True Lithuania

History of Klaipėda (Memel)

The city ruled by German states (1250-1918)

Klaipėda was established on an empty shore by the Teutonic Knights in the 1250s. Invited by the duke of Masovia to convert or destroy pagan Baltic tribes the Order chose this place for its castle. They called it Memelburg. Memel is the German name for Nemunas river and the early settlers mistakenly believed that the straits linking Curonian lagoon to Baltic Sea are in fact the mouths of that mighty river.

Around the castle, a town of primarily German craftsmen sprung up. The castle itself was constantly upgraded and managed to withstand all the wars against Lithuania leaving Klaipėda and its immediate surroundings the only area of modern Lithuania that has never been ruled by any Lithuanian state until the 20th century.

Klaipėda in the 16th century when it consisted of a castle (right) and a small town (left).

The agricultural countryside remained predominantly ethnic Lithuanian through ages and the Lithuanian name for the city "Klaipėda" was thus born in the 16th century as a pejorative, literally meaning "Bread eater" and referring to the castle garrison. The region was considered to be part of Lithuania Minor. With the secularization of the local branch of Teutonic Order (1525) Klaipėda (Memel) became part of Prussia's "Lithuanian kreises". During the Napoleonic wars, it even briefly held the status of Prussia's capital as the royal family retreated here from danger (1807-1808).

The 19th century brought growth (5000 to 20000 people), even if hampered by the dangers of Russia's proximity. To the likes of Richard Wagner or Heinrich Schlieman Klaipėda was a temporary career step. Others (among them more and more Lithuanian ex-villagers) arrived for good, however, staffing the burgeoning trade and lumber industries. It was lumber what fuelled the devastating fire of 1854 which caused 2/3 of the city to be rebuilt.

A sketch of the Klaipėda Old Town in 1880 after it has risen from ashes. Towering churches of different denominations and ethnicities reflected the diversity of a frontier merchant city.

Klaipėda region and Lithuania between the wars (1918-1945)

After the Germany‘s loss of World War 1 its non-German areas were annexed to other countries, such as Denmark or Poland. While Klaipėda city's population of 45 000 was 70% German, its more populous surroundings were 70% Lithuanian, therefore the entire region had a slight Lithuanian majority and was detached from the German state. Lithuanian state was however not yet born as the Western powers were reluctant to recognize it due to its disputes in the east. Therefore Klaipėda region was left to be ruled by the League of Nations.

Lithuania received a wide international recognition by 1922. The status of Klaipėda region changed in 1923 when a Lithuanian-supported revolt took place and the region was captured by the Supreme Salvation Committee of Lithuania Minor that asked to be accepted into the Republic of Lithuania. All the nations recognized the annexation of Klaipėda but only as an autonomous territory where German and Lithuanian languages would enjoy equal status.

The New Town bank of Danė river with the Market of Klaipėda (left) and the Market (Biržos) Bridge. This is just one of many important buildings demolished by the Soviets after the war. Atgimimo square (New Town borough) was laid in this place.

The autonomy was established but this did not solve every problem. With the rise of nazism in Germany in 1930s this ideology became popular among Klaipėda's German population as well. This led to acts of terror and subsequent arrests of the local nazi groups. In fact, this clampdown against national socialist organizations was the first anti-nazi trial to take place anywhere in Europe (later it was nicknamed "Little Nuremberg").

Germany, a former ally of Lithuania, started pressuring Lithuania for a return of the Klaipėda region. This culminated in 1939 March when Germany annexed the region after an ultimatum, very similar to the one presented to Czechoslovakia for Sudetenland. Adolf Hitler himself then visited Klaipėda.

Buses and new buildings in interwar Klaipėda (modern Herkaus Manto street). Technologically advanced and more Western in its culture, Klaipėda had a profoundly different feel than other Lithuanian cities in the 1930s as it was the only one not to have suffered Russian Imperial regime.

After the World War 2 (1945 and beyond)

The history of old Klaipėda/Memel ended in 1945 when the city had been overrun by Soviet armies in late World War 2. The invading soldiers found only 20 inhabitants left in the city. Others, both Germans and Lithuanians, swiftly evacuated after hearing of Soviet massacres elsewhere. Klaipėda was then repopulated by Russians in the late 1940s. Since the 1950s, the Russians were joined by Lithuanians from other parts of the country. In 1950 Klaipėda became more populous than it was before World War 2 (~50 000 people), in some 1962 it was already double that size.

The total change of population was coupled with a devastation of Klaipėda old town. Soviets decided to demolish all the city's major churches. Many houses in the Old Town and especially the New Town were destroyed as well during the 1940s and 1950s Sovietization of the city. These changes left Klaipėda without some of its original character that once made it unique among Lithuania's cities. People of Klaipėda usually have little connection with the history of their city as their parents or grandparents moved in from somewhere else - some from Samogitian villages, some others from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. So the history now may only be seen in old bricks and sporadic attempts to recreate it by adopting historical names for shops and services. Much of this is to appease German tourists who still make a large share of Klaipėda's visitors.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The demolition of the fire department HQ in 1981 was the last of the historical building demolitions in Klaipėda. On the left a Soviet propaganda poster declares: Our work is for thee, oh Fatherland. ©Albinas Stubra.

After Lithuania‘s independence, Klaipėda became the second city in terms of foreign investments (yielding only to Vilnius). The first free economic zone in the country was quick to attract industry from as far away as Japan while the port continued to be a major impetus for economics.

Largest completed projects of the era include a gas terminal, "Akropolis" mall (once the largest in Baltics), arena (where matches of Eurobasket 2011 took place), major roads and more.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The project of Gandrališkės residential district of 2008. While it was scaled down after the economic downturn, tallest-in-Baltics residential tower has been constructed

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