DR. STASYS BAČKAITIS.
Sometimes history can’t be put to bed even though agreements to end wars have been concluded, boundary lines drawn by victors, promises made …whether it’s intentional or not, things in time get either forgotten or swept under the rug as if they weren’t there. Such is the story of the northern part of former East Prussia (now known as the Kaliningrad exclave) that was entrusted for temporary administration to the Soviet Union by its Western Allies at the 1945 Potsdam conference. Since then, in spite of the agreement to settle the fate of the Kaliningrad region at a future peace conference, the Soviet Union annexed the territory unilaterally and established there a threatening military base.
Dangerous seeds at the Potsdam conference
World War II ended in Europe 70 years ago, in May 1945. While battles with Japan continued for several more months, leaders of the United States (U.S.), Great Britain, and Soviet Union met at the end of July and in early August of 1945 in Potsdam to redraw the boundaries of Europe and determine the fate of the East and Central Europe. Germany was to be demilitarized, denazified, reduced in size, and eliminated as an economic and political power. At the conference, the U.S. and Britain not only ignored the Soviet Union’s wanton plundering and mass atrocities in its occupied part of Germany, but also closed their eyes on Joseph Stalin’s intended political and economic domination of the Eastern and Central European (ECE) region. The Western Powers all but ignored the noble promises made to the people of the world in the Atlantic Charter1; namely, the right to choose freely through self-determination their way life and political structure. The cover-up led to tragic consequences for the people of Central and Eastern Europe. Instead of the right to determine their own fate, they were destined live under the Soviet Union’s thumb for nearly half a century.
Stalin – the undisputed winner
A brief overview of Potsdam agreements. The new western boundary between Germany and Poland will be the Oder and Neisse rivers, and the eastern border between Soviet Union and Poland will follow in general the Curzon line agreed on by Hitler and Stalin in 1939. It also approved that the northern part of the former East Prussia territory, between the river Nemunas and a line extending west from a point of Lithuania-Poland border at the southernmost corner of the Vištyčio lake to the Baltic Sea (intersecting halfways the Frisches Haff, current Silovikyi Bay), be temporarily administered by the Soviet Union. The final disposition of that territory was to be decided at peace treaty conference with Germany at a later date.
The Soviet Union was allowed to take possession for war reparations any assets and equipment in its occupied East German territory. It also allowed dismantling and transferring to the Soviet Union 25% of industrial machinery and equipment from the zones occupied by the Western Allies. An international body “Foreign Affairs Council of Ministers ” would be established to prepare peace treaties with Germany and Japan. It functioned during 1945-49 without any results. The peace treaty with Germany and Japan to this day remains unsigned. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were left unmentioned, as if they never existed. The most important disputes at Potsdam were on principles as to which of the new governments under Soviet Union control would be recognized as legitimate. It was agreed to recognize only those that are based on free elections. Although the western leaders understood the farce of free elections in Soviet Union controlled countries, they did not object.
Why were the Baltic countries ignored at the Potsdam conference? According to public records, the Baltic States have not come up as topics of discussion either at the Teheran, Yalta, or Potsdam conferences. They were not included in any of the agendas. At Potsdam, the U.S. was interested in quickly bringing the Soviet Union into war with Japan and was not willing to divert Stalin’s attention by ancillary issues. Furthermore, Moscow’s intelligence agents had penetrated the most important U.S. and British public and even government structures at the highest levels. They influenced U.S. and British policies in line with Soviet Union’s political ends. Moreover, the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945 and Winston Churchill losing his election in Great Britain in June, brought great uncertainty in the policies the new U.S. president and the British prime minister will pursue. This helped Stalin to attain his goals with relative ease.
Stalin’s approach towards the fate of East Prussia changed considerably in early 1943, upon the Red Army’s victory over the Germans in Stalingrad. He was now confident of winning the war and in position to dictate the terms of post-war Europe to his western allies. In 1943, the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government in exile based in London, and began to form a pro soviet, communist based Polish government in Moscow. Stalin, while previously agreeing with the U.S and British view of Poland taking possession of all of East Prussia, now claimed that it needed the northern part of that territory with the port of Koenigsberg for year-round access to the Baltic Sea. However, the real purpose was to draw Poland into shared partitioning of former East Prussia. As a result, Poland would be forced to rely on Soviet Union’s support against future German claims to recover any lost territory at the forthcoming peace conference. Furthermore, Poland would not be in position to oppose the Soviet Union’s domination and sovietization of Central and Eastern Europe.
Stalin did not disclose his strategic plans regarding the future of the rest of Europe. He explained, that the Koenigsberg region would provide the Soviet Union an ice-free port in the Baltic Sea region. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt opposed such Stalin desires at the Teheran conference. According to Vilnius University historian C. Laurinavičius, Western concurrence with Stalin’s wishes was to assure at the time the Soviet Union’s continued participation in the war against Germany.
“Gift“ to Lithuania
The Soviet Lithuania’s politician and historian Romas Šarmaitis, in his February 27, 1944, diary notes, that the Soviet Union’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov posed, in a meeting with Lithuania’s Moscow based communist leaders, the question of what they think Lithuania’s western borders should be after the war. According to Lithuania’s historian Antanas Kulakauskas, Lithuania’s communist leaders (LCL) quickly formed an advisory group, made up of Antanas Venclova, Povilas Pakarklis, Juozas Žiugžda, Juozas Vaišnoras and several other Lithuania’s communists, to formulate a response. A committee, headed by Leningrad’s linguist Boris Larin, prepared for the Lithuanian communist government a proposal to annex to Lithuania the northeastern part of East Prussia bounded by a north-south arc approximately 60 km east from the city of Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad). The area would include the entire Curonian Bay, and the cities of Tilžė, Ragainė, Įsrutis, Gumbinė and Tolminkiemis, that were the homelands of Lithuanians in East Prussia. The proposal was approved by LCL and submitted to Molotov. Nothing was ever heard again of what happened to that document. Stalin neither referred to it nor mentioned Lithuania as a topic at either the Yalta or the Potsdam conferences.
The fate of the East Prussian population
Stalin attained at the Potsdam conference all of his at the time intended goals. Germany was forced to its December 1937 borders. The eastern Polish-Soviet Union boundary was set along the Curzon line, except for several minor land swaps in the north and the south. The western Polish border was defined by the Oder-Neisse rivers intersecting the Baltic Sea west of the seaport city of Szczecin (German: Stettin). It was also noted that the Koenigsberg East Prussia region (current Kaliningrad exclave) is handed over for temporary administration to the Soviet Union, while the Russian text of the Potsdam communiqué notes that the region is relinquished to the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.
East Prussia had a civilian population of 2.6 million in early 1944. As the Soviet army advanced into this territory, more than three quarters of the people fled to the west. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands were killed by gunfire of battling armies. About 300,000 of the population, of which 120,000 were of Lithuanian ancestry, remained. General Chernyakhovsky, the commander of the Russian army, upon entering East Prussia, issued to his soldiers orders of ruthless destruction of the population in words such as: “We will remain satisfied only upon their total extermination…No mercy – no pity on anyone…this fascist country must be turned into desert.” Not a single locale escaped mass killings, gang rapes of females of any age, nailing of people to walls and trees, and numerous other inhuman atrocities. Only about 160,000 local inhabitants remained alive at the end of 1945. They were forced into concentration camps at Kaliningrad, Įsrutis, Prūsų Ylava, Gastai and Tolminkiemis for slave labor and exposed to dreadful hunger and numerous deaths. Thousands of child orphans, called “wolves’ children”, were aimlessly drifting throughout the countryside and eventually many sought refuge in Lithuania by stowing away in eastbound freight trains or swimming across the river Nemunas.
First Russian colonists began to arrive in the Soviet occupied Kaliningrad territory in autumn of 1945. On October 11, 1947, the council of ministers of the Soviet Union, in violation of the 1907 Hague convention, adopted a resolution “towards removal of German people from the Kaliningrad region“. All of the remaining 102,000 people, including those of Lithuanian ancestry, were deported to East Germany. The spiritual and cultural heritage of the territory was destroyed. Everything, without exception, was changed into unrecognizable Russian names.
The Kaliningrad region goes forgotten
After the Potsdam conference, discussions about Lithuania absorbing part of the East Prussia region died down. There was no mention of it in the May 1945 article of the newspaper Tiesa, in which the Soviet Lithuania’s Minister of Justice Povilas Pakarklis noted that the Germans at one time robbed East Prussia from Lithuanians and their kinfolks – the old Prussians. Pakarklis also differed with the Potsdam conference decision to russianize the region. He wrote to the Soviet government: “The East Prussia region, even after being conquered by the Teutonic Order in the XIII century and after attempts of over 600 years to be colonized by the Germans, remained mostly inhabited by Lithuanians. Accordingly, the names of cities, towns, villages and the rest of the countryside should not be converted to something new.”
The Prussia Lithuanian Council (known as Council of Lithuania Minor) published two documents in 1946, known as Fulda Acts. The documents demanded reunification of the Lithuania Minor region with the reestablished independent Lithuania. Until such time, the Council noted, the region is to be governed by a special commission of the United Nations. Similar intervention was being prepared by Lithuania’s diplomatic corps residing in the West. Vaclovas Sidzikauskas, in his book “Diplomatijos Paraštėje”, published in 1979, notes that a Lithuanian delegation was formed in summer of 1946 to attend the forthcoming WWII peace conference and to present Lithuania’s claim to the Lithuania Minor region on ethnic and historical grounds. The conference, however, was never convened. Sidzikauskas together with Mykolas Krupavičius and Lithuania’s envoy to the U.S., Povilas Žadeikis, submitted to the U.S. State Department on February 2, 1949, a memorandum on the restitution of Lithuania’s independence. The document, prepared by the Supreme Council for Liberation of Lithuania, included also the Fulda Acts. Copies of the same documents were also submitted to the United Kingdom and the French governments. Unfortunately, there was no response.
Even after Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1990, Western powers never questioned the legality of Russia annexing the East Prussia Koenigsberg region as the Kaliningrad exclave, in spite of the Potsdam agreement to decide the region’s fate in the peace treaty with Germany. Understandably, Germany, to this day remains silent. Being responsible for precipitating the Second World War and the subsequent tragedy to the whole of Europe, Germany is avoiding airing claims on the loss of any territory and even making reference to the genocide inflicted on millions of German nationals by the Soviet Union.