When deciding on the tagline for this blog I found myself unsure of how to refer to the little strip of land in Lithuania that was once home to the Szameitat family. The German names Memelland and Memelgebiet are mostly unknown in the UK, and Lithuania Minor, a direct translation of the Lithuanian name Mažoji Lietuva for a once larger area, erases its German heritage and was promoted intentionally in the Soviet era to play down its Prussian past (Lithuania Minor was once more commonly known as Prūsų Lietuva – Prussian Lithuania). But when I mention the name Memel Territory, a translation of Territoire de Memel, because it was the French who were in control of the region immediately after the First World War, I am also usually met with blank stares.
In fact, it turns out it’s not just the name that’s little known, but the area itself. For some reason, our History GCSE textbooks fail to inform us about how, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War, this small strip of land north of the Memel/Neman river was separated from Germany and placed under the control of the League of Nations, nor how, in 1923, there was a coup staged by the newly created Lithuanian nation to annexe it (interestingly enough making Lithuania the first nation to break the Treaty of Versailles), nor how it was technically in a state of war from 1926-1938, nor how it was Hitler’s final territorial gain before the outbreak of the Second World War. We learn about the occupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, but somehow the Memel Territory gets missed out as insignificant.
It really shouldn’t, because the events that took place in this small strip of land were like a microcosm of what happened all over Europe during the twentieth century. And researching it over the years has taught me much about perspective and the lens through which we view history.
Because depending on what your source is, history can look quite different. For Germans, the Memel Territory has been traditionally understood as an area that was once Prussian, the majority of whose inhabitants were German or at least identified culturally as Prussian up to 1945, by which time they had fled or been expelled. For Lithuanians, it has been thought of as an area in which its culture and heritage were suppressed by a foreign power for hundreds of years and was returned to the homeland provisionally in 1923 and for good in 1945.
Perspective matters in history telling, and that will become clear in subsequent blog posts. Even the name we choose is significant. By calling it the Memel Territory, people might think I am implicitly suggesting that the region should be thought of historically as German, or at least Prussian, whereas referring to it as the Klaipėda Region implies its Lithuanian heritage is the more significant. The truth is, of course, much more nuanced, and most historians these days try to reflect that complexity by not sliding into the old dichotomy of German versus Lithuanian. Cultural exchange between the two countries has become important especially in light of Lithuania’s relatively recent membership of the EU, fostering for example university exchange programmes and projects like the Annaberger Annalen. Nevertheless, an awareness of this difference in perspective is important when attempting to understand the history of the region.
As it happens, both German and Lithuanian settlers came later to an area that was already inhabited by Curonian and ethnically Prussian populations. For hundreds of years under the rule of one German state or another the cultures mixed and coexisted, sometimes happily, sometimes not. The ethnic identity of the region’s inhabitants in the twentieth century is therefore unsurprisingly complex. As a rule, the towns were predominantly made up of native German speakers, and the countryside had a Lithuanian majority, though it’s hard to ascertain what ‘German’ or ‘Lithuanian’ really meant, as there were many bilingual inhabitants who identified as Memelländer and who probably spoke Lithuanian as their first language but had assimilated in other ways. It’s a very modern idea to assume that national boundaries should follow linguistic ones, and native tongue was certainly not the defining factor in the expression of identity for those living in the Memel Territory between the wars. Unlike the people over in Lithuania Major, those who identified as Prussian Lithuanians leant culturally towards Prussia and importantly shared their Protestant confession in contrast with their Roman Catholic brothers over the border. German perhaps enjoyed greater prestige than other languages in East Prussia, but it was in Tilsit, on the river Memel, that Lithuanian books were printed and smuggled over into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century (Lithuania’s struggle for independence has historically been mostly concerned with freeing itself from Russian rule).
The area retained a provincial feel, being so far away from Berlin, the heartland of Prussia. This was magnified by the fact that there was a real absence of heavy industry and the majority of the population was engaged in agricultural pursuits and wood cutting. The largest city, Memel (called Klaipėda by the region’s Lithuanian speakers), had a modest population and was overshadowed industrially and culturally by its great rival Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad). Life was largely determined by weather and the sea: it could be warm in summer but winters were often very cold and the area was prone to stormy gales which affected harvests and trade. But it was – and is – a remarkably beautiful place, defined by huge changeable skies and the vast expanse of the sea, separated only by a long thin strip of sand on the horizon: the Curonian Spit. My grandmother rarely talked about anything to do with her German past, but Mum told me how she sometimes spoke fondly of playing on the sand dunes as a child there, just a short ferry ride away from where they lived in Memel.
The sense of being at one with nature and escaping the stresses of modern life led several well known cultural figures to seek refuge on the Spit: Thomas Mann had a summer house in Nidden, and there was an artist’s colony that formed there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
But although the Memel Territory was right at the edge of the German Empire, it was right in the middle of major European events. Armies passed through backwards and forwards in the Napoleonic and First World Wars, and its inhabitants lived on the cultural frontier between East and West.
Political tensions were probably at their peak between the World Wars. Despite the ethnic and cultural mélange, most inhabitants in the region did not wish to be under the authority of Lithuania (and in spite of the territory being designated an autonomous region). In the 1938 Landtag elections, 97% of the eligible residents voted, and 87.2% of those votes were for the German Einheitsliste, which was a list of all German political parties who sought a return of the region to Germany (source). The 1930s had seen a complex rise of right wing nationalism partly in response to the developments over the border in Germany and partly because of the growing dissatisfaction with Lithuanian rule. Two National Socialist political parties were founded, the CSA (Christlich-Soziale Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or Christian-Socialist Workers’ Party) and the Sovog (Sozialistische Volksgemeinschaft, or Socialist People’s Party), and both competed for the status of the Memel Territory’s ‘true’ National Socialist party. The Lithuanian authorities were concerned about these developments, and implemented a series of measures which strained the nation’s relationship with Germany further: several officials, including the head of the Memel directorate, were dismissed, and over a hundred members of the two Nazi sympathising parties (which were subsequently banned in 1934) were arrested and tried in Kaunas in a well publicized and internationally criticized trial that Lithuania still upholds as the world’s first trial of Nazi war criminals. Germany responded with economic sanctions and international pressure. (For more information on German-Lithuanian relations in the period see here and here.) The Memelländers thus became enveloped in political and economic tensions that surpassed their borders and had consequences for the world stage. They also turn out to have had significant implications for the Szameitat family, as will become clear in subsequent posts.
It was into this atmosphere of political and social unrest that my grandmother was born. I don’t recall ever learning how her parents met, but I do remember being told that Johanne’s family, the Pätzels, didn’t approve of the union. Johanne was raised in Rudienen, a small farming village near to Heydekrug (modern day Šilutė), and the Szameitats were only a few kilometres away in Paszieszen. We’re not certain of the reason for the Pätzels’ disapproval, but I have a hunch. The name Szameitat is of Prussian Lithuanian origin (see here if you read German) and refers to the name bearer being of a Samogitian background. It is the Germanized version of Žemaite, or ‘lower Lithuanian’, with a pronominal suffix –at on the end. As is often the case with minority cultures, Prussian Lithuanians were associated with being less economically prosperous, less learned and more provincial. Although assimilation must have occurred generations earlier, as none of our Szameitats seemed to have spoken any dialect of Lithuanian, maybe Oskar was just not considered German enough.
In any case, he was eight years her senior and they married in April 1927, two days after Johanne’s twenty second birthday. They had clearly sought refuge together in the (more socially progressive?) city and already co-habited, as the same address is given for each of them in the family Stammbuch: Verlängerte Alexanderstraße 19.
Their son, Oskar Glaubrecht Odo, was born in August 1928. They then moved a few doors up the road (which had also been renamed to commemorate the dismissed head of the Memel directorate, Otto Böttcher) to number 14 before my grandmother, Alice Toni Vera Irene, was born in October 1932. Soon after, Oskar was transferred in his work as a police detective to the more rural Pogegen (Pagėgiai), which we know from Johanne’s documents, but which is supported by the fact that the family is not found in the 1935 Memel address book (they are in the 1929, 1931 and 1942 address books also accessible online).
The only photograph we have of the children must have been taken during the Pogegen stay. By the time of the incorporation with Germany in 1939, Oskar had been promoted to Kriminalsekretär (something like detective sergeant) and the family had returned to Memel, now living at Hospitalstraße 22. It was here that Oskar would fall foul of the establishment, and here that the events unfolded that, two years later, would turn the family’s world upside down.