14th April 2012
I have already hinted that the history of Lithuania is complicated and my short visit to the port of Klaipėda highlights the complicated relationship with Germany.
The cloud base being too low for me to go flying we drove into town for a wander and lunch. We parked next to the Švyturys Brewery (sadly not open for freebies) and wandered down to the harbour.
The town is Lithuania’s third largest city (Remembering that the entire population of the country only amounts to three million people) and is their only port that can accommodate large ships. For much of its history the town was part of Prussia and known as Memel.
It was evidently very important because it features in a popular song
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Von der Maas bis an die Memel… [From the Meuse to Memel]
The Teutonic Knights built a castle here in 1253 and the town was soon colonised by settlers from Dortmund and other cities. Lithuania was still a pagan country and the Knights were intent on converting the population to their own religion (probably in the traditional fashion of slaughtering the unbelievers and replacing them with good reliable folks from back home — Nail ‘em up I say !).
The locals of course were not going to take this lying down and Memel’s development as a town was hampered by military campaigns by Grand Duke Gedimas of Lithuania in 1323 and the indigenous tribes over the next century. Eventually a treaty was struck in 1422 and Memel would remain within Prussia/Germany until 1919. One of the longest periods for a border to remain unchanged anywhere in the world.
I had never fully realised that East Prussia as we know it was in fact all of Prussia. The other bit was in fact based on Brandenburg.
The port was opened to surrounding nations and prospered in its trade of wheat and timber. The English built the first saw mills and used the exported timber to create the Royal Navy.
Following the Great War, the Allies did not really know quite what to do with the region so they sent the French in to administer it, pending a decision. The Lithuanian population of the town (about half of it) decided not to hang about on others making their minds up and presented the French with a fait accompli in 1923 by revolting (something the French would understand). Two years later the town’s name was officially changed to Klaipėda.
Efforts to convince the German population that life was fun in Lithuania met with little success and Adolf Hitler viewed the reacquisition of the territory as a primary objective. Under mounting pressure from Nazi Germany (and no international support) the Lithuanian government gave way in March 1939. Hitler came to the town and was greeted as a hero and liberator when he spoke from the theatre balcony.
As the Second World War came to a close and with the Red Army advancing on Germany almost the entire population of Memel fled and the Soviets found it empty. Yet another version of colonisation would commence: this time Russians and Russian albeit within the new Lithuanian SSR. The Soviets were responsible for greatly enlarging the harbour facilities making it their finest Baltic ice-free seaport.
As time moved on the number of Russian immigrants declined and those of a Lithuanian background increased but the town continues to have a large Russian speaking minority, but you wont be hearing too much German apart from tourists.
In the Castle harbour there is a swing bridge which still has to be operated by hand. One of those stories that Vytautas explained and I didn’t quite believe (I mean, come on, you still use two blokes turning the gears by walking around in circles !). But I was there and see’d it myself.
Alongside is a bronze statue of the Black Ghost (Juodasis vaiduoklis) climbing onto land. The legend says that in 1595 one of the Memel Castle guards, Hans von Heidi, saw a ghostly figure. The visitor asked him about the city’s supplies of grain and timber: was there sufficient? Why yes, said the guard, but his shadowy interlocutor replied that he was wrong and the stocks would soon be insufficient. Then, just as he had appeared, he vanished. And thus famine was avoided.
Along the Danės quay is the sailing boat Meridianas. Built in Finland in 1948 it was used as a training vessel until it was finally laid up and turned into a restaurant. Sadly the owners allowed it to fall into disrepair and the symbol of the town lost its shine. Eventually an entrepreneur bought the vessel for the tidy sum of 1 Litas and with funding from a support group had the vessel restored to its former glory.
On our way to the seaside resort of Palanga we stopped for a moment to visit the German Military Cemetery. There are graves from both wars as Germans defended their most northerly and eastern town. What is interesting in this case is that the Russians destroyed most of the original headstones so these are represented by groups of crosses. In keeping with many of the cemeteries I saw, it was filled with trees giving the effect of burials in a woodland.
More to come…
Posted : 30 April 2012