East Prussia – Ostpreußen

A Brief History (Background)

Flagge Provinz Ostpreußen (Flag of the Province of East Prussia)

Flagge Provinz Ostpreußen (Flag of the Province of East Prussia) 1882-1935

East Prussia Coat of Arms

East Prussia (Ostpreußen), a former province of Prussia and the 2. und 3. Deutsches Reichs (2nd & 3rd German Empires), was located in extreme Northeast Germany (existed prior to 1945; it was dissolved in 1945).

The region of East Prussia has low rolling hills that are heavily wooded, and it is dotted by many lakes (especially in Ermland, Polish: Masuria) and drained by several rivers including the Nemen (Nieman). Its Baltic coast is deeply indented by the Vistula Lagoon (Frisches Haff) and by the Gulf of Kursh (Kurisches Haff).

Historically, East Prussia was at the center of the development of historical Prussia. Up to the 16th century, this region was inhabited by pagan tribes of Baltic (Prussian and Lithuanian) ethnic backgrounds.

In the 13th century, the knights of the Teutonic Order of Our Lady settled the region in order to convert the Prussians to Christianity. The Teutonic Knights conquered the regions from the Borussi, or Prussians (a people related to the Liths), displaced the original population, and secured the territory as a fief for their order. In 1309, Marienburg (Malbork) became the headquarters of the grand master of the Teutonic Knights.

East Prussian areas (labeled Prussia) are located at the center top right side of this map.

In the 15th century the Teutonic lands were taken over by the Polish King, following his wars with the Order, and were renamed Royal Prussia. The Teutonic Order kept the eastern parts of Prussia as vassal lands of Poland. In 1466, by the Peace of Thorn (Polish: Toruń), the knights ceded Pomerelia and Ermland to Poland and accepted Polish suzerainty over the rest of their domain.

In 1525, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg, after secularizing the Teutonic order, took the title “Duke of Prussia”, remaining under Polish suzerainty. The duchy was inherited in 1618 by the elector of Brandenburg. Frederick William, the Great Elector, who won full sovereignty over the duchy at the Peace of Oliva (1660). In 1701, Frederick III had himself crowned “king in Prussia” as Frederick I at Königsberg (Russian: Kaliningrad).

East Prussia, as the original Prussia came to be called, shared its history with the Kingdom of Prussia from 1701 to 1945. It remained the stronghold of the Prussian landowning and military aristocracy—the Junkers—whose immense estates took up a large part of the province.

New Map of the Kingdom of Prussia, John Cary 1799, split into the eastern regions of Lithuania Minor (green), Natangia (yellow), Sambia and Warmia (pink), the western Oberland territories with Marienwerder (blue), West Prussian Marienburg (yellow) and Danzig (green)

In 1772 King Friedrich II annexed western Prussia (Westpreußen), without the Danzig territory, from the Kingdom of Poland, and united it with the duchy of Prussia (assigning the region the name of East Prussia). In 1793, King Friedrich Wilhelm II annexed the areas around Danzig and Thorn. In 1793 and 1795, larger areas of Poland were added, which were organized into the Provinces of South Prussia (Südpreußen) and New East Prussia Neu-Ostpreußen).

The territory of East Prussia was sparsely populated and colonized by the Germans and Poles in its southern regions. The Prussians of Baltic background were largely Germanized before the 17th century. Most residents of East Prussia were Lutheran (Evangelisch).

Like many countries in Eastern Europe during that period, the Polish Kingdom was inhabited by many diverse ethnic groups. (It is important not to confuse political loyalties with ethnic identities.) Important ethnic groups, besides Poles and Germans, were Jews, Kaschubians and Masurians. Some locals even descended from Scotsmen, who had fled to Danzig in the 16th century, and founded the community of Neuschottland (New Scotland).

During the Partitions of Poland (1772 & 1793), the King of Prussia also incorporated the northern and western parts of the Polish Kingdom called Royal Prussia (renamed: West Prussia) and Greater Poland (renamed: Province of Posen). The Prussian princes became more and more powerful and during the 17th and 18th centuries; their rule extended to include Brandenburg, Pomerania and Silesia.

In 1815 a new administrative division of the Prussian monarchy was introduced. The westernmost portion of the historical Ducal Prussia (with Marienwerder/ Kwidzyn) was incorporated into West Prussia, which in turn lost the region of Ermland (Polish: Warmia) to East Prussia. Ermland remained a Catholic enclave in this generally Protestant province. From 1824–1878, East Prussia was combined with West Prussia to form the Province of Prussia, after which they were reestablished as separate provinces. Along with the rest of the Kingdom of Prussia, East Prussia became part of the German Empire during the unification of Germany in 1871. By the end of the 19th century, most of the inhabitants of East Prussia spoke German. A considerable minority speaking Polish (the Masurian dialect) lived in the southernmost districts and the northeastern portions were partially inhabited by Lithuanians.

German 2nd Empire 1878 (2. Reich); East Prussia in Red; Kingdom of Prussia in Red & Light Yellow

East Prussia 1923-1939

From 1919 to 1939 East Prussia was separated from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig (Polish: Gdańsk). Königsberg was the capital. East Prussia bordered on Poland and Lithuania in the south and east and stretched to Memel and the Baltic Sea in the north and northeast. At the same time, the northernmost region of Memel (Lithuanian: Klaipeda) was incorporated into a newly created independent Lithuania. The southernmost portion of East Prussia along with the town Soldau (Polish: Dzialdowo) became part of Poland. East Prussia was in turn extended by the eastern districts of the former Province of West Prussia which remained German after 1920 until 1945. In 1939, East Prussia had 2.49 million inhabitants, 85% of them ethnic Germans.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, East Prussia was overrun by Soviet troops and about 600,000 of its civilian inhabitants were killed. Much of the region was incinerated by the RAF in 1944, and finally overrun by the Soviet Red Army in early 1945.

At the Potsdam Conference (1945), East Prussia was divided by two land transfers and the authorized expulsion of ethnic Germans. Much of the area was given by the Allied Forces to the Soviet Union because Stalin (Soviet Dictator) wanted a year-round ice-free harbor and lands on an ice-free sea. The city of Königsberg was renamed to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin. 99% of the remaining German population, those who had not left by the end of the war, were expelled by the Polish and Soviet governments between 1945 and the 1950s. The regions bombed-out remains were repopulated with people forcibly relocated from all over the Soviet Union. The East Prussian land and population transfers were finally made permanent by treaties between West Germany and Poland and the USSR which were signed and ratified between 1970 and 1972.

The northern part of East Prussia was assigned at Potsdam to the USSR; it includes the cities of Königsberg (Russian: Kaliningrad), Tilsit (Russian: Sovetsk), Insterburg (Russian: Chernyakhovsk), Gumbinnen (Russian: Gusev), and Pilau (Russian: Baltiysk). The remainder of East Prussia was incorporated into Poland as Olsztyn province; this part includes the cities of Allenstein (Polish: Olsztyn), Marienburg (Polish: Malbork), and Elbing (Polish: Elbląg).


East & West Prussia Maps
Ost u. Westpreußische Landkarten


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