienta Prusio fr:Prusse orientale id:Prusia Timur nl:Oost-Pruisen ja:東プロイセン no:Østpreussen nds:Ostpreußen pl:Prusy Wschodnie


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