At the end of the First World War, East Prussia was effectively isolated from Germany. At the end of the Second World War, its capital, the medieval city of Königsberg, was obliterated by British bombing and Russian bombardment. It is one of Europe’s bitterest forgotten histories, sweetened only by the citizens’ predilection for marzipan.
The medieval city of Königsberg lay on the south side of the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland. It was the capital of Prussia from the late Middle Ages until 1701 and the regional capital of the province of East Prussia until 1945. After its destruction it was renamed Kaliningrad.
Königsberg was the birthplace of the mathematician Christian Goldbach (who conjectured that every even number greater than 4 can be written as the sum of two prime numbers e.g. 20 = 13 + 7) and the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It was also the birthplace and home of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), appointed to a chair in metaphysics at the University of Königsberg in 1770. While working there he published his Critique of Pure Reason and his Metaphysics of Morals. On his memorial in the city are the famous words: “Der bestirnte Himmel über mir, das moralische Gesetz in mir” (The starry heavens above me, the moral law within me).
Königsberg was a city of impressive merchant houses, churches, banks, theatres and museums beyond whose defensive walls lay residential suburbs with broad boulevards and large villas. These were the homes of prosperous middle-class citizens, while the country mansions and huge estates of the East Prussian landed gentry – the Junker – dominated the surrounding countryside. Isabel Denny writes:
“The winters were cold and the River Pregel often remained ice-bound well into March. Christmas was therefore a welcome respite and the first Christmas trees of the year appeared in early December in the Münzplatz, in front of the University and in the Kaiser Wilhelm Platz … The two biggest marzipan makers in Königsberg, Schwermer and Gelhaar, tempted shoppers with their beautifully wrapped marzipan sweets in the form of fruit, flowers and vegetables. There was a speciality called Randmarzipan packed in heart-shaped boxes and marzipan models of the castle decorated with candied fruit. Christmas trees were on sale and young boys would offer to carry them home for five or ten Pfennigs.”
Marzipan is made of ground almonds and sugar or honey. Traditionally it is used for sweets such as marzipan-filled chocolates and miniature imitations of fruits and vegetables. It is also rolled into thin sheets to cover wedding and Christmas cakes before they are iced. In some countries, marzipan is shaped into small figures of animals as a treat for New Year’s Day.
Believed to have originated in Persia (present-day Iran) and to have been introduced to Europe by the Turks, marzipan became a specialty of the Baltic Sea region of Germany, in particular the cities of Lübeck and Königsberg. In Germany the term Königsberger Marzipan still refers to a special type of marzipan that is fired on the surface, so it is caramelized. It also tastes less sweet, using powdered rather than granulated sugar and a few drops of rose water.
In March 1945 Königsberg was reduced to a heap of rubble and in July 1946 the city and the northern part of East Prussia (an area about half the size of Belgium) officially became part of the Soviet Union. Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, after one of Stalin’s cronies. Today, hardly a trace of the old city remains, although as Norman Davies reminds us: “All the nations that ever lived have left their footsteps in the sand. The traces fade with every tide, the echoes grow faint, the images are fractured, the human material is atomized and recycled. But if we know where to look, there is always a remnant, a reminder, an irreducible residue.”
This tragic history can be found in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011) by Norman Davies and The Fall of Hitler’s Fortress City: The Battle for Königsberg, 1945 (2009) by Isabel Denny. There is also this web site.
Yet the marzipan survived. The old manufacturers set up shop in Germany where, today, Ewald Liedtke and Werner Gehlhaar (among others) continue the tradition founded in forgotten Königsberg.