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Until the end of World War II, East Prussia was the German empire's farthest eastern redoubt, a thriving and beautiful land on the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Now it lives only in history and in myth. Since 1945, the territory has been divided between Poland and Russia, stretching from the border between Russia and Lithuania in the east and south, and through Poland in the west. In Forgotten Land, Max Egremont offers a vivid account of this region and its people through the stories of individuals who were intimately involved in and transformed by its tumultuous history, as well as accounts of his own travels and interviews he conducted along the way.
Forgotten Land is a story of historical identity and character, told through intimate portraits of people and places. It is a unique examination of the layers of history, of the changing perceptions and myths of homeland, of virtue and of wickedness, and of how a place can still overwhelm those who left it years before.
About the Author
Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied modern history at Oxford University. He is the author of four novels and four biographies, most recently Siegfried Sassoon: A Life (FSG, 2005). Egremont is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Read an Excerpt
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, an old man who'd been born in East Prussia and then came back - he just keeps a few cows and pigs: not proper farming.
Johann's farm - some two thousand acres of wheat, barley, oil-seed rape and dairy cows, employing thirty-four people - is big, different to those of Stahl and the Chernyakhovsk Germans in another way; Johann has no links at all with the province. He grew up near Hamburg and before coming here he worked in agriculture in Africa, where he met his Russian wife. Is he like the Germans who had come east to develop the land centuries earlier, following the Teutonic Knights? First Africa, then Kaliningrad - Johann is a pioneer. He's building (or rebuilding) the place. Kaliningrad agriculture had collapsed in the 1990s, after the closure of the huge Soviet collective farms.
Johann van der Decken had come from outside to what had been East Prussia, not like Klaus Lunau, who lives in the neatestZelenogradsk (once the German Cranz). As I walk with Klaus Lunau through Zelenogradsk, past the hideous glass and brick house built for Boris Yeltsin (who never spent a night in it), he says that he really is the last German from the old Königsberg in the Kaliningrad Oblast (or district), having retired here from intelligence work for the German army and police. But what about Gerda Preuss, I ask - the old lady who had lived since the 1945 Soviet take-over in Königsberg with her Russian partner, Maria? What about Rudolf Jacquemien, the communist poet? Klaus says that Gerda Preuss and Rudolf Jacquemien are dead. Only he remains.
All of them, Johann van der Decken, Gerda Preuss and Klaus Lunau, feel or felt secure in Kaliningrad because they married or lived with Russians; Rudolf Jacquemien came there in the 1950s, an idealistic Marxist, so was different: not a survivor but an immigrant. The larger part of the old East Prussia, its southern bit, from the Russian frontier to the Vistula or Weichsel River, went to Poland after the last war. Here there are more Germans, several thousand, many from the large Polish minority that had lived for centuries under German rule. If you want greater evidence of the old German east, it's in the churches and castles and civic buildings or on the faded headstones of the graves scattered across this forgotten land.
In a Hamburg bookshop, I find a large section on the former German eastern territories - Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia. Among the books are a history of the great neo-classical Dönhoff house at Friedrichstein, with photographs taken before its destruction in 1945; an illustrated account of the journalist Marion Dönhoff's flight west ahead of the Red Army; and her own memoirs of childhood and escape, written after she'd become one of the most admired women in post-war Germany. The shelf also has a novel, later filmed, by one of Marion's youngrelations about the trek west, a neat European romance between a young German aristocrat and French prisoner of war. There are also collections of sun-filled photographs. One is called Beautiful East Prussia, Pearl of the East.
Several post-1945 survivors of the East Prussian landowning families - or Junkers (from Jung Herr or Young Lord) - wrote their memoirs; from these we know about the Dönhoffs of Friedrichstein, the Lehndorffs of Steinort and the Dohnas of Schlobitten. The books tell of a still partly feudal society, a world (apparently) of obligation and trust. Marion Dönhoff depicts a frugal innocence in the huge pre-war Friedrichstein that is almost bleakly dutiful. One of the estate workers at Schlobitten, the Dohna property, told Alexander Dohna's startled young wife that everyone in the place looked upon her as their mother. Hans von Lehndorff, the last heir to Steinort, evokes the place's beauty and worthwhile life. All these seem to say: is it so wrong to regret the passing of this world?
It's near the end of winter, so Hamburg is cold, its wealth dulled by a leaden twilight. I think of my meeting with Marion Dönhoff some eighteen years ago, how in one of her books she describes hearing at night in her house in the Hamburg suburbs the distant shutting of a car door, a break in a silence that had brought back her earlier life in a much more remote place. Before the war, Hamburg and Königsberg had both been rich trading cities; in 1944 and 1945 both suffered terrible destruction. Then came the two kinds of rebirth - the Soviet and that of capitalist western Europe. When I mentioned to Marion Dönhoff the immense difference between rich Hamburg and poor Kaliningrad, she hadn't responded; perhaps it was too obvious.
This day in Hamburg I have lunch with two German friends and we talk about the millions of refugees who had come after the war to the new Germany from the old eastern territories. In the communist zone, they were controlled by the Soviet occupiers, but in the democratic west these people formed a large and active group. Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of the new FederalRepublic, feared an island of anger and reaction. They were given money and, in places like the Duisburg and Lüneburg museums, memorialization of their former lives.
This didn't put an end to resentment and demands for a return of what had gone; although my friends don't say so, I think that the absorption of so many is an extraordinary achievement. We talked about the leader of the Bund der Vertriebenen (the largest organization of the expelled), Erika Steinbach - how she infuriates the Poles, particularly those who now live in what was, until 1945, the southern part of East Prussia. Should this be worrying? No, because her latest campaign is for a memorial in Berlin to the expelled people - not about property or frontiers. Frau Steinbach had wanted the memorial for the Germans whereas others, particularly in Poland, say victims throughout Europe should be commemorated. Much more important points had been settled at the time of reunification, when the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl accepted the post-1945 frontiers. The legal challenges brought by a few Germans who had left Poland in the communist time and now wished to reclaim land weren't important. I remembered what a Polish politician said to me - how you could play on German guilt. Perhaps this could last for ever - an infinity of darkness.
When I first went there in 1992, Kaliningrad had also seemed darkly shocking. I got off the train into a parody of Soviet planning with cracked concrete, cratered streets, people bent against the cold and wet and a sleek German tour coach gliding past belching Ladas and dirty, dented trams. Rumours went round - that Helmut Kohl wanted to buy the place back for the newly reunited Germany: that the Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians might run the enclave (now cut off from the rest of Russia) together. In a broken-down hotel that was patrolled by prostitutes and drug dealers, I asked two Russian students what they thought should happen. One said that the name must be changed; Mikhail Kalinin, Stalin's henchman, represented the bad years (it jolted me to think that there had been a worse time). Now the place shouldbe called Kantgrad, to show that Russia's most western land was now part of a new Europe.
Those who write or talk about the city still stress its horror. It has 'bad karma', I was told - this hideous, failed Kaliningrad, forever doomed, stifled by a confused and bloody past, riddled with AIDS and drugs and smuggling and crime. Is it worse than many other Russian cities blighted by Soviet planning? I don't think so. Kaliningrad does have its own inhuman centre, as if a great scoop had lifted up a whole quarter, replacing it with wide avenues and chipped concrete walkways, potholed highways and bridges over the slow dark river, often seen through a haze of pollution, across memorials, heroic statues and models of weapons commemorating the Great Patriotic War. On the trams, obviously over-burdened people make you feel ashamed to be rich and happy. But beyond this is a layered history, the sense of stones beneath concrete, of streets and houses of a foreign past not yet dissolved into a new identity. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky,when he came to Kaliningrad in the 1960s, wrote of the trees whispering in German.
In spite of Soviet destruction, the past can come suddenly back, like the quick lifting of a blanket. You see it in the neat pre-war German railway stations - resembling giant parts of an ancient train set - the paint not thick enough to hide the old names: Rominten, for instance, in black gothic lettering at the stop for the old imperial hunting lodge, once the preserve of the German emperors and that passionate slaughterer of all game, Hermann Göring. The tomb of Immanuel Kant survived the bombs and the changes, to become a sacred place where newly married Russian couples are photographed, the bride's white dress brilliant against the memorial's pale-pink stone and the cathedral's dark-red Prussian brick. The students I first met in 1992 have done well, mostly through links to the west; Eduard and Olga look outwards from Kaliningrad, working for foreign companies or for the European Union. To them, it's inconceivable that the place can be anything other than Russian. But they know that Königsberg is what makes this Russian place different.
Probably the German city had never been beautiful - idiosyncratic perhaps, with its mysterious corners, self-conscious medievalism, crooked streets, gothic towers and dark blocks of warehouses along a slow, oily river. The former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt - who passed through Königsberg on his way to the eastern front - remembers a very provincial place. Most of the buildings - even the famous red-brick fortifications around it that guarded western civilization - were nineteenth century, making, at best, a place of character and memory, enfolding its people in a limited, comfortable world. The centre - the castle, cathedral and university district - was what the Soviets and the bombing changed most. After 1945, they blew up some of the churches; now the Juditterkirche, the oldest church in East Prussia, is a place of Russian Orthodox worship, with the old German cemetery next to it. German money has paid for much of what has been done since 1991, often - as with the cathedraland its stiflingly inoffensive civic interior - alongside Russian government funds.
In this post-Soviet age, black limousines and dark-suited bodyguards, former members of the special forces, wait outside the Kaliningrad clubs, restaurants and hotels; the show of money mocks any idea of communism. Most of the city government's plans for tourism seem to leap over the Soviet years and, as you walk round, you sense their brevity. Across from the concrete are the sugary early twentieth-century baroque of the former courthouse (now the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet), the red brick of the nineteenth-century copies of the medieval gates and the Dohna tower (now the Amber Museum). German or Prussian gothic is still a powerful presence, mostly nineteenth century, except in the outside of the restored cathedral, one of the largest brick gothic buildings in Europe. A lake, dark green and pungent in summer, stretches from where the castle once was before the Soviet triumph of the building of the high, still empty and asbestos-ridden old Communist Party headquarters. More recent buildings can seem stagey, crudely imitative, Königsberg in caricature; they are certainly not Soviet.
The tourists are mostly German. When Kaliningrad first opened to the world in 1991, many of those who had lived there before 1945 came back for the first time since the expulsions. It's said that several, standing perhaps where the castle once was, or in Victory Square (formerly Kochplatz, named after himself by the last National Socialist Gauleiter, Erich Koch) or what had been the main business street, the old Steindamm, or the former Lindenstrasse - where the former Jewish orphanage still stands - were overwhelmed, bursting into tears at the memory of terror or of loss.
The street names are now changing back; Gorky Street has become Hoffmann Street again. Tour guides point out other obvious survivors - the neo-classical old stock exchange or the theatre, given a new pillared façade by the Soviets, with the statue of Friedrich Schiller in front of it, surviving 1945 apparentlybecause a soldier chalked on it that this was a great poet. Near the nineteenth-century university buildings, the guides lead their groups down into the bunker where the last German commander, General Lasch, directed the drawn-out defence of Königsberg; then perhaps they go to the Oceanographic Museum (a Soviet addition, with whole ships and submarines docked on the Pregel) or to the zoo, a tired place where slow-breathing animals lie beside murky pools. The zoo is the place for Hans's story: how astonishing care was lavished upon one hippopotamus during the horrific human suffering after the siege's end. More than forty bits of shell and bullets were pulled from Hans's armoured skin and a Red Army vet slept alongside him, tending the wounds or massaging the hippopotamus's heaving stomach as it endured chronic indigestion. What could be done? Eventually, after massive infusions of vodka, Hans walked, or staggered, again.
In 2007, fifteen years after my first visit, I call on the German Consul in Kaliningrad in the bright, newly built villa where he has his office. Guido Herz explains how uninterested he was previously in this part of the world, anxious perhaps to block out any imagined plot of a surreptitious German retaking of Königsberg. Short, dark-haired, tanned and dapper, quick in speech and gesture, he is, he says, a Roman Catholic from Heidelberg: not a Prussian or with any emotional attachment to the old East Prussia or the eastern former German lands - none at all. His face shows distaste, as if these places give him pain.
He looks at me sharply. He and Berlin accept completely that this region is Russian - and he sees the city as divided into two parts: the Russian present and the German (or Prussian) past. Did I know that Kaliningrad is booming - booming, booming, booming? he repeats, breaking briefly into English. There is 10 per cent growth per annum and very low unemployment. Which German firms are here? I ask. The Consul is sensitive perhaps to the charge of commercial imperialism. He says only that there are several: one that makes children's goods. The BMW assembly plant is nothing to do with Germany and is a Russian company. It also assembles KIA cars from Korea.
Booming, booming, booming - a volley of triumph. This may be true of the city. But out in the country I remember the pools of green-brown water on fields where the old drainage systems have broken down; the old woman in the stained headscarf who had offered me shrivelled grapes from her garden in a near-derelict house by a red-brick former Lutheran church; then, in Kaliningrad, at the furthest end of the old castle pond (past the two memorials to the Soviet submarine captain who had sunk the German liner the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, with the loss of thousands of civilian lives) the lighted windows of dilapidated industrial buildings at night, as if people work or live there.
Guido Herz says it's true that the Russians had not wanted a consul - but he's the second and they have welcomed him. When I ask about the groups in Germany that are pressing for recognitionof what they or their expelled ancestors lost or suffered, he explains that East Prussia is not so strongly represented among these as the Sudeten Germans or Silesians. Had I heard of Erika Steinbach, their leader? Guido Herz smiles. She has little influence now, he thinks, in Germany. It suits the Poles to use her - and again he breaks into English - as a bogeywoman. I think also that it suits those who move among the ghosts to remember that Chancellor Helmut Kohl, just before German reunification, had told the Vertriebene (expelled people) that they had been treated very unjustly.
One must get things into perspective, Herz says. The former East Prussia makes up only 0.4 per cent of Russian territory. The Russians have no fear of the Germans. Why should they? It's the Czechs and the Poles who are anxious. Kaliningrad is a place of victims, he thinks: victims of the air raids, of Hitler, of the Red Army, of Stalin, of environmental disaster, of poor urban planning, of isolation or of neglect. Even more victims have been sent here, from the Chernobyl explosion, from the Armenian earthquakes; others came from all over the old Soviet Union, from choice or pressure. The problem has been in forming an identity. They need the German past, shown now in Königsberg and Ost-mark beer, the number plates with 'Königsberg' written on them: the historic symbols - the restored cathedral, the medieval gates, Kant's tomb. I think that Kaliningrad is old enough now to assert itself. From almost everywhere in the city you can see those two symbols of Russia: the huge new Orthodox cathedral and the empty concrete tower that was built to be the Communist Party headquarters.
Guido Herz has been sent on a mission of reconciliation. Germany is the closest foreign country for those who live here, he thinks - closer than neighbouring Poland, Lithuania or Belarus. Evidence of it is all around - in the streets, the parks, the squares, the graves, the statue of Schiller, the plaque on Agnes Miegel's house, the way the Soviet centre blends at its edges into the pre-war suburbs, the gliding tourist buses. Outside the city,it's harder, he admits. You can rent land, but speculative buyers, taking advantage of tax concessions brought in to lure people to the region, often do nothing with what they have bought. Collective farms, abandoned after the demise of the Soviet Union, had replaced skilled German farmers; and much of the drainage was destroyed in the war. The land needs to be cherished. Once it produced some 20 per cent of the wheat in Germany.
What's happened since 1992 is a letting in of light and money, a break from the military: the arrival of shopping and nightlife, the demolition of some of the bleaker post-war housing, a discovery of the past. In one of the tourist brochures, there's a photograph of an elderly long-haired man unravelling a napkin, facing two tall silver-gilt candelabra and tiered dishes of fruit, seafood and caviar; the caption says, 'It takes time to choose - Mr Benetton, the owner of the clothes brand, in a Kaliningrad restaurant.'
Alexei, a businessman in his early fifties, would have been impossible twenty years ago. In his first career, he was an army officer, reaching the rank of colonel, reputedly in the KGB. Now he lives with his family in Kaliningrad in a smart house from the German time. His father, also a professional soldier, came from Leningrad (the name given to St Petersburg from 1924) to the city in the 1950s, having served in Poland, among other places. Alexei's two daughters were educated here. One now works in Moscow.
In his jeans and open-necked shirt, Alexei talks fluently. One of his tasks, at the request of the region's Governor, Georgy Boos, a rich businessman put in by Putin, is to promote Kaliningrad. He has studied the history of the region and sees it as Russian but with a European focus. He has read Kant and can easily identify with both the Russian and the German periods - why shouldn't he? Alexei's eyes flit impatiently towards the window. This is Europe, he says, and he's a European. But his office is only partly furnished; one feels that he may want to move on. The name Kaliningrad is bad, Alexei says. Obviously Königsberg isn't possiblebut the region is not German or Soviet - and I know what's coming next. Something with Kant in it would be suitable, he thinks. After all, Kant was briefly a Russian citizen.
Alexei runs a regional development agency, with funding from local and national government. One of his projects is a joint Russian-Brazilian venture involving frozen food, importing this from Brazil, but they hope within four to five years to get the raw materials - poultry and cattle - from farms in Kaliningrad. It's not so profitable now for businessmen to go into agriculture as into cars, logistics or trade. The special economic zone means that there are no customs duties and very low taxes on profit or property. This encourages firms to set up in Kaliningrad but also aids importers. Much of the food comes in from Lithuania or Poland, in addition to Alexei's Brazilian frozen meat.
Alexei says the resources here are limited - not enough workable land, a shortage of skilled labour. So workers come in from Turkey, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Russians are starting to enjoy the place - it's relaxed, a good environment, cheaper living, friendly. People from Moscow or St Petersburg have property here for weekends or summer homes on the coast. Young people are staying instead of moving off to bigger places.
There is isolation. If you fly out to the rest of Russia it's quick, but to go overland across Poland or Lithuania still involves getting an expensive visa that unblocks the way to any country in the European Union apart from Britain and Ireland, which did not sign the Schengen Agreement. So if you reach Poland or Lithuania you can go onto Paris or Rome. Alexei knows Poland. He thinks that relations between what he calls ordinary Russians and Poles and Lithuanians are good. But it's not popular to speak Russian in Poland.
Those were the boom times, in 2007. Governor Boos boasted that here the Russians, whom he thought 'the most flexible people in the world', had made the transition from the stifling Soviet era to the new capitalism. They had joined the west, while remaining Russian. For instance, they would welcome missiles to the regionas a patriotic response to the missile-defence system planned by George W. Bush for the Czech Republic or Poland. Low taxes brought more businesses. Tourist plans included a series of giant casinos and a replica of Disneyland; 'for the visitor, every day must be packed', the Governor declared. Some of the atmosphere of old Königsberg would return - in the rebuilt castle or in new buildings along the river.
Isolation is no longer possible. The global financial crisis has hit Kaliningrad, mocking Boos's hubris. Unemployment has risen, more than in most Russian cities. Prices have gone up; new building has either slowed or halted; the electronics sector (the assembling of products like television screens for foreign companies) has been virtually wiped out. The demonstrations that broke out across Russia in March 2010 were particularly well supported in Kaliningrad, with people carrying mandarin oranges as symbols of the tanned, small, round Governor. Putin moved; Boos was sacked. The problem is that many in the Kaliningrad region, cut off from the rest of Russia by Poland and Lithuania, compare it to another Europe, to the new life of Poles and Lithuanians within the European Union where young Kaliningraders often travel. The western dimension has come back to this forgotten land.
None of this resembles the great build-up of hatred that marked the end of East Prussia. It came even to a comparatively serene Britain when the future of the German eastern territories was raised in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 15 December 1944. The debate was about what form post-war Poland might take. The plans were still hypothetical; Allied troops might be inside western Germany and the Red Army pouring across the eastern German frontiers, but the enemy was still fighting hard.
Churchill's oratory rose, evoking a strange country, far from Westminster - 'the most desolate' Pripet Marshes; Danzig, 'one ofthe most magnificent cities and harbours in the whole of the world' - as he spoke of Polish concessions to the Soviet Union in the east in return for conquered territory in the west. Germany would lose East Prussia, with its capital of Königsberg, coronation city of the Prussian kings. What would happen to the Germans? Expulsion was, the British Prime Minister said, the best answer: the shifting of millions of people - 'a clean sweep' - as had happened after 1918 when the frontiers between Greece and Turkey had been redrawn.
Why shouldn't there be room in a new Germany for the expelled East Prussians, Silesians, Pomeranians and the rest? Six to seven million Germans had been killed in a war 'into which they did not hesitate, for a second time in a generation, to plunge all Europe and the world'. Ten or twelve million prisoners of war and slave labourers taken to Germany from previously conquered territories would be sent back to their own countries.
There was some sympathy at Westminster that December for the German victims. One member of parliament was shocked at the idea of '5,000,000 Germans again forced from their homes and transferred to western Germany'; another declared that 'the Poles do not want East Prussia as a compensation. It is the same as if you took away East Anglia from Britain and gave it to Germany, and offered us Normandy instead. It is a monstrous suggestion.' But the Conservative Robert Boothby claimed that the province was 'to-day what it has been for the last two centuries, the focal point of the infection of Prussian militarism ... The German population of East Prussia should be, as the Prime Minister said, expelled. It is rough but, by God, they deserve it.'
Outside parliament, a campaign began against the expulsions; British churchmen condemned them and George Orwell wrote of 'this enormous crime'. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz told an English friend he couldn't understand such sentimentality, which was apparently founded on the unrealistic belief that the hatred elsewhere in Europe could be stopped. Appalling destruction had already hit East Prussia when the Red Army crossed its borders inOctober 1944. Two months earlier, in August, the RAF had bombed Königsberg, smashing the city's historic centre. After the raids, fires burnt for days. Smoke, loosened timber, rubble and the stench of corpses had formed a cordon around what had once been thought of as one of the last redoubts of western European civilization.
Its tight streets, wooden buildings, packed warehouses and winds from the Baltic had always made Königsberg prone to fires which, centuries before, had terrified its most famous citizen. The dying philosopher Immanuel Kant often fell asleep while reading, and one night his head nodded into some nearby candles that set fire to his cotton night cap. Already nightmares plagued him; old street songs heard in childhood and ghostly murderers became fearful torments; when his servant answered his cries, Kant thought the man had come to kill him. In daylight, the philosopher wrote, 'No surrender now to panics of darkness.' Until then he had insisted on a silent bedroom, without light: not even a glimpse of the moon through a shutter's crack. Now, in the new dark terror, he brought in a lamp and a clock whose tick and striking of the hours helped towards peace.
Kant did much to give his home city its identity, not only as part of an intellectual revolution that rocked Europe but as an outpost of civilization. Hadn't this 'civilizing' impulse been the essence of the land since the thirteenth century and its conquest for Christianity by the Teutonic Knights? To the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, East Prussia meant something else, especially in comparison with his Soviet homeland: material progress and efficiency. Ever since arriving there with the Red Army at the end of the war, Solzhenitsyn had never lost his astonishment at those neat farms, villages and towns where he had tried to control his men in the terrifying riot of looting and violence:
Tiles, tiles - and see the towers, All the turrets and the spires, And houses built of solid brick
- Our columns pour ahead like lava - With wild cries, whistling, headlights' glare Klein Goslau, Gross Goslau - Every village - is now a fire!
It was the huge Soviet offensive of June 1944 that began the last months of German East Prussia. Previously the province had been spared the worst of the fighting, although the wounded had passed through Königsberg and those with sons or husbands on the eastern front would have heard about the change from advance to retreat. Many imagined a short Russian occupation, quickly followed by liberation, as in 1914, or a negotiated peace and return of their land. This time, however, the spirit and power of the invaders was different. In October 1944, Soviet troops were on German soil, near Gumbinnen, between Stallupönen and Rominten Heath. The small town of Nemmersdorf was captured, then retaken by the Germans - but not until the Red Army had unleashed terror on an unimaginable scale.
Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine thundered against the 'fury of the Soviet beasts', evoking the ancient ghosts of the Asiatic hordes. Now, however, there could be no help from the rest of Christendom. The German occupation of the western Soviet Union had been horrifically cruel - Communist Party members hanged instantly, Jews either shot or sent to extermination camps, women raped, men carted off to the Reich to work as slaves, 'the fascists' laughing as they burnt their victims' corpses. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war died in German camps in a regime of terror and starvation. The Wehrmacht shot or hanged innocent people in villages suspected of harbouring Russian partisans; the requisitioning of food led to widespread famine. Nearly seven and a half million Soviet civilians are thought to have been killed under German occupation. The Germans had found local collaborators, particularly in Ukraine or on the Baltic, who had suffered under Stalin; butTeutonic contempt, made worse by Nazi racism, prevented more extensive help.
In July 1944, the Red Army entered the first extermination camp to be liberated, at Majdenek, near Lublin and the Polish - Soviet border. The thousands of victims were Jews and also Russians and Poles. Soviet anti-Semitism notwithstanding, propaganda made the most of Majdenek, emphasizing the message that accompanied the massive Red Army offensives in the last year of the war. The Germans were beasts; Soviet rage and revenge were just. Even intellectuals and admirers of western European culture shared these feelings. The writer Lev Kopelev (a Red Army officer at the time who later settled in Germany) ordered his men to get out of their jeeps and relieve themselves on the hated German soil after they had crossed the border into East Prussia.
In the middle of November, the front fell silent, with the Red Army on Rominten Heath. The offensive seemed to have faltered; Christmas and New Year were calm. On 13 January 1945, the surge began again. Captain Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an officer in the Soviet artillery, received a bundle of leaflets bearing Marshal Rokossovsky's message to the troops - that this was the last great offensive and 'Germany lies before us'. Earlier, Stalin's decision had been revealed to the troops by political commissars - that moral scruples should be cast aside in a campaign of revenge, looting and terror. Repelled, Solzhenitsyn told his men that they should represent 'a proud magnanimous Russia'. Once the advance began it proved to be impossible to enforce this. The writer was horrified by the violence inflicted on the orderly land, yet even he couldn't resist taking some Russian books that were banned in the Soviet Union, and, from a German post office, piles of fine paper, handfuls of German pencils, paper clips, labels, folders and bottles of ink. He also seized, from the house of a German miller - who had fled - illustrations from a book on the First World War, photographs of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II and the generals of both sides who had once fought here, on theeastern front: the Germans Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the Russians Samsonov and Brusilov. Captain Solzhenitsyn walked through the devastated towns - Neidenburg in flames, Allenstein where trains of German refugees were still arriving. It was in Wormditt (now the Polish Orneta) on 9 February that he took the fatal telephone call - an order to report to brigade headquarters, where he was arrested for having made jokes about Stalin in a letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn's time in the Gulag had begun.
As I read about the ghosts that I'd found on my East Prussian journeys, their experiences often seemed oddly symbolic. The young Martin Bergau, marching before the war with the Hitler Youth near the Baltic, glimpsed an elk loping away as if in mockery of their intrusion into its wilderness. In July 1944, Heinrich von Lehndorff, whose ancestors had come east some four centuries before, fled the German police through his own woods. In 1945, Johannes Jänicke's wife opened the door of their rectory in a Baltic seaside village to confront Red Army soldiers in search of loot and women. In the autumn of 1944, the forester Walter Frevert killed his last stag in Rominten forest, the rifle shot mingling with the sound of the approaching Soviet guns. In Königsberg, the nineteen-year-old Michael Wieck, from a cultured family of musicians, tossed bodies into bomb craters that served as graves, many of the dead having killed themselves rather than face the Red Army. All these dead Germans, perhaps once proudly Aryan, overwhelmed him with the miracle of his own survival, as a Jew.
Four years later, the last Germans were shipped out. The Wieck family bribed a Soviet official before being told to report to the train station with hand luggage and enough food for seven days. A thousand Germans were loaded onto freight cars and the chaste, shy Michael found himself lying next to women and girls who giggled at his confusion. Very slowly they moved across Poland, let out at intervals for exercise, the weather warm at lastin Soviet-occupied Germany where, in a quarantine camp, the Wiecks decided to try for freedom in the west.
Friends and relations got them out but to adapt was hard. Taken to a film at the British Information Centre in Berlin, Michael found it depressingly trivial after what he had seen. He settled in West Berlin, enrolled at the Berlin Conservatory of Music and was joined by his mother, his parents having separated. Shyness and anxiety and thoughts about the past plagued him. In 1950 he married Hildegard, from a Prussian gentile family, becoming aware that people wanted him, as a Jew, to absolve them of responsibility. Weren't the bombing of the German cities and the Red Army's brutality just as bad? they asked.
He thought of emigration and went alone to Israel but felt the country would be difficult for his gentile wife. By now he was a violinist in an orchestra, still having nightmares, frightened that his cries would wake his colleagues in hotels when they were on tour. He recalled how in a camp outside Königsberg he had sworn to God that he would always be easily satisfied, never greedy for things. Why was happiness so hard to find? What and when should he forgive and forget? Even now Michael Wieck's heart jumps when he hears talk of 'the Jews'.
In post-war Berlin, the world couldn't quite be re-ordered. The Wiecks made friends with a man who revealed he had been in the army in the Lichterfeld barracks, an SS headquarters; a cousin, the actress Dorothea Wieck, told of banal conversations with Hitler, how charming he was; Michael's father-in-law said scornfully that the Jewish scientists had saved themselves by emigrating early. Michael thought that his wife's family weren't pleased that she had married a Jew.
Perhaps emigration would be better - and they chose New Zealand, a lovely land he'd seen while on a tour with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra. Michael Wieck encountered anti-Semitism there and missed German culture so much that, after seven years, he, his wife and their four children came back. Everyone had, hethought, a potential for hatred and timidity, for obsequiousness and cruelty - and the past was inescapable. On a concert tour in the Soviet Union, he and the orchestra flew over the Baltic coast and the Curonian Spit and he trembled, felt feverish; then they were above Königsberg, where he had lived in joy and terror, a contrast now to his much calmer life. After he had moved to Stuttgart, to join its Radio Symphony Orchestra, he was on tour in Jerusalem. At the Wailing Wall, a small boy, resembling the young Michael, recited the Torah, with a rabbi and the boy's family. Taken back to his own youthful faith and innocence, Michael wept, engulfed by joy and pain. Were the tears a warning not to forget? Were they an apprehension of God?
In Berlin, Michael Wieck had yearned for a particular landscape, for the Baltic; he was, he thought, still an East Prussian. He had seen the dramatic changes - how when the Red Army came, the Nazis turned into grovelling creatures; how liberated Poles became bullies. His Jewishness - so vital in the Hitler years - was forgotten under the Russians when the Germans helped him. He thinks now that persecution often comes out of a search for identity. It's enough, he thinks, to be a human among other humans; to be an outsider in a community is to be intellectually independent. Perhaps real security and peace come only after death. It's hard to see this coming soon to the spry eighty-three-year-old who welcomes me to his Stuttgart house.
Copyright © 2011 by Max Egremont
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Map of the Former East Prussia x
1 The Whispering Past 5
2 A Frontier Land 33
3 'Talent is a duty' 65
4 A Polished Helmet 77
5 The Grieving Parents 89
6 Ober-Ost 98
7 'Seed corn is not for harvesting' 107
8 East Prussia's Versailles 113
9 'Names that are named no more' 122
10 A Lost Victory 138
11 Fallen Oak Leaves 149
12 The Need for Order 156
13 Kantgrad 161
14 'May every discord break against this monument' 169
15 The Great Wilderness 180
16 Journey to Irkutsk 192
17 'The Terrible and Great Way' 204
18 The Prussian Sahara 218
19 'My dear Jews' 236
20 'Do you see in the east the brightening dawn?' 246
21 'The highest pleasure on earth' 256
22 Storm in January 269
23 The Fall 285
24 Hope Deferred 295
25 The Living Museum 316