The paper is a keynote address to the conference ‘Contacts and Cultural Transfer in the Historical Region of East Prussia (1700–2000)’ that took place in Nida in September 2013. It considers what the East Prussia region means, and what it is associated with today, after it stopped existing 70 years ago. The question is asked what the current situation of East Prussian historiography is, and potential directions for the development of new relevant research are outlined. The author argues that in the process of the cognition of East Prussia, a shift was made from the conservative system of meanings, developed mainly by the former local elites in Germany after the Second World War, to the cognition of regional diversity, which existed before the era of nationalism, and to coping with national narratives about East Prussia. Simultaneously, in the former territory of East Prussia, which currently belongs to Poland, Russia and Lithuania, individual elements of the past of the region continue to occupy an increasingly important role in layers of the local identity, and form opportunities for local cultures of remembrance.
The paper focuses on the contribution of regional 18th-century ‘East Prussian’ historiography to the formation of an Old Prussian identity. The author specifies the concept of ‘Old Prussianism’, and reveals the main steps in the change in that model of identity in the 18th century through an analysis of three authors who were active in Königsberg and spanned three generations: Michael Lilienthal (1686–1750), Daniel Heinrich Arnoldt (1706–1775) and Georg Christoph Pisanski (1725–1790). On the basis of their treatises, the paper reveals how in the 18th century, in the territory of the former Duchy of Prussia, a unique regional self-awareness independent of Royal (Polish) Prussia and of Brandenburgian Prussia was developing, as well as a related concept of the past of the region.
The paper analyses the impact of his interest in 19th-century East Prussian ethnic culture on the activities of Richard Jepsen Dethlefsen (1864–1944), one of the pioneers of monument protection in the region. Dethlefsen’s important activity in the area of recording and protecting the East Prussian cultural heritage also implied an acquaintance with the cultural values of Prussian Lithuania, whose roots were formed by the Reformation in the Duchy of Prussia; by Romanticism, which actualised the history of Prussia and the Prussian tribes; and a few other factors. Despite the impact of nationalism paradigms in the German Empire in the late 19th century, Dethlefsen’s activities contributed to the understanding of the intentions of his contemporaries to consider East Prussia as a unique cultural space, whose historical conditions predetermined the survival of the uniqueness of several ethnic regions, by emphasising it as a value of the East Prussian province to be protected. The concept of pluriculturalism of the former East Prussia, as revealed in Dethlefsen’s work, remains a relevant guideline for cultural heritage policy in west Lithuania (the former Klaipėda region).
A fierce national East Prussia-related conflict between Germans and Poles after the First World War basically contrasted with the prewar situation in the province. After the decision taken at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to hold a plebiscite in two governmental districts of this German province on their inhabitants’ political affiliations, the vast population there had to take a test on the basic choice of their political, and simultaneously cultural, orientation. Today, researchers agree that the plebiscite of 1920 caused irreversible damage to the multiethnic area. There is no doubt that the so-called Ostdeutscher Heimatdienst organisation strongly contributed to this. The article raises questions as to what circumstances promoted the establishment of the organisation, who its principal actors were, and how they affected the East Prussian population.
After the Evangelical-dominated Territory of Memel (the Klaipėda Region) had been integrated into the Republic of Lithuania in 1923, the issue of the situation of the Catholics, non-dominant religious group in the region, accounting for 5 per cent of its population in 1925, had to be solved. In 1926, they were separated from the Diocese of Warmia, and joined the newly formed Klaipėda Prelature, part of the Diocese of Telšiai. Thus, the Catholics of the Klaipėda Region were integrated into Church structures controlled from Lithuania, unlike the Evangelicals, who remained part of the composition of the Prussian Evangelical Church. This paper, mainly on the basis of ecclesiastical documents, presents for the first time a broader analysis of the structure of the Catholic Church and its activities in the Klaipėda Region, as part of Lithuania, in the years 1923 to 1939.
The paper characterises the several-decades-long process of rehabilitation of the prewar cultural heritage in the Kaliningrad. After the northern part of the former East Prussia (Königsberg, and since 1946, the Kaliningrad Oblast) had been annexed by the USSR, and after basically a total change of the population had taken place, the authorities started to Sovietise the region. Knowledge of the prewar past was prohibited from the very beginning, and Stalin-era propaganda formed the founding myth of the Kaliningrad region with reference to the notion of ‘a Slavic land from time immemorial’. Despite the significant shifts that took place in the process of research into the history of the Kaliningrad Oblast during the Soviet period, carried out by historians from Russia and other countries, the adaptation by the postwar settlers to the socio-cultural landscape remains a poorly researched theme. The paper argues that the rehabilitation of the prewar (and primarily German) cultural heritage took place all through the Soviet era, by gradually converting the initially alien environment into their own. Ultimately, a fundamental shift took place in the cultural memory of Kaliningrad’s inhabitants; from the fear of staying ‘in an empty land’, they moved to the compatibility of ‘memory and desire’: the understanding that the metaphor of ‘paradise lost’, which revealed the nostalgia of the former inhabitants of East Prussia, also defined the feelings of Kaliningrad residents for the land that had become their home.
Changes in the political power and the population in the southern part of East Prussia, which went to Poland in 1945, led to the removal of traces of the German past in the region, and to its Polonisation immediately after the war. After discussing the de-Germanisation policy, typical of the postwar period, the removal of symbols of ‘German power’, the elimination of the ‘German spirit’, and trends in the adaptation of the new population to the cultural landscape, the author raises the question how relations between the population of the territory and the German heritage and past changed after 1989. The issue is considered in the context of the discussion among intellectuals in Poland as to what the relationship with the German heritage should be. The answer is based on the results of a sociological poll carried out by the Institute for Western Affairs in 2001.