A fascinating article from Der Spiegel on the visit of the veteran 81 year old German and Hollywood actor Armin Mueller-Stahl to the city of his birth in what was once the German territory of East Prussia but is now the Russian region of Kaliningrad. His former hometown of Tilsit has been called Sovetsk for the last six decades but the echoes of its German past are still visible beneath the grim Stalinesque reminders of its more recent history.
“The situation probably wouldn’t have been very different in the Middle Ages if you had wanted to enter a town in the evening through one of the city gates. A grumpy man, in this case wearing the uniform of a Russian border guard, casts one last glance at the passport, grabs a large bunch of keys, shuffles off the bridge that spans the Neman River between Lithuania and Russia, and walks down to an iron gate, where he inserts a key into the lock and pushes both sides wide open.
Suddenly the newcomer finds himself in the center of what must be the ugliest square in all of Russia, even though it was once the finest square in the East Prussian town of Tilsit, now known as Sovetsk.
The splendid Church of the Teutonic Order once stood at this very spot, its spire resting on eight orbs, so beautiful that Napoleon wanted to take it back to Paris. Right behind there is Deutsche Strasse (literally: German Street) — now called Gagarin Street — where Czar Alexander stayed in 1807 when he visited Tilsit, as it was known then, to sign a peace treaty with the French. The small house inhabited by the Prussian queen consort, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, no longer exists.
Not a single stone of Tilsit’s once grand Fletcherplatz remains. Today, the square is occupied by the border post that separates the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad from Lithuania. Gray, unplastered Soviet-era buildings surround the square. The washing-lines on the balconies are used to dry fish while, down below, trucks line up on their way in the other direction, across the Neman River to Lithuania.
German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has embarked on an experiment, though he’s not sure what he’ll gain from it. “I don’t want to go to Tilsit, where I was born,” he wrote in his 1997 book “Unterwegs nach Hause” (the title translates roughly as “On the Way Back Home”). “Nor do I want to know how the houses, streets and towns have shrunk. I don’t want to see unfamiliar people opening familiar houses and familiar doors.”
Now he has gone there after all, 81 years after he was born and 73 years after he left Tilsit, the town the Russians renamed Sovetsk after they marched in, which has now made him an honorary citizen.”
The article is a timely reminder of the fluid nature of nations and states, of borders and boundaries, and how the seemingly solid can ebb and flow. The ending is wonderful, and makes one wonder how far the hegemony of Germany in the European Union will sway future political realignments. While the eyes of many have been focused on China’s so-called “land-grab” in Africa, in Central Europe German companies, co-operatives and private individuals have been purchasing huge swathes of land and property in what were formerly German-speaking areas of Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Will Germany be content with the borders it now has or will it use its financial and economic influence to slowly reabsorb the “lost” German lands of Eastern Europe?
“Then the next man stands and admits that, for decades after World War II, none of them believed Sovetsk would remain Russian.”That’s why we destroyed everything that was German, everything that didn’t have a roof anymore. In 1988, representatives of the cities that wanted their old name back held a meeting. That was already in Gorbachev’s time. They also decided Sovetsk should be given its old name back,” he explains. “When I told the town council here about the decision, they thought I was crazy.”
Then he turns to the mayor and says, “Apparently the town was once really beautiful. All native Tilsiters say it could never be rebuilt as it was. But you, mayor, have to do that.”
Suddenly 80-year-old Zinaida Rutman taps on her glass, pushes her chair back and stands up. Immediately, a broad grin spreads right across her previously expressionless face. She announces to the mayor and all the other guests: “I definitely want to live long enough to see this town called Tilsit again.” And she sits down again.
Everyone falls silent. And stares.”
- Books of The Times: ‘Forgotten Land’ by Max Egremont – Review (nytimes.com)
- Lithuania’s Stereotypes of other countries. (letyourlanguagespeak.wordpress.com)
- Kaliningrad (apostcardaday.blogspot.com)
- Johann David Ludwig Graf Yorck von Wartenburg (Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg) (generalfeldmarschallpreussen.wordpress.com)