For those of us who have grown up in the westernmost parts of Europe, it is completely impossible to imagine how it feels for people literally to find their country has disappeared off the map, to be driven from their land and see a foreign nation occupy their homes. Over the last century perhaps nowhere in Europe has this been more traumatically experienced than in East Prussia, which abruptly ceased to exist at the end of WWII, when Britain and the United States agreed to Stalin's demand that this territory should become a spoil of war.
Two-thirds of East Prussia were absorbed by Poland and the remaining northern third became a new region of Russia, to be renamed as Kaliningrad, after a senior Russian political figure (who died without ever setting foot there). For many years, Kaliningrad was a closed region - off-limits to all foreigners (except favoured anti-Western "freedom fighters" and their ilk) and most Russians, for the region was turned into a huge military base - the headquarters of the Soviet Baltic Fleet and home to hundreds of thousands of troops occupying the closest Russian territory to NATO forces, immediately behind the Warsaw Pact frontline.
And then everything changed. The Soviet Union collapsed and, with the independence of the Baltic States and Belarus from the former USSR, Kaliningrad found itself cut off from the Russian mainland, separated from the motherland by two foreign countries, whichever route (other than by air) people chose to take. In the early 1990s the future of Kaliningrad became a hot topic for western and, indeed, Russian analysts, researchers, diplomats, politicians and others. Would it remain a fortified garrison - a continuing, potential threat to NATO and the newly free countries of Central and Eastern Europe, now clamouring to join NATO and the EU, or would it become a peaceful, civilian land, open to trade and other exchanges with its neighbours? Fortunately, the latter option was chosen by Russia's new leaders and in 1992 the first western tourists were allowed access. Former East Prussians returned in their tens of thousands to see the homeland they thought they would never have a chance of revisiting. Many wept at the awfulness of what the Soviet regime had done to their beloved home. Others shrugged their shoulders philosophically at the throw of the historical dice. Few returned a second time.
Max Egremont, a fluent German speaker and lover of German culture (not the corruptions of Nazism) was one of the first of these foreigners to visit Kaliningrad in 1992. He found a bleak and desolate region. But he has returned several times since and witnessed firsthand the gradual improvements and transformation that has been taking place over the last two decades.
Fascinated by the region's complex and frequently tragic history, he set out on a personal odyssey to find and interview surviving German exiles, Polish migrants and Russian settlers. His book is a deeply rich and rewarding telling of a whole series of personal stories, from a wide range of perspectives - teachers, chemists, soldiers, aristocrats and others. While the giants (and monsters) of the 20th century (Hindenberg, Hitler, Stalin et al) shaped the broad canvas, it is the personal stories that Egremont has discovered and recounted, which provide the vivid brushstrokes that make reading this book such a moving and uplifting experience.
Egremont has provided us with a unique narrative, packed with historical detail, much of which would have been lost forever if he had not tracked down so many witnesses - many of whom have since died. It is therefore an invaluable archive and source book for future historians. But it is much more. It is a story of human experience at times of huge and violent change - of hope and courage, of despair and loss, of goodness and atrocities.
While it is sometimes difficult to follow Egremont's jumps from one place or time to another, his reasons for doing so are always logical and rewarding.
I strongly urge everybody who has any interest in the history and, indeed, the future of Europe to read this magnificent book.