The Fall of Hitler's Fortress City
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 3 May 2007
Full title: The Fall of Hitler's Fortress City: the Battle for Königsberg, 1945
Before the war, the Baltic coast was picturesque, the Teutonic castle in the center of Königsberg was grand, the marketplaces always bustled, and the city produced such greats as Immanuel Kant. When the European War broke out, the Polish Corridor opened, and the city saw greater trade freedoms, and the shame of occupied West Prussia was lifted. Even after Operation Barbarossa had been launched, Königsberg remained in relative peace. It did not receive its share of booty plundered from Western Europe, but the people of Königsberg were still proudly German.
Not too far down the road, however, the Russians turned the tide. As more and more wounded soldiers were brought into the city, Königsberg residents began to recall the brutal memory of WW1 only one generation before. Nazi propaganda persuaded them that the war was going well, and people should stay home instead of evacuating to the west. Meanwhile, men of the SS continued to murder and pillage in Russian territory, scorching the earth as they fled from the Russian juggernaut. When the Russians were at East Prussia's doorsteps, Nazi Germany told the people to pick up arms and defend their fatherland instead of helping them escape from the impending doom. It was preparing the citizens of Königsberg for some of the worst atrocities of WW2.
That was how Denny set up her book, The Fall of Hitler's Fortress City. Through many witnesses such as Hannelore Thiele, she brings forth the horrors of war. Thiele was only thirteen when she fled Königsberg with her mother, forced to become separated with her father, who was forced to serve in the Volkssturm. She recalled what the city looked like when she left.
Some were not so lucky to only have Russian aircraft strafing at them. Those unable to flee faced conquerors who "indulged every instinct be it sex, power, greed for possessions, gluttony or murder." To the Russians, the atrocities they were committing was simply an eye for an eye, for the Germans had pillaged and raped when they were in Russia. Thus, when the people of Königsberg starved in the nearly totally burned down city, the Russians thought it was fair retribution for what the Germans had done at Leningrad.
This book is well presented and extremely readable. Denny did an excellent job casting a totally non-military perspective on the fortress of Königsberg, unlike most WW2 books that focus more so from a military strategy point of view. She presented Königsberg and its rich history as the cultural gem of East Prussia, and beyond the broken families and the lives lost, a piece of human history was destroyed when the Russian conquerors practically razed the city. Even in the post-war years, Russian authorities deliberately refused to maintain or outright demolished buildings of historical value in order to wipe out Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, from German memory.
In additional to the many eyewitness accounts of survivors, Denny further supported her work with memoirs and the research of other historians. For instance, passages from Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier could be found in various sections of the book. The particular way she quoted and used these works hinted at the fact that The Fall of Hitler's Fortress City was her first book, but it nevertheless provided an excellent bridge between what is understood today about the Russian front and the new information that she uncovered with her interviews.
This book is a wonderful source for those looking for the human side of war. Glorious battles and duels of ideologies aside, it is the civilians who truly suffer, and Denny did a great job illustrating it with first hand accounts. For those looking for the details of the battle, however, do be warned that this book was not written for the military buffs.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945