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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.
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on 24 August 2011
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.
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on 23 December 2012
Despite having German contacts and also having a good knowledge of the broad sweep of German history, (or maybe because of those aspects) I found this to be a riveting book, perhaps because of the way it's written; I quite liked the "butterfly approach", finding out certain things about Käthe Kollwitz but not all in one go. The characters may have been largely coming from the ranks of "the great and the good" but they also had an awareness of things larger than themselves. Above all, the book and the memories highlight the tragedy Germans inflicted upon themselves with the permanent loss of the East (For the history of this, read "Germany 1945, by Richard Bessel). Whatever the feelings of 'they had it coming", the nature and extent of the expulsion is a sad tragedy in itself. Fortunately, the book also highlights the post-Communist era of seeking a kind of resolution/greater understanding of the German dimension to this area. This is one of the most interesting books I have read this year.
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on 18 September 2013
This is an odd, personal history full of anecdote and atmosphere. It takes a mixed approach of focusing on historic individuals' lives to tell the marginalised history of this lost part of Germany.
Sometimes it wanders too far and stretches the significance of the content but if you are interested in the eastern end of western europe and its often tragic past then this is a relatively easy narrative.
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'The past is a land we can never re-visit' this is particularly true in the case of Prussia, a country forcibly wiped from the face of Europe at the end of World War Two, when this eastern-most province of Germany was divided between Russia and Poland. Max Egremont writes an enchanting book, a series of linked essays that tell of Prussian history, the post-1945 expulsion, the snippets of historic artefact preserved in other parts of Germany. It is a finely written book and a compelling read that I thoroughly enjoyed.
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on 27 May 2013
About thirty years ago I had the pleasure of dining with a striking lady from an East Prussian 'Junker' family who related, over dinner what had happened to them in 1945. This very dignified lady told the story with tears running down her cheeks - an event that I suspect I shall never forget. I therefore welcomed the chance to understand what it was that she had lost and how.

I am reasonably familiar with what happened in East Prussia during the 20th century but there is little in English specifically on the subject so I was very interested in Mr Egremont's take on it. The answer for me was really not very much. He appeared to have rifled through a few books in German and had had some interviews and these were regurgitated at considerable length and in a rather confusing manner. When some of the characters appeared yet again to say, yet again, not very much - it was just a little irritating.

We kept on being told about the great East Prussian families but actually focused on just three of them, and then on the musings of a few individuals within them. The result was an extremely partial picture. The middle classes who were the backbone of the towns were almost non-existant in the narrative. If Kant came up once he came up a hundred times. There was almost no narrative of how East Prussia had evolved, or on the strange disconnectedness caused by its separation from the rest of Germany between the wars. There was for me little evocation of what it had all been like. So much more could have been done with the subject.

Well done Mr Egremont for tackling the subject, but I am afraid that poor editing and a paucity of sources have let you down.
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Fascinating history of a haunted area of Europe ,sadly forgotten. The book makes me keen to visit this mysterious landscape.
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on 5 January 2014
A well written history,about the destruction of a people,and a way of life for millions of Germans,as Stalin annexed East Prussia at the end of the war,together Bohemia,and the industrial region of Silesia,mostly all now part of Poland.

A few more photographs would have been nice,possibly of the remains of the old manor houses,and former East Prussian villages,or even some "before and after" comparisons would have helped.
Nevertheless,it was a good read,and another tragedy of Hitler's war,and the determination of Stalin to extend his empire westward as far as he could.
It is a little known,,(in the West,anyway),about the tragic fate of these millions expelled Westwards,or just simply murdered on their trek to safety,(or so they thought),and there doesn't seem to be many books on the subject.
Perhaps the next book by Max Hastings?
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on 27 July 2012
The truism that "history is written by the victors" is never more apt than when talking about the lost German territories of Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. I've always been into world war 2 and when I was about 13, started to wonder how the map of Europe where Germany, Poland and Russia could look so different in just 30 years between 1914 and 1945. I've come to know that something horrific, even comparable to the holocaust occurred, but no-one will ever teach you this (While GCSE history shows kids Schindlers List as if it was a documentary) and very, very few ever write about it.

Thankfully, books are starting to appear that explore the subject and this one was great. I plan someday to go on a train trip around these places and the atmosphere the author builds up had me drifting in thought to wanting to go there and I have since looked up photos of many of the things he describes. (Schlobitten and the Tannenberg monument are unrecognisable!). At this point it was a 5 star classic. It drifts toward then end into drawn out repetition of personal narrative, which, while still interesting, drops it to 4 stars for me. Highly recommended reading though and you will find yourself wanting to go there and explore for yourself, I promise.
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on 24 June 2012
Good book yes but guess what some foreign words have horrid foreign characters with accents over letters and creepy things like that. Kindle saves you the pain of seeing these ugly letters by missing them out. The lack of any professional standards in the presentation of kindle books has become customary. Why don't authors pressure their publishers to do it right? It feels like a cheap rip-off.
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