In Forgotten Land, Max Egremont describes his travels among the old lands of East Prussia, bringing to the task a deep knowledge of modern history and the proficiency of an experienced writer. The book is a mixture of history, travel-writing and personal interviews, a fascinating mix which builds up a compelling picture of these lands and the changes that the last couple of centuries, particularly the post-Second World War settlement, have brought to them.
For after the Second World War, the lands of East Prussia were parcelled out between Russia and Poland. Those of the German population who could, fled westwards in the face of the retributive zeal of the advancing Russian troops. Many others were recruited as forced labour by the Russians and found themselves in the Gulag system. Towns and cities were renamed, gravestones were used as paving stones and so far as was possible, all traces of German residency were obliterated. The excellent Wikipedia article on East Prussia records that “a population which had stood at 2.2 million in 1940 was reduced to 193,000 at the end of May 1945”.
It is difficult for those who live on an island to understand what it is like to live in an area with fluid borders where skirmishes with neighbouring countries redraw the shape of your nation several times each century. The reshaping and re-ordering of East Prussia however far exceeds that of anywhere else in Europe, involving the forced emigration of well over a million people and yet it is largely forgotten by a Europe which prefers not to dwell on the terrible events of the 20th century.
While the lands of East Prussia have buried their German past, it is perhaps Kaliningrad which shows the most dramatic change since it was the German city-port of Königsberg. With the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989 the territory around Kaliningrad has been part of the Russian Federation but has had no land connection to the rest of Russia. When Max Egremont visited it in 1992 he found it “a parody of Soviet planning, with cracked concrete, cratered streets, people bend against the cold and wet . . .”. In the post-Soviet age he finds “black limousines and dark-suited security guards . . . wait outside the Kaliningrad clubs, restaurants and hotels; the show of money mocks any idea of communism”. The tourists are mainly German, relatives and descendants of those who were expelled in 1945, or even elderly former residents who found themselves “overwhelmed, bursting into tears at the memory of terror or loss”.
East Prussia has, as Egremont puts it, “a layered history”, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky writing that “the trees whisper in German”. A couple of years ago I reviewed Elizabeth Denny’s The Fall of Hitler’s Fortress City, in which she writes of visiting Kaliningrad and finding that “one cannot escape an uncanny feeling of the old Königsberg, like the negative of a damaged photograph, lying ten to twenty feet underneath the city’s surface”. This layering is reflected in the subtitle to Max Egremont’s book, “Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia”.
At times the book seems to go off at a bit of a tangent. For example, it is not immediately clear why we are treated to a chapter of mini-biography of the artist and sculptor Kath Kollwitz, particularly when it focuses on her years in Berlin. Similarly, the passages on the memorials at Ypres, while relevant in terms of highlighting the tragedy of war seem not quite relevant to this book of explorations of East Prussia. I really didn’t mind these digressions because Max Egremont is a writer with the gift of illuminating dark places, providing a list of such in his chapter on Ypres,
certain landscapes are overshadowed by what happened or even by what was conceived there: Hitler’s beloved Bavarian Alps; the still empty centre of Kaliningrad; the death camps. . . ; the forests of Belarus, eastern Poland and Ukraine where the Soviets and the Germans killed millions; the Wolf’s Lair . . .
Military victories in East Prussia during World War I became totemic symbols of German deliverance during the 1930s with General Von Hindenburg, who led the German armies in the Battle of Tannenburg, providing a potent symbol of Germanic heroism as he “stands in the snow, a Prussian spiked helmet on his head, binoculars in one hand, the other clutching his ceremonial sword”. In later years, the Nazis “made sure that whenever Hindenburg did appear in public it was in Hitler’s company. During these appearances, Hitler always made a point of showing the utmost respect and reverence for the President” (from Wikipedia). Max Egremont suggests however that the sending of huge reinforcements into East Prussia may so have depleted the forces fighting in France at a critical time and that it may actually have prevented the Germans from winning World War I.
The book is a mixture of interviews old and new – Max Egremont had extended conversations with Marion Donhoff, writer and states-woman, who was born in what is now Kaliningrad and fled before the invading Soviet army on horseback to Hamburg, later becoming editor and publisher of the liberal newspaper Die Zeit.
A chapter on Königsberg poet Agnes Miegel reminds us of the life-long pull of a homeland on those who suffered exile, her poem “Es War Ein Land” expressing the feelings of thousands of Germans who had to flee westwards in order to survive –
Once there was this land—we loved this land—yet horror fell upon it just as dunes of sand.
As elks in marsh and meadow vanished, so the trace of man and beast is lost.
They froze in snow, they scorched in flames, how miserably they wasted in the hands of strangers. (see Wikipedia)
Thomas Mann, who originated from the western end of the Baltic at Lubeck, fell in love with the wild coastline of the long spit of land near Zelenogradsk and used his Nobel prize money to build a summer house there which has somehow survived the upheavals of the years. The greatest name associated with the area is of course the philosopher Emmanuel Kant whose name keeps coming up in the book – we learn much about Kant’s years in Königsberg and also his current influence, with ongoing proposals that the name of Kaliningrad be changed to Kantgrad.
A minor criticism of the book is that it darts about rather more than is necessary and I sometimes felt that a better ordering of the material would have been welcome – the book jumps about between one era and another and in some ways is more an anthology of miscellaneous writings about East Prussia than a travel or history book. However, its important to say that each chapter and section is well worth reading and even when Max Egremont goes off on one of his many digressions he is always interesting. He seems at times to have trawled through every possible reference to the area even bringing in references to a forgotten British cycle traveller, Arnold Wilson, who passed through the region on a Baltic tour.
Of course, it is impossible to write about the region without touching on the horrors of the conclusion of World War II. The last days before the Russians invaded were terrible times, with concentration camps being emptied and their prisoners being marched off to die in forests and even being driven into the sea to drown. When the Russian Army came they brought their own brand of terror onto those who had not fled and Max Egremont recounts eye-witness reports of the killings and rapes inflicted on the remaining German residents. It must be a strange experience to visit towns like Kaliningrad and to remember the layered history now obliterated by the new townscape.
Having finished this book I believe it is going to be a vital reference book for anyone interested in this region and its troubled history. I can’t think how any future work could be more comprehensive in its range, covering as it does the social, cultural and political history of East Prussia. While I wonder whether an editor couldn’t have slightly improved the arrangement of the material there is no doubting the quality of the writing or the depth of the research – and of course the many interviews the author conducted which have contributed much original material which cannot be found elsewhere. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the region but also to anyone who enjoys reading well-written modern history.
I have one minor quibble with the publishers, Picador: the book contains a number of photographs, but these are printed in-line with the text and therefore lose definition. On a book of this price, it is a shame that the Picador, could not provide a photograph section on glossy paper. I also felt that there were not enough maps. While the main map in the front is useful, the book sorely lacks maps showing the national boundaries at different stages of history.
Wikipedia article on East Prussia
Wikipedia article on Käthe Kollwitz
Wikipedia article on Agnes Miegel
Wikipedia article on Paul von Hindenburg