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Review: Jan Salm, The Reconstruction of Eastern Prussian Cities after World War I

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Jan Salm, The Reconstruction of Eastern Prussian Cities after World War I (Olsztyn: The Borussia Cultural Community, 2006)
Jan Salm, OstpreuSSische Städte im Ersten Welt krieg. Wiederaufbau und Neuerfindung (Munich: Oldenburg Verlag , 2012, German translation)

In the summer of 1914 the Russian army crossed into Eastern Prussia, the easternmost region of the German Empire. That same year, after the German victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, discussion began on how the devastated cities and villages might be reconstructed. Until this time, East Prussia had been a somewhat neglected region of the Empire (apart from its cultural center of Königsberg), and, paradoxically, it was only the destruction of World War I that turned the attention of the German public toward the problems of this area. The efficient reconstruction of the Eastern Prussian cities did not merely aim to put roofs over the heads of the residents as quickly as possible; it was, above all, an important tool of German propaganda during the still-raging war. Over the next ten years, architecture changed not only outwardly in the Prussian East; it acquired an entirely new political significance.

After 1945 Eastern Prussia’s architectural heritage was located on Polish and Soviet territory. While the Teutonic castles and medieval churches enjoyed a great deal of interest from their new owners, the architecture of the early twentieth century was less appreciated, in part because it was newly built.

Architectural historian Jan Salm is among the first to turn attention to this issue, after having read a volume from 1928 entitled Der Wiederaufbau Ostpreußens. Eine kulturelle, verwaltungstechnische und baukünstlerische Leistung, which he stumbled across in the Łódź University Library. This book opened the floodgates to the lost land of Eastern Prussia and its architectural heritage from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

There are dwindling numbers of architectural sites built on the ruins of buildings destroyed in World War I in Eastern Prussia: what was not consumed by World War II and the Red Army in 1944/1945 was gradually dealt with by the policies of the People’s Poland and subsequent neglect. After 1945 Eastern Prussia was primarily researched by historians who dealt with it from their own specific angles.

Jan Salm’s book is the first in-depth publication on the manner and course of reconstruction of the cities in Eastern Prussian after World War I from the point of view of architectural history. The book includes source materials culled from Polish and German archives and analyses of selected sites. The publication is also furnished with maps of various cities with markings on areas that were destroyed during World War I. A most definite advantage of Jan Salm’s book is its depiction of the reconstruction of Eastern Prussia set against other tendencies in European architecture of the time, and the ways in which cities in Belgium, France, Italy, and Poland were rebuilt after the First World War. The rebuilding of Eastern Prussia harnessed the most important tendencies of European architecture: a longing to return to the style ca. 1800, the search for a national style, reform architecture, an interest in “local architecture,” and the attempt to create a stylistic “national” alternative to the aesthetics of historicism and Art Nouveau. The architecture of the reconstructed Eastern Prussian cities, which was meant to express the German spirit on the Eastern borderlands of the German Empire, was in fact deeply rooted in the European architectural trends of the day, and one finds numerous parallels to ways in which cities in other parts of Europe were reconstructed.

For inhabitants the ravages of war mean losing the roof over their heads and the landscape they know; for architects it is generally a chance to rebuild and modernize. No reconstruction aims to recreate old mistakes, it rather brings the opportunity to improve both the aesthetics and the layout of architecture. And although the reconstruction of the Eastern Prussian cities destroyed during World War I carried a clear political agenda, the architectural roots of the reconstruction methods were derived from the European architecture community, which transcended political divisions.

Jan Salm’s book reveals an architectural picture of Eastern Prussia that is full of gaps and question marks – a land which had, until recently, evoked political resentment, is treated as a research area without the historical baggage. One might say that the author’s research has come at the very last moment, though for some sites it is already too late, and others have lost their urban contexts. We can be sure that this book does not exhaust its topic. It expresses the hope that it will merely serve as a point of departure for further, more detailed work.

 


Malgorzata Popiołek is an art historian specializing in history of architecture and city planning. She studied art history in Warsaw and in Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as heritage conservation in Berlin. In 2012 she began writing her PhD at the Technical University of Berlin on the reconstruction of monuments in post-war Warsaw and its European context.

 

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This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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