The Spirit of Kant and Königsberg

The Spirit of Kant and Königsberg as a Point of Reference for Today's Co-operation in the Baltic Sea Region

What I can present here are nothing but scattered thoughts, remarks, questions in a context that is more marked and formed by the last World War than any other place in Europe. We are aware that we have come to a city with a long history and an uncertain future, with a great cultural heritage that was nearly destroyed, and a completey different culture that took over, thus building here a crossroad of cultures. These "Baltic meetings" are dedicated to the memory of Königsberg, a city which no longer exists or which only lives on virtually, in our minds, but which if it still existed would this celebrate its 750th anniversary. With the castle - once its core, now gone - the castle which stood on the "mons regius", it would be one of the oldest towns in the whole of Russia, roughly one-hundred years younger than Moscow. And its university is the oldest in Russia, roughly 200 years older than Moscow’s. Still, we are not looking at it as a normal Russian city. Why should we celebrate Königsberg? What made this city so special? If I now report on a book recently published by Jürgen Manthey ("Königsberg. Geschichte einer Weltbürgerrepublik") you might be rather surprised with what the author comes up with. According to him, the focus of the city was an urban space of dialogue between equals, between citizens in opposition to the Prussian court in Berlin, a place where the thought of cosmopolitan freedom and criticism could be formulated.

Königsberg was the capital of the first protestant state in Europe, a state founded in 1525. In 1287, not long after the city was founded as the residency of the Teutonic Order, the original "Prussian" culture was conquered besides the Marienburg (nowadays Malbork), but this culture gave the country its name, at least until 1932, when the Nazis abolished Prussia as a state.

Königsberg was a part of European cultural life, a city related to the Baltic Sea, with the same brickwork Gothic style as in Lübeck, Danzig, Riga and Reval. This once was the common architectural heritage that no longer exists in Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad could be the focal point for a multiplex identity: Soviet as well as Russian and European, it could be, as the writer Oleg Glushkin expressed, not only a window towards Europe as St Petersburg also is, but "a broad door with the only ice-free harbour in the West".

We have come here to discuss if the Kaliningrad of today might not become a more important part of the European scene. This is not self-evident. How can its German past be linked to its Russian present, and how can the Kaliningrad of today attain a level of development equal to its neighbours?

In a way this is also a meeting between Northern and Eastern Central Europa, of which Königsberg was an outpost in the same way as the Baltic Hanse cities east of Königsberg were, such as Memel, Riga, and Reval/Tallinn, as well as the Soviet Union with its mix of populations, of Caucasians, Europeans and Asians. Kaliningrad is a new city of colonisers, like Königsberg was from its very start.

In Kaliningrad we meet the clearest post-war utopia, after the victory over nazism and fascism, this region should develop according to the rules and laws of the Enlightenment in their Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist interpretation. They built their views on the philosophy of Hegel – not of Kant. (In Kant's view, the possession of power invariably destroys any free judgement of reason.)The perspective on Kant might be different in the West than in Russia: we are thinking more of individual freedoms and responsibilities, a very protestant way of acting and co-operating with others in a social whole. The exodus of the individual from his self-inflicted immatureness ("Ausgang des Individuums aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit"). Kant’s Critiques are based on three elements: "Verstand" or "mind" (the tool of perception and knowledge, "Vernunft" or "reason" (the tool of morality) and "Geschmack" or "taste" (the tool that makes feelings possible to communicate). It is this taste that as a "sensus communis aestheticus" also make judgements possible and a common spirit, not only in Art.

This universality Kant experienced in his home city (which he never left). In a footnote, Kant gave his definition of the cosmopolitan character of the city of Königsberg:"Eine große Stadt, der Mittelpunkt eines großen Reichs, in welchem sich die Landescollegia der Regierung desselben befinden, die eine Universität (zur Kultur der Wissenschaften) und dabei noch die Lage zum Seehandel hat, welche durch Flüsse aus dem Inneren des Landes sowohl, als auch mit angrenzenden entlegenen Ländern von verschiedenen Sprachen und Sitten einen Verkehr begünstigt, - eine solche Stadt, wie etwa Königsberg am Pregelflusse, kann schon für einen schicklichen Platz zur Erweiterung sowohl der Menschenkenntnis als auch der Weltkenntnis genommen werden, wo diese, auch ohne zu reisen, erworben werden kann." The traffic most important for truly knowing the world and its peoples is both internal and external, it is connected to universities and to trade with bordering though (by the waters?) distant countries.

Kant did not even consider clergy or nobility, he knew only the urban citizen, the citoyen who was able to maintain a culture of conversation characterised by tolerance, as found at Kant's own daily dinner-parties. "Die Königsberger Geselligkeit war die einer Hafenstadt. Alles – Kaufleute, Lehrer, Ärzte, Beamte – verkehrte von Gleich zu Gleich." (von Kuenheim) "The social life of Königsberg was that of a harbor city. Everyone - merchants, teachers, doctors, civil servants, interacted as equals."In the Prussia of that time, tolerance was a key term: let me remind you that this country was marked by an early catastrophy: the terrible plague of the years 1709 and 1710, when 40% of the population of 600 000 people died, which led to a new settlement by Lithuanians, Poles, Dutch, Westphalians, Magdeburgers, Nassauers, Swiss Hugenottes, and from 1732 Protestant Salzburgers, in the "Repeuplierung", as the Prussian King called it. Independent of all differences in national origin, the country attracted colonisers from East and West, North and South to repopulate mostly the rural areas.

What followed was a programme of public education. Public schools were introduced in Prussia in 1740 - at the same time that Kristijonas Donelaitis became preacher in the small village of Tollmingkehmen, where services were held in both Lithuanian and German. Further South in Masuria, services were even held in three languages: Lithuanian, Polish and German.Königsberg was the capital of a larger state that is defunct. Today, this country that existed for 700 years is divided by new borders – borders drawn and confirmed by Stalin - into a Russian, a Polish and a Lithuanian part. This is the result of two World Wars and mostly of the war Hitler's Germany carried into Lithuania, into Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Denmark and Norway, the Balkans and the Soviet Union.

Wasn’t it Berdyaev who said that the landscape in which a people lives is a symbol of its soul? What happens when a landscape is taken, captured? When it has become the prey of another power?

How can you identify yourself with your enemy and the culture you have conquered? Does it not mean to turn yourself into a victim? (and this might be the great anxiety the veterans have).

Many traits of this former culture have been destroyed. But even the utopia of a new Kaliningrad has failed in many ways. So what remains is a double fragmentation, a hybrid of diverse elements, as can be seen in buildings like the Drama Theatre, re-built in the style of the Bolshoi-Theatre in Moscow. The short history of Kaliningrad shows how difficult it is to start anew, to allow the utopia of a new society to neglect the past. What is left is a double identity.On the other hand: can landscapes, including cultural landscapes, be seen as independent of their national affiliation? Are cultural landscapes therefore not at all German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian etc? As Herder put it in his Journal of My Voyage in the Year 1769: “It makes no difference whether it is now a Curonian, Prussian, Pomeranian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, English or French sea; for our shipping, it is a sea everywhere.”

In the same sense, a Scot, Neal Ascherson, wrote of the Black Sea:"These lands belong to all their people, but also to none of them. Like the terminal moraine of a glacier, the Black Sea shore is a place where the detritus of human migrations and invasions has been deposited for more than four thousand years. The shore itself, worn and quiet, speaks of the patience of rock, sand and water which has received much human restlessness and will outlive it. This is the voice heard by many writers –"In the case of literature, this notion is contradicted by the fact that literature can only be international by being national, i.e. bound to a specific language, and within the literatures of the Baltic Sea, reciprocal knowledge of contributions from countries other than one’s own is minimal, particularly after these fifty years of being shut off from one another. In short, there is only German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish Baltic Sea literature and only a very few figures such as Kant, Herder, Catherine the Great, Dostoewskij, Kierkegaard and Strindberg whose names have a cross-border currency. Even the work of significant figures in their own national language and literature - such as the cosmopolitan Saint-Petersburg-born Swedish Finn Edith Södergran, or the most important Baltic Sea poet of the German post-war period, Johannes Bobrowski - cannot be assumed to be generally familiar across our borders. We have to work hard in order for this knowledge to spread. Only the greatest fiction writer of this city, E. T. A. Hoffmann, seems to be widely known.

Thinking of Königsberg, what would be its genius loci and how did it influence the post-war development? Historical parallels are always dangerous, but the difference between Konstantinopel and Istanbul comes to my mind, although there the original population was allowed to stay (if it had not been killed) after the conquest of 1453 and the former history of the city was generally accepted. (Although it was re-built. Like the biggest Christian church, the Hagia Sophia that was turned into a mosque and became a museum in the 20th Century).

Kaliningrad still celebrates the victory over Königsberg (and you will have to show next year how your city developed after is complete destruction, the starvation and "cleansing" of the city. This new colonisation, is it still alive?), but the return of the conquered Königsberg should be a return into European consciousness, into the European public sphere. "Kann man im Erinnern das Verlorene zurückgewinnen?", "Can one, in remembering, regain what was lost?", von Krockow asks in his book on a specifically German theme: Heimat. He also writes on the possibility of shaping a new tradition after the old ones have been destroyed, shaping them anew in an artificial way, as works of art.

How else can you deal with such a gap, such a cut in history? At a symposium on the "Landscapes of the Baltic in Literature and Art" we held in Visby, Gotland some years ago, I concluded that the Baltic has been lost in German literature, but that it can be re-gained as "art mémoire". I think this "art mémoire" can also make it possible for you to be embedded in history after a long period of trauma.

But these memories are not common ones. Though we have a common history in Europe, we do not have common memories. But we can have landscapes in common, as a state of mind, for their spiritual life.

What can be learned by the spirit of Königsberg that still exists in Kaliningrad, that cannot be learned elsewhere? When Johann Gottfried Herder left Riga on May 25, 1769, the Russian General Governor wanting to hold him back. Herder was on his way to meet Klopstock and Gerstenberg in Copenhagen, he wished to go to Hamburg and Germany, but instead arrived in Nantes on the French Atlantic coast, writing his Journal of A Voyage, and in Strasbourg meeting Goethe. As we know, he was to live in Weimar for the rest of his life, which was the centre of German as well as international cultural around 1800. He published collections of folk songs, many of them with Baltic origin, some from as far away as Lappland. He was the son of a weaver in the small town of Mohrungen in East Prussia and had studied theology in Königsberg before he became a preacher in Riga.

But the Weimar Herder moved to was a city of 6000 inhabitants, while Königsberg had 55 000 inhabitants, twice as many as Berlin! There we have the world of the Baltic Sea in the late 18th century. You can look upon Herder’s Journal as a document of self identity. What we can learn from him is how the Sea is a space for self-definition, re-definition and identification with yourself.

He discovers the Sea as a realm of free thought: "was gibt ein Schiff, das zwischen Himmel und Meer schwebt, nicht für weite Sphäre zu denken! ... Der enge, feste, eingeschränkte Mittelpunkt ist verschwunden, du flatterst in den Lüften oder schwimmst auf einem Meere – die Welt verschwindet dir – ist unter dir verschwunden! – Welch neue Denkart, aber sie kostet Tränen, Reue, Herauswindung aus dem Alten, Selbstverdammung!" "What wide spheres of thought does a ship suspended between heaven and earth provide us with! ... The narrow, fixed, limited middle is gone, you flutter in the air or swim upon the sea - the world disappears for you - has disappeared from under you! - What a new way to think, but it costs tears, regret, winding yourself out from what is past, damning yourself!"

And Königsberg, Krolowgorod as it was called in Russian, looked out over this very same Sea!

Let me end with a puzzling poem by the great Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf whom I have translated now for 13 years. His Thoughts on the General Post Office deals with our tradition, a tradition that has been cut off. Only fragments are left, with no sender and no addressee. Is not our world of today this uncertain ground that Ekelöf tries to grasp in his writing?

Thoughts on the General Post Office

Mail ist delivered to me from what was long ago

Letters to what is coming reach me from the past

How long must this one have been underway?

Or this one?

Or this other one? This letter bears a strange stamp,

it looks like a drop of blood that bleached to saffron

A stamp I've never seen before, and which the sender

can't have seen either - for then it was not yet bleached…

This letters bears a foreign postmark, it's called of the King of Kings

a postal house, if it ever existed, in ruins,

and this one bears a seal, one I don't recognize:

On it, you can see the symbol of an altar between two trees

and clothed in several bellshaped skirts of different lengths

a woman who perhaps represents a priestess

The sender of this letter is: "one whose breast is of violets,

whose head is golden, a wreath in her hair"

and the addressee: "one who knows what is proper, who lifts the hem from her ankles

when she quietly takes her place in the circle of her disciples"

This one, written in the same style, comes from someone who threw himself

off a cliff

but it is torn and the pieces don't fit together. How shall it be delivered?

This letter is written on such strange paper,

it is as though it has been purified to tinder in the sand

where the mailman died on duty. Where are his bones? They can't be found,

but the letter is still there, or at least its fibers.

I have sent it on, just yesterday

althought the sender has disappeared and the addressee is as yet unborn.

Letters like these have been touched by many hands

fingerprint beside fingerprint.

One can see how they were worried by people who came in from

the fields from the smithy the kitchen or the shed

to be given to someone one imagined was more knowledgable, and he in turn

would know someone who was knowledgable, and he in turn -

Between the letters and them lay birth, death, fire, murder and seven lean years

and seven fat years and seven times seven normal years.

The rule is: You shouldn't open other people's mail, that's bad manners.

About these, one can say: You can't open them, even if you wanted to

and yet they exist, you hold them in your hand, you weight them

and what is written in them is about entirely different things, even if they still

meant a lot to you

because the sender was a complete stranger who was close to you.

The same could be said about the addressee. He doesn't know himself.


Translated by Margitt Lehbert


Размышления о всеобщей почтовой службе


Почту я получаю из давно уже минувшего

Письма в будущее доходят до меня из прошлого

Вот это, к примеру, как же долго оно шло?

А это? Или вон то?

На этом письме странная марка,

похожая на пятно крови, поблекшее до цвета шафрана

Марка которую я никогда не видел, да и отправитель

не мог ее видеть – ведь тогда еще она не выцвела...

На этом письме печать не отсюда, она зовется Царя Царей

из почтамта, если он был, в руинах,

а на этом печать, мне незнакомая:

На ней между двумя деревьями виден символ алтаря

и женщина, одетая в юбки-колокола разной длины,

может, она служит обедню

На этом значится отправителем «та, чья грудь фиалки

чья голова в золоте, с венком в волосах»

а адресат «та, которая ведет себя, как подобает, которая приподнимает краешек юбки,

тихо присаживаясь в кругу своих учеников»

Это, той же рукой, написано человеком, который бросился со скалы

но порвано, и клочки не подходят друг к другу. Как его теперь передать?

Это письмо написано на такой странной бумаге,

как будто оно обратилось ветошью в песке,

где погиб почтальон. Где его останки? Не найти,

а письмо сохранилось, как минимум его волокна.

Я его дальше отправил, еще вчера,

Хотя отправитель пропал, а получатель еще не родился.

Письма, как это, держали многие руки

сплошь отпечатки пальцев.

Видно, как их вертели в руках, переворачивали люди, пришедшие с поля

из кузницы кухни или сарая

чтоб передать кому-то кто лучше знает, а тот

кто еще лучше знает, а тот –

между ними и письмами было рожденье, смерть, огонь, убийство и семь лет голода

и семь тучных лет и семью семь лет обычных.

Считается, что нельзя вскрывать чужие письма, бестактно.

А эти и не вскроешь, даже если захотеть

и все же: они есть, их держишь в руке, чувствуешь на вес

и что в них написано рассказывает совсем о других вещах, как бы заветны они ни были

потому что их отправитель абсолютно чужой человек, бывший тебе близким.

И то же самое можно сказать и о получателе. Он сам не знает себя.


Translated by Alexey Khairetdinov


[Speech given on the opening of the Baltic Meetings in Kaliningrad on 18 June, 2005]