The centenary of the Great War is approaching. In old Russia it was called the Second Patriotic War while the Soviet Union tried to delete any memory of it.
The 1914–1918 war radically changed the map of the world. It triggered major social, psychological and cultural processes that drew a line between the past and the present. Without exaggeration the XX century and all modern history began in 1914.
The Amber Bridge launches a series of publications devoted to the Great War.
The summer of 1914 was extremely hot. The spring was marked by the opening of the Peace Palace in the Hague while autumn demonstrated that peaceful coexistence ideas did not go beyond the Lowlands. No trace of quiet and happy Europe remained. It was surrounded by thousands of kilometers of trenches with bristling bayonets of millions of soldiers.
Hundreds and hundreds of volumes were written about the causes of the developments. However the history of the war still contains episodes unknown even to educated reader. For example, the fate of Russian tourists who found themselves in early August on the territory of Germany which was a beloved place for elite rest.
On July 15-16 (28-29) when Austro-Germany declared a war to Serbia while Germany and Russia were still engaged in diplomatic gambling German border guards became very captious to IDs. The last train via Eidtkunen on then Russian-German border (now Russian settlement Chernyshevskoe) freely passed at 17:00 hours on July 19 (August 1), i.e. on the day of the declaration of war. It departed at 12 hours on July 18 from Berlin and arrived in Konigsberg. Further developments were troublesome for Russian tourists. Soldiers entered the train in the capital city of Eastern Prussia and said each passenger who looks out of the train will be shot. Contradicting orders followed: first passengers were told to curtain the windows and then to raise curtains. When the train arrived in Eidtkunen the travelers were ordered out to line up on the railway platform. It rained and a passport check began. The gendarme looked in passports holding them upside down. There was chaos. The Germans evidently did not know what they had to do. They first said passengers will have to walk to Verzhbolov (then Russian border post 10 kilometers away, now Lithunian Verbalis). However when the passengers got into a column to march they were ordered back into the train and told they would go back to Berlin. But the train proceeded to Verzhbolov. “One has to experience it himself to understand our feelings. We arrived in Verzhbolov completely exhausted, hungry and nervous. From there we reached Petersburg with delay,” a Russian eyewitness said.
By midnight Russian border guards let in the last group of compatriots who arrived in Eidtkunen from Berlin at 19:55 where they were again told to leave the train and line up on the platform. The Germans suggested they either go back to Berlin or Konigsberg or walk to Verzhbolov. “You can go there but I cannot guarantee that Russians will not shoot you. If they do not let you in you can come back and we shall send you to Berlin,” a German colonel said. Several hundred people went to Verzhbolov and were stopped by six border guards on the bridge between Eidtkunen and Verzhbolov. They called for an officer when they learned the people were Russian citizens. The officer called gendarmes to check passports. It all lasted for four hours.
Another 300 travelers, including distinguished State Duma members Vasily Maklakov and Count Ilarion Vasilchikov, as well as Princess Trubetskaya departed from Berlin at 12 hours on July 19 and arrived next day in Stalluponen (now Russian Nesterov). Trubetskaya and her son decided to go and get a pass from the local boss. Maklakov and Vasilchikov followed her. There were German soldiers around who shouted that they nabbed spies. It was surprising but the officer quickly issued the pass. Other train passengers also received them soon. However for clear reasons they had to walk to Verzhbolov.
Royal family members also found themselves in the misfortunate and dangerous situation. Empress Maria Feodorovna had to go to Petersburg via Denmark. Great Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (distinguished poet who published his verses under K.R. pseudonym) together with his wife Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna (born Princess Elisabeth Auguste Marie Agnes of Saxe-Altenburg), son Georgy and daughter Vera left for Eastern Prussia. On July 20 (August 2) their train passed through Gumbinnen (now Russian Gusev) where the grand duke got off for a walk on the platform. His adjunct Sipyagin and attendants were detained there. The Grand Duke was told they will be released with the luggage later. Princess Vera Konstantinovna recalled: “Germany was in war hysteria during the days. Everyone was looking for Russian spies and cars with Russian gold. They took our automobile for spying vehicle. While we waited for the train on the platform someone rudely said pointing at the brother that the boy could at least take off his Russian hat! (He had a sailor’s cap on with the “Funny” sign). The train stopped at the Russian border. We were ordered to keep windows and doors open. Windows were allowed to be curtained only in cabins with children. I was eight at the time and the brother was 11. I remember they gave us bread and milk. Lieutenant Muller was in command of our guards. He was very polite and gentle, but all of sudden turned rude and began calling my mother “Gnedige Frau” or “Lady” instead of her high title”. At 5 in the morning on August 3 all the detained were sent to Stalluponen. From there they were driven to the border and left there. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich was ill and could not walk for long. A unit of mounted uhlans helped them. Count Gavriil Konstantinovich later wrote: “Head of the cavalry unit Captain Bychko recognized my father and helped us reach the nearest railway station. The father was seriously affected by the nervous strain, but he kept silent as usual and hid commotion in his soul.”
State Council member Gennady Kalachev was a less fortunate tourist on his way back home via Eastern Prussia. On July 19 he left Switzerland and arrived in Berlin. He took a night train that left at 23:45. Already before Konigsberg passengers began to doubt whether they would be allowed to go through Eidtkunen. At one stop Kalachev bought a newspaper which alleged that Japan had attacked Russia. In Gumbinnen the passengers were told the train would not proceed, but those who want back to Russia may go. All of a sudden soldiers surrounded a group of tourists, including adjunct Sipyagin of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and declared them prisoners of war. They were put into a train and sent back to Konigsberg for interrogation. From there they were sent to Braunsberg (now Polish city Braniewo). The group included Counts Kankrins, Baron Kaulbars with his wife, Senator Ivanov and other travelers. They further went to Stettin and then Sweden.
Less titled tourists were less fortunate. Everybody noted a sharp and rude change in the attitude to Russians. Russian media published reports about the cruelty of the enemy and various infringements which Russian citizens were subject to. There was an hysteria about alleged German atrocities which paramounted into reports about a small Polish town of Kalisz (Russian media claimed the Germans massacred local residents).
Naturally, reports about misfortunes of Russian travelers fanned up anti-German sentiment and described the Germans as “cultural Barbarians” who rudely and immorally defied all laws of God. Arrogance, self-glorification, and rudeness were the main vice attributed to the enemy in the war years. Naturally, not everyone believed in hysteric propaganda. However distinguished art expert Baron Nikolai Wrangel (junior brother of future supreme commander of Russia Petr Wrangel) wrote: “Indignant at German atrocities everyone stubbornly repeated exaggerated rumors about brutality of Germans to Russians they held.”
What happened in reality?
The above said shows there was no major brutality in the first days of the war. There were adequate security measures and excessive suspicion to the adversary. Many German citizens were confused as they were unaware of what to do regarding travelers from hostile countries. Some diaries and articles published in post-war time confirm that rudeness and humiliation did take place. Many Russian tourists were used to another treatment and were shocked by the change. Chauvinistic rage seized Germany. Count Felix Yusupov who was in Berlin in those troublesome days recalled in his memoirs: “We went to the Russian embassy in early morning and from there to the Copenhagen train. There was no escort required for a foreign mission. We were put at the mercy of an outraged crowd. They threw stones at us and we survived by miracle. There were women and children from diplomatic families with us. Some of the Russians had their heads hit by a stick, others were beaten half to death. The crowd hit off hats from people and tore off their clothes.” However the Yusupovs who were initially arrested were later allowed to freely travel in Berlin and arrange for departure with the Russian embassy.
The Russian media in 1914 carried a lot of publications about misfortunes of returning tourists which reflected the fervor of the days. Eyewitnesses cannot be blamed for lying as too many people wrote in different outlets about the same. They all faced similar circumstances but described them through the prism of their personal suffering. It is not easy for an historian to separate reality from emotions and produce an objective picture.
By analyzing the Black Book of German Atrocities which came out hot on the trail in St. Petersburg on the basis of media reports the author arrived at the following conclusions.
If we drop expressive epithets and curses expressing human attitude (“beasts who lost any human dignity”, “animals”, “rude Barbarians”, “brutal Germans”) the rest (“brazen”, “militant”, “crazy”, “brutal”, “drunk soldiers”, “angry population”, “non-cultural”, “rude”, “Austrians were drunk”, “excessively rude”, “outraged people revenging for trifles”, “angrily mocking people or silly and indifferent”, “haughty Germans”) can hardly produce something more than an image of a crowd excited by patriotic moods and conviction that Russians are to blame for the war.
If we drop epithets and expressions which reflect the attitude of the narrator to the developments (“refined brutality”, “outrageous”, “humiliation”, “Barbarians”, “spared nobody”, “growing black pile of German brutality”, “terrorists”) and look for confirmations of humiliation we shall find out that many of them were oral and pointed at extreme rudeness. Here are some examples: ” they persecuted for trifles”, “cursed and sneered”, “hit the duchess with gun-butts and rudely searched her”, “brazen crowd shouted”, “insulting formalities”, “readily accepted bribes despite patriotism”, “insulted ladies”, “humiliating searches”, “extremely rude pronouncements about Russians”, “pulled through the whole city”, “rude and insulting tone”, “rude curses”, “excited laughter”, “rude and unscrupulous”, “said vulgarities”, “tried to kiss”, “viperous smiles”, “dishonest deception”, “specific Prussian stupidity”, “insulted and even beat”, “sneering”, “gave no food or water”, “there were no porters” (sic!)…
It is also to remember that tourists were in a suppressed mood as they were on hostile territory surrounded by hostile people. Disgust and fear promoted by unclear situation and danger dominated the conscience of misfortunate travelers making their perceptions subjective to the maximum. It is only natural that in such a situation the same actions were perceived differently by various people who were in different circumstances – Russian and German citizens. What a German could perceive as mercy to the enemy a Russian traveler considered utmost rudeness and injustice. Back home they did not spare colors to express their emotions. It backed military propaganda which worked to create the negative image of the enemy.
Definitely, there were cases of beating, looting, bad conditions for displaced people, and several tragic events. However, reports are based on rumors, e.g. “they said the workers were executed”. One and the same episodes are repeated (when the Germans shot dead a father who slapped an officer for rudely searching his daughter). It is an additional indirect evidence that such facts were rare. Episodes of Barbarianism are always distinguished on general background.
Despite hardships and adversities most tourists succeeded to safely get back home.