Friday, 20 December 2013

Festung Küstrin - the Lost Fortress

Kostrzyn nad Odrą is a large town on the river Oder, some 85km (52 miles) due East of Berlin, just over the Polish border. It is a thriving, expanding and modern town, and it is hard to believe that at this spot some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II occurred. But there are still traces of 'Fortress Küstrin' to be discovered, as we found out one Sunday as we traveled by train to Kostrzy and explored the ruined Altstadt.

Kostrzyn nad Odrą is a border town, as evidenced by the large Polish market there (Polenmarkt) where you can buy goods with lower taxes and duty than in Germany (tobacco, alcohol, petrol) in Euro as well as in złoty. Poland doesn't have Sunday trading restrictions either, so as you can imagine the Polenmarkt is a popular destination on Sundays for German drivers and coach parties.

Küstrin Altstadt is just beside the empty Polish border control buildings and north of the Polish market. This border crossing, and the bridge over the Oder, were re-opened in 1992. On December 21st 2007 the passport checks stopped, when Poland became part of the Schengen Zone. Looks like they are keeping the buildings maintained just in case the situation should change ...

The Altstadt was built entirely inside a fortress, surrounded by high walls, bastions, cavaliers, and a moat connecting the Oder and the Warta rivers. Fortress Küstrin was entered by three gates (the Berliner Tor in the North, beside the Polish border control pictured above, the Zorndorf Gate in the East, and the Kietz Gate in the South, beside the Polenmarkt, pictured below.

Kietz Gate, Festung Küstin
This gate, the moat, and the fortified walls have been recently restored and are reminiscent of the Spandau Zitadelle.

Once inside the fortress walls though, the Altstadt has been left for nature to reclaim.

Berliner Straße, Küstrin
It is like wandering around the ruins of Pompeii. Though a lot greener and a lot colder. And with no plaster casts from the lava dust of people caught up by a volcano. Okay, maybe not such a good analogy then. But there is the same sense of a whole town that suffered some devastating event that destroyed a way of life and was abandoned. It is hard to imagine now that here for example was a busy market place lined with shops and hotels:
Küstrin Market Place
It is so melancholy here wandering down streets overgrown with grass, spotting what were once front-door steps into residences and shops.

What occurred here? you wonder. Why was it never rebuilt?

The answer can be guessed if you look at a map and imagine the Soviet Red Army advancing on Berlin from the East in the last stages of World War II. Küstrin straddled Reichstrasse 1, the main road that ran East-West across Nazi Germany from Aachen on the Belgian border to Königsberg (now Kalingrad), capital of East Prussia. It is also the main road across the river Oder, and leads up the Seelow Heights to Berlin (in fact becoming what is now Karl-Marx-Allee). By March 1945 the advancing Soviet army had established bridgeheads just North and South of Küstrin but needed to take out the Küstrin Corridor in-between which was defended by Wehrmacht troops.

There were military blunders on both sides, leading to a sixty-day siege of fortress Küstrin during which the Altstadt and the German troops isolated from their main Wehrmacht formations were pounded relentlessly by heavy artillery and missiles from 'Stalins Organ-pipes'. Hitler had ordered the German forces of Küstrin, which included a hastily assembled Volkssturm of women, old men, and children of the Hitler Youth, to fight to the last bullet. This they did, with no surrender, and at appaling cost to human life. By the time that the Küstrin garrison was finally overcome by the Soviet troops on 27th March 1945, about 5,000 Germans had been killed, with 9,000 wounded and 6,000 captured. An additional 5,000 Russians were killed and 15,000 wounded.

After the war, any remaining Germans living in the ruins of their former homes were expelled and the border between Poland and Germany closed. The Poles who were relocated to the area had no desire to rebuild the town of their former, brutal enemy, and so Festung Küstrin was abandoned to Nature, and Kostrzyn nad Odrą grew up beside the ruins.

Nowadays there are signs of a renewed interest in the history of the place, and no doubt in the tourist potential of younger generation Germans curious about the town their East Prussian grand-parents once lived. Signposts showing former street-names and information boards and a small museum have been built, and some of the former fortifications have been renovated back to rather-too-pristine condition.

So far these renovations haven't taken too much away from the melancholy of the site. There is a whole philosophical and moral debate to be had about whether it is better to dispel the haunting ghosts of a tragic past rather than wallow in morbidity, but for the time being Küstrin Altstadt is a moving memento mori of past glories reduced to rubble.

Here are a few images:

The fortress of Küstrin was first mentioned in a deed of 1232 when it was feudally owned by the Knights Templar, but it was rebuilt as the residence of the Hohenzollern Margraves by Markgraf Johann von Brandenburg-Küstrin, as commemorated by this modern memorial.

Nearby are the remains of the Schloss where Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse), King in Prussia, was imprisoned in his youth by his father Frederick William I after trying to flee Prussia with the aid of his 'good friend' Hans Hermann von Katte. The young Frederick was locked in a tower in the Schloss and ordered by his father to watch the execution of von Katte from his prison window. After that traumatic event, his father made him stay on at Küstrin to learn the skills of rural and city administration, and to be fair he must have learned well and went on to be a successful and well respected King.

Now all that remains of the Schloss are a the foundations of walls and a few marble steps and floor tiles.

The excavations revealing the drain arrangements of the Schloss look nothing less than an archaeological dig at a Roman villa.

Berliner Tor

1 comment:

  1. Before moving to England after having to flee her beloved Kustrin in l945. my mum Erika told us so many stories about her life there. She died a year ago and we went back 3 weeks ago to make a small memorial where her home had stood, in celebration of her life in the place she loved. Mum actually used to deliver the papers to the castle before the war.
    Thanks for your interest in what was once a beautiful medieval town. I enjoyed seeing it. Would also agree about the 'renovations' to the Kattevall.


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