East Prussia

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Location of East Prussia (blue) inside the German Empire.

East Prussia refers to the original part of Prussia situated along the southeastern Baltic Coast. From the 13th century it was a possession and theocratic State of the Teutonic Knights and in 1525 it became a Duchy. From 1772-1945, it was a province of the German state of Prussia (which from 1871 became part of the German Empire) and had an area of 36,993 square km.

Old Prussia

East Prussia enclosed the bulk of the ancestral lands of the Old Prussians, a non-Slav Baltic people of the Indo-European family[1], whose language had become almost extinct by the 18th century. At the beginning of the 1200s the native Prussians were pagan scattered marauding tribes who were constantly raiding the northern parts of the Duchy of Mazovia. Its Polish Duke, Conrad, had taken part in an unsuccessful crusade against the Prussians in 1222-3. His main aim, however, was to subjugate other Polish dukes with a view to becoming possessor of Cracow and thus the senior prince of those domains with Polish rulers. Unable to cope with the Prussians at his back, he invited assistance from the military religious Order of the Teutonic Knights. By doing this he merely followed the example of other East European rulers: the Templars and Hospitallers were already established east of the Oder, and even the Spanish Order of Calatrava held lands near Danzig by this date. The Teutonic Knights sent a detachment to the Vistula in 1229, but having recently had bad experiences in Hungary, whose ruler had betrayed them, they now wanted to take over whatever they conquered. Conrad was quick to agree, giving them the province of Chelmno as a sweetener, and guaranteeing future conquests of the Order to them (not that they were his to offer!). This was also ratified by the Emperor Frederick II. Thus the Teutonic Knights had several advantages which their precursors had lacked. First, they entered Prussia with a free hand. The Bull issued at Rimini by Frederick, the charter sealed on the bridge at Kruszwica by the Duke of Mazovia, and the Bulls of Pope Gregory IX, all guaranteed that the Order's activities now lay outside the scope of any other authority. In addition the Order was overwhelmed with assistance: in 1232-3 knights arrived from across Europe. Also, in 1245, Pope Innocent IV granted full indulgences to all who went to Prussia to crusade with the Order.[2]

The indigenous Balts who survived the Northern Crusades were gradually converted to Christianity. Because of Germanization and colonisation over the following centuries, Germans became the overwhelming dominant ethnic group.

Teutonic State

From the 13th century on, East Prussia became the theocratic state of the Teutonic Order.[3] Following the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410 and the subsequent imposed Treaty of Thorn (1 Feb 1411), Poland & Lithuania exacted minor concessions from the Order in parts of West and East Prussia. The Order's Grand Master, Henry von Plauen, in no time restored the Order's fortunes and became an increasing threat, which led to the formal personal Union of the Polish and Lithuanian Crowns on 2 October 1413. The Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund von Luxemburg, King of Bohemia, needed more than ever the support of the Empire and of German public opinion, and therefore was not prepared to abandon the Teutonic Order. Without even hearing the arguments of the Polish representatives sent to him at Breslau in the first days of 1420, he simply confirmed the Treaty of Thorn including both the Truce, and the provision that Samogitia should return to the Order after the deaths of King Jagello of Poland and Grand Duke Vitold of Lithuania. In the summer of 1422 Poland & Lithuania reopened hostilities against Prussia. The Order lost only one of their castles despite the size of the forces against them and the war ended in a compromise, which was the permanent loss of Samogita - which had a short shoreline with the Baltic above Memel-land and now separated East Prussia from Kurland.[4]

The Second or Perpetual Peace of Thorn was in 1466, whose provisions settled the fate of Prussia for the forseeable future. The Teutonic Order were deprived of their sovereignty of East Prussia and were obliged to recognise the King of Poland as their feudal overlord and pay homage as required, although it remained under the Order's governance. Western or Royal Prussia, Elbing, Marienburg, Culmland, and the Bishopric of Ermland, fell to Poland as overlord. Danzig became an autonomous territory in personal union with the King of Poland. British historians Sir J.A.R. Marriott and Sir Charles G. Robertson remarked: "the best half of what German soldier, priest, missionary and trader had won had passed to the Pole, who thrust a solid wedge of Slav territory between the still German eastern half [of Prussia] and the Germany of the basin of the Oder. Over the glories of Marienburg, the wealth of Danzig, and the fortress of Thorn, guarding the Vistula, no long flew the Black Cross with the Imperial Eagle."


In 1511 Albert von Hohenzollern, Margrave of Ansbach, was elected the new Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. He ignored the pleas of the Pope, and took Martin Luther's advice by taking a wife, secularising the Order, and turning East Prussia into a secularised Duchy in 1525. In 1618 the Duchy became indissolubly united under the next Duke, Joachim Hohenzollern, Elector of Brandenburg. By the 1656 Treaty of Koenigsberg the Polish King was finally deprived of any sovereign rights over East Prussia and by the Treaty of Labiau in the same year the Hohenzollern dynasty finally recovered the sovereignty of East Prussia and Ermland. On May 4, 1660, the Treaty of Oliva, just outside Danzig, came into effect, one of the peace treaties ending the Second Northern War (1655-1660) involving Sweden, Russia, Poland etc. In one of the most critical clauses King Johann II Casimir of Poland confirmed the political independence of the Duchy of Prussia from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At Königsberg the Elector of Brandenburg, as Duke of Prussia, henceforward ruled as a sovereign with a European position of stature.[5]

This treaty gave Friedrich Wilhelm I (der "Große Kurfürst", or the "Great Elector") and Prussia a strong position in the post-Westphalian political order of north-central Europe, setting Prussia up for elevation from duchy to kingdom, achieved under his son and successor, and as the duchy was outside of the Holy Roman Empire, the Prince-electors of Brandenburg were able to proclaim themselves as Kings in Prussia in 1701.


Approximately one-third of East Prussia's population and the last speakers of Old Prussian died in the plague and famine of 1709-1711.[6][7]

Poland's influence ends

Following the First Partition of Poland in 1772 and the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, eastern parts of Royal Prussia, and all the territory of the former Duchy of Prussia, was recovered, reorganized, and incorporated into the Province of East Prussia the following year.

Between 1829 and 1878, East Prussia was joined with West Prussia to form the Province of Prussia. The Kingdom of Prussia became the leading state of the German Empire after the Imperial creation in 1871.

20th century

Following World War I, the Treaty of Versailles separated the province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany. In January 1923 Lithuania illegally annexed Memelland, the northern part of East Prussia.

Following Germany's defeat in World War II in 1945, the territory was partitioned between the Soviet Union (the Kaliningrad Oblast), and the communist Polish People's Republic becoming their Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, and the Lithuanian SSR retained Memelland. The East Prussian capital of Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviets in 1946. The German population of the province either fled or were murdered by the Soviets from 1944 onwards. As a result several hundreds of thousands died in 1944–46 and the remainder were subsequently expelled. In addition the Soviets transported thousands of people to Siberian Labour camps where most perished.

Famous People

  • Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, was born and taught in Koenigsberg.
  • Hermann Sudermann, the 'Balzac of the German East', was born 30 Sept 1857 in Matzicken near Heydekrug & Memel and was Germany's most performed playwright in 1900.


The Province of East Prussia (red), within the Kingdom of Prussia, within the German Empire, as of 1871.
Map of East Prussia in 1881.

References & Footnotes

  1. Bury, Professor J.B., The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H.M.Gwatkin, M.A., and J.P.Whitney, B.D., vol.ii, Cambridge University Press UK, 1913, chapter xiv "The Expansion of the Slavs", p.418,
  2. Christiansen, Professor Eric, The Northern Crusades - The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier 1100-1525, Macmillan, London, 1980, pps:78-80.
  3. Ostpreußen: The Great Trek
  4. The Cambridge History of Poland, edited by W.F.Reddaway, J.H. Penson, O.Halecki, & R.Dyboski, Cambridge University Press, UK, 1950, Chapter XI.
  5. The Evolution of Prussia by Sir J.A.R. Marriott, M.A., and Sir Charles Grant Robertson, C.V.O., LL.D., M.A., Oxford UK, 1937, Chapter III.
  6. A Treatise on Political Economy
  7. The Prussians, “Ideal Prussians”, Old Prussian and New Prussian