A recondite study, so subtly wrought as to be somewhat murky, traces the deeply divided allegiances and tortuous history of a once proud East Prussia.
A northern Baltic stronghold nestled presently between Gdansk, Poland, and Lithuania’s western border, East Prussia had been home to five centuries of highly evolved German civilization, from the crusading Teutonic Knights who wrested the land from the pagans, to the militarized aristocracy of Junkers from which the German army drew its officers. Bombed by the British in 1944 and overrun by the Red Army, its inhabitants fled westward, and the province was effectively depopulated of Germans and dismantled, becoming today’s haunted, uneasy blend of Russians, Poles and Lithuanians. Novelist and biographer Egremont (Siegfried Sassoon, 2005, etc.) tiptoes through this “whispering past” by seeking out some of the members of the old landowning families to get a sense of a previous vanished world: the Dönhoffs of Friedrichstein, the Lehndorffs of Steinort and the Dohnas of Schlobitten. For example, in 1992, the author interviewed politician and writer Marion Dönhoff, one of the founders of Die Zeit, whose memoirs serve as a key historical source. With a keen eye to uncovering history, Egremont studies a 1911 report made of the region by an English colonel, Alfred Knox, at the height of East Prussia’s efficient, militarized glory, when the port of Königsberg was thriving, the railroads criss-crossed the region and a sense of powerful new German nationalism prevailed, albeit tinged with an anxiousness about the threat of Russia. The German euphoria after the victory of Tannenberg in 1914 soon gave way to a shattering defeat and a collapse of many great houses. Treks by poet Agnes Miegel and novelist Thomas Mann also provided navigation through this place full of “old yearning.” The once stately Königsberg, home to Immanuel Kant, has become today’s scarred and “doomed” modern Russian metropolis of Kaliningrad, “a place of victims.”
Ponderous, thickly detailed, somberly composed work joining travelogue and reflective history lesson.