Due to Germany’s role in World War II and the crimes of the Nazi regime, the expulsion of millions of Germans from territories in the east of Europe received little sympathy at the time, and little recognition later. But the Germans of East Prussia – territory that would become part of the Soviet Union and Poland in the re-ordered post-war Europe – left behind lands in which the German culture had flourished for centuries, a land of forest, lakes and legends of the Teutonic Knights, birthplace of Immanuel Kant and Käthe Kollwitz, and a place that of course still exists and yet has been changed so dramatically over the past half a century that it can truly be described as the “Forgotten Land” of the title of Max Egremont’s book.
Egremont, in telling the story of East Prussia and its people, writes evocatively about the place – and a certain melancholy infuses all its pages – but this is not romantic and sorrowful ode to a land lost. Part history, part biography and part travel-writing, Forgotten Land tells a story that – in the English-speaking world at least – is little known. The tale of a culture that combined much of the best and the worst aspects of German history and the expulsion of a population was somewhat lost in the fog of the immediate post-War and the start of Cold War “hostilities”, but it is a fascinating story for anyone who is interested in the political and social history of Germany and the Germans, as well how a distinct community can be scattered by the twists and turns of history:
“…Ponds, a larger lake, its banks overgrown, and glades and meadows interrupt the dense, dark trees, bringing light to the journey before the old life appears – the last Emperor’s bridge over the Rominte stream, long stripped of the carved stone stags that once decorated its balustrades. Memorials, obvious or symbolic, are scattered through the forest: a tall stone dedicated to Prince Carl von Preussen, who hunted there before his death in 1884; another marking the hundredth stag shot at Rominten by the last Emperor; and one with the name Gertrud Frevert, and the year of her death, 1940, when she shot herself.”
Gertrud Frevert, the first wife of the chief forest ranger of Rominten – popular hunting ground for Göring and other Nazi head honchos – is just one of the personal stories told in the book to help illustrate and illuminate the history of East Prussia. There is also the life of Immanuel Kant, the most famous son of Königsberg (today – Kaliningrad), the artist Käthe Kollwitz, tales of the Junker landowners and Hindenburg’s WWI heroics, of the Red Army’s terrible revenge, the East Prussian support for the Nazis and, in one of the most brutal passages of the book, the terrible murder of 7,000 Jewish prisoners at the very end of the war as they were driven into the icy Baltic Sea by their SS captors.
The subtitle of this book is “Journeys amongst the Ghosts of East Prussia” and it is to Egremont’s credit that he has managed to bring these ghosts to life in the pages of his remarkable and compelling book.
Words: Paul Scraton