Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century

Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century

by Modris Eksteins

Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic


Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The immense cataclysm of World War II devastated the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, sending many of their inhabitants to the ends of the earth. WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK belongs in the great tradition of books that redefine our understanding of history, like J. R. Huizinga's THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES and Jacob Burckhardt's THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY. Eksteins's two-pronged narrative is a haunting portrait of national loss and the struggle of a displaced family caught in the maw of history.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Eksteins, author of the noted Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (LJ 2/15/89), begins this new book in his native Latvia. The reader is given a history of the author's family that is often difficult to follow as it jumps from the Middle Ages to Stalin and back. The wartime story of Eksteins's family is told in between paragraphs of historical and present-day events. A strictly autobiographical approach might have been clearer than this jumbled narrative style, which conveys events that are confusing enough in themselves. By the end of the book, Eksteins's goal is still unclear. This title may have some appeal to subject specialists, but given the style and the enormity of all the author tries to cover, it would be hard going for general readers. Not a necessary purchase.--Mark E. Ellis, Albany State Univ., GA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Part history, part memoir, this unconventional account of the fate of the Baltic nations is also an important reassessment of WWII and its outcome. Acclaimed for his study of WWI (Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, 1989), Eksteins, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, here combines his role of historian with that of autobiographer, rapidly shifting among events before, during, and after WWII. First he provides the drama of his family history (clearly presented, with a literary sensibility, though at times overwritten); the pivotal character is Eksteins's maternal great-grandmother Grieta. The tale of this Latvian chambermaid, made pregnant and then rejected by her Baltic-German baron, serves as a mirror of Latvian-German relations over the centuries. In addition, the family history opens up the subject of displacement, with a heavy focus on the fate of DPs in the postwar years and the struggle and hope of the immigrant experience. A history of the Baltic nations is squeezed in as well, with special emphasis on these nations' vulnerable position between Germany and Russia, with an eye to WWII. Finally, at the book's core is a serious questioning of our culture's attitudes about the outcome of the war. Eksteins argues that, in a postmodern age, we must write history that doesn't dictate but provokes us with "layers of suggestion." In the post–Cold War era, he contends, we must face the realities of the war and the fact that 1945 "is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem." Given this statement, Eksteins's treatment of the Holocaust will be closely scrutinized. The author goes about things in his ownway: while the Jews are noticeably absent from his examination of the Baltic communities, he gives the Baltic Jewish situation separate and bold attention; Eksteins discusses the "willing executioners" among Hitler's conquered subjects. A multifaceted study of the Baltics and WWII, provocative and ambitious, that evokes the enormity of the loss and destruction caused by the war.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.31(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

There is something mean and common in the fall of man
and the loss of paradise.


I plunge my gaze into the eyes of passing women, fleeting and penetrating as a pistol shot, and rejoice when they are forced to smile.


Not everyone can live in palaces and skip about at dances — some must live in tiny huts without a chimney and look after our mother-earth! And which is the happier, heaven only knows.


The Maiden and Her Prince

Beautiful she was, everyone said. Temperamental and strongwilled, too. And in the next breath they mentioned her hair, long and blond. Everyone noticed her hair.

    She, the peasant girl, caught the eye of the baron. It may have been at harvest time, as his barouche flew past the field where she and her family were working. It may have been winter, cold, damp, and endless, as his equipage and sled bounced by on the frozen road. But most likely it was during summer, when every year he spent several months on his estate. Perhaps it was midsummer's night, long and bright, as he greeted the families of local tenant farmers. He was enchanted by the young girl with the azure eyes, the flower chaplet, and the splendrous hair.

    One day he asked if she would like to come and work for him at his manor house. She was willing. Her duties as the baron'schambermaid were straightforward and not unpleasant. The baron treated her well. Her duties took her into his bedchamber One day, she did not refuse his advances. After that, intimate favors became a normal part of the employ of la fille aux cheveux de lin.

    The girl with the flaxen hair, Grieta Pluta, was my maternal great-grandmother Born in 1834, she was the daughter of tenant farmers near Bauske (Bauska), in the Baltic province of Kurland. She came from a long line of peasants, generation after generation of humble folk, beginning where, no one knew for certain, and heading where, few were inclined to ask. They were like the seasons, these generations of simple people — inevitable, necessary, occasionally admired and more often cursed. They had no recorded history. Their permanence was their history. And that which is permanent bears little interest.

    As a result, of Grieta Pluta we know little. She left few traces. She left no heirlooms, no photographs. Hard evidence of her presence on this earth is difficult to come by. She seems to exist only in stories and impressions — about her hair, character, and fate — passed on orally across the generations and presumably colored by each raconteur to fit the occasion. When as a youth I first heard the story of Grieta and the "German baron," it was told in hushed tones, punctuated by titters, as if it were a deep, ignoble secret. I laughed and assumed that it was a bit of exaggerated family lore, designed to make us, the family, a little less insignificant historically. Grieta, I thought skeptically, had been turned into a family wish.

    Much has changed since. Grieta remains a figment of the family imagination, as does the "German baron." But in her symbolism she has grown in stature over the years and transcended the immediate family, while he has palpably diminished in importance; she has achieved the status of historical icon while he has lost face. From our vantage point at the end of the twentieth century, Grieta is in fact more suggestive of her age, its dynamics and thrust, than the baron who "made love" to her. It was she who won that social and emotional encounter. It was what she exuded and represented — despair, resentment, alongside a vindictive and self-promoting energy -- that pulled the baronial empire down, with its grand palaces and time-honored customs.

    Grieta was like Artemis of Greek myth. After Actaeon, the hunter, had seen her bathing, naked, Artemis turned him into a stag and had his own hounds tear him apart. Grieta seemed to do the same to her Actaeon. She demanded bloody sacrifice. The dimensions of this sacrifice, however, were to exceed her wildest imaginings.


       I, Grieta's great-grandson, sit and write, a century after her death, in another part of the world. I have escaped the borderlands of her strife, yet I inhabit new borderlands. The ghosts of her empire dance about me and refuse to release me. I know it's old-fashioned of me, but I'd like to know who that German baron was. I'd like a name. The master narratives, we are told, are gone; the great ideas dead. And yet I hear their spirits prance. In exile. On the border.

    Who was that baron?

    The view from my third-floor study in north Toronto looks out on a symbol of empire, an elementary school, an imposing stolid edifice completed in 1921 and named in honor of an exemplary citizen of the city, John Ross Robertson. Robertson's civic accomplishments were formidable. He started a newspaper; he founded a hospital; he was a member of parliament; he was an author. His world was connected, his sense of duty clear. He stood for Anglo-Saxon achievement and virtue. He stood for what used to be called "bottom": responsibility and reliability, a persona nourished by civic pride.

    The ghost of John Ross Robertson, inhabiting the school across the street, would be companionship enough. But the house I occupy, the street on which I live, the university at which I teach, and the subject of history which I profess are full of similar ghosts. They natter in the pages of bibliographies, smirk on the walls of college halls, chatter in property registers, and warm themselves behind our fireplace mantels.

    They are everywhere, these ghosts of empires past. I live in a haunted world. The question is: Have I joined the ghosts or have the ghosts joined me?

    Who was that baron?

Grieta's Curse

One day while working for the baron, Grieta learned she was pregnant. She told him. His response was decisive. Within weeks he had her married off to a young boy of Estonian background, Gederts Kuiva. Gederts, too, worked for the baron. His main responsibility was the drying kiln — to dry clothes and grain — which he kept supplied with firewood and heat. He was a sturdy; quiet lad with a round face and brown eyes. The baron installed the young couple on their own farm. The terms were generous. Neither family saw reason to protest.

    At the outset, the young husband found his new responsibilities overwhelming. To be married suddenly to a woman already with child was difficult enough; to manage independently a sizable farm was terrifying. Gederts could not cope. He ran away.

    When the baron heard that Grieta had been abandoned, he sent out a search party. A frightened Gederts was found, delivered to the baron, and promptly thrashed. The physical beating was not the end of the baron's intervention, however Whether out of affection for Grieta or spite toward the youth who had let him down, he moved the couple yet again, this time to a larger house with more land, on the estate of Zohden (Code). This may have been a neighboring estate rather than the baron's own.

    For whatever reason, the young Gederts now rose to the challenge. He became a respected landlord, farmer, and family man. He sired four children of his own. He hired laborers to assist in the fields and domestic help for the house, but he never denied his own humble background, never adopted airs. He made a point of working alongside his staff, particularly when strenuous labor was involved. His gentle equipoise became renowned in the district.

    His wife, the beautiful Grieta, was a different matter. She seemed unable to disengage from her fling with fable and fortune. She exuded pretense and prejudice toward the household help and even her own family. As her beauty faded, she became miserly and bitter,. She stinted on food for the staff and had little positive to say about anyone or anything.

    The firstborn of the couple was a girl. They called her Lavize. She was the baron's daughter. She grew plump and round, a large child. She eventually married a gamekeeper called Zvirgzds and they had two sons.

    To Grieta there followed two daughters, then a son, and, in the summer of 1877, a last daughter. Three months after the birth of this child, Gederts died unexpectedly on returning from a day of work in the fields. He was forty-nine. By this stage, in the wake of agrarian reforms in the 1860s, peasant farmers were permitted to own land; Gederts died the owner of the farm known as Puricas.

    After her husband's death Grieta continued to manage the farm, though with growing difficulty and decreasing interest. Toward her own children she seemed incapable of showing any deep affection. Her obsession with social airs left them cold. When one of her daughters declared her love for a local servant boy, Grieta was appalled and forbade further meetings between the two. The daughter ignored her mother, married the lad, and severed ties with her own family.

    Some years later, with two young children of her own, this daughter was helping her husband at harvest. They were storing hay in a makeshift rick-shelter in the field. She was atop the high stack, he below pitching the hay up to her. When day's work was done, the mound was high, and he, bidding his wife to stay put, went off in search of a ladder so that she could climb down without harm and without disturbing their carefully arranged stack of hay. When he did not come back as soon as she wished, she decided she would slide down from the haystack after all. The husband returned to find his wife writhing on the ground, skewered on the pitchfork he had left propped up against the mound. "What will become of my children?" she is said to have moaned. In a panic he yanked the pitchfork from her. She died shortly afterward. In the family it was said that she had died because of her mother's curse.

    Grieta's offspring could be as headstrong as she. When her son, Jekabs, was nineteen, he married an older woman. Grieta, tired of managing the farm, signed it over to him and his new wife. He, however, turned out to be an incompetent, spending most of his time at the one pub on the Zohden estate, drinking and gambling away the family savings. In no time at all his debts were such that Puricas had to be put on the auction block to pay off the publican.

    The older daughters had by then gone their own way, but Grieta and her youngest girl, Pauline, were forced to move out. Before leaving her old home, Grieta cut down her favorite tree in the apple orchard. Gederts had planted it. Like the cherry orchard in Chekhov's play, Grieta's apple tree was not to survive her passing. Love and hate were emotions closely linked in this woman's life. That this was Grieta's nature goes without saying. But a world and a social system had nurtured her as well. The German baron always loomed large in the saga. The emotions he evoked were always intense.

    Grieta moved in with relatives, while Pauline, now fifteen years old, found employment, much to her mother's chagrin and shame, as a servant, first to a local farmer and then to the von der Pahlens at their huge estate of Gross-Eckau (Lieliecava), twenty-one kilometers northeast of Bauske on the Eckau (Iecava) River Grieta never revisited her home at Puricas. Nor did her son.

    Not long after, Grieta fell ill with yellow fever As she lay dying she ordered Pauline to take scissors to her hair, to cut those tresses the baron and everyone else had admired. She wanted her youngest daughter to sell the hair so that it could be made into watch bands, a practice common at the time.

    The daughter refused to comply. Grieta, her soul fractured but her hair uncut, died in 1894, the year the last tsar of Russia ascended the throne.

Plus Ça Change ...

       Bombs explode. Invective spurts. The mayor of Moscow accuses Latvia of genocide. This is not 1945. This is 1998. The politics of the last atrocity continue.

    Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of a city whose population is four times that of Latvia, claims that this small state is trying to wipe out its resident Russian population. Most of these Russians arrived in Latvia after the Second World War, as managers of Russian enterprises or as military personnel. They gravitated to the cities, especially Riga. After Latvian independence in 1991 they were denied Latvian citizenship unless they could pass a strict language test. Most of the older generation cannot. As their Soviet passports expire, these Russians become stateless.

    A demonstration in Riga by Russian pensioners protesting the cost of heating is dispersed roughly by baton-wielding police. A small bomb explodes near the Russian embassy. A monument to the Soviet victory in the Second World War is damaged. About five hundred elderly veterans of the Latvian Legion, who fought against the Russians under the aegis of the German SS, parade in Riga, with the blessing of a few dignitaries.

    Yuri Luzhkov compares the present government of Latvia to the murderous regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Sword of Gideon

Grieta Pluta lived her entire life in Kurland, near Bauske. She was a Latvian surrounded by German and Russian power Kurland was a border province over which Germans, Russians, Swedes, and Poles had fought since the late twelfth century.

    In antiquity a handful of travelers from the Greco-Roman world had come north and recorded a few impressions of the area. The Vikings in turn left traces of their presence here and to the east. But the first chronicles date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From the perspective of Western civilization, with its crucible in that much larger, warm-water sea to the south, the Mediterranean, the Baltic was an inhospitable pool in the frozen north. When descendants of the "Germanic" invaders, who had flooded westward in the great tribal migrations of the fourth and fifth centuries, eventually adopted the political structures of the Romans and created a Holy Roman Empire, led by German emperors, they also inherited other assumptions, among them the idea that anyone from the East was a "barbarian."

    The Baltic land was not rich. Glacial activity had flattened and scarred much of it, leaving countless shallow lakes and long moraines. Except for a fertile basin in the middle, watered by two rivers, the Dvina (Düna, Daugava) and the Aa (Lielupe), both of which emptied into the sea, the soil was poor North of the Dvina valley, boggy highlands replaced meadows, and oak, ash, birch, and elm gave way to a thick pine. Elsewhere, a low rolling plain stretched from the western coastline into the interior until it encountered swamps and marshes. The sea to the west and the marshland to the east had served as a natural frontier, isolating and protecting the tribes that had settled here at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea.

    The Ests, Livs, and Ingrians may have come from the Ural region as early as 5000 B.C. and settled, respectively, to the south of the Gulf of Finland, around the Gulf of Riga, and next to Lake Peipus. Part of the Finno-Ugric language group, these peoples were related to the Finns to the north and Magyars far to the south. The "Baltic" group of tribes, consisting of Letts, Lithuanians, and Prussians, appear to have arrived from White Russia, from the area between Minsk and Smolensk, about 2000 B.C. The Letts, in turn, were a loose grouping of various tribes, Sels, Semgallians, Kurs, and Latgallians. Linguistic evidence — the archaic structure of the languages and the ties of Latvian and Lithuanian to Sanskrit — suggests that these tribes had originally come from much farther south and that their language once had been the same. These tribes were distinct from the Slavic and Germanic peoples to the south and east and from their more immediate Finno-Ugric neighbors.

    If the land was not rich, the territory still held promise. Amber was the initial attraction. The product of pine resin, this precious stone had been coveted for centuries for its beauty and its association with healing. The ancient Greeks made necklaces of the "stone of the sun." Roman ladies, noted Martial, carried it in order to cool their hands. Pliny the Elder wrote: "An amber figurine, however small it may be, as long as it suggests the likeness of man, commands a higher price than a live and vigorous man." Culpeper's. Dispensatory of 1654 would note that amber was of help in treating coughs, nosebleeds, gonorrhea, and even hysteria.

    Amber may have headed the list of desirable items, but the German merchants appreciated the honey, wax, and leather of the area as well. Furthermore, the rivers of the Baltic, especially the Dvina, were a gateway to the Russian interior, to its furs and pelts. After negotiating the Dvina, you could sally north to Novgorod with its renowned fur market or venture south to the Dnieper River, which would lead you to the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and eventually the warmth of the Mediterranean.

    And so traders came first, in the twelfth century, from Visby, that vibrant trading post on the island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic, from Bremen on the river Weser, and particularly from Lübeck at the western end of the Baltic. At the base of the Schleswig-Holstein peninsula and at the mouth of the Trave River, Lübeck became the capital of German commerce in the Baltic and the point of departure for hardy emigrants heading east. Its gabled merchant houses, towering church spires, and bustling mercantile spirit were to be duplicated in Riga, Reval (Tallinn), Danzig (Gdansk), Memel (Klaipeda), Stettin (Szczecin), Rostock, and other cities which later formed that great Baltic trading union, the Hanseatic League.

    To acquire local goods from the eastern Baltic and beyond, the traders brought with them cloth, glass trinkets, and weapons of iron. The first natives the Germans encountered were the Finno-Ugric Livs who had settled around the Gulf of Riga, and so the entire coastal territory including the islands in the gulf, the visitors designated as Livland (Livonia), regardless of who else resided there. The southern part, where the Kurs dwelt, would in time be called Kurland, and the northern section, inhabited by Ests, Estland.

    It soon became apparent that the promise of the area was not only commercial but spiritual too. The Baltic offered opportunities equal to the Holy Land for saving souls. On the heels of the traders, churchmen arrived. The elderly but determined missionary Meinhard came around 1180. At Üxküll (Ikškile), a village some distance up the Dvina, he built first a small wooden church and then, in symbolic sequence, a large stone castle.

    Finally, in that remarkable progression that has been so characteristic of Western civilization, the churchmen, when they encountered difficulty or saw exceptional opportunity, summoned warriors, knights of the sword. Meinhard's successor, the Cistercian abbot Berthold, brought some crusaders in 1198, but when he was killed in a clash with natives, the Church stepped up its efforts. Albert von Buxhoeveden, a canon of Bremen Cathedral, aimed from the start at not only Christianization but colonization of the area. With support from Innocent III, the most aggressive of the medieval popes, he proceeded to preach a crusade across the German territories of Westphalia and Saxony. The northeastern edge of Christian Europe might be less glamorous as an object of crusading than the Holy Land, but the goal, of bringing God to these heathenish peoples who worshiped trees, ancestors, and woodland spirits and who had turned down repeated offers of salvation, was just as laudable. Paganism, or, from the vantage point of the Roman Church, the equally odious alternative of conversion to a Byzantine Orthodoxy coming from the Russian interior, could not be tolerated. Forced Christianization was necessary. In 1199 twenty-three vessels, each with about a hundred fighting men, set sail for Livland. The Baltic Crusade had begun. By 1204 Bishop Albert had achieved for his crusade a status equal to that of the concurrent expedition to Jerusalem.

    The knights, drawn mainly from the lesser nobility of northern Germany, often landless nobles from the ministeriale or service class, regarded the indigenous peoples of the Baltic coastland with a disdain that not even the Turkish infidel merited — the Saracen at least had only one god, the Baltic peoples countless ridiculous ones — and they unleashed in the name of Christianity and civilization a furor Teutonicus that would resound through the centuries. As first the Order of Swordbrothers, whose white mantles were embroidered with a red sword below a red cross, and later the Order of Teutonic Knights reduced the local populations to a feudal dependence, these warrior monks built forbidding monastic castles to dot the countryside and signal their power and purpose. This petty German nobility found mission and reward — the latter in land and authority—in the Baltic; their war cries and ruthless exploits became the stuff of legend, the essence of the German Drang nach Osten, the push to the East. "In the unfortunate collisions of mutually hostile races the murderous ferocity of a brief war of extermination is more humane, less shocking," insisted Heinrich von Treitschke later, "than mistaken leniency which does nothing to raise the conquered above the status of brutes."

    Bishop Albert founded Riga in 1201 and moved his headquarters there. The newly conquered territory he received from the German emperor as a fief, and he himself was proclaimed a Reichsfürst, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. In his office the sacred and the profane merged.

    As in all instances of forced conversion, incomprehension and then anger were the response of the objects of the effort. "It is no wonder that the simple idolaters had as little relish for the unexplained God of their invaders as for the heavy tribute by which they announced his presence," wrote the attentive and ebullient Elizabeth Rigby on hearing, during a visit to Estland about the time of Grieta Pluta's birth, the story of the crusaders' exploits and the fate of their victims. "Contented with their unexpensive deities of forest and dell," she wrote of the latter, "they resisted to the utmost; only declaring themselves converts after their huts were razed, their land plundered, and their best hunters slain; relapsing the moment their new brethrens' backs were turned."

    The cruelty was hardly one-sided. The local tribes had intense rivalries; warfare and butchery were endemic in the area. Weaker tribes frequently turned to the crusaders for assistance against stronger neighbors. With their technological superiority, their armor, crossbows, catapults, and stone towers, the knights, even if few in number, were almost always the decisive force in battle. In conflict with the godless, the question of mercy did not arise. Outraged by native resistance, the chronicler Heinrich von Lettland bellowed: "They deserve to be killed, rather than to be baptized." Johann Gottfried Herder, the Enlightenment man of letters who taught in Riga for a number of years late in the eighteenth century, would compare the German impact on the Baltic with the Spanish conquest of Peru, where most of the natives were wiped out.

    From her home near Zohden, Grieta Pluta could walk to sites of German conquest but a few kilometers away, at Mesothen (Mezotne) and Bauske. The conquest of Grieta Pluta by the German baron was to be a consequence of the earlier exploits of the Germanic knights.

War and Peace

       When the Berlin Wall was pierced in 1989, and when communism subsequently collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, many of us were caught up in an extraordinary wave of optimism. The era of violence launched by the outbreak of war in 1914 was over The age of the tyrants had ended. A new springtime of peoples was beginning.

    But before we could catch our breath, the front pages of our newspapers filled up with items stemming from the age of horrors: stories about war criminals, looted art, Swiss banks and Nazi gold, the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. It was as if we had returned suddenly, through time warp, to the moral and historical dilemmas of 1945, dilemmas that the Cold War had frozen in place. The age of violence, particularly the Second World War, refuses to leave us in peace.

    Before we can move forward, we must come to some kind of terms with 1945, with what it represents. A start would be the recognition that 1945, with its devastation, displacement, and horror, was the result not just of a few madmen and their befuddled followers, not just of "others," but of humanity as a whole and of our culture as a whole. Nineteen forty-five is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem.

"Boris Petrovich Has Acted Splendidly"

While in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary the German military advance in the Middle Ages was followed by an influx of German artisans, traders, and even peasants, seeking opportunities, a similarly variegated social infrastructure did not move up into the Baltic. Some German architects, masons, and craftsmen did come to build cities like Riga and Reval; a German middle class of merchants, doctors, apothecaries, and teachers did eventually emerge in the towns. But the German peasant never came. In the Baltic, far more so than in other areas of German migration into Eastern Europe and Russia, the Germans remained an isolated elite, officers without men.

    The first phase of German influence in the eastern Baltic ended in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the religious and political strife of the Reformation engulfed Central Europe. As the Holy Roman Empire fragmented over the next century, the Baltic lands were pulled repeatedly into the vortex of neighboring rivalries and battered mercilessly by Swedish, Polish, and Russian armies. War seemed constant. Yet through all the strife, the Baltic nobility; the German barons, managed to retain their rights and privileges.

    The Livonian War, which dragged on from 1557 to 1582, was followed by a century of Swedish influence in the north and Polish in the south. Kurland became a duchy under the suzerainty of Poland. Russian power, under Peter the Great, came next. The Great Northern War, fought between 1700 and 1721, devastated much of the eastern coastal area. Initial Swedish military success was followed by repeated Russian counterblows. As he pursued the Swedes through the Baltic, the Russian commander, Sheremetyev, had no concern for the local inhabitants. In one of his reports to the tsar, he noted: "Everything is destroyed. Aside from Pernau and Reval, and the odd manor house by the sea, nothing remains. From Reval to Riga everything has been eradicated root and branch." Tsar Peter was pleased. "Boris Petrovich," he said of his commander in the Baltic, "has acted splendidly." Those the soldiers spared, plague, pestilence, and famine did not. By some estimates two thirds of the Baltic peasantry was wiped out during the Great Northern War. The effect on landowners and townspeople was only slightly less devastating. By the Treaty of Nystadt, in 1721, Estland and Livland, including the islands of Ösel (Saaremaa) and Dagö (Hiiumaa), became Peter the Great's "window on the West."

    Russian attention shifted westward. Not only did Peter move his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, he brought droves of experts and advisers to Russia. Impressed by the efficient administration of the Baltic provinces and eager to have the Baltic Germans on his side, Peter struck a deal with them, leaving them to run their own affairs unhampered in return for loyalty and service to the crown.

    The first two partitions of Poland, in 1772 and 1792, by the major powers that surrounded her — Prussia, Austria, and Russia — did not affect the eastern Baltic, but the third, in 1795, did. In that partition Kurland finally became a part of Russia. But while all the Baltic provinces were now incorporated into Russia, they continued to enjoy administrative autonomy. The Germans owned the land; the vast majority of the native population was landless, much of it in feudal bondage to the Baltic barons.

Death of History

       The understanding of human behavior in the past has always been the raison d'être of history. Because of this, history has prided itself on being a progressive discipline. Historians like to think that they have been to the modern world what theologians were to the age before enlightenment. They have provided meaning. In so doing, they have made the world a better place. History has been not only a subject of study; it has been a moral force. History, one could argue, has been the essence of the Enlightenment project.

    Historians have been conceptualizers and explicators, and since their mission has been to bring the unknown and the marginal into the fold of knowledge and understanding, they have been empire builders too. Thomas Carlyle called history "the only study," and likened it to the "universal Divine Scripture." History would be the basis of universal understanding and of a universal morality. History would achieve transcendence.

    Our century, however, has not been kind to conceptualizers and empire builders. Our century, likewise, has not been kind to history and historians, though it did take some time for the sense of crisis to seep into the guild itself. Michel Serres once called history the last ideology, the last and most stubborn of them all.

    But all that has changed. History has died a thousand deaths of late, at least history as progressive vision and imperial dream. History has become at most histories, accounts that point less to the order of things than to their disorder; accounts that place their emphasis on questions rather than answers, on the quest rather than the discovery. History has become, in the words of Pierre Nora, "the deciphering of what we are in the light of what we are no longer."

    After all the horrors spawned by ideological rigidity in our century, the notion of a variety of histories, as opposed to a single history is to be celebrated. Friedrich Nietzsche had such a vision, as did Ernst Troeltsch and Martin Heidegger. Troeltsch, the prominent German historian and theologian, admitted in an essay written in 1916 in the midst of war that he could no longer adhere to any concept of the unity of history. Not only that: the various histories that would be written in the future would not understand one another. Heidegger went further. The dismantling of pretense he saw as the fundamental development of the West, and that would also invariably include the dismantling of history. "Nihilism," he wrote, "is the world-historical movement of the peoples of the earth who have been drawn into the power realm of the modern age." If for an earlier generation the loss of a sense of unity was an admission of intellectual crisis, for our own era, more than a half century later, such visions of diversity can be interpreted as appeals for humility and respect.

    We must accept a variety of histories, but we must also accept variety within our history. It is not possible to write history without preconception. It is possible, however, to write history with layers of suggestion, so that history evokes, history conjoins, it involves. History should provoke, not dictate meaning. It should be a vehicle rather than a terminus. Beware, in Jacob Burckhardt's famous admonition, the terrible simplifiers. "I believe it to be a barbarism," he added elsewhere, "to keep birds in a cage."

The Baltic Baron

The Baltic overlords were descendants of a warrior elite. They were proud of their heritage, its implications and responsibilities. They were energetic and ruthless administrators. Their superior education and managerial talents took them to the highest offices of tsarist Russia, where their influence in the civil and military services far exceeded their numbers. If Peter the Great had enormous respect for them, so did his successors. Empress-to-be Anna Ivanovna married Friedrich, duke of Kurland, and when he died, her lover and favorite was the Baltic-German Duke Ernst Johann Biron. During her ten-year reign, 1730-1740, the government seemed to fall largely into the hands of Germans.

    On her accession in 1762, Catherine II, herself born in Stettin in Pomerania as a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, reinforced the trend by bringing the Baltic barons not only into the upper echelons of government but into the service of the greater empire. When she introduced a new statute for provincial administration in 1775, a sudden need for educated and able administrators arose in all areas of public life, and numerous Baltic Germans were invited to serve. They were, noted Elizabeth Rigby, "the best and most favoured officers" in all the Russian services.

    The German-speaking population in the Baltic provinces would never exceed 8 percent of the total, yet they controlled economic, political, and cultural life. Their religion, after the Reformation, was Lutheranism — in a sea of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. All clergymen were German-speaking. German was the language of higher education and of high culture. The Latvian and Estonian languages, with their various dialects, were regarded by the Germans as peasant vernacular, not vehicles of literature and genuine culture. Latvians and Estonians were looked on as a lower social order rather than separate nationalities. "There are no educated Latvians," declared a German newspaper editor. "Those who are educated and call themselves Latvian only deceive themselves ... To be both Latvian and educated is an impossibility." With their land, their influence, and their prestige, the Baltic aristocracy were in an enviable situation. Their lot, said Elizabeth Rigby, "is one of the happiest that man can desire."

    A good number of the Baltic barons were descendants of the Teutonic Knights. Among the best-known names were Keyserling, Manteuffel, Ungern-Sternberg, Lieven, and yon der Pahlen. They were among the largest landowners in not only the Baltic but all of Russia. The last two families, the Lievens and the von der Pahlens, enveloped Grieta Pluta. Their estates surrounded and enthralled her.

Dystopian Visions

       Dismemberment. Displacement. Discord. As the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia came apart in the 1990s, Canada threatened to do the same. In Quebec the separatist leadership took encouragement from developments in Eastern Europe and Russia. The events in the Baltics, culminating in 1991 in independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, fascinated them.

    A referendum in Quebec in October 1995 brought Canada to the brink of disintegration. Regionalist and partisan interests throughout the country took heart. On Canada's 130th birthday, in 1997, Toronto's Globe and Mail editorialized: "If the land is strong today, the spirit is weak. Canada is suffering from a fading sense of community, an erosion of self-awareness and a retreat into sectionalism and ethnicity ... Ambiguity is not new to Canada, nor is it all bad. The trouble is that it mixes today with a noxious envy, anger, ignorance and indifference. Against this corrosion, our leaders are helpless."

    The question of identity has always troubled Canada. "The Canadian," J. B. Priestley once asserted, "is a baffled man" when asked to "make plain" his distinction. Canadians are inclined to describe themselves in negative terms: We are not Americans, we are not British, we are not French. More recently Canada has been described as the premier postmodern nation because of its inability to define itself in economic, political, geographical, and, least of all, racial terms. Canada has been called "a nation-less state" and "the world's largest country that doesn't exist." Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the separatist Parti Québécois, has echoed those views: Canada, he says, is not "a real country."

    And yet the United Nations has repeatedly graded Canada as the most agreeable country in which to live. The country that is not a country is the best. Therein resides the postmodern dilemma. Ah, how the ghosts chortle.

    The developments in Canada underline a broader tendency. If the twentieth century has had one principal theme, it is the collapse of authority, or at least the "de-centering" of authority. We have fled to the borders, of our cities, of our values, of our minds. All previous forms of representation, be they in art or politics or law, have become suspect.

    Can we ever achieve focus again? Or is dystopia our fate? Are we bound to forge a world peopled only by exiles and tourists, bonded by disparity, diversity, and disagreement, a lonely world?

    "Where is Hollywood?" asks a German sociologist. He answers: "Everywhere."


Meet the Author

Modris Ekstein is a professor of history at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

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