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In the Lost World of East Prussia

evans_1-071212.jpg
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.

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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. 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). 

  7. 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. 

  8. 8

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

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