Destination: Germany and the Historic East Prussia
Book: Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont, (2011) published by Picador
Review by Martin Davies
When I began learning German at the age of thirteen, there was a particular wall map which dominated the classroom of our eccentric master, ‘Herr’ Holgate. It showed the nation’s main cities, roads and railways, of course, plus the lay of the land in standard tints – green, brown, yellow and purple.
But it was the thick red line to the north and east which drew my eye, time after time. Despite the fact that the linen-backed chart was obviously published in the late 1960s, its makers were keen to draw attention to what they regarded as the realGermany, incorporating extensive tracts that belonged (as they still do) to Poland and Russia: Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia.
Whether the boundaries were those of the 1871 empire or the slightly smaller Weimar Republic (minus Alsace, northern Schleswig, Posen and the Polish corridor), I fail to recall. But to a British schoolboy this cartographic lie appeared an outrageous example of Teutonic chauvinism.
Lebensraum-obsessed Huns were still claiming vast swathes of territory to which they obviously had no right at all. It has taken Max Egremont’s book, Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia as well as a recent journey of my own through the former DDR, to explain why those post-1945 maps persisted in an anachronistic delineation of the German frontier.
What I did not realise, either as a schoolboy or later as an adult – despite working in Germany and studying history for my first degree – is that East Prussia, like Pomerania and Silesia, was solidly German in both language and culture from the Middle Ages right through to 1945. The Teutonic Knights brought Christianity and ‘civilization’ to the region – with the sword, of course – and the ‘Ivans’ chased the same things out, with rifles, tanks and slow starvation.
Forgotten Land is neither travel nor history, however, in the classic sense. The author includes experiences and impressions of his own, naturally, but the narrative is dominated by a deft retelling of East Prussian memoirs, most from the 1950s and 1960s, which look back with nostalgia to a calmer, ancestral way of life, dominated by huge houses, winter sleigh rides, hunting parties and a deeply imprinted sense of noblesse oblige.
The farther Baltic shore was not unlike the Raj for Britons, or the Southern States of America – agricultural, aristocratic, relatively poor and full of outdated concepts like honour, truthfulness and militarism. There is a curious link between these old-fashioned, reactionary ways of life, and the production of art and literature (noticeable, again, in Anglo-Indian and Southern belles-lettres). The East Prussian exiles in the Bundesrepublik include key names of modern German letters: Countess Marion Dönhoff, Hans Lehndorff, Agnes Miegel, Michael Wieck and Walter Frevert. They speak not just for the 800,000 Germans expelled from East Prussia between 1945 and 1948, but millions of others who have wondered whether the social and political uprooting of the last half century has been entirely for the good.
It was Stalin and his henchmen who carved up the ancient Prussian territories. Poland gained the larger southern part, including Masuria with its endless lakes and woods, whilst the northerly section east of the capital, Königsberg, went to Russia. The ancient Hanseatic city has long been famous as the birthplace of Kant, and also for its links with titans as disparate as Kollwitz and Hindenburg. In 1946 it was renamed Kaliningrad (after a now-discredited apparatchik) and turned into the headquarters of the USSR’s Baltic fleet.
During forty-four years the war prize was sealed off to foreigners, including the vast majority of its former citizens. When some of them returned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a depressing sight indeed that met their eyes in Königsberg and the surrounding countryside. For all this, Forgotten Land gives space to developments since 1990. Newcomers and capital are moving back into the region, Poles, Germans, Russians – even holidaying Arabs. There is a sense of guarded optimism, as if the traumatic events of recent history can almost be laid to rest.
When East Prussia ceased to exist the geographical area was divided into four newly minted political units: Kaliningrad Oblast in the north (Russian) and Olsztyn, Elbąg and Suwąlski counties in the Polish south. The dismemberment eradicated every trace of the Teutonic past, including the highly symbolic Tannenberg Memorial, commemorating Hindenburg’s crushing victory over the Russian Army at the outset of the First World War, and the majority of old country manors.
Towns and villages, too, were allotted Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian names, and the present inhabitants are largely descended from the newcomers who arrived from points east and south – Poles (in the main) displaced from farms and cities in historic eastern Poland when the Soviets grabbed the latter area for themselves. As Egremont observes, it is as if the entire territory of Poland shifted west.
The overall winner was Russia, of course, and the loser – Germany. East Prussia, although it is never stated so baldly, was among the territorial ‘prices’ (prizes) exacted for the Holocaust. The collective guilt was such that after ’45 German politicians remained silent or simply denied any chance of reclaiming the ancestral lands.
Could the English imagine parting, with East Anglia, Cornwall or Northumberland? Or the French saying goodbye to Provence and Brittany? Wars throughout history have brought about drastic redrawings of maps, and in the first global conflict it was Austro-Hungary which bore the brunt of loss (to much wailing and gnashing of teeth). The Hungarians parted with Transylvania (and much more besides) – remaining highly conscious to this day of the Magyar-speaking minorities marooned in western and central Romania.
If history highlights the realignment of peoples and frontiers, what is surprising in the cast of East Prussia is that its story is largely unknown. The very name has simply become a byword for brainless militarism, with no understanding whatsoever of the delicate geo-political underpinning of this exotic shadowland with its enormous natural beauty and historical significance.
Egremont has written a useful account, one of the few in English to throw light on an unusually fascinating and mysterious region. The book’s arrangement seems disorganized at first, jumping as it does around characters, periods, and narratives. But the compelling nature of the subject draws the reader slowly in, while the author’s non-judgmental tone is just right for a tale of such loss, suffering, hope, and eventual redemption.
What stands out is the extraordinary resignation of the millions who lost everything almost overnight, settling for token museums in Duisburg and Lüneburg, plus a literary industry churning out Baltic nostalgia. If Westerners are impressed from an early age with the idea that Germans are history’s irredeemable baddies, this is a book which gives a long overdue reassessment of those old clichés. The map, at last, is beginning to make just a little sense.
Martin Davies lives in Ibiza, Spain. He writes and publishes books, like our recently reviewed A Valley Wide. You can find his Barbary Press books on the Ibiza Classics page.
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