Prussia: Historical Background

Figure 1.--This is a 19th century depiction of "The Prussian Homage". It was painted by Jan Matejko in 1882. It is located in the National Museum in Kraków. Here Albert of Prussia receives Ducal Prussia in fief from Sigismund I of Poland in 1525. There are boys in the painting, but we cannot identify them at this time.

Prussia is today seen as the genesis of Imperial Germany and the modern German state. The original Prussians were, however, not Germans at all, but rather a Baltic tribe, the Prussi. The Prussi were eventually conquered and Christinized by the Germna Teutonic Knights and the Germans became the ruling class in Prussia. The principality was eventually obtained by the Hohenzollern dynasty which in combination with Brandeberg became the Kingdom of Prussia. Germany was later unified under the leadership of the Hohenzollerns and Chancellor Bismarck.

Ancient History

The Prussi or Borussi were one of the many Indo-European tribes which participated in the Indo-European invasions. Very little is known of the Prussi. They were the Baltic peoples which had the greatest contact with the Celts and are known to have traded amber. Tacitus in the first known reference to the Blatic peoples mentions a northern people trading amber, but he does not mention specific tribes. The Prussi appear to have had especially close ties with the Lithuanians, but few details are available.

Conquest of the Prussi (1018-1285)

Actual written references to the Prussi are not known until the Medieval era. Both the Germans and Poles pressured the Prussi both culturally and militarily. Saxon missionaries attempted to convert the Prussi. Saint Adalbert was martyred by the Prussi while trying to convert them (997). King Boleslav I of Poland conquered some of the Prussi tribes and forcibly converted them (about 1018). Holy Roman Emperor Conrad IV authorized the Teutonic Knights (Order) to wage a crusade against the pagan Prussi (mid-13th century). Conrad offered their lands as a feudal fiedom to the Order. The Prussi were not just conquered. Thei culture was obliterated and many were killed. Those Prussi who survived the Germanic invasion mostly fled to the forrests. But even these survivors were largely killed about by the Poles who subsequently mpved into the area. As a result the Prussi unlike the other Balts did not survive as a people. Most authors who used the term Prussian reffering to Germans are using a geographic rather than an ethnic term. There is no relationship between the German Prussians and the Prussi.

The Teutonic Knights (about 1285-1410)

The Teutonic Knights after a brutal 50-year campaign completed the subgegation of the Prussi (1285). Prussia thus became the bastion for the Teutonic Knights. The Prussi became peasants working the estates of the Order. The Teutonic Knights Christianized the Prussi. Dutch and Germans emmigarted into the area as priests, merchants, and artisans. Towns were established often with large German populations. The native Prussi remained the primary agrarian work force.

The Slavs

The Prussi were a relatively small tribe. The German in the East faced a much larger group--the Slavs. German writers descrive the Drag nach Ost, the struggle between the Germans and Slavs. The most important Slacic state was at first Poland. Later it became Tsarist Russia wgich developed from Muscovy. Prussia became a prize which the Germans and Poles struggled to control. It was this historic cobflict that Hitler would presue in Wirld War II.

Lithuania-Poland (1410-1795)

A Lithuanian-Polish army decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Tannenberg (1410). This fundamentally altered the political situation in the Baltics. The Poles forced the Teutonic Knights to ceed the western area of Prussia to the Polish kingdom. This area became known as Polish Royal Prussia. The eastern part of Prussia was retained by the Order, but as a Polish fiefdom. Polish control continued until the Polish partitions of the late 18th century.

The Hohenzollerns

The Prussian and German Imperial royal family, the Hohenzollern originated as a family of counts in Swabia during the 11-12th century and were named for their ancestral castle Zollern, later termed Hohenzollern which is located near Hechingen in Swabia. The first to bear the ancestral name was Wezel of Zolorin or Zollern. Two branches developed from the family, the Swabian and Franconian branches. It was the Franconian brach that was to become the ruling family of Prussia (1525-1918) and later Imperial Germany (1871-1818) and play a major role in modern European history.

Dukedom of Prussia (1525-1618)

Eastern Prussia after the defeat of the Order in 1410 gradually became increasingly secular. The Order elected Albert Grand Master (1511). He was a Hohenzollern as well as related to the king of Poland at the time. Albert had a huge impact on German history. He was an early convert to Martin Luther and the Reformation. We do not know the strength of his religious conversion, but it had obvious political benefits. After disavowing the sumpremecy of the pope, he then turn his elected position as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights into the hereditary Duke of Prussia (1525). Prussia was thus one of the northern German states which joined the Reformation. Prussia nominally remained a fiedom of Poland (figure 1). Albert was succeeded by his son Albert-Frederick who went insane late in his reign.

Brandeberg-Prussia (1618-1701)

Albert's son-in-law John Sigismund, the German Elector of Brandenburg, was appointed regent and later duke (1618). John was succeeded by George William (1619-40) who had the misfortune of reihning during the Thirty Years War. Several important battles were fought in Prussia and the principality was devestated.

Thirty Years War (1618-48)

The Thirty Years War was the most bloody and destructive war ever fought in Europe until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was not as the name suggests one single war lasting 30 years, but rather a series of related wars fought over that period. The War began in Germany (Holy Roman Empire) and gradually spread to much of the rest of Europe. It was actually a series of wars involving most European countries, but fought primarily in Germany. The war was exceedingly brutal, in part because of the religious passions of the Reformation. The struggle was between Catholic and Protestant princes aided by non-German coregilionalists. While initially a religious war, the fighting was complicated by dynastic rivalries and the desire of the Sweeds and French to curb the power of the German Holy Roman Empire dominated by the Hapsburgs. The War devestated Germany. It is believed that about 6 million civilians, mostly Germans, perished in the conflict. More Germans died in this War than in either World war I or II.

Kingdom of Prussia (1701-1871)

Elector Frederick William after the Thirty Years War not only repaired much of the damage but expanded the principality's territory. It was at this time adter a conflict with Poland that Prussia was declared to no longer be a Polish fuefdom (1660). Frderick-William's son proclaimed himself Frederick I King of Prussia (1701). His son Frederick II known as Frederick The Great further expanded the kingdom amd made Prussia one of foremost countries in Europe.

Imperial Germany (1871-1918)

The fight for German unity after the Napoleonic wars was led by German liberals. They almost succeeded during te Revolitions of 1848. Germany was, however, finally unified under the leadership of the conservative Hohenzollern dynasty goverened by Chancellor Bismarck.

East Prussia

East Prussia remained a part of the Prussian Kingdom and German Empire. It was a very conservative area of Germany whe re German Junkers were the land owners over an almost feudal agrarian worker class. Chancellor Bismark was one of those Junkers.

World War I (1914-18)

Germany an the onset of World War I with a large standing army and an efficient reserve system hoped to be able to secure victory in the West by invading and defeating France through Belgium. The Schliffen Plan envizioned doing this before Russia, allied wih France, could effectively mobilize its huge manpower resources. East Prussia became a major theatre of operations when the Russians with two large armies, honoring their treaty agreements with France, drove into German East Prussia. The Germans had massed their forces in the West and driving through Belgium. There were realityy weak forces in East Prussia to oppose the Russians. The Germans were forced to divert forces to the Eastern Front. The Germans smashed the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg (1914). Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorf commanding the German forces outflanked and defeated the massive Russian 2nd Army. The German victory made the German commanders national heros. This diversion of German effort was a factor in the Miricle on the Marne where the French stopped what the Germans had hoped would be their war-winning offensive. The German victory at the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes (1915) forced the Russians to retreat. The German population in East Prussia had fled from the invading Russian Army. The Russiabns deported thousands of the German civilians who had not fled to Russia. On the whole, however, treatment of civilians by the Russian and German armies was relatively correct. Russian troops masacered 74 German civiians at Abschwangen. The treatment of civilians by the Russians in East Prussia and Germans when they invade Russia is notable for the contrast with what would become in World War II. East Prussia as a result of the fighting was havily damaged and large areas had to be rebuilt after the War.


Masuria (Mazury/Masuren) is an area in what is today northeastern Poland and southwestern Lithuanioa. Before World War II it was largely located in southeastern East Prussia. It was a beautiful area known for its 2,000 lakes. Geographically it comprises two destinct lake districts formed in the last ice age. The two ares are differently forrested, broadleaved forest in the north and pine/mixed forests in the south. It was in the mid- medieval era and area inhabited by the Prussi people. The Teutonic Order conducted a campaign to conquer the Prussi (11-13th centuries). It took two centuries, but the Order suceeded. Many of the Prussi in the process were killed, some survivors retreated to the forrests. They were eventually largely killed by ther Poles who began moving into the area. The area was thus poulated largely by Slavic Poles, buth Germans and other Europeans also moved into the area. People in Masuruia came to speak a destinct Polish dialect--Masurian. After the creation of the German Empire (1871), ethnic politics became a major issue in Prussia. Germans (especially East Pruussian landowners) were concerned about the large growing Polish population. The Germans at the time the Empire was created, still regarded the Masurians as Poles. Imperial authorities gradually adopted a policy of Germanising the Masurians and separating them from the larger Polish community. The Masurians have been likened to the Wends. Apparently, the Germans achieved some success. Many Masurians learned German and came to regard it as their principal language. After World War I the League of Nation took responsibility for fixing the Polish-German border. A plebecite was held in East Prussia as provided for in the Versailles Treaty (July 11, 1920). A reported 98 percent of the Masurians voted for Germanhy. Some questions exist about the plebecite, but it seems clear that most Massuriasns at the time identified with Germany. A number of Masurians were bilingual, preferring to speak Masurian at home. Politically the area was conservative, supporting nationalist but non-NAZI parties, but by the 1932 elections, the population voted strongly NAZI. Interestingly, NAZI Party organizers conducted rallies in the Masurian dialect. When Germany invaded and occupied Poland (September 1939), large areas of Poland were annexed to the Reich. The Germans deported Jews and Poles to the Government General. Despite their Slavic ethnicity, German authorities treated the Masurians as Aryans. When the Red Army moved west into the area, the Masurians generally accompanied the ethnic Germans as they accompanied the retreating Wehrmacht. Those who attempted to remain were deported by Polish and Soviet authorities after the War.

Inter-war Era (1918-39)

Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty (1919) officially ending World War I, a new Polish nation was created. Most of West Prussia and the former Prussian Province of Posen (territories Prussia annexed in the 18th century Polish Partitions were transferred to the new Polish Republic. East Prussia became an exclave, being separated from mainland Germany. This was done in part to provide a corridor to the Blatic sea port of Danzig (today Gadansk). This physically cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany, creating what came to be known as the Polish Corridor. The Seedienst Ostpreußen was created to provide transport to East Prussia that was not subject to Polish authority. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, a number of plebecites were conducted to determine the future of several areas of the former German Empire. The East Prussian plebecite was conducted during the Soviet-Polish War. The areas where the plebecite occurred were in eastern West Prussia and southern East Prussia. Allied authorities oversaw the voting. The participants in the Prussian plebiscite district).voted chose either to either remain within the German Weimar Repunlic or join the new Polish Republic. Almost all of the voters (97.89 pdercent) voted to remain in Germany (July 11, 1920). This seems a rather high vote for Germany. We had thought that there was a fairly large Polish population in East Prussia. Here we need more information on this. Memel became a League of Nations mandated territory (1920). The new Baltic republic of Lithuania occupied Memel (1923). There was no plebecite. Hitler made the "dismemberment" of Germany and the shame of Versailles Treaty a major issue in his rise to power. Later Hitler made the Polish Corridor the cause belli for World War II (1939).

World War II (1939-45)

East Prussia was used by the NAZIs as a stagieng area for the invasion of Poland which launched World War II (September 1045). Subsequently it served as a staging area for Army Group North which was part of a three-prong invasion of the Soviet Union--Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). Unlike World War I, the Germans moved so rapidly into the Soviet Union that there was virtually no war damage in East Peussia. This changed after the tide of battle changed and Soviet armies approached East Prussia. Many Germans in East Prussia were killed in the war. There were heavy casualties in the Wehrmact soldiers fighting fighting on the Eastern Front. Soviet Operation Bragation destoyed German Army Group Center (June-August 1944). This was NAZI Germany's most powerful military formation. It opened up the movement of the Red Army into Easy Prussia and Poland. Königsberg was a beautiful medieval city. It was targeted as part of the Allied strategic bombing campaign. East Prussia was beyond the effective range of Allied bombers until late in the War. The Allies struck Königsberg (August 26-27 and August 29-30, 1944), almost totally destroying the city. NAZI Gauleiter (Govenor) Erich Koch delayed the evacuation of the German civilian population until the Red Army actually approached the East Prussian border (late 1944). Civilians were shocked. They had no idea that the War had gone so badly. Propaganda Minister Gobbels Endsieg (Final Victory) propaganda muislead the German people about the course of the War. The Germans in East Prussians suffered the consequences as East Prussia was the first part of the Reuich that the Red Army reached. The result was tht the civilians fleeing west often overtaken by not only retreating Wehrmacht units, but the rapidly advancing Red Army given tremendous mobility by American Stubeker trucks delivered in huge numbers as part of Lend Lease. Goebbels began horific reports of Red army attrocities such as the Nemmersdorf massacre (October 1944) and widespread rape. The result was desperation among the German civilian populace. The NAZIs did not llow all civilians to flee. The NAZIs conscrioted teen agers and middke-age men into the Volksstrum to defend the province, especially Koninsberg which was designated a fortress city. Most of the women, children and old men, did manage to escape. There were last-minute sea evcacuations using ferries and other vessels. Thousands of civilians and wounded soldiers were killed when Soviet submarines sunk the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Goya, and the General von Steuben. The NAZIs in Königsberg finally surrendered (April 9, 1945). As many as 0.3 million people may nave been killed in the fight for Königsberg. The German flight from East Prussia was one of the largest mass exodus in history. The 2.2 million population at the beginning of the War was reduced to less than 0.2 million by the end of the War. After the defeat of World War II, the Soviets made East Prussia part of the new Polish state, except for Kaliningrad which is now part of Russia. The Soviets and Poles expelled the Germans from what had been East Prussia and other former German areas. This made room for the Poles which the Soviets expelled from Belarus and the Ukraine. This was one of the major forced populations movements in history and has not been well described in the historical record. A Polish reader writes, "This makes it sound as if the decision to expell Germans was made by Poles and the decission to expell Poles was made by the Soviets. Actually it was the decison of treaties from peace conferecies, signed by all countries (the United States, Germany, France as well as Poland, USSR)." [HBC note: I know America and the other Western Allies agreed to the Polish borders demanded by the Soviets, but I do not know to what extent the Western Allies approved of forced expullsions. Of course Germany did not sign a peace traty until several years after these forced expullsions. The Polish Government at the time was a tool of the Soviet Union. The subject, however, needs some looking into. I do know that Poland and Czechoslovakia passed laws expelling Germans and there were attacks by locals on Germans after the War which encouraged emmigration. These attacks may not have been sanction by authorities, but little was done to prevent them. Many first hand accounts describe the violence directed at those of German ancestry. We have begun to collect information on the HBC Volksdeutsche page. We know even less about how the Soviets handled the deportation of Poles, but it is a topic we hope to pursue.]


The Soviets annexed the eastern section. The capital city of Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad and became the capital of the Soviet enclave. German inhabitants of East Prussia as well as Mansurians who had not yet fled to Germany in 1945 were expelled from both the Polish and Soviet sectors. Only a part of the Polish-speaking population from the southern districts remained. The territory was settled by Poles (the Polish part) and Soviet citizens, mostly ethnic Russians (the Soviet part). After the disolution of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad has reamained a part of Russia, although separated by Lithuania, Belarus and Poland.


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Created: April 14, 2004
Last updated: 12:41 AM 5/1/2011