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In the Lost World of East Prussia

Adapted from a map by ML Design

Yet at a less conscious level barriers frequently did exist, alongside degrees of social and political separation; and there must have been some kind of mental horizon, a vague self-awareness of German attachment and an underlying sense of cultural superiority or mission. East Prussians thought “Asia” began beyond their border, and such a perception was widely shared. By the early nineteenth century came an increased emphasis on language, especially on the native tongue and its qualities: thus pride in the accomplishments of Kant and his like could undermine the universal values they had propounded. Herder’s powerful case for a multiplicity of folk cultures was henceforth understood by many of his fellow countrymen as a vindication of their own. In consequence the continuum of German settlement from west to east began to be imagined as a single community, “from the [river] Maas as far as the [river] Memel,” as the (nowadays suppressed) first verse of the Deutschlandlied, the future German anthem, written in 1841, proclaimed.

The outcome was a series of parallel national claims, simultaneously rival and overlapping. This contest for Kultur long tended to favor the German camp, but not always. Even in East Prussia some leading activists could change to the other side. As a studious middle-class teenager in Masuria, Adalbert von Winkler, born in 1838, learned that his family had Polish ancestry. He promptly changed his name to Wojciech K˛etrzy´nski and became a patriotic Slavonic scholar. After World War II the town of Rastenburg, where he had gone to school, was rechristened K˛etrzyn in his memory, to help exorcise the ghosts of the Wolfsschanze.

One of the most celebrated, but also one of the oddest, of these ideological contests appears at several points of Egremont’s narrative. In 1410 a joint Polish-Lithuanian army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Teutonic Knights near the Prussian village of Tannenberg. Germans remembered it as the battle of Tannenberg, and in more recent times a growing number of chauvinists among them regarded it as a national humiliation. When Hindenburg’s troops vanquished the invading Russian forces in the same vicinity in 1914, it was decided to erase the disgrace by calling their victory the second battle of Tannenberg, though the village had seen no fighting at all. That cut no ice with the Poles, who had always referred to the original engagement as “Grunwald” (quaintly, another Germanic name). And this time it would be Russians who endured the shame: Solzhenitsyn, pondering his own Prussian experiences, saw the 1914 defeat, in which his father had fought, as the trigger for the revolutions of 1917.

After World War I many of these Germans found themselves incorporated in new states ruled by their former ethnic rivals, now themselves often fiercely intolerant. They formed large minorities in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and constituted a significant presence in the Baltic states and the Balkans. Important for Egremont’s story is the frontier port of Memel, over the border from the Kaliningrad region of Russia and now the Lithuanian town of Klaipeda. He writes:

Klaipeda is empty at night. Among the cobbled streets, pizza parlours, bars and old red-brick and half-timbered German houses and concrete apartment blocks, you sense the struggle to make a Prussian Memel and Soviet Klaipeda into a Lithuanian place. But the past is oppressive and ghosts remain. The little neo-classical opera house—where Wagner conducted and Hitler spoke—forms one side of the old town square behind a fountain with a sugary statue of the teenage girl who captivated Simon Dach, the seventeenth-century German poet from Memel…. The German years are above as well as below, on the balconies and the pillars and in the soil.

In the interwar years, these Germans of the East (regularly referred to as “external” or “folk” Germans: Auslandsdeutsche, Volksdeutsche) could become the focus for extreme forms of German nationalism. Already before 1914 a “National Socialist” party had been founded in Bohemia. By the 1930s they were both subject and object of the notorious Ostforschung, racist science as applied to the East European situation. Its chief perpetrator and director was the fanatical Baltic German Alfred Rosenberg; but it infected even original minds, like the behavioral zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who briefly became a professor at Königsberg before being ordered to the eastern front.

All this trumped the conservative ideology of those blue-blooded Prussian patriots who would conspire against Hitler in 1944. It also obliterated Königsberg’s leftist traditions. Egremont illustrates that mainly with Käthe Kollwitz, whose sculptures, some born of family tragedy in World War I, were only tangentially related to East Prussia.7 He might have made more of a figure with both real and symbolic significance: Otto Braun, the printer turned Socialist parliamentary deputy, initially for his native city of Königsberg; then under the Weimar Republic he became the last premier of the Prussian state. Braun’s deposition in 1932 initiated the series of doubtful legal expedients by which the Nazis came to power.

It was the German liberal and democratic heritage that had attracted so many Jews into a process of assimilation. The final and most poignant thread in Egremont’s tapestry is the imbrication of German and Jewish destinies that characterized much of East Europe for centuries. Jews had benefited from coexistence, above all in the territory of the old Polish Commonwealth. But they evolved a special relationship to Germans and their culture, and it deepened in the era of Jewish enlightenment, the Haskalah, which drew so much on the model of the Aufklärung.

Only in the aftermath of the Great War did this broadly symbiotic nexus suddenly change, in East Prussia as elsewhere. The most moving passages in Egremont’s book describe the tragedy within a tragedy whereby seven thousand Prussian Jews, the ones who had not yet been sent to the gas chambers, who had survived summary execution, forced marches, privation, and wanton slaughter, were driven in January 1945 into the freezing waters of the Baltic along the “amber coast” just west of Königsberg.

What of the aftermath? Soviet force majeure, with the consent of the Western allies for a mass eviction and resettlement program, displaced over twelve million Germans from the east of the European continent. Their towns were laid waste and their great country houses more or less totally destroyed (albeit some of the objets d’art—not the books—from Schlobitten and similar places had been salvaged in time). As the immediate exigency subsided and cold war loomed, a debate about the expulsions took place in the West; but it soon subsided, especially as the public grew more aware of what had been done to Jews and other victims of the Nazis in the extermination camps. The final deportations, among them 100,000 Germans from Königsberg itself, were carried out only in 1948. Residual populations survived, including some of the Volga Germans, percolating back from Siberia whither Stalin had exiled them in 1941. These groups have mainly resettled voluntarily in the West. Last to go were the Transylvanian Saxons, most of whom remained in Romania until after the fall of communism.

Among the refugees in the new Germany there was much resentment and talk of revanche, but never a strong political platform, not least since integration was comparatively easy and the Federal Republic’s rules of citizenship, based on ius sanguinis—blood right—were so accommodating. Until Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the early 1970s, official maps and schoolbooks showed old borders, with the East Prussian regions indicated as lying “under Polish/Soviet administration.”

However, the cause of East European Germans gradually retreated into museums (Egremont tells us about them, but none is a major visitor attraction), into a more or less nostalgic literary genre, and into the work of individuals. Of these last, Marion Dönhoff became the most illustrious: within a year of her flight she assumed a key position with the new liberal weekly Die Zeit, which she then sustained for more than fifty years, alongside her books of memoirs and her defense of Prussia’s progressive and tolerant traditions in the media more widely, including in these pages.

Now even the names of what Countess Dönhoff left behind are effaced. Not only has the huge family mansion at Friedrichstein, where she was born, been totally destroyed; the place is called Kamenka. According to today’s topography, Napoleon’s peak campaign in 1807 took him from a drawn battle at Bagrationovsk (Eylau), to triumph at Pravdinsk (Friedland) and a victor’s peace at Sovetsk (Tilsit). Above all Königsberg—a city originally named for a thirteenth-century Bohemian king—has been Kaliningrad since 1946 and the Russian portion of old East Prussia is the Kaliningrad oblast. It commemorates a man with no connection to the town: Mikhail Kalinin, a peasant-born metalworker turned Bolshevik agitator; he was a nobody, hence less offensive in retrospect than the real Soviet heavies. Kalinin’s achievement in remaining an eponym to this day matches his unsung retention of the nominal headship of state of the USSR during twenty-seven tempestuous years.

After the implosion of the USSR in 1991, there was a flurry of excitement and talk of separate status for the oblast, or some sort of international solution, even a return to Germany. At that time Amos Elon wrote in these pages that Kaliningrad was “possibly one of the ugliest places in the world.”8 And he had to imagine the old Königsberg lying “underneath the city’s surface,” along with the rest of the legacy of the German presence throughout East Europe; as it passes to historians and the heritage industry, the very existence of this extraordinary exclave is the last major political testimony to that past. It is now an advanced redoubt of the Russian nation as much as it so long projected the German nation forward in the opposite direction.

One of the old Königsberg associations cannot be expunged. In 1735 the mathematician Leonhard Euler tackled the famous problem of the “Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” which crossed onto its two islands in the river Pregel (an aspect not mentioned by Egremont, although it mirrors his own deft interweaving of the evidence). In a theorem that initiated the study of topology and graph theory, Euler elegantly demonstrated that no route could be found whereby a walker crossed each of the bridges only once. In 1944–1945 all the bridges were destroyed. Only five have been rebuilt. Ironically, Stunde Null made that Eulerian path possible.

  1. 7

    Thus his evocation of Ypres and the emotional register of German remembrance on the western front is pointed and beautiful, but hardly belongs here. 

  2. 8

    The Nowhere City,” The New York Review, May 13, 1993. 

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