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An engaging history of the old East Prussia with much original material
on 20 June 2011
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.
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".
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". 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 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 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.
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.
As an aside, I regret that the book was not published simultaneously in paper and e-book format. I have got used to making annotations by highlighting text on my e-reader and quotations by cutting and pasting, and I had to revert to pen and paper and later typing up my notes while reading this book (some of which are included in the fuller review on my website). The index is good, but not as effective as an electronic search feature. It is also a book to read with the Internet to hand. This is a finely detailed book and there is a vast array of maps, images and other supporting material available online to enrich the reading experience - the e-book format makes Internet cross-referencing so much easier to do. A few years from now it will seem incredible that a reference book like this was not immediately available as an electronic text.