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I've read some about WWII, but until I started reading the book "Inge's War" (Svenja O'Donnell) I had apparently misunderstood Germany. I had envisioned Germany as its own entity.

Inge's War tells the story of a young woman born in Königsberg, in East Prussia. I wouldn't have been able to find Prussia on a map.

As I looked it up, I found that it was separated from the rest of Prussia by a swath of Poland. Reading more, I think I have got this mostly right:

Going by Wikipedia: Prussia and Wikipedia: East Prussia, I infer that:

  • Until 1933, Prussia and East Prussia were both provinces of the Weimar Republic.

  • Beginning in 1933, they were provinces in the German Reich.

  • During the end of the war, the Red Army occupied East Prussia. It later became part of Russia, and Königsberg is now Kaliningrad.

  • Prussia remained part of Germany after their surrender, and remains so today.

Have I got that right?

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  • 1
    @MCW duly edited. My research was not extensive, not scholarly, but I hope to confirm that my understanding is correct.
    – nuggethead
    Dec 12, 2021 at 23:54
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    Prussia was a Kingdom (later Free State) of the German Empire. It was sub divided into provinces, one of which was East Prussia (1618-1945). Dec 13, 2021 at 0:21
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    @kimchilover: Due to tis separation from both the rest of Brandenburg-Prussia (pre 1870), the rest of the German Reich (1870-1918), and the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) one would be better to think of (East) Prussia as like either Alaska or Hawaii. Dec 13, 2021 at 0:28
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    Since 1945, there has been no German state "Prussia", so the term currently refers to a region but not a polity. Many current German states include territory that was once Prussian. (Which depends on how far back in time you look. Parts of the current state of North-Rhein Westphalia were part of the 19th century kingdom of Prussia.) Dec 13, 2021 at 0:54
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    @PieterGeerkens No, but the topic is political sub divisions. Germany was sub divided into states (one of which was Prussia). Those states were (mostly) sub divided into provences. East Prussia was a provence of Prussia between 1618-1945. West Prussia was a provence of Prussia from 1772/76 to 1920. Dec 13, 2021 at 0:55

4 Answers 4

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I know, it's confusing. "East Prussia" is a retronym. It used to be the only Prussia. And there is no longer any "Prussia" at all. What used to be East Prussia is now split between Russia and Poland (Lithuania has a little chunk).


The name originally referred to a slice of territory along the Baltic Coast, named after its inhabitants, a Baltic language speaking people.

The first state of "Prussia" was a slice in the eastern part of this, territory held by the Teutonic Knights. The Knights underwent a schism that divided the territory they ruled. They lost more territory (and eventually their sovereignty) to Poland-Lithuania after several military defeats. The remnant became a duchy within Poland in 1525 as a result of the Reformation -- the Teutonic Knights simply gave up being a religious order and its Grand master became a duke.

Prussias

Source: Halibutt via Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0))

The "Royal Prussia" you see on the map was an area that revolted against the Teutonic Order and was made an autonomous province of Poland in 1466. With the 1569 Union of Lublin, however, Royal Prussia was incorporated into the Polish crown and broken up into several Polish voivodeships.

Prussia in 1576

Source: Bleau Atlas 1645 via Wikimedia Commons, based on a 1576 woodcut by Caspar Hennenberg, public domain

The Duchy of Prussia was inherited by the Hohenzollern Margave of Brandenburg in 1618, but it was still a fief of Poland.

This ended with the 1657 Treaty of Bromberg after the Bloody Deluge. Since this small slice of the Hohenzollern possessions was outside the Holy Roman Empire, there was nothing stopping the Margrave from declaring himself Frederick I, "King in Prussia" in 1701. (the King of Poland was still technically "King of Prussia") After that, the whole state became known as "Prussia".

The Hohenzollern kingdom was in two disconnected parts, but this ended with the First Partition of Poland in 1772, when they took the territory between Prussia and Pomerania, and set up the provinces of Westpreußen (West Prussia) and Ostpreußen (East Prussia) there next year. Not only that, the King (Frederick the Great at this time) now got to call himself King of Prussia.

The strongest of the German states, Prussia became the core of a reunified German Empire in 1870.

After World War I, West Prussia was given back to Poland (roughly Pomorskie) and East Prussia was separated from the rest of Germany. (This was one of the things that infuriated Hitler and made Poland one of his special targets).

The rest of the former Kingdom of Prussia was a state within the Weimar Republic, until Papen's coup in 1932. In 1926, the NSDAP set up divisions called gauen for administering Party activities. Ostpreußen was one of them. After the Nazi takeover, the gauen became official government administrative districts. During the war, the East Prussia Gau was expanded with a chunk of conquered Poland.

After the war, the Potsdam Conference gave the Soviet Union the northern half of East Prussia (now called the Kaliningrad Oblast) and the southern part to Poland (now called the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship).

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  • On the one hand you claim that Ostpreußen "used to be the only Prussia", on the other hand you show map where (what would later be) Ostpreußen is indeed only the eastern part of Prussia.
    – Jan
    Dec 13, 2021 at 9:39
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    The confusion is not from Prussia being renamed to "East Prussia" at some point. It is from the name "Prussia" being used at the same time for a) a region on the baltic coast between the Vistula and Neman rivers, and b) a state that was much greater than just the region on the baltic coast. And one where said region was rather peripheral.
    – Jan
    Dec 13, 2021 at 9:44
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    @Jan These seems like one of those "tomato", "tomahto" things to me. Ducal Prussia (part of but not coterminius with the future Ostpreußen) was a sovereign state, Royal Prussia was part of another country. "Prussia " was a region, it was several different political entities, including for time a very large kingdom, but that last "Prussia" ceased to exist during the period in the question 's title.
    – Spencer
    Dec 13, 2021 at 10:42
  • Hmm. If I understand correctly, the usage of Prussia pre-1700 goes through two stages: a) part of the area ruled by the Teutonic knights (greater than later East Prussia, i.e. East Prussia was not the only Prussia at that time) b) Ducal Prussia and Royal Prussia (again, East Prussia is not the only Prussia). And the confusing thing about East Prussia is 20th century usage rather than usage pre-1700.
    – Jan
    Dec 13, 2021 at 11:03
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    @Jan "Royal Prussia" didn't exist after 1569.
    – Spencer
    Dec 13, 2021 at 11:46
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Q What exactly was East Prussia between 1933 and 1945? Was it part of a larger government, and which one?

'East Prussia' was a subdivision of 'Prussia' which was a subdivision of Germany.

We need basically two maps for this:

In 1925, the Weimar State of Prussia looked like this:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Prussia_1925.png

making 'East Prussia' a part of 'Prussia', and Prussia a part of Germany.

A really not so very different map — for the purpose of locating 'Prussia'/'East Prussia' — from 1944, internal administrative subdivisions of Germany:

enter image description here

That is:

Q Until 1933, Prussia and East Prussia were both provinces of the Weimar Republic.

No. 'East Prussia' was a province of the 'Free State of Prussia' and the 'Free State of Prussia' was a Federated State within the German Reich.

Q Beginning in 1933, they were provinces in the German Reich.

Not exactly. 'Beginning' in 1918/1920 Prussia was a Federated State within Germany and 'East Prussia' one of the provinces of 'Prussia'.

"Beginning in 1933" another concept started to emerge for administrative purposes: the overlap of one-party state with 'traditional' administrative divisions within Germany made for two parallel structures: federated states ("Länder") and party district ("Gau"). For 'East Prussia' this would mean:

East Prussia, (Ostpreußen), Königsberg, 1934: Formed from the Prussian Province of East Prussia; from 1939 also included territories annexed from Poland

But it remained a difference between de jure and de facto:

The Gaue existed parallel to the German states, the Länder, and Prussian provinces throughout the Nazi period. Pro forma, the Administrative divisions of Weimar Germany were left in place.

WP: Administrative divisions of Nazi Germany

This relates to the subquestion in title:

Q … East Prussia between 1933 and 1945? Was it part of a larger government, and which one?

While the Free State of Prussia still existed and East Prussia remained one of its subdivisions, after handing over the state to nazi dictatorship, this subsidiary structure was weakened and a parallel, more direct rule, was established.

From

|
- East Prussia < Prussia < Reich 

towards

|
- East Prussia < Prussia < Reich 

and

|
- East Prussia < Reich
- Prussia < Reich

The states of the Weimar Republic were effectively abolished after the establishment of Nazi Germany in 1933 by a series of Reichsstatthalter decrees between 1933 and 1935, and autonomy was replaced by direct rule of the National Socialist German Workers' Party in the Gleichschaltung process. The states continued to formally exist as de jure rudimentary bodies, but from 1934 were superseded by de facto Nazi provinces called Gaue.

WP: States of the Weimar Republic

For East Prussia especially, not much changed in practice insofar as they were still remained as ruled 'from Berlin' throughout all of that.

Q During the end of the war, the Red Army occupied East Prussia. It later became part of Russia, and Königsberg is now Kaliningrad.

At the end of the war, the Red Army conquered East Prussia, then occupied the northern parts, with a strip going to Lithuanian SSR, and except for the southern parts which were coming 'under Polish administration'.

Q Prussia remained part of Germany after their surrender, and remains so today.

No.

'Prussia' is no more.

On 25 February 1947, the Allied Control Council Law Number 46 declared the formal and absolute dissolution of Prussia: the Abolition of Prussia.

Most of its territory in the West and Center formed the basis for new Länder or federated states of Germany, being distributed among: Schleswig-Holstein, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Hessen, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and of course it former core-territory of 'Mark Brandenburg' now the Land Brandenburg with Berlin carved out of that forming its own Land. Its eastern parts becoming, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian.

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Spencer's answer gives a good historical background over what Prussia was at different times, and the reason why the usage of "Prussia" is so confusing is indeed an historic oddity. However, I believe his first paragraph is needlessly confusing as well.

The confusion about "East Prussia" comes from "Prussia" being used for two different geographical entities.

a) a region on the coast of the Baltic Sea roughly between the mouths of the Vistula and Nemen rivers,

and b) from the 18th century to the mid-20th century, a German state ruled from Berlin, with the heartland being more or less between the Elbe and Oder rivers (i.e. much further west!)

You may compare this to "England" and "Holland" being often colloquially used for the whole of the UK and the Netherlands, respectively, and at the same time for only a part of these nation-states. The difference to England and Holland, however, is that the original region of Prussia was rather peripheral in the state of Prussia.

As pointed out in the other answer, the reason for the state of Prussia being named after the region Prussia (rather than say, after the region Brandenburg) was political maneuvering at the turn of the 17th to the 18th century.

There actually used to be a region called "West Prussia" as well. This one was around the mouth of the Vistula river (near Gdansk/Danzig), i.e. still further east than most other parts of the state Prussia.


Re. what happened to Prussia after WWII: East Prussia was split between Poland and the Soviet Union. West Prussia had been mostly Polish since after WWI, but now Danzig/Gdansk also became Polish. The other areas of the state of Prussia stayed mostly in Germany, but significant parts also became Polish (Silesia, the eastern half of Pomerania, the easternmost parts of Brandenburg)

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    The fun part of the "confusion" seems to me that the 'historical region' of 'Prussia' (mainly 'East' but incl 'West', which became ever more confusing after Rhineland came into Prussian hands…) was controlled by Germans, quite full of Germans eventually, but never part of the empire, not even after Brandenburg (itself) was gaining kingdom status, by 'usurping the name' (&'title'). The region of Prussia only becoming official part of empire with North-German Federation +aftermath. The region sometimes is named so still, despite all state and admin divisions called that gone for good. Dec 13, 2021 at 23:05
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Pre-1933 Prussian history

The name "Prussia" originally referred to a region consisting of the present-day Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, northeastern Poland (approximately Warmia-Masuria) and southwestern Lithuania. It was inhabited by (Old) Prussians, who spoke a language similar to Lithuanian and Latvian.

German settlement of the region began with the Prussian Crusade of 1230, in which the Teutonic Knights helped Poland Christianize Prussia at swordpoint. The Knights declared their own state, which would ultimately fight and lose wars against Poland, and get split into the Duchy of Prussia and Royal Prussia.

Recall that until 1871, "Germany" was not a nation-state as we know it today. It was a patchwork of dozens of small kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and city-states, loosely united in the Holy Roman Empire.

One of these German states was Brandenburg, which in 1594 had Prince-elector John Sigismund marry a Prussian duchess. In 1618, their realms were united into Brandenburg-Prussia, which became a kingdom in 1701.

Over the next 170 years, long story short, Prussia fought some wars and expanded its territory, to approximately the area of the US state of New Mexico. To help manage its territory, Prussia divided itself into provinces. In roughly east-to-west order:

  • East Prussia (Ostpreußen), capital Königsberg
  • West Prussia (Westpreußen), capital Danzig
  • Posen, capital Posen
  • Silesia (Schlesien), capital Breslau, in 1919 divided into:
    • Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien), capital Oppeln
    • Lower Silesia (Niederschlesien), capital Breslau
  • Pomerania (Pommern), capital Stettin
  • Brandenburg, capital Potsdam
    • Berlin was split off into its own city-province in 1881
  • Saxony (Sachsen), capital Magdeburg
  • Schleswig-Holstein, capital Kiel
  • Hesse-Nassau (Hessen-Nassau), capital Kassel
  • Hanover (Hannover), capital Hanover
  • Hohenzollern, capital Sigmaringen, a small Prussian exclave within the present-day state of Baden-Württemberg
  • Westphalia (Westfalen), capital Münster
  • Rhine Province (Rheinprovinz), capital Koblenz

Map of provinces of Prussia within the German Empire

Prussia would invite its allies from the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) to form the German Empire in 1871. This was a federal state (analogous to the USA), in which states could have their own laws, their own heads of state (mostly monarchs), and recognize their own citizenship. But it was a very lopsided federation, with Prussia having 64% of the Empire's land area, 60-62% of its population, and being home to the Kaiser.

After Germany lost WW1, the empire became a republic, and the Kingdom of Prussia became the Free State of Prussia. But Prussia's province system remained largely intact, except that the loss of Danzig and the Polish Corridor severely reduced the provinces of Posen and West Prussia. The awkward leftover small pieces of these provinces were combined into a new province of Posen-West Prussia, except for the Marienwerder region east of the Corridor which was incorporated into East Prussia.

Map of provinces of Prussia within the Weimar Republic

For most of the Weimar era, Prussia's politics were dominated by the leftist Social Democratic Party and Prime Minister Otto Braun. Braun's coalition lost its majority in 1932, but the parliament failed to agree on a successor. With the Prussian government crippled and failing to deal with ongoing unrest, the federal government, then headed by President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Franz von Papen, issued an emergency degree putting Prussia under direct administration by the national government, with Papen as Reichskommissar. This was the end of Prussian self-government.

Under Hitler's regime

The First Gleichschaltung Law on March 31, 1933 dissolved all state legislatures except for Prussia's (which was already under control of the central government), making Germany into a unitary state. While the states still existed on paper, they now had no power, and were effectively replaced by the Nazi gau system.

Map of German gaue in 1944

East Prussia was one of these gaue, and it was expanded to include the Memel Territory from Lithuania and some occupied Polish territory. But it was no longer an exclave, with West Prussia (Reichsgau Danzig-Westpreußen) and Posen (Reichsgau Wartheland) having been reincorporated into the Reich.

After WW2

Otto Braun approached the Allies to reinstate the pre-1932 democratic Prussian government. But the allies had other ideas: Giving a large chunk of Prussian territory to Poland and Russia, and dividing what was left of northern Germany into British and Soviet occupation zones. Prussia did not fit into this new map of Germany, and was formally abolished by the Allied Control Council on February 25, 1947.

Direct answers to your question

What exactly was East Prussia between 1933 and 1945? Was it part of a larger government, and which one?

It was a gau (province) of the Third Reich. The Prussian state effectively did not exist at the time.

Until 1933, Prussia and East Prussia were both provinces of the Weimar Republic.

Not quite. East Prussia was a province of Prussia, which was a federal state of the Weimar Republic.

Beginning in 1933, they were provinces in the German Reich.

"Prussia" was de facto not an administrative division of the Third Reich. Its territory was split between about 20 gaue.

During the end of the war, the Red Army occupied East Prussia. It later became part of Russia, and Königsberg is now Kaliningrad.

Yes, except that not all of East Prussia became part of Russia, just the central region around Königsberg/Kaliningrad. The southern part became part of Poland, and the northern Memel Territory became part of Lithuania (then also part of the USSR, but separate from the Russian SFSR).

Prussia remained part of Germany after their surrender, and remains so today.

The state of Prussia was formally abolished in 1947 (though it had already ceased to operate as an autonomous state in 1932). The western portion of the former Prussia remained in Germany, divided between multiple new states. However, about half of Prussia's pre-WW1 territory, and all of its pre-1618 territory, including East Prussia, is now part of Poland, Russia, or Lithuania.

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  • It's strange to go that far back historically, and then declare "most of its historical core" as "sans Brandenburg and Berlin" — as that 'Mark Brandenburg' territory was the historical core of the state then eventually known to be 'Prussia', and most of that core territory lies today within German borders (Nordmark [entirely, 11th cent]-> later Altmark, Mittelmark). Perhaps: 'Most late Medieval and later acquisitions to the core '…? Thus, the last para is a bit misleading. Add more precise time-frames for the entities used/you refer to there, and it shall be fine? Dec 16, 2021 at 0:04

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