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In the Lost World of East Prussia

NGS Image Collection/Art Archive/Art Resource
Marienburg Castle, the former headquarters of the Teutonic Order, Marienburg, East Prussia, 1928. The castle, in what is now Poland, was damaged significantly during World War II, but has since been mostly reconstructed.

German history has a Stunde Null, a zero hour. It applies to the capitulation at midnight on May 8, 1945, or more generally to the end of World War II. Germans experienced the unconditional surrender of the National Socialist state amid unprecedented destruction of the existing built environment, political system, and cultural order, mass mental trauma, and social and economic dislocation. In fact, much soon returned to relative normality, helped by the thorny process of denazification, which was always more thorough for institutions and ideas than for personnel. Whether in the western and southern regions, soon to be reconstituted as the Federal Republic, or in the zone of Soviet occupation, soon to become the Democratic Republic, the future would still, like the past, be a German one.

The real Stunde Null occurred hundreds of kilometers further east. There, the future parted company with the past. East Prussia had always been a bastion, a far-flung realm of Germandom, ever since its foundation on distant shores of the Baltic (the Ostsee, or eastern sea, as Germans call it) by the Teutonic Knights seven centuries earlier (see map on page 56). Its name of “Prussia,” originally derived from an indigenous tribe, was then descriptive of terrain standing under the Polish crown. The word came by stages to be applied loosely to the whole Germanic kingdom of the Hohenzollern dynasty, as promulgated by a first coronation—of Frederick I—in Königsberg, Prussia’s chief city, in 1701.1

For all its later extension to the Rhineland and much of middle Germany, the old heartlands of Prussia in the East continued to furnish the country’s stereotypes.2 Noble landowners (“Junkers”) and great estates supplied a vital part of its ethos—and liability; so did a Lutheran church much given to pietistic forms of devotion. Such values were sustained into the twentieth century by tariff concessions for landowners and subsidies for Protestant organizations.

Historic Prussia also embodied, psychologically and culturally, German claims to dominance. For what Nazi ideologues came to prize as “blood and soil,” Blut und Boden, the organic linkage of race with territory, East Prussia was crucial, even if plenty of Germans also shared Frederick the Great’s view of a remote and primitive province more suited to bears than humans. So it was symbolic, as well as strategic, that Hitler relocated to East Prussia (however much he allegedly preferred the Alps), and spent two thirds of his time there in the years after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Near Rastenburg he had his “wolf’s lair,” the Wolfsschanze,3 built to his own designs. That is where, on July 20, 1944, the most celebrated and promising attempt was made by Hitler’s fellow citizens to assassinate him, a plot involving several local Prussian aristocrats, although the area had already been readily and heavily Nazified before the war.

As German defeat became—to all but the most fervent Nazis—inevitable and imminent, East Prussia faced not just destruction but extinction. It had been the only part of the country invaded and laid waste during World War I, a foretaste of worse to come. The writing was already on the wall in the late summer of 1944, when devastating British bombs rained down on Königsberg. The situation was then aggravated precisely because the city had to be defended to the last, by the Führer’s express order. As winter melted into spring, the reckoning neared for five years of wartime carnage—and nemesis for centuries of German policy in the East. There followed invasion by the Soviets, the siege of Königsberg, the final assault, then capitulation on April 9. After that, the deluge. Königsberg, renamed Kaliningrad, became part of Russia.

Max Egremont’s book memorably captures the atmosphere of the calm before the storm. He tells the tales of people who witnessed that Stunde Null, and who wrote and spoke of it later. He recreates a world that was suddenly, brutally, and comprehensively swept away, and he examines aspects of its legacy, as personified in survivors.

There are some famous dramatis personae. In the earlier twentieth century East Prussia was associated with Paul von Hindenburg, commander of the German army that recovered the province from the Russians in World War I, who later settled there as president of the Weimar Republic, on a historic family estate bought back for him by a grateful nation; with the radical graphic artist and sculptress Käthe Kollwitz, a native of Königsberg; and with the novelist Thomas Mann, who discovered the Prussian coast and had a house near the sea at the height of his fame, and only shortly before he had to flee Hitler’s Reich as a dissident.

In the last weeks of World War II another dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while a Soviet officer, was arrested there, for ridiculing Stalin in a private letter, and sentenced to the Gulag. Above all, East Prussia had an iconic figure from the Age of Enlightenment: Immanuel Kant, whose philosophical investigations embraced physical and mental universes and changed the whole course of human thought through Europe and beyond, but who over a long life—he died in 1804 aged seventy-nine—never journeyed more than ten miles from Königsberg.

Egremont’s main source has been a chain of memoirists and informants, some of whose work became best sellers in Germany while remaining little known further afield. He presents a colorful gallery of witnesses, and includes members of the three great East Prussian aristocratic clans: the Dohnas, whose palace at Schlobitten, regularly visited by the Hohenzollerns, was packed with treasures, including a library of over fifty thousand volumes (though they apparently required their librarian to be a horseman too); and the Dönhoffs and Lehndorffs, who lived in similar style at Friedrichstein and Steinort respectively. Egremont provides a sensitive and poignant recreation of their world.

But he is no less at ease with such characters as the part-Jewish musician Michael Wieck; the British army officer Alfred Knox; the museum curator Lorenz Grimoni; the dyspeptic reactionary Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau; the poetess Agnes Miegel, who sailed too close to the Nazi wind; the Lutheran pastor Johannes Jänicke, who tried to understand and conciliate the invaders; the huntsman Walter Frevert, keeper of Hermann Goering’s huge game forest at Rominten; and the German Communist poet Rudolf Jacquemien and the Russian writer Yuri Ivanov, both of whom would seek to rebuild some cultural traditions after the war. He draws on the recollections of two of the last survivors of the old East Prussia, Martin Bergau and Klaus Lunau, boys at the time of Armageddon. Bergau was a member of the Hitler Youth who later wrote of German atrocities against Jews. Lunau, married to a Russian, lives half the year in his old hometown of Cranz, near Kaliningrad, and edits a journal called Our Beautiful Samland.

Egremont’s strength lies in his intricate interweaving of episodes still, or until recently, within living memory. There is a much larger picture, and a much lengthier process, that he only hints at. The Germans of East Prussia made up a small proportion of the nation.4 Whereas they were clearly part of the German Fatherland in its later nineteenth-century form, as united by Bismarck, they had never belonged to its predecessor, the Old, or Holy Roman, Empire. When they traveled to the rest of Germany they continued to speak of “going into the Reich,” the more so after the defeat in 1918, when a “Polish corridor”—an area to the west of the great port of Danzig (Gdańsk), which became a free city—again divided them from it. As such they can stand for millions more Germans across the east of Europe who are nowadays in danger of oblivion, like the “forgotten land” of which Egremont writes.

Successive waves of settlement began in the high Middle Ages, but continued later, an itinerant urge that marked out Germans as Europe’s greatest internal migrants until their steps were gradually redirected in modern times toward the New World. Most moved voluntarily, some involuntarily; they were attracted by colonial opportunities but also driven forth by poverty or persecution. Peasants and artisans predominated; but military groups, such as the Prussian Knights, took part in the movement eastward as well, along with larger landowners. Some went beyond Prussia, like the Baltic barons and soldiers who supplied a notable contingent of top tsarist administrators and generals as late as 1914, and the millions of simple colonists spread across the endless steppes of Russia.

Politically, many of these settlers remained more or less autonomous for centuries. The Teutonic Order, with its Prussian patrimony, represents an extreme case. But others formed part of German-dominated lands, often inside constituent territories of the multiethnic Habsburg monarchy. Rural pioneers would be attracted by legal contracts guaranteeing them a degree of immunity from dues and obligations. Above all, the colonists supplied an urban organization and ethos to a network of sturdy municipalities across the whole region, which within their town walls and gates dispensed justice according to principles and procedures already developed within German cities, especially Magdeburg.

Some of these groupings afford clear parallels with the East Prussian case so carefully reconstructed by Egremont. The Germans latterly known as Sudeten Germans, of the Bohemian lands, with their own powerful aristocracy, maintained for hundreds of years a kind of semidetached relation to the rest of Germandom. The so-called Saxons in a corner of Transylvania constructed a freestanding, tight-knit, burgher-dominated community, which embodied Lutheran qualities of diligence, exclusivity, and a tendency to self-righteousness.

A peasant equivalent was the Germans attracted to Russia by Catherine the Great and settled for generations in the Volga basin (two thousand miles from their old homeland): in the end they briefly achieved their own autonomous republic within the USSR. Their chief towns were then renamed “Engels” and “Marxstadt”—reminding us of the most important German impact in the intellectual sphere upon twentieth-century East Europe.

Later proponents and detractors of German settlements would speak, in an untranslatable and usually untranslated phrase, of a Drang nach Osten, or “drive eastward,” with strongly nationalist overtones. In fact, however, it was coexistence with other inhabitants that long marked the German presence in the East. Egremont cites the southern region of East Prussia, which came to be called Masuria,5 where there were always many Poles, or at least Polish-speakers. Most of them remained loyal to the Prussian state, and even became freely assimilated to the Protestant values of their German neighbors. Such patterns were replicated elsewhere, with ethnic criteria secondary and mutable. Some historians of the area have recently claimed that most ordinary people were indifferent to any form of explicit national allegiance until a very late stage.6

Besides, there were devices to minimize friction. Towns might have distinct guilds and council representation for various linguistic groups, as they might for religious ones (or for the makers of divergent styles of jackets and boots, for that matter). And at the elite level, a conceptual harmony reigned in this regard. Kant and his most influential pupil, Johann Gottfried Herder, were cosmopolitans, men of the broad movement of Enlightenment in Central European learning known as Aufklärung. Herder’s views on folk creativity owed a profound debt to his youthful experience of local Slav and Baltic peoples.

  1. 1

    See Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947 (Harvard University Press, 2006). 

  2. 2

    Egremont says that Konrad Adenauer was a “Roman Catholic Rhinelander,” not a Prussian. That’s a perception: actually Adenauer, born in Cologne in 1876, was definitely by birth a citizen of the Prussian state. 

  3. 3

    This cover name was apparently devised by Hitler himself. The translation is conventional: Schanze in fact means a redoubt or earthwork. 

  4. 4

    Egremont says that 1.5 million people left East Prussia between 1850 and 1870 to find work in the rest of Germany. That would have been almost the whole population of the province. 

  5. 5

    Originally part of Mazovia, the larger portion of which became integrated into the Polish Commonwealth. The Polish dance from that region so well known abroad is, however, known as the mazurka. 

  6. 6

    Stimulating, but somewhat exaggerated: Tara Zahra, “Imagining Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review, Vol. 69, No. 1 (2010). 

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