No country embodied the turbulence of twentieth century Europe more dramatically than East Prussia. The scene of Stalin's 'terrible revenge', it was carved up between Poland and the USSR after World War II -- and passed abruptly into history. Many of its refugees are still alive and with astonishing stories to tell. Max Egremont's first travels to the old East Prussia took him to a post-communist desert. But at the turn of the twenty-first century he found a very different land: a Kaliningrad caught up in the materialism of Putin's Russia, and across the border, a northern Poland that had become part of the European Union. He found himself on the borders of a new Europe. Forgotten Land evokes an often beautiful landscape of ghosts, a region rich in culture and tradition, famously military, artistically fertile, haunted by tragedy and memories of greatness. Travelling to the birthplace of Kant, and going on to meet survivors from the great families of East Prussia, Max Egremont has written a personal and profoundly moving book: an account that combines atmosphere, history and travel in an evocative meditation on identity and the passing of time.
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Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied Modern History at Oxford University. As well as four novels, he is the author of The Cousins and Balfour: A Life of James Arthur Balfour. His official biography of Siegfried Sassoon was published in 2005 to wide acclaim. Max Egremont lives in West Sussex with his wife and four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1: The Whispering Past I think of a long line of people, walking slowly across an empty winter landscape - victims of what was done to others in their name. Duisburg is on the River Ruhr, in what is still, despite comparative decline, one of the most heavily industrialized parts of Europe. It's a town for manufacturing - cars, machine tools, construction equipment, chemicals - in the post-war Germany of pedestrianized shopping streets, bland medium-rise offices and apartment blocks built mostly after the medieval centre was bombed: not much that is extraordinary here, you might think. But one of the signs outside the railway station points to the Museum of the City of Königsberg, a reminder of a very different place, a lost country thousands of miles to the east. The route goes through a shopping district, past a piece of public art - a vast brightly painted bird standing on two short fat legs that revolves slowly above a pool of murky water, mostly ignored by passers-by: again nothing strange, just a botched municipal attempt to brighten up the northern winter. To the right of this, down a side-street, is what remains of an older Duisburg: the gothic town hall, a dark Lutheran church, medieval brick walls, the river and the converted warehouse that houses the city museum, opposite one of the largest and oldest enclosed cranes in the world. It's raining so I walk quickly, glancing at the small boats parked in a marina on the Ruhr. Has a country ever been so patronized, or looked at with such vicarious excitement or ghoulish fascination, as Germany since 1945? The British of my generation (I was born in 1948) are particularly guilty of this. It's as ifthey want to revive some old theatrical production, sinking into plush velvet seats to sigh, gasp and (sometimes) laugh at warmly familiar lines. In this drama, bad news is satisfying - gains for extremist parties, skinhead demonstrations, crass remarks by a German minister about Poland or the Jews. Yes, the audience thinks, this is how it should be. They can never escape. Our recent past is good, theirs is terrible; we'll always have this over them. We want to be shocked in Germany, like children on a fairground ghost train. Years ago, when learning German, I'd sat eavesdropping in Munich cafés, picking through fragments of older people's talk - about holidays in Spain, children, grandchildren, deaths, births, an overvalued Deutschmark - for glimpses of the bad old times. My haul was meagre - only a few words that, creatively scanned, could almost hurt: a brief tirade, for instance, against the smell of Turkish kebab houses. There must have been plenty of veterans available then to deliver monstrous opinions while sitting on geranium-filled balconies, against Alpine views - people only superficially rinsed in post-war bleach - but they avoided me. Surely it's better to try to reach the fear that lay dark in people's minds - and in the Duisburg museum I start the search. When I ask for the Museum of the City of Königsberg that is somewhere in this building, the woman at the desk suggests I might like a ticket that includes everything. I accept - and go quickly past the art, the pottery shards, the glassware, the seals and the ancient implements up some stairs to a long, wide room where there are no people, not even security guards. This memorial to Königsberg, once the capital of the German Empire in the east, gets few visitors - but the glass-topped cases and boards of printed text tell much about the drift of modern Europe. For Königsberg, the end started with huge British air raids on two nights in August 1944 before the surrender to the Red Army some eight months later. The display here in Duisburg has a sense that because so much was destroyed, every drop must be squeezed from what survived - early books, drinking tankards,ornate amber boxes or models of ships, advertisements for businesses in the old city, costumes of the student duelling clubs where young Prussians proved their courage. The last case shows ruin - rubble, bullet-holed street signs, one for the Horst-Wessel Strasse, named after the Nazi hero. The journey towards this brings back a better past, often through those who lived in or left their mark on the city - Martin Luther, Napoleon, Kant and his fellow philosopher J. G. Herder, the artist Käthe Kollwitz, the last German emperor, William II - before Hitler and the end in April 1945. Rebirth comes in photographs of German-Russian reconciliation in Kaliningrad, the Soviet place that Königsberg became. The Germans were ordered out, the Soviet commanders reporting to Stalin that the last one had gone in 1948. What's left of them now is an archipelago of memory: Marjellchen with its Pork Squire's Style, archives of photographs, accounts of the good old days, recordings of elderly voices and infrequently visited museums threatened with cuts. Some months later, I go to Lüneburg - a serene, small town north-east from the Ruhr region, about twenty miles or so inland from the Baltic coast, its partly medieval centre immaculate, as if washed by loving devotees. The place is quiet outside the main shopping streets: particularly deserted around the East Prussian Landesmuseum, a new (or newish) structure of brick and glass, dazzling on a harsh, bright day. This silence seems far from changing frontiers and disputed identity. At the end of the last war there were over a million refugees from the old eastern territories in Lower Saxony, in and around Lüneburg, and further west in Schleswig-Holstein - and many settled here. The East Prussian Landesmuseum's hall is light and empty, perhaps because the exhibitions are seldom crowd-pulling with their displays of restored textiles, traditional rugs, information about coastal erosion or different types of Baltic fish. Other sections deal with aspects of the old country; soon the charts, the boards of information, the blown-up photographs and the stuffed animals and birds begin to crowd in. Over it all is the landscape:the Kurische Nehrung (the Curonian or Curland Spit, or Peninsula, that juts into the Baltic); Masuria with its thousand lakes; the nineteenth-century overland canal; Rominten heath and forest, south-east of the horse stud at Trakehnen - the hunting land; the elk woods east of old Königsberg; the bird life at Rositten, on the Curonian Lagoon. This could be a hard country - where fishermen were reduced to catching crows in nets for food in winter, biting into the birds' necks to kill them without damaging the meat. As in Duisburg, Kant and his time feature strongly - Königsberg's (and East Prussia's) intellectual high point. As in Duisburg, cases show amber boxes, jewellery, tankards, crucifixes, ancient knives and examples of the goldsmith's art before the section on East Prussian culture and artists like Käthe Kollwitz or the writers Agnes Miegel and Johannes Bobrowski, who tried to reconcile nostalgia with truth. Out from Königsberg are the country districts; most of East Prussia was rural, sending corn and horses and timber to the rest of the Reich from drained and difficult eastern lands. The section on the years after 1918 - the creation of the Polish Corridor that cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany - has photographs of people voting in the plebiscites when they were asked if they wanted to be in the new Poland or the new Germany (there were massive majorities in favour of staying German): a reminder also not only of the nationalistic Tannenberg Memorial but that from 1920 until 1932 Prussia was led by the Königsberg Social Democrat Otto Braun. Then comes the end: the British air raids and the Red Army's victory. The display boards have grim statistics: of the hundred thousand people in Königsberg in April 1945, when the German commander General Otto Lasch surrendered, only twenty-five thousand survived to join the German exodus in 1947 - 8. Two hundred and forty thousand refugees from East Prussia had arrived in Denmark as the war was ending. From January to April 1945, some four hundred and fifty-one thousand people were taken by ship from Pillau, Königsberg's port; between a hundred and eighty thousand and two hundred thousand crossed thefrozen sea to the Frische Nehrung, or the Vistula Spit, the thin peninsula that reached westwards, the counterpart to the eastward-pointing Kurische Nehrung. Another five hundred thousand reached the peninsula over the ice from points west of Pillau. The refugees suffered strafing and bombing. They were often caught by the Red Army and captured, raped or killed. One model shows part of the great trek or flight to the west, its mock-up figures wrapped against the cold, walking with horses and a tractor and carts piled with agonizingly chosen possessions: the pain dulled by the belief that, after the peace treaty, they would come back. Those left behind could expect little mercy. In February 1945, the Russians began the forced deportations from the districts outside Königsberg although the city had not yet surrendered. The journeys in goods wagons could last from three to six weeks to often deadly Soviet work camps in the Urals or on the Don. While I am looking at the section on the Rominten game reserve, an old man pops out from among the stuffed creatures of the wilderness - the lynxes, wolves and fish eagles, the snow owls, buzzards, bison and elk, and the hunting trophies, the formidable stags' heads, some shot before 1914 by the Emperor, one killed in 1943 by Rominten's last master, Hermann Göring. The old man is small, brown-faced with short grey hair and alert eyes. He says that he grew up in a village near the forest, now in Poland, just across the border from the Kaliningrad district of Russia. He doesn't care who knows it but the Poles have turned his old home into shit ( Scheisse) - he went back ten years ago and was nearly sick. Can this be a part of the display, I wonder - laid on by the museum? I ask where he lives now. Outside Lüneburg, he says, and he comes here often since he retired. What's gone can never come back. Yes, the place is - and he repeated the word - Scheisse; he wanted me to know. Then he clasps my arm, smiles and walks off. If it is a tableau, he won't be overworked. There's no one else nearby.
East Prussian survivors often look back to an enfolding sweetness. In the country districts particularly, the routine had a security of its own. Winter came in November with the fitting of secondary windows inside the permanent frames, the hanging up of woollen clothes to rid them of the smell of moth-repellents - before white sharp days and clear star-filled nights or freezing fog that burned off quickly in the morning sun. You travelled by sleigh to a soft flow of bells, wrapping yourself up in sheepskin rugs, or tobogganed or skated on icy fields where drains had burst or skied to neighbours or watched the ice-sailing regattas on the Masurian lakes, cradling hot drinks and eating bratwurst. Christmas meant marzipan, carp and goose and a tree with white candles followed by a ritual on Boxing Day evening when a man on a hobby horse and others dressed as goats (carrying goats' heads) or storks entered the house to bring fun. In summer you might go to the Baltic, to a seaside resort. On the Curonian Peninsula - the Kurische Nehrung - the fishermen spoke a strange dialect and women in black tended long lines of smoked fish over juniper-wood fires. The wearing of black had begun, it was said, because death had been so frequent under the shifting dunes. In those days (the old days) the peninsula's lagoon and the sea were clean and pure. You had a choice for swimming - the smooth inner water or the strong Baltic waves. For those expelled from East Prussia after 1945, a new land took shape, in parallel to their new life - that of the past, a huge monument beside which everything else seemed small. The past may be distorted any way you want; to think or to write about it can be to hide the present or the future behind beautiful brocade. So exile can mean conservatism or self-pity or comfort in the company of the dead who are buried in that lost land. The land: das Land, Bernsteinland (the land of amber), Land der dunklen Wäldern und kristallnen Seen (the land of dark woods and crystal lakes), Menschen, Pferde, weites Land (people, horses, distant land). This word, on its own or added to another - as in Landschaft (landscape) - can resonate with anger, joy orregret. One of the most famous lines in German poetry is from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister, when the strange creature Mignon longs for the south, for the land of lemons and oranges, of myrtle and the bay tree, a lost place of happiness and of love: 'Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühn?' ('Do you know the land where the lemon-trees flower?') It's partly consoling; the land, at least, remains where it was: your other country - although lived upon by others. The poet Agnes Miegel, forced out of East Prussia in 1945, liked to think that Russians and Poles would soon work the same fields so that someone could enjoy them. Meanwhile, in exile, she could do what she wanted with the memory. Nostalgia permeates a catalogue of books about East Prussia sent out some sixty-five years after the province's end: Our Beautiful Samland; East Prussia - My Fate; Anecdotes from East Prussia; The Last Summer of Mauritten; Childhood on the Pregel; School Memories from East Prussia; the 1941 postal directory of Königsberg; Last Days in East Prussia; recipes from an East Prussian kitchen (a short book); photographs of old castles and manor houses; memories of flight in 1944 and 1945; DVDs of films - from 'before the bombs fell' - of the towns like Elbing, Memel, Thorn and Marienburg, of Königsberg's Schloss. In the films you see a calm country - either in summer sunlight or covered in bright snow; trains leaving Königsberg's Nordbahnhof for the Samland coastal resorts, for Labiau and for the Curonian Spit, the Kurische Nehrung; then shots of what happened later under the post-war Polish communist or Soviet rule. A lighter note comes with a CD called The Happy East Prussian: 'cheerful stories and songs in the East Prussian dialect'; and another of East Prussia swinging between the wars - 'The Cheerful Tilsiters', 'The Masowian Trio', 'The Königsberg Musicians', 'The Elbing Sparrows'. East Prussia was Germany's (some claimed western Europe's) eastern redoubt. People remarked on its neat towns and villages,its cultivated fields - the order imposed upon broad lakes, poor soil and apparently illimitable forests. There was a sense still of colonization, though much of it had been controlled by Germans since the fourteenth century. Asia began at these frontiers, it was said. System against chaos, a threatened civilization, a hard place to be - these formed the land's myth.
If you go east, from Lüneburg and Duisburg, away from the past, back to Kaliningrad (the old Königsberg) there's competition, more than six decades after the expulsions, to be the last German - someone now to be cherished rather than expelled or killed. I see this when I meet the farmer Johann van der Decken on a bright late-autumn day. We are near the Russian town of Gusev, until 1945 the German Gumbinnen, twenty or so miles from Kaliningrad. Aged about fifty-five, bearded, his face tanned below the line of his cap, Johann has been here for twelve years. He really is, he says, the last German working this land; true, there'd been a group near Chernyakhovsk (the old German Insterburg) but most of them were leaving. As for Stahl,...
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